Very Viking Shetlands

January 6, 2019
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THE SHETLAND ISLANDS lie north-east of the Orkneys, the subject of an earlier post of mine.

The Shetlands are normally placed in an inset in maps of Scotland and Great Britain, because they are so far out to sea in the direction of Norway. Indeed, the Shetlands are closer to Norway than they are to the Scottish mainland. This map shows the true relation.

Here’s a closer view of the archipelago, which used to be part of Norway in fact and still has lots of Scandinavian-sounding place-names like Lund, Framgord, Hamnavoe and Jarlshof.

The Shetlands, with sites I visited. Background map data ©2018 Google.

Geologically, the Shetlands are quite different to the Orkneys,where tranquilly laid-down sandstone is now eroding into the sea. The Shetlands are the product of more dramatic forces, to do with oceans opening and closing and opening again over hundreds of millions of years as the continents drift.

Before the Atlantic Ocean existed, there was a similar ocean called the Iapetus Ocean, which closed up for a time and then re-opened as the Atlantic. In the middle of the North Atlantic sits Iceland, a bit of exposed mid-ocean floor from which the two sides of the Atlantic are streaming away. The Shetlands are the product of opposite but equally dramatic forces. They are the last remains of an area in which the Iapetus Ocean closed up, with a bit of proto-America welded to a bit of proto-Europe to form the Shetlands.

When the Iapetus Ocean closed, the resulting collision formed mountains as high as the Himalayas. The Shetlands are the eroded roots of these mountains and are mostly made of hard rock such as gneiss, which is similar to granite.

The Shetlands are a geologist’s paradise. For instance, at one spot there are sedimentary rocks made up of rounded pebbles that once rolled down ancient rivers, embedded in a chalky matrix — so-called conglomerate rock, a form of naturally-occurring concrete — in which the pebbles have been stretched into ‘cigar’ shapes as a result of as a result of being softened by the earth’s heat beneath these ancient Himalayas.

Everyone’s seen conglomerate rock down by the river or at the beach; it’s really common. But not the kind that contains pebbles squeezed out of their usual shape by the weight of ancient Himalayas.

Oil and gas, cliffs and voes

An epic geological history also helps to explain why there is so much oil around the Shetlands, where rigs from more than thirty oil and gas fields in the northern part of the North Sea, and to the west of the Shetlands as well, pump their product to a tanker port called Sullom Voe.

In the Shetlands, ‘voe’ means inlet or harbour; it is the local version of the Norwegian word våg. Voes are found in the sheltered waters between the islands. The outer coast falls away sharply, confronting the Atlantic and the North Sea with massive cliffs. Basically, the main part of the Shetlands can be thought of as a huge rock with steep outer sides and shallow crevices and dips on top; with present sea levels, these crevices are the voes.

On the island of Foula, the westernmost of the Shetland islands, located quite some distance from the rest of the Shetlands which are otherwise tightly clustered together, the cliffs are 1,200 metres high.

Only on the even more remote St Kilda, beyond the Hebrides, are there higher ocean cliffs in Britain. Several historic films have been made about muttonbirders living on these extra-lonely islands, people who made a living by having themselves lowered down the cliffs to collect seabirds and their eggs. The films are historic, because nobody lives on such especially remote islands now.

Viking Days re-enacted

The Shetlands are still more Scandinavian than the Orkneys, and have the famous midwinter celebration called Up Helly Aa, in which everyone dresses up like a Viking. Well, not everyone. Up to now it has been men-only, though this may change quite soon due to protests by a local Me-Too group.

Up Helly Aa means the introduction of light to the year. It takes place in January, and lasts for 24 hours, ending in the burning of a replica Viking longship after a procession of men dressed as Vikings bearing flaming torches has marched around the ship. The festival dates back to the 1880s in its modern, organised form and took the form of general rowdiness and lighting of flaming tar-barrels to relieve the tedium of midwinter before that.

There is no direct link with any actual Viking-era festival except in the most general sense that there was always some kind of midwinter party or festivity to light up the gloom in the Northern realm, festivities that the Christians also adapted into Christmas. So, Up Helly Aa is very much a ‘re-enactment’, as well as a product of the Victorian urge to tidy things up and make them less hooligan-like, in the same way that the hue and cry of street football was turned into an organised sport with actual rules at nearly the same time. A modern version of the Vikings’ ancient Raven Banner flies from the longship as it burns.

