Geographically speaking, the loch at Girlsta is interesting. It is the deepest in Shetland, at about 65ft deep in places. From an ecological perspective it is fascinating. It is the natural habitat of a sub-species of fish unique to Shetland. The Slender Char, found in the loch is a relative of the Arctic Char which was marooned here following the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The Char, adapted and changed into a distinct sub-species now only found in the loch of Girlsta. Fascinating as both these facts are, for me, the most interesting thing about the loch is the folklore associated with it, and the story of Geirhildr, a young Viking princess.
Geirhildr was the daughter of the famous Viking explorer, Flóki Vilgerðarson, known as Hrafna Flóki (Raven Flóki). Flóki was born in the 9th century, at a time of exploration, discovery and expansion in the Viking world which was pushing West at this time, with Flóki a central character in this expansion. He is the man heralded with the discovery of Iceland. This discovery is documented in the Landnámabók, an Icelandic saga which describes the settlement (landnám) of Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Flóki was preparing to leave Shetland, continuing their journey to the north-west. He went out into the hills in search of young ravens.
For anyone who has ever driven the road between Girlsta and Stromfirth, you will be well aware of the ravens which are still prevalent in the area. Passing through this area always makes me think of Hrafna Flóki, looting the nests for the young birds.
When Flóki returned he found that his daughter, Geirhildr, had fallen through ice in the loch and drowned. Local legend tells that her body was buried on the island in the centre of the loch, Geirhildarvatn (Geirhildr’s lake/water) and that the name Geirhildstaδir is a derivation of her name, Geirhildr and has led to the place-name, Girlsta which is still used today. This norse place-name is not unusual in Shetland, about 95% of the place-names come from the Old Norse language.
The island holm in the centre of Girlsta loch, where Geirhildr is said to be buried.
I’ve always wondered at the truth in this and frustratingly, have never had the opportunity to make it onto the small island holm to find out. However, this summer offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to the island on foot, rather than by boat.
The dry summer meant that the water level in the loch at Girlsta was much lower, allowing access onto the island.
This year, having enjoyed the driest summer on record since 1984 meant that the water levels in the lochs reached an all time low, including that in the loch of Girlsta. What was revealed by this drop in water level was the perfect causeway, linking the island holm to the shore.
A causeway revealed, leading to the island on the Girlsta loch.
How could I not pack a picnic and drag the bairns across for a look? Once we got onto the island, I was surprised to find that it was quite a lot bigger than it appears from the road. I’ve driven past it hundreds of times, and it has always appeared quite small, yet finding ourselves marooned there, knee-deep in heather, it’s scale became more apparent - this was a substantial island!
The size of the island soon became clear when we set foot on it!
Having had no grazing from sheep, it was difficult walking but we soon reached the north-west end of the holm and came to what i’m calling a ‘boat-shaped depression’. After carrying the bairns across the holm and lacking the motivation to scour the rest of the holm, it was unanimously decided that this had to be Geirhildr’s final resting place.
The 'boat-shaped depression' which I have declared to be Geirhildr's final resting place.
In this afternoon, I was able to answer a childhood question, and give my own children a window into Shetland’s history. Was this Geirhildr’s final resting place? Absolutely!
*Disclaimer - I am not an archaeologist and this conclusion is based entirely on speculation and imagination. I hope that you too, have the opportunity to pay homage to Geirhildr if the summer drought is to reveal the causeway again.
Lena, our Viking Princess.
Until next time! And remember, let your imagination rule, as ‘those who are curious always find interesting things to do’. ~ Walt Disney.
This is my space for sharing my personal thoughts and ramblings, as well as some Shetland travel insights and a few memorable experiences working as a Guide in Shetland - including the good, the bad and the ugly!