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.
When guiding, I always begin by explaining that Shetland has only been part of Scotland for about 550 years so there's no haggis, kilts or bagpipes to be seen. For guests, particularly those from the 'New World' our inability to embrace Scottish culture and tradition after 'only' 550 years usually gets a laugh in itself!
Unfortunately, King Christian couldn't afford to pay the wedding dowry so instead he pawned the islands of Orkney and Shetland. The King planned on redeeming the islands at a later date but this never happened and Shetland and Orkney have remained part of Scotland since this date.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the landscape, Shetland is characterised by a distinct lack of trees (this also marks it out as different to many parts of Scandinavia too, but let's not go there). This is one of the first things the discerning visitor will spot. Thin soils, a salt-laden environment, grazing animals and strong-winds all contribute to this tree-less landscape but what we lack in trees, we make up for in blanket peat bog!
This leads onto the second difference, Scotland enjoys far more growing days than Shetland, resulting in far more large-scale farming throughout Scotland, rather than crofting, which still dominates much of the Shetland landscape. A crofter in Shetland can expect about 100 good growing days, compared to about 250 in Aberdeenshire - it's no wonder my tomatoes failed to ripen this year! Furthermore, the thin soils and harsh climate mean that it's harder to grow and establish crops. Limestone valleys such as Weisdale and Tingwall provide fertile soils, as does the South Mainland, sitting on its bed of old red sandstone, however 50% of the islands remain covered in acidic, blanket peat moor which proves challenging for growers.
My third observation relating to the landscape lies in the topography. In Scotland, visitors find great pleasure, and challenge, in munro bagging (conquering one of the 282 hills that exceed 3,000 ft (915m). In Shetland, there are none of these, but what is lacking in height is made up for in style. Shetland boasts no less than 19 marilyns, shorter than munros, these are hills in excess of 500ft (150m) which can be readily bagged by the enthusiastic hiker. More information about walking in Shetland can be accessed here.
Perhaps the greatest differences can be found in the cultures of Shetland and Scotland, although sharing many similarities in folklore, tradition and belief, there are also some striking differences. To save being too wordy, I've outlined a few of these in the table below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, it's simply a few that quickly came to mind and may be most obvious to a visitor.
Shetland and Scotland also boast different flags. In 1969 Shetland developed a unique flag to mark the 500 year anniversary of the islands becoming part of Scotland. The flag was designed to represent, and celebrate the Scandinavian and Scottish past and the 500 year relationship with each respective nation. The Shetland flag, for those who are familiar with it, carries the same colours as the Scottish saltire along with the design of the Nordic cross.
It's a curious thing, and something that I was always aware of growing up in Shetland. Certainly taking the boat south, to the mainland (Scotland) was a real novelty, and arriving in Aberdeen as a bairn certainly felt like you were landing in a foreign and unfamiliar land. None of these points offer anything groundbreaking, they are simply a collection of observances which I make to people who visit, in an attempt to demonstrate, and explain why Shetland and Scotland are, the same, but different.
See you all next time, thanks for reading.
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