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.
Longship burning at the Scalloway Fire Festival - part of Shetland's wider celebrations of Up Helly Aa.
Shetland still celebrates its Viking and Norse heritage, and this is most obvious in the Up Helly Aa celebrations that take place in communities across Shetland from January to March with the largest Up Helly Aa happening in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January every year. (You can read more about that here).
Law Ting Holm, the site of the main Viking parliament in Shetland.
During this period of Norse rule, Shetland was governed by a Norse parliament held at Tingaholm, or the Law Ting Holm, in the Tingwall Valley. The name, like many Viking place-names, is synonymous with the purpose of the area. The word ‘ting’ meaning ‘a parliament or meeting place’ in Old Norse. Tingwall was the main ting site where representatives from each district met every year, around November, to discuss the rule of the isles’. Local tings were also found across Shetland and can be seen in place-name evidence found in our parish names: Delting, Nesting, Lunnasting, Sandsting and Aithsting. Shetland was to continue to follow the Norse Law Book until an Act of Parliament outlawed it in 1611.
This is a BIG topic and one that can’t be fully explored in one short blog post alone. What I aim to do here is give a brief overview of the period of Norse rule and to try to place it in a Shetland setting to help you understand the influences that have shaped Shetland’s past and present.
Why did the Vikings venture so far in search of new lands?
The absolute reasons for conquering new lands is largely unknown. Still, political and land pressures in Western Norway at the time likely meant that space was in short supply under a burgeoning population. Inheritance laws in Norse culture meant that land would pass to the eldest son (or daughter) and that subsequent sons would have to make their own way in the world in search of land to farm and settle; leading to the outward expansion of the Viking world.
The sea-faring capabilities of the Vikings cannot be underestimated nor downplayed; for more than 300 years the Vikings were the most experienced sailors in northern waters and their boats, of the best quality, were more than capable of making the often dangerous journeys to new lands. The fact that they had the knowledge and technology to explore opened up new horizons to these sea-faring people.
The Eastings in Unst (known to archaeologists as Sandwick South site) is one of the many places settled by the Vikings/Norse settlers.
Farmers and seafarers
Norse settlers to Shetland were farmers who fished; they were incredibly able seamen who brought new technology and fishing and farming techniques with them. At sea, they invented the sun compass, keel and rudder and their fishing technology gave rise to Shetland’s fishing industry which, even today, is the backbone of the islands’ economy and formed the basis of my master’s thesis. On the land, they introduced chickens and carrots to the diet, and totally changed the face of architecture as it was known. Before the Vikings, indigenous Shetlanders had been building roundhouses in some form or another since Neolithic times, and with the arrival of the Vikings, so too came rectangular buildings for the first time.
They also re-wrote the laws with the introduction and implementation of Norse Law, which persisted until it was eventually banned in 1611. They re-named all the places they found, completely re-writing the map, with little record left of the names that came before their settlement.
A steatite line-sinker being carved from the soft, talc soapstone.
The Vikings adapted to Shetland’s landscape which differed significantly to that of western Norway. Where there were no trees to build the wooden longhouses that were prevalent in Scandinavia, they used what was available; stone. As stone survives and doesn’t degrade over time, many of the longhouses they built have survived, and several have been excavated, creating a clearer picture of settlement patterns across Shetland.
In short, the Vikings transformed how life looked in Shetland before their arrival. Their settlement changed the way we built our homes, farmed the land and governed society. But more than this, their sure and capable boat-building and seamanship skills opened up new horizons for fishing and trading. Much of what we see in Shetland today has been heavily influenced by – or introduced by – the early influences of these Norse settlers.
Reconstructed Viking long-house at Haroldswick, Unst.
Was it all blood, guts and bludgeon of native islanders or peaceful assimilation?
The Vikings ruled the seas; venturing from North America to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, they conquered many lands and civilisations along the way. But how did this settlement pattern play out in Shetland?
To think about what Viking settlement looked like, it’s essential to understand and differentiate between the Viking and later Norse period. The Viking Period refers to the years following their arrival before they formed a settled society and began farming the land. It is generally accepted that the Viking Period falls between the 9th and 11th centuries AD and that, after this, the Norse Period begins. As Shetland remained under the jurisdiction and law of Scandinavia, we call this period – more commonly thought of as Medieval across the UK and Europe – the Norse Period. This is a more appropriate terminology for understanding the social and political structure and governance of the islands.
The Old Norse term ‘Víking’ means piracy or raid and this is how history has defined the Vikings – as raiders – and it’s clear from other parts of the UK and beyond that, that the destructive invasions of these Vikings were often barbaric and bloody. But how much does this apply to Shetland?
