By Laurie GoodladJanuary 19th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

As January marches on and the darkness of winter holds out, our thoughts usually turn to the Up Helly Aa celebrations that are usually well underway across the isles at this time of year. Shetland’s Viking heritage is strong, formed through generations of Norse rule and close Scandinavian ties, but it’s not all flaming torches and burning galleys, as Laurie Goodlad explains.

Shetland was once part of the wider Viking world and many of the Norse influences can still be observed in Shetland today, mostly in the place-names that were left behind. The language of the Norse settlers was called Norn, a form of Old Norse, which was spoken in Shetland until about 300 years ago. The last person believed to have spoken the language was a woman called Jeannie Ratter who died in 1926.

Old Norse was spoken across the Scandinavian world and the closest surviving language to Old Norse is found today in Iceland. This language was well-documented in Shetland by Faeroese scholar, Jakob Jakobsen, who came to Shetland at the end of the 19th century and recorded all the Norn words he heard spoken. He compiled these into a two-volume dictionary of Shetland language, which remains the greatest work on the dialect ever undertaken. Today, many of the dialect words still in use have their roots in the Old Norse language that was spoken here at one time.

The Vikings are thought to have arrived in Shetland from western Norway about 850 AD and subsequently settled in the islands, giving rise to what is known as the Norse Period.

Both Shetland and Orkney became Viking, and later Norse, strongholds until 1469 when the rule was passed over to Scotland, bringing a close to over 600 years of Scandinavian rule.

Shetland still celebrates its Viking and Norse heritage, and this is most obvious in the Up Helly Aa celebrations that take place in communities across Shetland from January to March with the largest Up Helly Aa happening in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January every year.

The absolute reasons for conquering new lands is largely unknown but it is likely that political and land pressures in Western Norway at the time meant that space was in short supply under a burgeoning population. Inheritance laws in Norse culture meant that land would pass to the eldest son (or often, daughter) and that subsequent sons (or daughters) would have to make their own way in the world in search of land to farm. This led to the outward expansion of the Viking world. Many of those who set up farms overseas were merchants and farmers who were in search of land and wealth, or both. I highlight daughters in this as Viking women were treated to more freedom and power than many other women of that time. Viking women could own land, rule and fight alongside men in battles. Although evidence is scant and historians divided, there are many tales of brave female warriors, known as shield-maidens, found in the Sagas.

What impact did the Vikings have on Shetland’s society and culture?

The sea-faring capabilities of the Vikings cannot be underestimated nor downplayed; for more than 300 years the Vikings were the most experienced sailors in northern waters and their boats, of the best quality, were more than capable of making the often dangerous journeys to new lands. The fact that they had the knowledge and technology to explore opened up new horizons to these seafaring people.

Norse settlers to Shetland were farmers who fished, they were incredibly able seamen who brought new technology and fishing and farming techniques with them. At sea, they invented the sun compass, keel and rudder and their fishing technology gave rise to Shetland’s fishing industry which, even today, is the backbone of the islands’ economy.

On the land, they introduced chickens and carrots to the diet, and totally changed the face of architecture as it was known. Until the Vikings arrived, natives in Shetland had been building roundhouses in some form or another since Neolithic times, and with the arrival of the Vikings, so too came rectangular buildings for the first time.

They adapted to Shetland’s landscape that differed greatly to that of western Norway. Where there were no trees to build the wooden longhouses that were prevalent in Scandinavia, they used what was available; stone. As stone survives and doesn’t degrade over time, many of the longhouses they built have survived and several have been excavated, building a clearer picture of settlement patterns across Shetland.

One of the most telling things about any Viking or Norse settlement in Shetland is the widespread use of soapstone, known as steatite or talc, and found in many areas throughout Shetland. Soapstone was a familiar stone to the Scandinavian settlers who used it back in Western Norway for making all sorts of domestic and fishing implements, from bake-stones, loom-weights, lamps and bowls to line-sinkers, beads and as a temper for making pottery.

Soapstone is incredibly versatile; it is soft and pliable and easy to carve and, once heated, is hard and strong. The Vikings and Norse settlers used it extensively and there is evidence that they brought steatite objects with them when they came to new lands.

In short, the Vikings transformed how life looked in Shetland prior to their arrival. Their settlement changed the way we built our homes, farmed the land and governed society. But more than this, their sure and capable boat-building and seamanship skills opened up new horizons for fishing and trading. Much of what we see in Shetland today has been heavily influenced by – or introduced by – the early influences of these Norse settlers.

Today we tend to glamourise the story of the Vikings and remember them through the festival of Up Helly Aa, a Victorian interpretation on a rich cultural period in Shetland’s story. The Vikings are portrayed by their weapons; with axes, spears and shields being one of the main focuses on the suits worn by the Jarl Squad at Up Helly Aa. This is slightly misrepresentative of the true role the Vikings had in Shetland’s wider historical story – perhaps a fairer representation would be if they carried ploughs, line-sinkers and loom-weights. But where’s the historical glamour in that?