Skidbladner longship in Haroldswick, Unst.
Shetland – and Orkney – were 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 they left behind with strong Norse connotations. Norn, a form of Old Norse, was spoken in Shetland until about 300 years ago. 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 between 800 and 850 AD and subsequently settled, 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 Norse rule.
A ruined house at Tingon, Northmavine.
The Highland clearances are known the world over for the cruelty and inhumane treatment shown to 19th-century tenant farmers who were thrown from their homes and land at the hands of their landlords – known locally as lairds. Blighting much of the Highlands and Islands during the 19th century, Shetland was no stranger to heartache at the hands of ruthless landlords and the men who did their bidding for them.
Shetland was certainly not immune to this period of cruel injustice. Although perhaps less affected than some parts of the Scottish Mainland, for the communities and families who were evicted from their homes, the pain was no less devastating. Communities across Shetland were ripped apart at the hands of landowners who cleared the tenant farmers, replacing them with Blackface and Cheviot sheep.
The clearances were a particularly dark period in Shetland’s history. One of cruel injustice, persecution and fear. Locally, we hear stories of houses being burnt to the ground, of babies being carried out in kishies [straw baskets] in the dark of a winter night and the destitute and homeless walking for miles, carrying their few possessions with them as they went.
For those who want to dive a little deeper into the wild, Tingon, Northmavine is a great place to get-away-from-it-all.
Tingon is a peninsula on Shetland’s rugged north-west coast. To the west is the North Atlantic, flanked by sheer cliffs that create an imposing barrier to any boats, and to the west, the skyline is dominated by Ronas Hill, Shetland’s highest point.
Walk: 4 miles (6.5 km)
Terrain: Fair, walking boots/hiking trainers would be best to wear
Time: 3 hours (we spent three hours exploring the area, this allows lots of time to enjoy the sites at a leisurely pace)
I remember it like it was yesterday. We bairns were sitting up the hill, bottle of cream soda in hand, watching the adults work. I don’t think I’d ever been so far away from ‘adult supervision’ before and I felt nervous. Would they hear us if something went wrong? Would they remember to take us home? And with those thoughts beginning to take root in my mind, we skipped back down the hill to join our parents’.
In truth, we were little more than 10 metres away, but like everything when you’re little – distance, time, space – it seemed much greater. Those were the days when the summer holidays went on for an age, and mornings at the peat hill felt like an eternity. Those were happy days of childhood where, as the adults worked, we splashed around in lochs, chased imaginary fairies and searched out frogs amongst the Sphagnum moss.
Jarlshof, the Earl's House (see The Pirate below). Photo: Sophie Whitehead
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been enjoying getting through my reading list recently; and what better way to enjoy a place, without visiting, than through the pages of a well-written book.
In this blog, I have selected my top 10 Shetland fiction reads which I hope you too will enjoy and savour until you can visit. So draa in a chair and start reading ...
‘Whiskers’, a favourite grey seal at Shetland Catch. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wills.
With more and more of us looking to literature to get our daily break away from the news, I thought that in this blog, I would share a book review I wrote for The New Shetlander. The New Shetlander is a magazine founded in 1947 – the oldest literary and community journal in Scotland. It comes out every quarter, and the editors welcome contributions about Shetland and the world. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, you can do so here.
The New Shetlander is Scotland's oldest literary and community journal.
The book that I reviewed is very fitting to an audience of would-be Shetland visitors. Recently published, it was written by Jonathan Wills who operated guided boat tours around Lerwick and Noss for over 20 years. He shares his knowledge and recollections from his time as a tour guide in this lavishly illustrated paperback.
Granny Tam's beach with the ruins of their house behind it, on the now-uninhabited island of Papa.
We are our ancestors; we are here because they lived. We are here because they nurtured our parents and generations of grandparents before us. Some of our relations we have the privilege of knowing. Some, like George Arthur Fullerton, we know because we hear about them, we’re shown grainy photographs and told that they left this world before we arrived.
For me, they are the solemn faces which look back at me from the gallery of black and white photos at Granny’s. They are names on an unfamiliar and distant branch of the family tree. Names I’ve heard woven into conversation for as long as I can remember, but have no real knowledge of. I know that we are connected. When we speak of our family, we speak with pride, even for those we never knew or met.
Up Helly Aa is almost upon us and you can feel excitement levels in the town growing as people make ready for, what is to some, the social event of the year. Up Helly Aa, despite what is often believed, is not an ancient festival passed down from Norse times, but it is a festival with its roots in Shetland’s Victorian era. And like any proper Victorian soiree, theatrical pomp and ceremony were allowed unbridled power to shine.
Up Helly Aa’s roots can be found in the 19th-century tradition of ‘tar-barrelling’, a practice which saw the town’s young men rolling burning barrels of tar through the narrow streets of Lerwick. This was banned in 1874 as it was dangerous and caused damage to local properties and humiliated the law-enforcers who were often tricked by the rowdy youths and locked into an endless game of ‘cat-and-mouse’. It has been argued that following the Napoleonic Wars, the men returning had developed a taste for firearms and so began the tradition. In the past, Shetland followed the Julian calendar long after the rest of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar. Christmas was held on the 5th January, New Year on the 12th and Up Helly Aa (or Uphellia) was held 24 days after Aald Yule, on the 29th January. However, the act of tar-barrelling might occur on any of these occasions.
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.
As you read this, I will (hopefully) be sunning my weary legs on a beach in the Adriatic, or exploring a medieval town’s backstreets. The reality is, I’ll probably be trying to rub sun cream into sandy skin, stickied with ice-cream while wondering if it’s an acceptable time to order a large glass of sauvignon blanc. As I was planning the holiday, I found myself ‘googling’ “best things to do in Croatia” and realised that this is what many Shetland visitors will also be furiously googling before any trip to our islands. So, I have put together this guide to the ‘Top 7 in Shetland’ for visitors. These are all outdoor activities for varying abilities (and most can be tailored into a shorter or longer experience depending on interest and/or ability). I should also say that this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather it gives an idea for ‘something to do’ for every day of a week-long break.
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.