(In)frequently asked questions

by Tom Morton -

What, you mean 'The Shetlands'?


No. It’s not and never has been and never is ‘The Shetlands’. Despite what that botoxed TV newsreader said five minutes ago. Despite what it says in your newspaper, magazine, dictionary or that guy you met down the pub who says he used to work in the North Sea oil industry. It’s not ‘The Shetlands’. It’s ‘Shetland’, singular.

It’s singular in Norse (Hjaltland) Faroese (Hetland) and ‘Shetland’ is simply a phonetic transliteration taken from a drunk Norseman with no teeth by an even drunker Scot with a shaky quill. ‘Hjalt’ and ‘Het’ both mean the hilt or cross guard of a sword, which is kind of the archipelago’s shape and captures the place’s geographical importance in terms of warlike raiding of the (much more fertile and lucrative) bits of land to the south.

From a Celtic southerner’s point of view, that is to say, in Gaelic, the uncivilised lumps of rock north of Orkney were known as Inse Catt, ‘Islands of the Cat People’, which simply goes to show that the late David Bowie’s least creative period was a lot earlier than anyone suspected. Putting out fire with gasoline, indeed.

Ahem. ‘Cat People’ would be a reference to the nasty wee hairy Picts who survived in Shetland longer than anywhere else, inside their upside-down stone-built flowerpot redoubts, the ones known as brochs. Until the vikings got round to wiping them out.

Incidentally, while research has proven that the Shetland population contains large quantities of Scandinavian genetic stuff, there is a theory that the Norsemen who stayed in (but not ‘on’; you are never ‘on The Shetlands’. You are ‘in Shetland’.) Shetland were rubbish vikings. They were the ones who whinged, the ones who got seasick, the ones who got ill, the ones nobody liked. The fearties who wanted off at the first landfall, or were unceremoniously dumped so the brave, fully-sea-legged-lads could go on their merry way, pillaging like crazy. The ones who stayed in Orkney were the farmers who saw all that fertile greensward and thought, och aye, this’ll do. We shall establish a bourgeoisie!

But as I say, that’s only a theory.

'Hjalt' and 'Het' both mean the hilt or cross-guard of a sword

Where is Shetland?


It’s in the sea, up from Scotland. No, it’s further up than that, beyond Orkney, which is only a hop skip and a jump off Caithness (which means ‘Land of the Cat People’; there were hairy wee Picts there too). Keep going right a bit. There you are, that long scattering of over 100 different islands and islets, only 15 of which are actually inhabited by humans or their approximate relatives. You are In Shetland.

Distances? Well, which bit? From where? Let’s settle for main sea port Lerwick - the capital, only town. Scalloway, which becomes more lovely with each passing year (it's now a kind of Balamory, only with a fish market), is A Great Big Village but was, long ago, the capital. Lerwick is grey, cluttered, and very similar at first sight to many superficially dreich places in north-eastern Scotland such as Peterhead, Banff and Wick. All of which I like, actually, all of which have hidden attractions. Lerwick, of course, I love.

It's more than 100 miles from the nearest coast of mainland Scotland, about 210 miles north of Aberdeen, 230 miles west of Bergen in Norway 230 miles (370 km) south east of Torshavn in the Faroe islands, where the natives eat whales, puffins but not for a long time,and then only when really hungry, each other. You’ll often hear people who should know better (notably, in a past life as a journalist, where inaccuracy is a way of life, me) saying that the nearest railway station to Lerwick is in Bergen. This is nonsense. The nearest railway station is in Thurso. True, it’s not a very nice railway station, but parallel steel lines it most definitely possesses. And trains occasionally run on them.

The nearest railway station is in Thurso

Does Shetland have any proper history?


Are you kidding? Shetland’s got more history than you can shake a tushkar at (tushkar, similar to tuisgear in Gaelic: A tool used to cut peat). But basically, it comes down to this: Picts (wee hairy cat-like semi-human creatures - see above). Wiped out by vikings, mostly. One or two thought to survive at the back of Ronas Hill. Possibly.

Up until the ninth century the vikings (Norwegian ones; the Danes tend to go further afield) are content to plunder. Then, as more and more of the weak, seasick and feartie vikings get left behind (one view) or shipwrecked vikings have to remain, or big strong, well-balanced and quite brave vikings fall for the undoubtedly-attractive local women and decide to stay, they decide they might as well just take over. So they do.

Fine. Shetland, and indeed, much of Scotland, including the Western isles, is overrun by big hairy vikings with axes, magic mushrooms and a tendency to decapitate monks. Then the barons fall out and there’s around 300 years of general mayhem and malarkey between the kings and princes of Norway and various sulky lords based in Orkney and Shetland.

You can kind of see their point: “What, we’ve got to stay here when you’ve got everything from Bergen to the Arctic Circle to play with, possibly including the mysterious land of America Way Over There? Fight!”

And so to the 13th Century, and all-out war between Alexander of Scotland and Haakon of Norway for control of Scotland. The Battle of Largs - no winners (sea battles tend to be like that - think of Jutland) but Haakon is over-extended and skulks back to Orkney, giving up Scotland and the Western isles. Nothing much happens for a couple of hundred years, and then comes the big event, the effects of which still reverberate down to Shetland today.

It’s 1469, and the bankrupt king of Norway ,Christian, needs to sort out a bit of a political stand-off by marrying off his daughter to William, King of Scots. There’s no money for a dowery so, having already pawned Orkney to raise some gold, he does the same with Shetland. From this point on Shetland is essentially under Scots control, though the marriage never happens and there are frequent attempts right up until the 19th Century to redeem the pledge with large lumps of currency. Still, that’s it. Shetland becomes and remains Scottish, despite retaining a land tenure system and legal system based on Norse principles. Some today would like to claim that this means Shetland is not bound by British laws, and it is true that Udal Law still holds a certain sway on things like foreshore access and rights to driftwood. It was also deployed during a celebrated court case which came very close to denying the Crown Estate Commissioners authority over the seabed when it came to aquaculture. But not quite.

Anyway. Various Scottish lairdy folk grab Shetland (including an Earl of Morton, a Douglas from the Scottish border). Then there’s famine, fishing (loads of herring then none)more famine, more fishing, two world wars (still the hilt of the sword, still strategic, full of soldiers and naval activity), the discovery of oil and everyone lives wealthily or not so wealthily, happily and unhappily ever after.

That, my friends, is the history of Shetland. Oh, and some radical socialists get obsessed by the romance of the vikings just after World War One, seeing them as symbolic of revolutionary freedom, and start a festival where everyone dresses up, has a party and burns a galley. That’s called Up Helly Aa.

And that’s another story altogether.

Nothing much happens for a couple of hundred years, and then comes the big event, the effects of which still reverberate down to Shetland today.

Posted in: Heritage