It takes a certain confidence for a remote community of farmers and fishermen to push for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, but the hardy inhabitants of the wind-scoured Shetland Islands have never been short of self-belief. These are, after all, the people with the highest levels of Viking DNA found anywhere in the British Isles.
Pull up a barstool in the Douglas Arms in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, and locals will tell you they feel as distant from Holyrood as they do from Westminster. There’s no malice intended; self-sufficiency just comes with the territory when you spend 365 days a year being lashed by the wild waves of the North Atlantic.
Lying 110 miles off the north coast of Scotland – closer to the Faroe Islands than to Edinburgh – Shetland might not leap out as the most obvious holiday destination, but this former Viking stronghold holds an abundance of riches: epic landscapes; eccentric islanders; footprint-free beaches teeming with seabirds and seals; and perhaps the highest density of Viking-era sites found anywhere in Britain.
Indeed, it’s hard to walk more than a few metres without tripping over another ruin or standing stone. And while the islanders have taken a cautious approach to reopening post-lockdown (most outdoor spaces are open; many indoor spaces are restricted), there are few places where it’s easier to socially distance.
Arriving in Lerwick harbour on the slow ferry from Aberdeen (a 12-hour trip), the capital appears out of the weather like an Impressionist painting, a brushstroke of dour stone houses against a green swash of hills and a sky filled with steely blues and greys. But you need only stumble up from the quayside and step into the nearest public house for the austere facade to crumble.
Conversation doesn’t sputter out, Slaughtered Lamb-style, when a stranger walks through the doors. More likely, you’ll be invited to introduce yourself and quizzed on your family history, politics and the pandemic, before a band strikes up a chorus of Shetland shanties and reels. Curiosity, as in remote communities everywhere, is integral to the Shetland character.
It’s a scene as Scottish as Saltires, neeps and tatties, but you’ll soon detect a subtle strangeness to the accent and vocabulary, a waageng (lingering flavour) of the Viking language that was spoken here right up to the 19th century.
Words and phrases of Norn – a language which branched off from Old Norse in the ninth century – endure across the islands, though the last fluent speaker died around 1850. Locals are not tired at the end of a long day, they are debaetless, forfochen or pooskered. A strong wind can be a gouster or a vaelensi, and many Shetlanders feel a lifelong attachment to their bonnhoga – calf-ground, or childhood home. Linguists will have a field day.
The cultural identity of modern Shetlanders is a rich stew of factual history, 19th-century Romanticism, and 21st-century politics. But support for “financial and political self-determination”, as recently voted for by the 22-strong Shetland Islands Council, is as much about geography as genetics.
“Shetland is both Scottish and Norse, and the Norse element in Shetlanders’ identity sets them apart from other Scots,” explains Dr Andrew Jennings, lecturer in Viking, Shetland and Orkney Studies at the University of the Highlands & Islands in Lerwick. “But people feel different from mainlanders because they are islanders, rather than because they might be descended from Vikings.”
Perhaps the most celebrated expression of Shetland’s Norse identity – the bacchanalian Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick held from January to March, which culminates in a parade of torch-wielding guizers and the immolation of a full-sized Viking longship – has been postponed until 2022 because of coronavirus. However, it’s still easy to see the physical marks that Scandinavian settlers etched into the countryside.
At Jarlshof, tucked in beside Shetland’s tiny airport at Sumburgh, a fractal pattern of stone dwellings emerges from beneath a green fringe of turf on the edge of the grey Atlantic. Crowned by the skeletal remains of a fortified haa (manor house) built by the first Earl of Orkney, the ruins span 4,000 years of human habitation, but the most striking feature is a complete Viking village erected by Norse invaders in the ninth century.
What made these isolated islands so suited to settlement? Well, the weather, for one thing. The wind may bellow like an angry Norse god, driving the rain sideways like hailing arrows, but the passing Gulf Stream keeps the islands pleasantly warm – at least compared with other landmasses at similar latitudes.
Jarlshof is also important because it marks the end point of an architectural arms race that saw iron age wheelhouses – tiny whorls of dry-stone chambers clustered together around central, communal hubs – replaced by orderly Viking longhouses with square stone foundations and interlocking timber frames, capped by centuries-ahead-of-their-time living roofs of peat and turf. Homes were built this way in Shetland right up until the early 20th century.
Shetland’s other great Viking site is over on the northern island of Unst, reached by a succession of roll-on, roll-off car ferries from Mainland, the largest island in the group. But forget the axe-wielding TV version of Vikings; Shetland hosted the Norsemen at their most domestic.
At Belmont, Hamar and Underhoull, the ruins of longhouses where Vikings gutted fish, raised sheep, sheared wool and smelted bog iron – and yes, perhaps raised toasts to Valhalla – emerge from beneath a frayed carpet of mud and marsh grass. There are at least 60 more unexcavated Viking structures pushing through the almost treeless grassland that hugs the island.
However, perhaps the best way to see Shetland through Viking eyes is to immerse yourself in the wind-lashed landscape itself. At Tingaholm, a tiny, grassy promontory sticking out into Tingwall Loch to the west of Lerwick, the rain scythes across the barely visible stones of a causeway leading to the site where Shetland’s Viking-era parliament, or Ting, convened.
Almost nothing remains there today but in this empty landscape, with only distant, lonely farmhouses to disrupt the organic contours of the ice-sheet flattened hills, it’s easy to imagine Shetland as it was when the first longships pulled ashore.
Pause for a moment and tune into the gentle swish of miniature waves breaking on the loch-shore, the whisper of the wind in the sedge grass rising above the almost-silence, and you’ll connect, just for a moment, with Shetland’s Viking soul.
• Overnight ferries to Lerwick depart from Aberdeen daily (from £22.60 per person, £92 per car) but accommodation must be pre-booked. Try the pretty stone Fort Charlotte Guest House, just uphill from Lerwick quayside, singles £50, doubles from £85. Local ferries to Yell and Unst are run by the Shetland Islands Council