Vikings are coming

If you find yourself in Shetland and see men with horned helmets waving axes, there is perhaps plenty to fear — you are in Up Helly A, among a thousand Vikings running amok.

Norse explorers made much of Scotland their own in the late 800s and there are now signs of a Viking revival.

Moreover, historian David Starkey has recently confirmed the validity of a legal claim for the return of some Scottish islands to Norway and Denmark.

Hebridean past

Norse explorers and warriors made the Hebrides their own in the late 800s AD. When Vikings landed at Iona in 795, fuelled by the taste for previous sackings of ecclesiastical outposts such as Lindisfarne, they killed some 100 monks on what is now known on Iona as Martyr’s Bay. The event made distinct from other similar events on Britain’s coastlines by the sheer numbers involved.

The neighbouring island of Staffa takes its name from the Norse word ‘staiiive’ and it is apparent why at first sight of Fingal’s Cave, with its basalt column structure. The island of Gometra takes its name from the Norse for ‘Island of the God Man’ (possibly referring to a lone monk staying there from nearby monastic island of Iona) and Jura stems from Old Norse Dyrøy meaning ‘Beast Island’.

Indeed some living in the Shetland Isles feel more closely aligned to Norway than to Scotland and England doesn’t get a look in.

Viking DNA

The Scots were hard rulers and banned the use of the Norwegian language in an attempt to reduce ties with Norway but, despite the influx of workers from throughout Britain, 30% of Shetlanders and Orcadians are directly descended to Norse Vikings.

Indeed, in Lerwick, you will see streets named after King Erik, Saint Olaf, King Haakon, and King Harald. Even the Shetland accent is a hybrid of Scots and Norwegian. Norwegian monarchs and politicians visit regularly, not just as tourists but, importantly to note, in official capacity to engagements such as the opening of museums and cultural sites.

Scottish independence

This should be of no surprise – Lerwick, the Shetland capital, is closer to Oslo and Copenhagen than it is to London. It is the same distance from London as are the Pyrenees. There is 100 miles of sea between them and the Scottish mainland and 200 miles further to Edinburgh. As a result of this and their genetic ties, they see themselves as Shetlanders and Orcadians first. The majority is in favour of keeping the United Kingdom united but they do not see themselves as Scottish and, with the Scottish National Party on the loose, their future is a moot point.

Oil grab

Interestingly some say that, if Scotland does one day win independence, many in these northern isles will not want to be attached to a country they feel no natural connection with. Although there are only 50,000 inhabitants and the islands’ financial contribution to UK coffers is grossly disproportionate to its population due to ‘their’ North Sea oil. They are a powerful voice.

Of course others insist that to say the oil of the East Shetland Basin belongs to Shetlanders is like saying Yorkshire coal belongs to the people of Leeds.

Norwegian resistance

All this being said, it seems that WWII has played a pivotal role encouraging a Viking revival. Ties between Shetland and Norway were vital during the war and a Norwegian naval unit known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ was established to supply the Norwegian resistance with weapons and supplies.

Furthermore, the invasion of Norway by Germany resulted in the unearthing of legal documents, authenticated by historian David Starkey, claiming Britain only has the Shetlands and the Orkneys ‘on loan’.

Island pawned

In 1460, Christian I, ruler of Norway and Denmark, had a daughter Margaret betrothed to James III of Scotland. Lacking funds to pay the dowry he sold the Orkneys and Shetlands to the Scottish crown. However, Christian stipulated that future Norwegian kings were entitled to buy back the islands for 210 kilograms of gold or 2,310 kilograms of silver. Today, it is estimated that, with inflation, the sum could be $3.7 billion.

Scottish agents were believed to have destroyed the documents but one remaining copy has been unearthed in Russia. It is thought that the Nazis looted them during the 1939 invasion and, at the war’s end, the papers were taken from Berlin by victorious Russians. This of course begs the question – was Hitler planning to buy the Shetlands and the Orkneys?

Shetlands for sale

Norwegian Finance Minister Sigbjørn Jahnsen has now tabled a motion to use Norway’s Oil Fund revenue to make a purchase on behalf of the Norwegian and Danish governments. He said: “This could be one of the most lucrative and ethical investments we make with our Investment Fund monies.”

David Starkey said: “There is no doubting the wording of the laws contained in these ratified lawbooks. Should Denmark or Norway make the requisite dowry repayment, Scotland must return the sovereign territories – they have no right over the islands in any type of constitutional law. The only contentious issue appears to be just how much the 10,000 Kroner would be worth in today’s currency.”

Tight leash

Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslip said: “We are currently seeking alternative views on the legal implications of these laws. The Scottish government is sure they wouldn’t stand up to the rigours of modern international advocacy.”

Alister Ingster of the Shetland Islands independence campaign, said “things will be much better under Norway than under the Scots” and politicians in Norway are listening: “We must take Shetlanders saying that they feel a stronger connection to Norway than to Edinburgh seriously,” says Kristian Norheim, the foreign policy spokesman of the Norwegian Progress Party.


However, with stakes so high, no government will back down easily. Shetlanders have one of Europe’s largest reserves and will enjoy calling the shots for the foreseeable future. However, for so long as the islands remain part of the United Kingdom neither Norway nor Denmark has a legal case.

If Scotland gets independence, it is unlikely that Shetlanders and Orcadians will accept their new owners quietly – for all it may take a skilled legal team, a wee Sterheid Rammy and a suitcase of money for the Vikings to be landing on our shores again.

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