In Viking Footsteps

Any visitor to Shetland quickly realises that there is no escaping the Viking influence, something that the Pictish peoples who once lived here discovered to their cost from roughly 800AD.

The names of places, geographical features, birds and parts of boats have Scandinavian roots, as do many personal names. The Shetland dialect is infused with words that have their origins in Old Norse, a language with strong similarities to Faroese and Icelandic. Stylistically, our music and our more recent domestic architecture have Nordic facets.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Scandinavian elements of Shetland culture are honoured and celebrated. In the late 19th century, the local visionaries who brought about the building of Lerwick’s Town Hall saw the building as an opportunity to encapsulate that heritage, and commissioned a series of secular stained glass windows, portraying events and personalities from the Norse period, that experts recognise as among the finest of their kind in the United Kingdom.

Then of course, there is Up Helly Aa, of which the longest-standing example is the festival in Lerwick, held on the last Tuesday of January each year and recorded in a permanent exhibition. It replaced earlier, rowdier events involving the burning of tar barrels on the main street and, in its origins at least, is connected to the end of Yule and the return of longer days. In Lerwick, around 900 men take part in the procession; in the fire festivals held in rural areas, close to half that number of men and women may take part in what are also enormously impressive events.

Outside Lerwick, there are many places where physical evidence of Norse occupation can be seen. In the south of Shetland, there’s evidence of Viking settlement at Jarlshof and Old Scatness, and on the hillside south of Cunningsburgh, at Catpund, the Vikings quarried soapstone (steatite) to make things which were then exported to other parts of the British Isles and many parts of continental Europe. They also carved, in-situ, large bowls and cooking pots, and you can clearly see where they freed these from the rock.

The Norse parliament sat at Tingaholm in the Tingwall valley, “Tingwall” echoing “Tynwald” in the Isle of Man and “Dingwall” in Scotland; it was there that laws were interpreted and decisions made. Local tings administered smaller districts, as we can tell from the names: Aithsting, Sandsting, Nesting, Delting, Lunnasting.

Viking Unst

But it’s in Britain’s northernmost inhabited island, Unst, that you’ll find the greatest concentration of evidence of the Viking raiders’ presence and subsequent Norse occupation. An archaeological project there, Viking Unst, has excavated three Viking longhouses and another, at Sandwick, was explored towards the end of the last century. But these are merely a fragment of Unst’s Viking heritage; there are more than 60 such sites on the island. Other evidence includes Viking crosses in graveyards at Framgord and Lund. Just south of Haroldswick, you can step aboard a replica Viking longship, the Skidbladner, and a replica longhouse.

The three most recently-excavated sites used modern archaeological methods to extract the maximum amount of information.

At Belmont, not far from the ferry terminal serving the island, the inhabitants were occupied in grazing their animals on hay meadows and seem also to have been involved in producing soapstone (steatite) items for household use, such as a lamp; there was steatite working nearby. Close examination of excavated material revealed that iron-working had also taken place.

At Hamar, it appears that the longhouse was built on the site of an earlier “pit house”, partly dug into the ground, and there may, at some stage, have been a feasting hall or living area before the longhouse itself was constructed. The surrounding area seems to have been cultivated over a long period, ending in the 17th century.

The site at Underhoull is close to another longhouse excavated in the 1950s and to a broch. The house produced many finds, including lots of soapstone items such as line sinkers, together with pieces of pottery and sharpening stones. The house there, which had been extended or altered many times, had a suspended timber floor, something familiar from homes of our own era.

The Viking heritage is only part of what Unst has to offer: there are spectacular bird colonies at Hermaness and an extraordinary botanical and geological experience on the serpentine scree of the Keen of Hamar, the only place where Shetland Mouse-Ear (also known as Edmondston’s Chickweed) grows. Haroldswick also offers a fascinating heritage centre and an excellent boat museum. The neighbouring islands of Yell and Fetlar are equally welcoming; highlights include the Fetlar Interpretive Centre and the Old Haa Museum at Burravoe in south Yell.

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