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This chapter was last updated on 27 April 2009
The  Shetlands

Between Picts and Norse


Picts, Norse, Brochs, Ponies and Shelties


Shetland (spelled Zetland until 1970 (Old Norse Hjaltland); is an archipelago belonging to Scotland, off the northeast coast.  The islands lie to the northeast of Orkney, 280 km (170 mi) from the Faroe Islands, and form part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east.  The total area is approximately 1,466 km² (566 sq mi).  Administratively, the area is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland.  The islands' administrative centre and only burgh is Lerwick.  The largest island, known as "Mainland," has an area of 967 km² (374 sq).


Firm geological evidence shows that at around 6100 BC,  a Tsunami caused by Ocean bottom disturbances due to anMousa Broch overly active North Sea Rift hit Shetland, as well as the rest of the east coast of Scotland, and may have washed over some of the Shetland Islands completely.  Shetland has been populated since at least 3400 BC.  The early people subsisted on cattle-farming, agriculture, fishing and sealing.

During the Bronze Age, around 2000 BC, the climate cooled and the population moved to the coast.  During the Iron Age, many stone fortresses were erected, some ruins of which remain today.  By the end of the 3rd century AD, Brythonic Celtic had largely replaced the pre-Celtic Germanic Pict language.  Around AD 297, Roman sources described the Picts who populated the Shetland islands as the Phocaii (the seal people).

Impressive Brochs (stone watchtowers and refuges) over 40 feet high were built on every vantage point in both the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos as nowhere else on earth, to keep watch for uninvited guests.  Some of the most impressive inlaid stone works in the world are found on these islands.  Due to the practice, dating to at least the early Neolithic, of building in stone on the virtually tree-less islands, Shetland is extremely rich in physical remains of these periods.

The Albann Era 

The Croft House MuseumThe Orkney and Shetland Islanders were a very tough, independent, proud and resourceful people.  They made their living from fishing, sealing, trading and piracy.  There was nothing advantageous for them to join in a union with the southern mainland of Albann.   Nevertheless, Brud Mauur forcibly brought the Orkney and Shetland islands into the Albann Empire in 650AD, and took the Orkney King's children as hostages to ensure his continued obedience and loyalty.

During his 565AD visit, Columba asked Brud to ensure the safety of his Christian missionaries in their travels to the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos.  Brud, in turn, advised the Orkney king to guarantee their safety.

When Brud became aged, the islanders revolted, and returned to their old swashbuckling ways.  In 580AD, Brud sent the ruthless Scottish war fleet north in a successful punitive expedition to bring them back into the fold, resulting in a bitter enmity towards the Gaels.  In the mid 700s, Gaelic monks travelled to the Orkney and Shetlands to introduce Christianity to the islanders but were largely shunned.

Even the Northern Isles, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and the Faroes were settled by Gaelic speaking monks before the Vikings came.  The "Papar" (from Latin papa, via Old Irish, meaning "father" or "Pope" came to mean Irish and Scottish monks in the north.  They were instrumental in the spread of Christianity throughout Albann, Anglo-Saxon England, the Frankish Empire, and all parts of Scandinavia during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries..

The Norwegian Era

By the end of the ninth century, Norse Vikings shifted their attention from plundering to invasion, mainly due to the overpopulation of Norway in comparison to resources and arable land available there.  The Norse colonized much of northern Scotland, Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and briefly, North America.

In the early ninth century, Norse raiders, then settlers began arriving at the North Sea islands.   The Pict inhabitants had no love for the southerners, so they joined the Vikings in their raids.  The Gaelic Papars were executed or sent packing by the pagan Norse.

The Norwegians tended to follow a northern route to the islands and less populous places whereas the Danes went westward to more populated areas such as England Normandy and the Frankish Empire; Whereas the Swedes went east, colonizing Finland, the Baltic coast and Russia.

Shetland was colonized by Norwegian Vikings in the 9th century.  The colonizers established their laws and language.  That language evolved into the West Nordic language "Norm", which survived into the 1800s.  The Orkney and Shetland Isles became gathering centres for raiding the Albann coasts.

For centuries, the inhabitants of these islands had indulged in piracy of southern settlements, and this turn of ownership no doubt offered lucrative and familiar opportunities to adventurous Picts as well as Norse.   Shetland was Christianized for the second time in the tenth century when Norway itself became Christian.

It is very likely that the Pict men were not annihilated when the Norse seized control.  Since the Pict men of Orkney did not disappear, neither would the men of Shetland.  It is very likely over half the men on the Shetland Isles (similar to those on Orkney) today, are direct descendants of those first Picts who colonized these islands. 

In the 14th century, Norway still treated Orkney and Shetland as a Norwegian province, but Scottish influence was growing, and in 1379 the Scottish Earl, Henry Sinclair, took control of Orkney on behalf of the Norwegian king Haakon V!.  In 1348, Norway was severely weakened by the Black Plague, and in 1397 it entered the Kalmar Union with Denmark.

