Wherever you walk on Unst, or indeed in Shetland as a whole, you will see abundant signs of Man’s activity – and not just the houses, roads, fields, harbours and wind turbines of today. The absence of intensive agriculture means that the past is just as much in evidence as the present and Shetland is, quite simply, an archaeologist’s paradise. Preservation is outstanding and surprises await you around every corner, the fun being in interpreting this unique landscape for yourself – or with the help of an expert guide.
People have lived in Shetland for over 6,000 years, since Mesolithic hunter gatherers hunted birds and animals, caught fish and gathered shell fish, leaving the empty shells behind in great middens (dumps). Evidence for their presence is sparse is limited to one major coastal site but sea levels 6,000 years ago were 8 or 9 metres below current levels so much evidence has probably been washed away.
Around 5,500 years ago a major changed occurred with the arrival of the first Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers, who settled down, cleared land, planted crops and kept livestock – though they would still have hunted and gathered for the pot, something that has continued to modern times. Oval house remains and field systems can be seen scattered through Shetland, as can chambered cairns (burial mounds), which have a unique “heel-shaped” form here.
- On Unst there are a number of chambered cairns and standing stones, including the Bordastubble stone – probably the most massive in Shetland at 3.8 metres high.
- Neighbouring Fetlar is split in two by a Neolithic wall – the Finnigirt Dyke – while pieces of Neolithic pottery can be seen in the excellent Fetlar Heritage Centre.
- Yell also has a range of Neolithic standing stones, chambered cairns and other monuments, the most curious being an enigmatic stone alignment at Lumbister comprising 3 parallel rows of small boulders running NE/SW, crossed by a row of large boulders running North South.
Around 4,000 years ago the climate began to deteriorate and peat started to spread across the upland areas forcing people to move to the milder climate and fertile ground around the coast. Here they clustered together in small townships. It is thought that increasingly inhospitable weather impacted on food supplies and in turn on population size, and that there was also an increase in warfare. The arrival of bronze at this time gives its name to the archaeological period – the Bronze Age.
- Houses, field systems and a smithy have all been found on mainland Shetland and the settlements at Jarlshof and Scatness, both lying within a couple of miles of Sumburgh Airport, are essential viewing.
- Crussa Field, Unst, has what may be a Bronze Age cremation cemetery called the “Rounds of Tivla” – 3 rings of banks and ditches surrounding a stony central area.
- Feltar has the Haltadans stone circle.
600BC was a time of yet more change. Warfare had intensified and defensive structures were being built throughout Shetland and, indeed, Britain as a whole. In Shetland they could take a number of forms, including blocked off promontories, crannogs – buildings on natural or man-made islands reached either by boat or causeway, and the most famous and iconic, brochs.
Brochs are double-skinned round towers around 30 metres high, inside which there would have been at least two floors, livestock being stalled on the ground floor and people living on the first, and possibly second above. Upper floors were reached by stairs running up between the outer and inner walls.
One new theory is that brochs were designed so that smoke and heat from fires lit on the ground floor would be sucked up through the gaps between outer and inner walls and vented from the top, heating them in the process and making the whole building a very warm and comfortable place to live.
Brochs are unique to Scotland and, while having an obvious defensive role, it is thought that they were primarily status symbols for local chiefs.
- Of Shetland’s 75 brochs the only complete example in existence here, any anywhere else in Scotland, is on the island of Mousa off Mainland’s east coast. Another excellent example is at Clickhimin on the southern outskirts of Lerwick.
- Unst has 5 examples, 1 being off-shore on Balta Isle, while Fetlar has 4 and Yell 7. One of the best is on Unst at Underhoull, where it is situated on top of a steep hill rising 160 feet from the sea at Lunda Wick. It is surrounded by two ramparts and ditches and the remains of Iron Age houses lie further down the hill, where they are covered by a later Norse period farmhouse.
It is interesting to note that although the Romans never settled Shetland they appear to have known of its existence:
- Fragments of their pottery and glass were found at the Clickhimin broch, Lerwick.
- A Roman brooch was found on Unst - at Norwick, close to Saxa Vord. They may have been traded or possibly brought back to Shetland by travellers.
- It is thought from Tacitus’s account that the Roman’s identified Shetland with the Ultima Thule of the Greeks and it is even possible that Agricola’s navy visited the islands.
Following the Roman departure, the Iron Age tribes in mainland Scotland north of the River Forth united as the Picts, ruled over by one or more king. However, they left no written histories behind them and are known mainly for their beautifully carved symbol stones. Their influence on Shetland is unknown, indeed the only evidence for their presence is some symbol stones and some Ogham script. However, it was at this time that Christianity reached the Picts and, a little later, Shetland.
In 1958 the famous St Ninian’s Isle Treasure - a hoard of the most wonderful silver, including chalices, brooches, a communion spoon and silver pommel, was found during an excavation of a chapel site on St Ninian’s Isle in south west Mainland. Current thinking is that it is Celtic church silver and was buried hurriedly in around 800 during a Viking raid.
Vikings/Norse And The Dawn Of Shetland’s History
The history of Unst and Shetland really begins with the Vikings and the appearance of the famous Norse Sagas. Although written some considerable time after the events they describe, the Sagas give a fascinating insight into the character, life and times of the Vikings and help to complete the picture gained through archaeological investigation.
The Sagas tell us that the first Vikings left Norway and settled Shetland because they resented the taxes that their king – Haraldr Hárfagri or “Fairhair” – was levying on them. Unst appears to have been their first landfall in Shetland and the first island that they settled in the group.
Once settled, they began plotting rebellion against Harold but were foiled when, according to the Sagas, he landed an army at what is now Harold’s Wick (Harold’s Bay), Unst, and defeated them – the first historical event on Unst.
There is some debate amongst experts about the fate of the local populace when the Vikings arrived. Did the two peoples continue to live side by side, did the Vikings kill off the men and take the women as wives, or, as the almost total absence of pre-Viking place names would seem to suggest, did the Vikings kill everyone and take the whole of Shetland for themselves?
Shetland was of great strategic importance to the Vikings because of its location in the North Atlantic. 200 miles or so from Bergen in Norway and about the same distance from the Faeroe Islands, Shetland was a natural stepping stone for Vikings sailing to Iceland and Greenland – or to Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland.
The Viking Period lasted from the 9th Century to the 11th Century, to be followed by the more organised and civilized Norse period, which lasted until Shetland coming under Scotland’s control in 1468 as part of Margaret, Maid of Norway’s, final dowry settlement . “Norse” is derived from Norn, the language of the people, a language that remained in use into the 17th century, dying out finally in the 18th.
Orkney and Shetland initially formed one earldom – the Earldom of Orkney. While all had to obey Norwegian laws and pay tax to Norway, the earls had a great deal of power and autonomy. This all came to an end in 1194 when, following another unsuccessful plot to overthrow the Norwegian king, Shetland was taken from the earldom as punishment and ruled directly from Norway until it became part of Scotland.
Of all the great changes in cultures and the comings and goings of peoples, in Shetland’s 6,000 year history it is the almost 800 year effective rule of the Vikings/Norse that has had the greatest impact on the thoughts and lives of the Shetlanders of today. Place names and personal names, appearances, the local dialect and accent, cultural leanings and the Shetland flag – all have a distinctly Scandinavian feel. Although politically part of the “Highlands & Islands of Scotland”, Shetland has about as much cultural affinity with the Gaelic Highlands and Western Isles as Cornwall.
Now that you know a little bit about the archaeological background of Shetland, why not read about the archaeology of Unst.