The northernmost major island is Unst, which has a really varied landscape and lots of history. If you were to only visit one of the Shetlands first, and leave others till later, I think I would recommend Unst, as there is a bit of everything there. The TV series Island Parish was filmed there.

The Viking who became King of England

Unst contributed a king to England, albeit indirectly so. Around the year 870 CE, according to an article called ‘The Legend of Goturm’s Hole’, the Vikings had established themselves in the northern part of Unst, displacing the Picts who were there before. The ruler of Viking north Unst was a man named Thorbjörn. One day, Thorbjörn waved off his son Anlaf on a raiding expedition, in a ship called Seasnake. A week later later, Anlaf’s ship returned with nineteen of the crew dead, including Anlaf. The survivors said that they had been about to plunder a fat Frisian merchantman from the Dutch-German borderlands when, all of a sudden, they were fallen upon by an even more powerful warship with a yellow sail bearing a red serpent. Anlaf was killed in single combat with the enemy captain Goturm, who told the survivors to “Give Anlaf’s sword to Anlaf’s father with Goturm’s greeting.”

No sooner had this tale been told than Thorbjörn and his court were informed that a ship matching that description had been wrecked on the shores of North Unst. Anticipating revenge, they were no doubt miffed to learn that there was only one survivor to torment. The survivor was, however, Goturm, so that was a turnup for the books. Goturm had managed to drag himself into a cave now called ‘Goturm’s Hole’. Soon, Thorbjörn’s men would come for Goturm and make an example of him, real good. In the meantime, they left him there to stew.

The day of Goturm’s death was set for the day after Anlaf’s funeral. Goturm tried to bribe local youths to spirit him away to safety with his golden arm-ring, but they wouldn’t help him.

At this point, Thorbjörn’s daughter and Anlaf’s sister, Auslag, rather surprisingly decided to save Goturm. She set off for the cave with a rope and a bag containing food and drink. Goturm availed himself of the provisions and hauled himself up on the rope. Auslag give him more and told him where he could find a boat. He offered her his golden arm-ring and she refused. Goturm then said he would return one day and thank her properly.

What happened next is really amazing and even more unbelievable if it had not actually happened. The wretched Goturm, also known as Guthrum or Guðrum, somehow went on to found the Danelaw in England and eventually became King of England, assuming the Anglo-Saxon name of Æthelstan after converting to the Christian religion of his subjects.

(The apostate Protestant Henri IV’s famous quip ‘Paris is worth a Mass’ comes to mind at this point. But perhaps, after having laid eyes on Sussex downs, Goturm/Æthelstan was sincere in the spurning of his former wintery creed of Valkyries, Skaði and Ragnarök.)

In the year 888 CE, Auslag’s village was visited once more by a ship with a yellow sail and a red serpent upon it. Auslag had, in the meantime, married a man named Einar who had then been killed in a battle that had also defeated her tribe, leaving Auslag to battle on in her own way as a solo mum in reduced circumstances.

Most of the locals were too terrified to confront this evidence of their old nemesis and ran for the hills, but Auslag knew the ship bore good news. She went down to greet the vessel which, sadly, did not bear Goturm aboard: for he was now King of England and had too full an appointment-diary to ever make it back to the Shetlands. But he had not forgotten the village-girl who had saved his life. His emissary Sweyn Ormsson bestowed a fortune on the poor solo mum Auslag and her people, who all lived happily ever after.

Sometimes, even fairy tales are true.

The mysterious double-walled Brochs

There are lots of walks, colonies of breeding seabirds, white sandy beaches and golden beaches — a lot of the Scottish islands have really good beaches — voes, Viking sites and a wealth of older archaeological sites, including at least eleven brochs and two standing stones, of which Bordastubble is the largest.

The broch is a distinctive form of architecture that originated in Atlantic Scotland, meaning the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and a few places on the mainland coast in the north and west. Brochs are round and made of drystone construction and have a distinctive double wall within which a staircase was set. A nearly intact broch, of which there are only a few, can stand more than 13 metres high. One such example is the Broch of Mousa on the small Shetlands island of Mousa.

Broch of Mousa. Image by ‘Otter’ via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The word broch comes from Lowland Scots ‘brough’ meaning castle — the Norse word for this kind of structure was borg — though they are not always built in really good military positions. Even so, they probably served as places of refuge for villagers if the village was attacked.