Shetland (and Orkney), in many ways, can be seen as a stepping stone towards other lands; to the Hebrides and Ireland in the south-west, England and Scotland to the south, and north-west to Faroe and Iceland. Shetland would have acted as a good pit-stop along the way; a place to take on fresh food and water, make repairs and shelter from bad weather. I sometimes think of the Vikings that settled here as the ones who perhaps suffered from seasickness and couldn’t face the onward journey!
Evidence of mass-destruction and violence is, as yet, undiscovered. Until archaeological evidence can tell us otherwise, it appears that it is more likely that the Vikings and subsequent Norse settlers assimilated into the pre-existing Pictish societies. Some commentators have speculated that the Pictish population was in a sharp decline in Shetland at this time and that there was little or no resistance to the arrival of Viking settlers. Perhaps the struggling Pictish population welcomed the arrival of these new people with cutting-edge technology and new methods for fishing and farming?
Later stages of Pictich settlement at Jarlshof. Abandoned before the arrival of the Vikings.
This interpretation of peaceful assimilation is open to scrutiny and challenge. As we know, none of the pre-Norse place-names survives; the Vikings re-wrote the map, and there is little evidence of pre-Norse what places were called in pre-Norse Shetland for historians. Could this be an indicator that the indigenous cultures were swamped or whitewashed over out by incoming Viking settlers? Why is it that so little of the pre-Norse culture exists?
Our only real glimpse at life, aside from the archaeological excavations, comes from the Orkneyinga Saga, written in the 12th century; it offers a tantalising glimpse of what life looked like in the Norse Period. Used as a research source, it should be treated with caution as it was written several generations after events took place and the story may have been adapted, exaggerated, or made up by the storytellers over the years. Nevertheless, it does offer us a real insight into the lives of our 12th-century ancestors and the generations who came before them – even if it has been embellished and exaggerated over time to suit the narrator’s tale.
Until archaeological evidence can tell us otherwise, there will likely be more questions than answers.
Underhoull Unst with Viking/Norse longhouse remains.
The best places to see what the Vikings left behind
For locals and visitors, one of the best places to find out more, and visit, some of our Norse sites and visitor attractions are on the most northerly island of Unst. An archaeological project, Viking Unst, has excavated three longhouses (Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont) and built a reconstructed long-house and longship, Skidbladner, at Haroldswick. Unst is thought to have been the first point of landfall for these early Viking settlers who made the dangerous journey across the North Sea from Western Norway and Scandinavia.
The reconstructed longship and long-house at Haroldswick, Unst.
Jarlshof Prehistoric Site is another fantastic place to view an excavated long-house. Jarlshof helps place the Vikings in Shetland’s wider archaeological past as a visit takes you on a chronological journey through 5,000 years of human history in the isles. I discuss Jarlshof in more detail on my Patreon site, where we unpick the stories across the generations.
Looking towards the Norse farm at Jarlshof.
One of the most telling things about any Viking or Norse settlement in Shetland is the widespread use of soapstone, known as steatite or talc. Soapstone was a familiar stone to the Scandinavian settlers who used it in Western Norway for making all sorts of domestic and fishing implements.
Soapstone is incredibly versatile; it is soft and pliable and easy to carve and, once heated, is hard and strong. When the Vikings arrived it was used extensively, and the best place to view the evidence is at Catpund, halfway between Sandwick and Cunningsburgh, in Shetland’s South Mainland. Circular carvings left in the face of the rock show where steatite bowls were carved straight from the rock.
Hollows in the rock where bowls have been quarried at Catpund Quarry.
The use of the word ‘Viking’ in Shetland may have misleading connotations about how they came to conquer – or assimilate – into life in Shetland but, the idea of the ‘Viking World’ is so ingrained in our history books that it is almost impossible to surrender it. The easiest, and most accurate, way to categorise and understand this time is to divide it into two parts; the Viking Age where settlers were making there way here and landing on Shetland’s shores – peaceful or otherwise – and the later Norse Period where they had settled and were living and working the land and sea and calling Shetland ‘home’.
Today we remember the Vikings by their weapons; with axes, spears and shields being one of the main focuses on the suits worn by the Jarl Squad at Up Helly Aa. This too may be misleading of their part in Shetland’s story – perhaps a fairer representation would be if they carried ploughs, line-sinkers and loom-weights. But where’s the historical glamour in that? Despite this almost re-writing of history, evidence in Shetland would, without more archaeological evidence to suggest otherwise, point more towards the assimilation of cultures rather than the doomsday scenario we are often led to believe in.
What we do know for certain is that these settlers from Norway came to Shetland, settled and began a 600-year chapter in Shetland’s history which was marked by their cultural influence, political dominance and which gave rise to a Norse culture which not only linguistically, but culturally, has left a significant mark on Shetland’s cultural identity today.
Hopefully this will allow a clearer understanding of this long, complicated and often misunderstood period of Shetland's past...
Until next time,
“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.”
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.
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