Our Viking heritage is all around us

by Misa Hay -

- says Marsali Taylor, author of the Shetland-set detective novel Death on a Longship.The Vikings ruled Shetland for over five hundred years, from their arrival in the north around 735 to the hand-over to the Scots in 1468, and their influence is everywhere you go in modern Shetland. Look at the names on a map! Aith, or Eid, my own village, is old Norse for 'isthmus' - it occupies the land between two bays. Brae, where Death on a Longship is set, means 'broad' - it's a wide inlet. When my heroine, Cass, guides her replica longship into the Hams of Roe, she reflects that, ' This would be my big test as skipper, to bring the ship in to shore without an engine, just as the Vikings had done, and in this place too. Hams came from the old Norse "hamar", a landing place. I liked that idea.' Roe (from the same Viking word as the Scots Gaelic 'ruaidh'), means 'red' - the island of Muckle Roe is the big, red island. The Vikings gave descriptive names: Swartaskerry, the black rock. Scarvataing, the point of the cormorants, or scarfs.

The Vikings didn't just leave the place names. They also left their language, and in spite of the 500 years of Scottish overlords that came after them, the Shetland dialect is still scattered with the words they spoke. In the last paragraph, I had to think for words like 'bay' and 'inlet' instead of the word that came naturally: voe, a long sea inlet. There are words for strength of wind: a grain o wind, a flan, a stour, a flying gale. There are two words for you; if you were speaking formally, you'd use the English 'you', but with a friend, you'd say 'thee' and 'thou', except that as 'th' is pronounced 'd' in Shetland, 'dee' or 'du': 'Noo dan, boy, foo's du? Is dee midder aboot?' ('Now then, boy, how are you? Is your mother about?') - and notice the grammer, foo is du? how is you? instead of the English how are you? Older Shetlanders insist that if they talk broad dialect in Norway, they have no difficulty making themselves understood.

Before the Vikings came, the Pictish Shetlanders lived in round houses. The later traditional crofthouse is long and low, with the house, barn (for hay) and byre (for animals) all in a straight line, just like the Viking house excavated at Jarlshof. They used to say, too, that there were no remains of Viking houses in Shetland - well, not where archeologists could get at them, for canny Shetlanders weren't going to waste a good trodden floor and stones to hand. When the old crofthouse was past living in, they re-built on the same site. The Viking foundations are there, all right, but they're still being used!

The Vikings were sailors, first and foremost. When my heroine, Cass, launches her restored longship, she marvels at their boatbuilding skills: 'Ah, they were seamen, those long-dead Vikings. She breasted the waves as if she was rejoicing in the sea. We raised the yard, and the ochre and red striped cotton sail billowed out, caught the wind, and Stormfugl rose with it, the helm suddenly lightening. I looked forward at the milky horizon, at the great curve of sail above me, and sent up a thanksgiving for the day.' Go to Shetland's museum, in Lerwick, or better still, to any country regatta, and you'll see Viking boats: double-ended yoals, rowed by six crew, or the light-weight flyers called Shetland Models, crewed by three, and some still with the single sail hanging from a horizontal yard, just as on a Viking ship. Even the everyday rowing skiffs are double-ended.

Like their ancestors, the Shetlanders used the sea as transport. It wasn't a barrier, it was a road. Look again at a map of the North Sea that puts Shetland in its proper place. Before cars took over, we were the centre of the northern trading universe. Those Vikings who built their house at Jarlshof were fish traders, selling provisions to the ships going on to Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, America - we know this because of the size and quantity of fish 'lug bones' found. Later, in medieval times, Shetland was the centre of the Hanseatic League, trading between north Germany, Norway, Denmark. The Dutch fishing vessels filled the muddy bay of Lerwick so thickly that you would walk across them to the island of Bressay, a mile away, and little boys had fun creating chaos with their wooden clogs, neatly lined up outside the Muckle Kirk while the fishermen worshipped inside.

Later still came the whaling vessels, on their way to Jan Mayen island for seals, then to Baffin Bay. While the women worked the laand, Shetland men went to sea from March to September, to earn cash to pay their rent. In the two world wars, more Shetland men were lost, proportionately, than from any other county in Britain, mostly as merchant seamen. Don't under-estimate the little old man in his cap and boiler suit; in his days with 'the Merchant service' he's probably seen more foreign lands than you've ever dreamed of.

And the people themselves, have they kept that Viking look? Well, yes, many have. I was in Yell recently, north of Mainland, where the Scots word 'tatties' (potatoes) comes out as the Norwegian-sounding 'tauties', and the man taking the money on the ferry could have come straight from a Viking ship: not very tall, but broad-shouldered, with red-gold hair, worn long, and a magnificent red beard. Tall, fair girls are rarer, but you still see them. If you asked a Shetlander which he felt closer to, the Norwegians or the Scots, there'd be no hesitation about the answer:

'The Scots were interlopers. The Norskies, they're our cousins.'

Death on a Longship

When Cass Lynch lands her dream job as the skipper of a Viking longship for a high-profile Hollywood film, she thinks her big break has finally arrived - even though it means returning home to the Shetland Islands, which she ran away from as a teenager. Then the "accidents" begin - and when a dead woman turns up on the boat's deck, Cass realises that she, her family and her past are under suspicion from the disturbingly shrewd Detective Inspector Macrae. Cass must call on all her local knowledge, the wisdom she didn't realise she'd gained from sailing and her glamorous, French opera singer mother to clear them all of suspicion - and to catch the killer before Cass becomes the next victim.

Overall, this is a well-written, enjoyable story with a proper murder-mystery plot harkening back to the classic style. It's good to see that there's another book in the series in the pipeline and I'm already looking forward to it. Highly recommended. Puzzle Doctor, Classic Mysteries

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