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Geographically speaking, the loch at Girlsta is interesting; it's the deepest in Shetland, at about 65ft deep in places. From an ecological perspective, it's fascinating; it's the natural habitat of a unique sub-species of fish native only to Shetland; the slender char. Found in the loch, this fish is a relative of the Arctic char. The char was marooned here following the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The char adapted and changed over the years 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.
Many of Shetland’s place names are derived from the deep Norse connections, forged over hundreds of years and anchored fast to our culture in the stories from folklore. None explain this relationship better than the story about how Girlsta Loch came to get its name.
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.
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 the 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 per cent of the place-names come from the Old Norse language.
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 (2018) offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to the island on foot, rather than by boat.
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.
How could I not pack a picnic and drag the bairns across for a look? Afterall, who wouldn't want to uncover a Viking myth? 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 - possibly thousands! - 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.
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 proudly 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.
On this sunny autumnal afternoon, I was able to answer a burning childhood question, and give my own children a window into Shetland’s history. But, the big question remains - was this Geirhildr’s final resting place? Absolutely!
*Disclaimer - I am not an archaeologist and this conclusion is based entirely on speculation and my own creative imagination. I hope that you too have the opportunity to pay homage to Geirhildr if the summer drought is to reveal the causeway again.
Until next time. And remember, let your imagination rule, as;
"Those who are curious always find interesting things to do." ~ Walt Disney.
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.