The brochs were all built over a period that roughly coincided with the rise and ascendancy of the Roman Empire, from around 100 BCE to 200 CE more or less. Perhaps a sense of dwindling isolation even in remote Atlantic Scotland helped to stimulate this kind of construction, though the architecture of the broch seems to have been a local invention, a development of an older style known as the Atlantic Roundhouse, of which earlier, simpler examples are found at the village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys (I’ll talk about that below).

A handful of brochs in southern Scotland are thought to have been built by northerners come south, and to have had something to do with the more regular interaction between the Romans and the peoples of southern Scotland. In other words, somebody wanted good forts or watch-towers built down there too, and the northerners obliged.

The disused RAF base at Saxa Vord is worth a visit and has hospitality facilities that are still open.

Where the British Isles end

I went all the way up to Skaw, the northernmost town in Britain, and the northernmost church in Britain there too. Just north of Skaw is the tiny island of Muckle Flugga, where there is a lighthouse, and beyond that, the even tinier Out Stack. Out Stack is the most northerly of the British Isles. The writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s father and uncle were the main designers of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, interestingly enough.


Heading south, I visited the remains of the late Viking-era St Olaf’s chapel at the township of Lund on the west coast of the island, and another similarly old church, our Lady’s Kirk at Framgord, near Sandwick on the east coast, where white sands drift across the landscape, Some of the old Viking gravestones at Framgord take the form of an upside-down boat keel, probably in homage to the old Viking custom of boat-funerals, which was more literal before that.

At Lund there is a ruined 18th’century house where the Devil is said to have left his hoofprint in a flagstone.

At St Olaf’s chapel there is also a leper’s window, a small window through which anyone thought to be unclean, or more unclean than the average, could view the service without spreading further infection.

Though sensibly unwilling to allow the spread of leprosy among their congregations — which would obviously have been a Very Bad Thing — the inhabitants of Mediaeval Europe weren’t otherwise all that scientific about it. Pretty much anyone with some sort of skin condition risked being branded a leper. As such, there was no shortage of lepers in the Middle Ages, even in places where actual leprosy or as we now call it Hansen’s disease probably didn’t exist. Hansen’s disease is notoriously difficult to catch, and there might well have never been any true lepers on Unst. At a time when all sorts of diseases were rampant, and all sorts of skin conditions too no doubt, leprosy seems to have inspired a unique terror in the Mediaeval mind, perhaps because it was so easy to be falsely accused of having it!

At St Olaf’s, there are also Hanseatic gravestones of two merchants from Bremen, along with an early Christian fish symbol on one of the lintels.

Across the bay from Lund there is a ninth-century Viking longhouse, now restored. I got a good picture of this house, the one that is in ‘The Northeast and the Dark Castles’. At Haroldswick, near the island’s main village of Baltasound, I also took pictures of the replica Viking longship Skidbladner. The name is borrowed from a legendary longship in which all the Viking gods would sail, called Skiðblaðnir, which could be taken apart to fit in a purse.

Unst, with turf house and Skidbladner

I stayed in a back-packers in the village of Uyeasound. Three kilometres to the east, Muness Castle, built at the end of the Elizabethan era, is still in a good state of preservation. This is the northernmost castle in Britain (Unst contains lots of northernmost things).

Beyond Unst, I also visited the Norse settlement and beach at Breckon Sands on the isle of Yell, just southwest of Unst.

Breckon Sands

As in the Orkneys, there are lots of local ferries that span the short distances between the most important islands of the main group in the Shetlands. So getting from one island to the next is no problem, unless you are trying to get to Foula or one of the really little islands.

Roaming the Mainland

In another Orkney parallel, the biggest island on the Shetlands is called the Mainland. On the Shetlands’ Mainland, I went to the volcanic headland at Eshaness or Esha Ness (Esjunes), where there is another lighthouse and a truly rugged stretch of coastline, with a hole-in-the-rock island called Dore Holm. There is a really narrow inlet or cleft in the rocks called Calder’s Geo through which the sea rushes inland, and huge rocks are thrown high above the sea by Atlantic storms.


Still on the Mainland, I went to the town of Scalloway, and then across to Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands, where Clickimin Broch is one of the best-preserved examples of this type of ancient building.

Clickimin Broch

And at the south end of the island I visited Jarlshof, the most famous archaeological site in the Shetlands. The name means ‘earl’s court’ in Old Norse. It is a village that was inhabited from about 2500 BCE up to the 1600s CE and contains a spectacular collection of fairly intact stone houses and buildings from all eras.


And of course, I met Shetland ponies!

This post has been based on a chapter in my 2018 book A Maverick Inuit Way and the Vikings.

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