Scalloway Fire Festival galley burning 2017.
The differences between Shetland and the rest of Scotland can be quite striking. Many visitors arrive here expecting the full Scottish treatment – the haggis, the kilts and the bagpipes – and I find myself quickly explaining to them that much of the culture and tradition in Shetland stems from the close ties that we had with Scandinavia in the past and that actually, we have only been part of Scotland for some 550 years.
To understand this unusual relationship, we must travel back in time to about 850 AD and the arrival of the Vikings in Shetland. Their arrival and subsequent settlement has become known as the Norse period. This era of Scandinavian rule brought significant changes, much of which is still evident, and celebrated, here today. Today marks the first of the season’s Fire Festivals which kicks off in Scalloway and includes a Viking parade and burning of a replica Viking longship in the picturesque harbour. Throughout Shetland, there are ten Up Helly Aa/Fire Festival celebrations between January and March.
Ronnie Leask enjoying the burning of the Galley at Scalloway Fire Festival 2017.
This period of administration came to an end in 1469 when King Christian I of Denmark sanctioned the marriage of his daughter, Princess Margaret, to King James III of Scotland. What was to happen next would prove to be one of the most important turning points in our islands’ history. In those days it was not uncommon for royal families to intermarry, and these marriages were usually politically driven. In the case of Princess Margaret and King James, it was hoped that a union would reconcile differences that had almost set the two countries at war. Scotland was in arrears to the Norwegian Crown (presided over by the Danish King Christian) and had been paying back the ‘Annual of Norway’ for several years. A condition of the marriage was a debt write-off, 100,000 crowns for the wedding and the islands of Orkney and Shetland.
King Christian was keen to retain Orkney and Shetland and abolished the arrears, pledging 60,000 Rheingulden (gold florins from the Rhineland and a popular currency in Northern Europe at this time) as a wedding dowry instead.
Unfortunately, King Christian couldn’t afford to pay this dowry as promised, and with the wedding set for 1469, he instead pawned Orkney and Shetland. Slightly insultingly, although understandable given Orkney’s farming credentials, the price set against each island was: Orkney 50,000 florins and Shetland, a mere 8,000 florins. Shetland was very much bolted on to the end of the deal when he failed to raise the cash any other way. Christian planned on redeeming the islands at a later date, even imposing a tax on Denmark to try and raise the money, but this never happened and Shetland and Orkney have remained part of Scotland since.
Shetland's west mainland.
When Shetland was part of the Scandinavia kingdom, it sat in the centre of the vital trading routes of the North Atlantic seaways where the North Sea meets the North Atlantic; thus meaning that it was a central part of the Viking world. But, as it became assimilated into the broader UK administration, Shetland became more and more peripheral. At one time the sea was the highway, and proximity to it was an advantage, this now acts as a barrier to travel, meaning that for some, Shetland can appear to be a distant British outpost.
Despite Shetland coming under Scottish administration in 1469, the final pieces of legislation were only settled in 1472. The islands continued to follow Norse Law and demonstrated a connection to the Law Book of Magnus the Lawmender until 1611 when an act of parliament abolished its use and ordered that the islands follow Scottish law. An almost 150-year period followed where the islands were still very much entrenched in the old, and familiar, Scandinavian way of doing things. A similar story plays out in the language too, where much of the roots of the dialect are found in the Old Norse language that was spoken here until a few hundred years ago.
Scalloway with the castle in the centre at sunset.
Yet after 1469, opportunities did arise, and it’s easy to reflect on Shetland’s time in the Scandinavian kingdom with rose-tinted glasses. Bergen had a tight grip on the trading interests of her lands, and German merchants had been banned from trading with many Scandinavian principalities since the 13th century. Following 1469 German merchants were free to trade with Shetland, and this gave rise to another important period that has shaped Shetland’s history ‒ the Hanseatic era.
In 1969, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Shetland becoming part of Scotland, a new flag was created. This flag carries the Scandinavian, or Nordic, cross and bears the same colours as the Scottish saltire. The flag is a real celebration of Shetland’s rich past; commemorating 500 years of Scandinavian rule and 500 years of Scottish rule.
“Visitors want to have the best experience; they want to see Shetland through the eyes of a local. They want to taste the salt on their faces, smell the sea and bear witness to the wind in their hair. They want to drink in the sights, the smells and the sounds of an island community. They want to be shown the places they would otherwise not discover. They want to piece together the fascinating jigsaw and truly discover Shetland; this is the trip they have dreamed of.”
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