The Scottish Era

The most northerly of any castle in the UK.With time, Norway came increasingly under Danish control.  King Christian I of Denmark and Norway was in financial trouble and, when his daughter Margaret became engaged to James III of Scotland in 1468, he needed money to pay her dowry.  Apparently without the knowledge of the Norwegian Riksråd (Council of the Realm), he entered into a contract on 8 September 1468 with the King of Scotland in which he pawned Orkney for 50,000 Rhenish guilders.

On 28 May the next year, King Christian also pawned Shetland for 8,000 Rhenish guilders.  He secured a clause in the contract which gave future kings of Norway the right to redeem the islands for a fixed sum of 210 kilograms (460 lb) of gold or 2,310 kilograms (5,100 lb) of silver. Several attempts were made during the 17th and 18th centuries to redeem the islands, without success.

Following a legal dispute,  Charles II ratified the pawning document by a Scottish Act of Parliament on 27 December 1669 which officially made the islands a Crown dependency, and exempt from any "dissolution of His Majesty’s lands".  In 1742, a further British Act of Parliament returned the estates to a later Earl of Morton, although the original Act of Parliament specifically ruled that any future act regarding the islands status would be "considered null, void and of no effect".

The Hansa Era

After the decline of the Vikings, four centuries followed where the Shetlanders sold their goods through the Hanseatic League of German merchantmen in Bergen, in Norway, and later directly to merchants from Bremen, Lübeck and Hamburg, in Germany. The Hansa would buy shiploads of salted cod and ling. In return, the island population received cash, grain, cloth, beer and other goods.  The flourishing trade with the North German towns lasted until the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, which prohibited the German merchants from trading with Shetland.

Shetland then went into a severe economic depression as the Scottish and local traders were not as skilled in trading with salted fish.  However, some local merchants took up where the German merchants had left off, and fitted out their own ships to export fish from Shetland to the Continent.   For the independent farmers of Shetland this had negative consequences, as they now had to fish for these merchant-lairds.  With the passing of the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 the British Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, emancipated crofters from the rule of the landlords. The Act enabled those who had effectively been landowners' serfs to become owner-occupiers of their own small farms.

The British Era

Many of the employees of The Hudson Bay Company operating out of London, were enrolled from the people of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, as sober, reliable and trustworthy people were needed as "factors" to man isolated outposts in the Canadian north-west.  Many of Canada's great explorers, such as Simon Fraser and John Thompson, were from these people.  Generally, most young people had to leave the islands to make a decent living, and the population declined.

Some 3000 Shetlanders served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars from 1800 to 1815.  In 1861 there were 32,000 people living in the Shetland Islands.   During the Second World War, a covert ferry service was established to and from Norway to harass the Germans in occupied Norway.    In 2001, there was a population of  21,990.  Recent vast oil production offshore has improved the quality of life, and has halted emigration from the islands.


The Pictish language died out during the Viking occupation, and was replaced by Old Norse, which in turn evolved into Norn. This remains the most prominent remnant of Norse culture on the islands.  Almost every place name in use there can be traced back to the Vikings.  Norn continued to be spoken until the 18th century when it was replaced by an insular dialect of Scots also known as Shetlandic, which in turn is being replaced by Scottish English.  Although Norn was spoken for hundreds of years it is now extinct and few written sources remain.

The Lunnasting Stone

Lunnasting is located in the eastern part of North Mainland, and is where the Lunnasting stone was found in the ruins of an old croft house.  It bears an inscription in Ogham - an early medieval alphabet, originating in North Africa.  The Lunnasting stone bears an ogham inscription, and was donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1876.  It is printed in the unique - North Briton P-Celtic dialect (Old Welsh), and dated about 720AD (before the Norwegian take-over), it reads: 

ettocuhetts ahehhttann hccuueuu nehhtonn

In modern Welsh (which is the closest living language to the now extinct North Britain "P-Celtic/Pict" (of post 300 AD Albann), It would read:

Eto cyhoeddi an heddychol fferf â Neifion

In modern English, it would read:

Again, let us proclaim, as before, a peaceful solidarity with Naughton


Lunnasting Stone

Partial Ydna Test Results

Early ConclusionsThe ancestors of one family were likely Norse Vikings (suggested by R1a grouping) who settled in Shetland.  The DNA signature is very rare.  In worldwide DNA databases,  the largest number of close matches is with the Altai people of Central Asia. The only exact matches in about 100,000 samples are found in Nepal, and Western Norway, as well as Shetland, including another family with a different surname. 

