The sisti moose saga
by Jon Dunn -
It’s impossible for anyone spending any time in Shetland to be unaware of the Viking heritage that runs through the islands’ very fabric. Of course, in the late winter, the various Up Helly Aa festivals throughout the islands are a fiery, exuberant celebration of our Norse heritage – but the signs are there year round too, if you only know to look for them.
And they’re hard to miss – they’re at every road junction, for starters. The place names of Shetland root us firmly in our past. Everyone has their favourites. Brimfooster, Fladdabister, Skarvataing. Finniquoy, Tingwall, Muckle Flugga... Some of these places are inhabited to this day, others are not, but from Fair Isle to the very northern tip of Unst, all share one defining feature – they have Norse names, as true to the past as the Scandinavian DNA that, to this day, flows so strongly in the veins of many of the people of Shetland.
Those Viking settlers of centuries gone by left an indelible mark on our culture. They were clearly great travellers, astute observers of the lands they sank their roots into. Just like many contemporary Shetland folk and, like their twenty first century descendants, they loved a good yarn…
The Viking sagas are a remarkable record of the history of those settlers, seamlessly blending actual lived events and the folklore and mythology that was so inextricably bound up in the fabric of their everyday lives. Shetland features, prominently, in the Orkneyinga Saga – an historical narrative of the history of the island groups of Orkney and Shetland, and the jarls who ruled over them. The brave and the beautiful inhabit the sagas alongside the foolish, the greedy and the doomed.
Sometimes honesty and integrity is rewarded; intelligence is held in high regard, but so too is cunning and an eye for an opportunity to be seized, by hook or by crook. Feuds are fought and, on occasion, are settled for better or worse. All human life is there, in the sagas. They are as contemporary as they are ancient.
Their ancient themes – the striving for love, territory, security – resonate for us all, wherever we might live, in Shetland or further afield. Yet here they are just as relevant for one of the smallest inhabitants with whom we share the islands – the wren, one of the smallest of all British birds, found throughout Shetland, a year round resident. Their lives and loves, their disputes and their triumphs, all are played out alongside us. Found from the very rocks of the shoreline to the abandoned peat banks of the hills, in our gardens and in the dry-stone dykes or walls of our crofts… every day is a struggle worthy of the Vikings for the wren, every year a saga in itself.
Known affectionately by some as the broon button, a still older Norn, ancient Norse, or Viking name is sisti moose. That means ‘mouse kin’ – a name shared in the Faroe Islands where wrens have been known as músabróður, or mouse brother. Watch a wren scurrying and threading its way through the lichen-clad stones of a wall and the association is immediately well-founded. There’s definitely something of the mouse about them.
But what mouse ever sang as sweetly as a Shetland wren? Even in the dead of winter here, on a calm sunny day the wrens will sometimes burst into song, a silvery thread of rippling music that lights up the shortest of days. They are curious too – click your tongue chak-chak-chak and wrens will come to see you. They are fearless, dauntless birds, tough and dependable. Just like the Vikings…
Every wren here is hardy and resilient – Shetland, without the luxuries we take for granted, shops for food and central heating for warmth, must be a forbidding place in winter for a small bird that weighs barely more than a pound coin. But the wrens found on Fair Isle are cut from a rarer cloth still, and are of a different breed. Literally, for they are a named, unique subspecies all of their own.
Not for them the vastness and hidden, sheltered nooks of the Shetland archipelago. Their island home sits in glorious isolation, 24 miles south of Sumburgh Head, the southern tip of the Shetland mainland. First settled by man thousands of years ago, it is mentioned time and again in the Orkneyinga Saga, known to the Vikings at the time as Fridarey. There’s no mention of the island’s wrens, but those Vikings and the Picts that went before them could not have failed to notice them living in their midst.
The first warden of the world-famous Fair Isle Bird Observatory, Kenneth Williamson, certainly paid them close attention, and realised they had subtly different plumage and songs to their Shetland and British mainland counterparts. He recognised they were a subspecies unique to the island, and named them fridariensis, in honour of the island’s former Viking name.
Some 60 people live, to this day, on Fair Isle – and at times they outnumber the wrens, the least numerous endemic bird subspecies in Britain and, perhaps, the whole of Europe. The fortunes of those wrens, scratching a precarious existence on this remote island, fluctuate over the years. The Bird Observatory staff count the singing males every year – the highest count being 52 birds in 1964, and the lowest a perilous 10 birds in 1981.
They live, for the most part, on the shore of the island, making the most of the insects they find on the washed up tang, or seaweed, on the rocky coastline, and nesting in crevices in the towering cliffs that skirt the three mile long island. Like their counterparts in the rest of Shetland, they are both sisti moose and metaphor – their adaptability and endurance encapsulating the positive attitude that is so typical of Shetland folk down the centuries, and endures so strongly in the present day.
Posted in: Exploring Shetland