Written by Laurie Goodlad
Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth, and it demonstrates how urbanisation and industrialisation have warped our view of the world map. Today, we see the map from the perspective of a society that heavily depends on our urban centres – London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester – these are epicentres from which everything emanates. We want trains, planes and Ubers – and we want them now.
Yet, go back to 1,200 years ago, and it becomes clear that Shetland sat in the very centre of the world – well, the Viking world anyway. When we cease to think about the world map in modern terms and stop seeing everything radiating from urban centres, we begin to draw a different impression of the map that helps us understand past societies with more clarity and understanding.
Shetland’s greatest strength – which is seen to ‘isolate’ us today – lies in the island’s position, providing the perfect ‘stepping stone’ for seafaring Vikings seeking out new lands as they expanded westward.
Geographically, it is easiest to consider Shetland as a ‘stepping stone’; with Bergen, Norway 200 miles (320 km) to the east, Aberdeen, Scotland 200 miles to the south and Faroe 200 miles to the northwest. Lying between Shetland and mainland Scotland is Fair Isle, 24 (39km) miles to the south and Orkney, 50 miles (80km) to the south-west.
The Vikings are thought to have arrived in Shetland from western Norway about 850 AD and subsequently settled in the islands, giving rise to what is known as the Norse Period. Both Shetland and Orkney became Viking, and later Norse, strongholds until 1469, when rule passed over to Scotland.
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. 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?
Yet, this is open to challenge too. None of Shetland’s pre-Norse placenames survives; the Vikings re-wrote the map, and there is little evidence of what pre-Norse, pre-Viking, society in Shetland looked like. What language did they speak? What did it sound like? What did the culture and tradition look like, and did any of that survive beyond landnám? Could this be an indicator that the indigenous culture of our Pictish people was swamped and whitewashed over out by incoming Viking settlers? Why is it that so little of the pre-Norse culture exists if it was indeed a model of ‘peaceful assimilation’?
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 appearance of these new people with cutting-edge technology and new methods for fishing and farming?
Until evidence suggests otherwise, it would appear that Viking and subsequent Norse settlers assimilated relatively seamlessly into the pre-existing Pictish societies. Once settled, they worked the land, fished the sea, and ruled the islands for around 500 years.#
Although the theory of peaceful assimilation is open to scrutiny and challenge, Shetland is immensely proud of its Scandinavian heritage and still celebrates its Viking and Norse roots today. This is most obvious in the Up Helly Aa celebrations in communities across Shetland from January to March.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa is the island’s largest. The event takes place on the last Tuesday of January, with festivities lasting for 24 hours. It’s a Viking inspired fire festival, attracting thousands of visitors every year.
During these 24 hours, the town’s rule is handed over to the Guizer Jarl, and the Town Hall proudly flies the Raven Banner flag. For many, Up Helly Aa is the highlight of Shetland’s social calendar, and it is no surprise that the day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday.
When visiting Shetland, expect something unique – this is no remote outpost of the United Kingdom; you’ve just been reading the map wrong for all these years.