Year Event
3400 BC First signs of settlement
43 & 77 AD Roman authors Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder refer to the seven islands they call Haemodae and Acmodae.
297  Roman sources mention the Picts
560 High King Brud Maelgwyn  brought the northern Islands into the Albann Empire
565 Columban monks arrive in the northern islands to spread Christianity
720 Lunnasting Stone written in Ogham-encrypted  North Britain P-Celtic
793 Norse Vikings begin raiding  northern islands and coasts of Albann
875 Harald Hårfagre took control of the islands
1195 Harald Maddadsson lost the earldom of Shetland; the islands are put directly under the Norwegian king
1379 Scottish Earl, Henry Sinclair, took control of Orkney on behalf of the Norwegian king Håkon VI Magnusson
1397  A weakened Norway becomes a colony of Denmark under the Kalmar Union.
1469 Christian I pawned Shetland to the Scottish king James III
1700-1760 Smallpox hit the islands.
1700s Norn language gradually dies out
1707 German merchants lost their trading rights in Shetland with the Act of Union
1708 Capital moved from Scalloway to Lerwick
1812-15 3,000 Shetlanders enlist in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars
1861 32,000 inhabitants
1880s William Gladstone freed the serfs
1940 Shetland bus established by the Special Operations Executive during WWII.
1961 17,814 inhabitants
1969 Shetland marks 500 years under both Norwegian and Scottish rule
1975 Lerwick Town Council and Zetland County Council merged to Shetland Islands Council
1978 Huge oil terminal in Sullom Voe opened
1980 Emigration slows to a trickle as oil revenues come to the Shetlands.
2001 21,990 inhabitants
2005 Lord Lyon King of Arms approved the blue and white flag of Shetland as an official flag

Shetland Ponies

A typically coloured Shetland Pony groomed for show ring in EuropePerhaps, the most renowned animal associated with the Shetland Islands is the "Shetland" Pony.  Shetland ponies originated in the Shetland Isles.   Small horses lived on the Shetland Isles since the Bronze Age, and while the roots of the ancient wild pony are unknown, it is believed that they originated from the ancient Scandinavian ponies; the islands were once physically connected to Scandinavia up until the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 8000 BC.

People who lived on the islands domesticated the animal and crossed the native stock with the Celtic Pony, brought to the islands by the Celts between 2000 and 1000 BC.   Shetland ponies were later crossed with ponies imported by Norse settlers.  The harsh climate and scarce food developed the ponies into extremely hardy animals.

Shetland ponies were first used for pulling carts, carrying peat, coal and other items, and plowing farmland. Then, as the Industrial Revolution increased the need for coal in the mid-19th century, thousands of Shetland ponies travelled to mainland Britain to be pit ponies, working underground hauling coal, often for their entire (often short) lives. Coal mines in eastern North America also imported some of these animals.

The Shetland Pony Stud Book Society of the United Kingdom was started in 1890 to maintain purity and encourage high-quality animals.  In 1957, the Shetland Islands Premium Stallion Scheme was formed to subsidize high-quality registered stallions to improve the breeding stock.

Shetland Sheep Dogs (Shelties)

The Shetland Sheepdog, also known as a Sheltie, was originally bred for herding on the Shetland Islands.  Although it appears to be simply a miniature version of the Collie, the Sheltie is actually most likely a mix of the Rough Collie and several other smaller breeds.  By 1700, the breed was fully developed.

The Shetland Sheepdog is an immensely loyal breed. They are lively, intelligent and eager to please, making them easily trainable. They are loving family companions and can be particularly devoted to children they are raised with from puppyhood, although they can sometimes be aloof with strangers, both adult and child.

As a result of it’s popularity, but overbreeding has lead to some specimens tending toward timidity, especially if not properly socialized from an early age. But in general, a well-bred Sheltie is a wonderful family companion that craves attention. If not given enough activity, they can sometimes find their own ways to keep busy, with destructive results.

Shelties have a strong herding instinct and love to work, often chasing a variety of animals and objects. This unfortunately can lead to disastrous consequences if they decide to chase a car or follow something across the street. It’s best to keep a Sheltie on a leash or within a fenced area to minimize such accidents. They are very active and need plenty of room to run; they do best in a home with at least a medium-sized fenced yard, although they can be fine in an apartment if they are sufficiently exercised.

Shetland Cattle

Shetland cattle have an ancient lineage going back to the Vikings and the cattle they brought over between 700 - 1100AD, obviously over the years other bloodlines have gone in to the make up of this tough small to medium sized cow.

They are an ideal smallholders cow as they are very hardy and can happily live on rough grazing all year round.  They do not need to be barn-wintered, although they will use a barn in bad weather as any sensible animal will.

They resemble the Holstein-Friesian but are smaller and more utilitarian.  Coloration is predominantly black trimmed with white.   Black coats serve to more efficiently utilize the warming effect of the weak sunlight during winter months.

They are excellent mothers with an average of 6 gallons of milk daily.  They rarely have any calving problems.  Some cows will multi-suckle or become house cows which is what the Shetland Island crofters used them for, especially during the winter months.

Many a cow kept a whole family alive even when no grazing was available and only dried mackerel and seaweed could be found.  They are a long lived breed well into their teenage years having strong family ties.

They will readily defend their calves against dogs but are gentle around humans.  It is said  a piece of the owner's cloth was tied to the cow's horns when sold on the island.