Britain’s Viking Heritage

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TRAVEL/ ERIC MACKENZIE LAMB

LERWICK, SHETLAND ISLANDS: in my previous articles, we learned about some of the southern hemisphere’s most isolated human settlements, like St. Helena, Tierra del Fuego, South Georgia, and the Antarctic peninsula.

This time, we’re going to travel almost 8,000 miles in the opposite direction to visit one of their northern counterparts-an archipelago of more than a hundred islands, of which only about sixteen are inhabited: the Shetland islands.

Situated at 60.21 North latitude and 1.13 West longitude-roughly fifty miles north of Orkney and a hundred and seventy miles southeast of the Faeroe islands-the Shetlands aren’t quite at the Arctic circle and are still about 3,000 miles from the geographical North Pole. Nevertheless, they enjoy nineteen straight hours of daylight during the height of the summer months. Conversely, in winter, it’s not uncommon to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights. On the downside, the islands are also vulnerable to ferocious gale force winds at any time of year, particularly from October to March. There are stories, undoubtedly true, of people in the early part of the last century, before the automobile became common, who were unable to walk less than a hundred yards from their homes to the village grocery, and who sometimes had to wait behind bolted doors, peat stoves alight around the clock, for a week or more until the gales abated. (Perhaps ironically, the biggest disaster wasn’t necessarily running out of food staples, but of tea, whisky, or pipe tobacco).

Despite this, and especially during the northern summer’s often calm, sunny days, the Shetlands are a virtual and still sparsely-visited paradise for hikers and bird watchers. Although the human population consists of only about 23,000 inhabitants, the majority of them within ten miles of Lerwick, the capital, they’re far outnumbered by an estimated two hundred thousand puffins and at least 84,000 gannets. In addition, there are seals, occasional killer whales, and those famous Shetland ponies and sheep dogs. And, of course, the sheep themselves, ranging sometimes as far as the eye can see. The islands’ geography consists mainly of rolling hills and shallow valleys, with stunning cliff scenery, especially on the western shores.

Cliffs at Esha Ness, Shetland‏ - Photo by Author
Cliffs at Esha Ness, Shetland‏ – Photo by Author

Interestingly, due to the weather conditions and lack of viable conventional soil, there are practically no trees in Shetland. The few that do exist are usually in sheltered areas, mostly found behind stone walls in someone’s garden. Which is why peat, ritually dug out and stacked to dry during the short summer months, is still a vital fuel for some crofters’ homes equipped with traditional cast iron stoves. Many crofter’s cottages still exist today (although all but the most isolated have modern electric power and water) and are a functioning relic, since revised, of when a radical law was passed in the late 19th century which allowed tenants of wealthy (and often absentee) landowners to pay a mere pittance for the rental of the crofter’s premises and a portion of its adjacent land. In addition, until recently, that tenancy could be passed on to the crofter’s descendants with no significant increase in rent to the landowner.

How, in the end, to best describe the Shetland Islands? Sometimes, It’s difficult to explain how barrenness can actually possess its own special beauty. But it does, due in no small part to Shetland’s flowers and other unusual sub-Arctic flora, its isolated picture postcard beaches, dramatic promontories, and rustic crofters’ cottages-many in the middle of nowhere and often in such breathtaking surroundings that they could have been straight out of a period movie.  If you’re an addict of wide-open spaces, or decide that you’d like to night hike under what the islanders call the Summer Dim, Shetland is the place for you.

And, of course, we haven’t mentioned the the warmth of the Shetlanders themselves, truly a breed apart from their mainland counterparts. During my first visit to the Shetlands in the mid 70’s, I met an elderly couple named Bertie and Emma Jamieson in the small village of Sandness.  I will never forget them, may they rest in peace. Their home was a small stone building, originally a servants’ quarters, which was adjacent to, and part of, Melby House, a laird’s residence which had been built in the mid 17th century. (Maelby, I  learned from Bertie Jamieson, was actually the old Norse word  for white beach; the manor, in fact, fronted such a beach).

Melby House, Sandness, Shetland‏ - Photo by Author
Melby House, Sandness, Shetland‏ – Photo by Author

Bertie, who was by then in his late 80’s, also told me, in his distinctive Shetland dialect, some fascinating stories from his former seafaring days. (Emma, who kept offering me endless cups of tea, had to translate at times).  Bertie, as a young apprentice seaman, had actually rounded Cape Horn several times on cargo sailing ships. On one such voyage, while en route from Glasgow to Chile, unrelenting westerly gales had finally forced them to circumnavigate the world (but in the opposite direction!) in order to reach  their destination. What had originally been a three month voyage had turned into more than a year. An incredible story, but, as Emma confirmed, not all that uncommon during that bygone era of sailing ships. I felt immensely privileged to have heard it from someone who’d actually experienced what most of us can only read about in history books.

