We arrived at Spiggie beach almost at night. By that time a large crowd had already gathered, but there wasn’t any action. Everyone was waiting. But for what? Unfortunately, I didn’t know, as it was my first time there. Suddenly I saw a spot of a burning flame at the end of the road beneath the beach. The spot started growing into a winding line until it became a fiery serpent that stretched out all along the road to the beach – the serpent consisting of hundreds of burning torches. Unable to stand still, I walked to meet it halfway. On approach I saw the silhouettes clearer and for some reason I felt they didn’t look like the people of modern times. Walking another 50 meters I realized why – they were the Vikings! The real Vikings in the iron amour with shields on their backs and torches in their hands. And in the midst of the fiery line was a huge wooden galley which figurehead was decorated with a dragon jaw – no wonder that the procession reminded a fiery serpent. Having reached the sandy beach the Vikings surrounded the ship with torches ready at hand. And at the call of the leader – Guizer Jarl – hundreds of torches fired the boat. And when the flames took up the ship completely it seemed like a dragon came down to fill the harbor with the lurid light.
You must have thought it was somewhere on the coast of Sweden or Norway? You would be surprised, but the action took place in the Shetland Islands, UK. But what does the Britain have to do with the Vikings? Our post is just about that.
The Shetland is the northernmost part of the UK, but the closest land to it is Norway. That is why the Unst – the northernmost island – was the first place where the Vikings left their traces in the North Atlantic. Therefore, until the 15th century Shetland remained Norse territories. But at 1469 Shetland (and Orkney) were pledged by Christian I as a dowry for his daughter who was married to James III of Scotland. But the islands had been turning into Scottish very slowly. Norwegian law wasn’t abolished there till 1611, and the Viking language had lived up to the 18th century.
In fact the Nordic origins weren’t lost at all. For example, the place-names are almost exclusively Norse. Even the capital Lerwick takes its name from the Old Norse Leirvík that means muddy bay. Another evidence of the strength of Norway-Shetland bond is the dialect spoken by Shetlanders, which contains many Old Norse words.
Of course, the Shetland Islands are full of historical spots connected to the Vikings (just on the island of Unst there are more than 30 excavated Vikings houses). I was able to see some of them, for example, the Haroldswick village. There is a reconstruction of a Viking longhouse, as well as a replica of a Viking ship – the Skidbladner. This summer there will be a complete reconstruction of the Old Norse life and some thematic festivals are planned. I was also very impressed by the largest ruins of the Viking Age in Jarlshof. This place has traces of different eras, from the Bronze Age homes to the medieval castle ruins. But the greatest wonder was the energy of the place. Walking through these ruins you feel an inner peace mixed with some pleasant melancholy. And this feeling makes you understand why people of different eras had chosen this place to settle. Our ancestors were truly responsible choosing a place to live – in Shetland it feels like nowhere else. On the walks around the Unst Island I passed a peaceful place full of beauty and then came across an excavated house just nearby. In fact, it was gorgeous to enjoy not only the wonderful scenery, but also to visit some landmarks of our cultural heritage.
So here is the answer why the locals dress like Vikings and burn the wooden galleys. These festivals are called Up Helly Ya. The main one takes place every year on the last Tuesday of January in Lerwick. There are also two great ones in February and many smaller ones throughout the year. So, now I dream to visit this festival during the summer solstice – the burning ship must look incredible in the summer dim!
Of course, I could say much more about the festivals. For example how Guizer Jarl prepares for his role for several years, or how the Lerwick festival lasts more than twenty-four hours. But I won’t. Because it is better to see them by yourself. And not just to see. Shetland is a unique place at the junction of two rich cultures where Britain mixes with Scandinavia. And it cannot be seen. It can be felt only.
All photos are captured with Olympus OMD EM5 Mark II.
Lenses: M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro| M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro | M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro | M.Zuiko Digital ED 25mm f/1.8
This post was brought to you as a result of the blog trip in partnership with Shetland Amenity Trust. Near The Lighthouse want to thank Shetland Amenity Trust for all help and support provided during the travel.