Bertie also told me about the legendary island of Foula, approximately twenty miles southwest in the storm-tossed open Atlantic, where, as recently as the early 20th-century, inhabitants had used seagulls’ eggs for barter instead of money. Men from Foula, he explained, were considered some of the best sailors in the British isles due to their ability to navigate their open rowboats through Foula’s formidable waves (there was no dock), with the result that many were press-ganged into the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. Still others  joined the merchant service; many  of the island’s men would be destined to not see their wives and children for years on end. (Foula’s inhabitants, he added, are also famous, even today, for a unique maritime musical tradition called the Foula Reel).

Traversing the North Sea during a mid-winter gale‏ - Painting by Author
Traversing the North Sea during a mid-winter gale‏ – Painting by Author

And there was more. Just across a narrow channel from Melby house lay the island of Papa Stour. Access by ferry was often unreliable due to the dangerous spring tides which could sweep a small boat out to sea, never to be seen again. In the 1960’s, the island’s owner, concerned about a rapidly aging and diminishing population, placed advertisements in English newspapers inviting anyone interested to come and settle in Papa Stour. In return, he would offer them free long term leases on the condition that they maintained the small island’s traditional industries, mainly sheep farming and fishing. What he hadn’t expected, though, was the noisy group of long-haired English hippies who arrived en masse  one morning at his doorstep. But, at this point, there wasn’t much he could do about it. A deal was a deal.

Eventually, most members of the hippie colony left Papa Stour  after having experienced their first taste of an especially savage sub-Arctic winter. But a handful remained and were eventually accepted by the local community. Some married local women and eventually became successful farmers and fishermen in their own right. Their descendants are still there today.

The Shetlands themselves have a unique history. Until the Fifteenth century, when the islands became part of Scotland, they were a possession of Norway. This is reflected in most place names: for example, Papa Stour, which means Big Priest in old Norse, or the word holm, a variation of the Norse holmr, meaning small island.  Trondra, Vaila, Unst, Fethaland: the list goes on and on. Even after becoming part of Scotland, a dual oath of allegiance to both Scotland and Norway was common official practice in the Shetlands during a period of time.  As far as human settlement is concerned, it can be traced back to the Mesolithic and Bronze ages. As of today, there are estimated to be no less than five thousand archaeological sites in Shetland, one of the most prominent being Jarlshof, near Sumburgh Head, along with the Broch of Mousa. And there’s little doubt that additional discoveries will be made in the future.

The Up Helly Aa festival -  Photo Credit: Anne Burgess
The Up Helly Aa festival –  Photo Credit: Anne Burgess

Another reminder of the island’s long Viking history is the mid-winter festival of Up Helly Aa. This event, the only one of its kind in the British isles, takes place in Lerwick harbor on the last Tuesday of each January. Locals don traditional Viking costumes and launch a burning longboat to sea, in a rite originally meant to cremate the remains of a prominent chieftain by funeral pyre.

During Norway’s occupation by Nazi forces during World War II, a small number of Norwegian resistance forces, in conjunction with Britain and other allies, were based near the town of Scalloway and operated a secret sea convoy system later famously called the Shetland Bus.  Their intention was to infiltrate allied agents, using nondescript fishing boats, from Shetland to Norway. The project was extremely dangerous for its participants but, in the end, largely successful. Many of these efforts resulted in significant disruptions to German military plans.

St Kitts Nevis flag in the Shetland Islands – Photo by Author
St Kitts Nevis flag in the Shetland Islands – Photo by Author

Many years later, I decided to revisit the Shetlands.On my last day in Lerwick, while taking a casual stroll along the docks, I was amazed to see a small cargo ship flying the flag of St Kitts and Nevis! Scarcely believing my eyes, I approached the vessel and, yes, sure enough, the word Basseterre was painted on the stern. It was then that I remembered that the Federation, like Liberia, Panama, and some other countries, offers offshore registration services to most foreign-based ships. But then again, I asked myself, had someone recently purchased the vessel, sailed it across the Atlantic, and was now waiting for a new registration? Unlikely, I thought, considering the size of the ship, but I was still curious to find out.

Just then, one of the crew members, whom I assumed to be the cook  from his white apron, appeared on deck. I managed to get his attention.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m just curious. Has this ship ever actually been in St Kitts and Nevis?”

He looked at me with a blank expression.

“Where?”  His accent was distinctively Eastern European, anywhere but Shetland.

I repeated our country’s name.

“Where is that?”

I smiled. “That’s okay, sir. I think that you’ve just answered my question. Have a nice day.”

Small world, I reminded myself. But not always.

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For further information about Shetland, see their official tourism site:  Visit.Shetland.org