I thought we'd have change from talking about the Napoleonic Wars this week. UK readers may have noticed that my books are currently unavailable outside North America, although Endeavour Press will be republishing them soon. So this seems a good time to give some space to Marsali Taylor to take us further back in history and write about the Viking background to her contemporary stories set in the Shetlands.
Over to you, Marsali.
Vikings and ShetlandersI’ve written only one published historical novella, Footsteps in the Dew, but history
keeps cropping up in my contemporary Cass detective novels. The Vikings ruled Shetland for over
five hundred years, from their arrival in the north around 735 to the hand-over to the Scots in 1468, and their influence is everywhere you go in modern Shetland.
All our places were named by the Norse settlers, though the meanings aren’t as exotic as
the names, for they’re simple descriptions: Swartaskerry, the black rock. Scarvataing, the
point of the cormorants, or scarfs. Aith, or Eid, my own village, is old
Norse for 'isthmus' - it occupies the land between two bays. Roe (from the same Viking word as the Scots Gaelic 'ruaidh'), means 'red' - the island of Muckle Roe is the big, red island. Brae, where Death on a Longship (the first of the Cass novels) is set, means 'broad' - it's a wide inlet. When my heroine, Cass, guides her replica longship into the Hams of Roe, she reflects that, 'This would be my big test as skipper, to bring the ship in to shore without an engine, just as the Vikings had done, and in this place too. Hams came from the old Norse ‘hamar’, a landing place. I liked that idea.'
The Vikings also left their language, and in spite of the 500 years of Scottish overlords that came after them, the Shetland dialect is still scattered with the words they spoke. In that last paragraph, I had to think for words like 'bay' and 'inlet' instead of the word that came naturally: voe, a long sea inlet. There are words for strength of wind: a grain o wind, a flan, a stour, a flying gale. There are two words for you; if you were speaking formally, you'd use the English 'you', but with a friend, you'd say 'thee' and 'thou', except that 'th' is pronounced 'd' in Shetland, so it’s 'dee' or 'du': 'Noo dan, boy, foo's du? Is dee midder aboot?' ('Now then, boy, how are you? Is your mother about?') - and notice the grammer, foo is du? how is you? instead of the English how are you? Older Shetlanders insist that if they talk broad dialect in Norway, they have no difficulty making themselves understood.
The architecture is Norse too. The traditional crofthouse is long and low, with the house, barn (for hay) and byre (for animals) all in a straight line, just like the Viking house excavated at Jarlshof. They used to say, too, that there were no remains of Viking houses in Shetland - well, not where archeologists could get at them, for canny Shetlanders weren't going to waste a good trodden floor and stones to hand. When the old crofthouse was past living in, they re-built on the same site. The Viking foundations are there, all right, but they're still being used.
The Vikings were sailors, first and foremost. When Cass launches her restored longship, she marvels at their boatbuilding skills: 'Ah, they were seamen, those long-dead Vikings. She breasted the waves as if she was rejoicing in the sea. We raised the yard, and the ochre and red striped cotton sail billowed out, caught the wind, and Stormfugl rose with it, the helm suddenly lightening. I looked forward at the milky horizon, at the great curve of sail above me, and sent up a thanksgiving for the day.' Go to Shetland's museum, in Lerwick, or better still, to any country regatta, and you'll see Viking boats: double-ended yoals, rowed by six crew, or the light-weight flyers called Shetland Models, crewed by three, and some still with the single sqaure sail hanging from a horizontal yard, just as on a Viking ship. Even the everyday rowing skiffs are double-ended.
Like their ancestors, the Shetlanders used the sea as transport. It wasn't a barrier, it was a road. A map of the North Atlantic puts Shetland in its proper place. Before land transport took over, we were the centre of the northern trading universe. Those Vikings who built their house at Jarlshof were fish traders, selling provisions to the ships going on to Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, America - we know this because of the size and quantity of fish 'lug bones' found. Later, in medieval times, Shetland was the centre of the Hanseatic League, trading between north Germany, Norway, Denmark. The Dutch fishing vessels filled the muddy bay of Lerwick so thickly that you would walk across them to the island of Bressay, a mile away, and little boys had fun creating chaos by swapping round their wooden clogs, neatly lined up outside the Muckle Kirk while the fishermen worshipped inside.
Later still came the whaling vessels, on their way to Jan Mayen island for seals, then to Baffin Bay. While the women worked the laand, Shetland men went to sea from March to September, to earn cash to pay their rent. In the two world wars, more Shetland men were lost, proportionately, than from any other county in Britain, mostly as merchant seamen. Don't under-estimate the little old man in his cap and boiler suit; in his days with 'the Merchant service' he's probably seen more foreign lands than you've ever dreamed of.
And the people themselves, have they kept that Viking look? Well, yes, many have. I was in Yell recently, north of Mainland, where the Scots word 'tatties' (potatoes) comes out as the Norwegian-sounding 'tauties', and the man taking the money on the ferry could have come straight from a Viking ship: not very tall, but broad-shouldered, with red-gold hair, worn long, and a magnificent red beard. Tall, fair girls are rarer, but you still see them, particularly on the east coast. If you asked a Shetlander which he felt closer to, the Norwegians or the Scots, there'd be no hesitation about the answer: 'The Scots were interlopers. The Norskies, they're our cousins.'
Marsali's web site is at www.marsalitaylor.co.uk and her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/Marsali-Taylor-264232770329242
Marsali has written a non-fiction study of women's suffrage in Scotland, as well as contemporary detective stories. Her heroine, Cass, keeps colliding with history. In The Trowie Mound Murders, she gets shut inside a Neolithic tomb; she falls foul of a modern coven in Scalloway, the last place in Scotland to burn witches, in A Handful of Ash. The Body in the Bracken gives her an encounter with the Norse folklore malevolent water spirit, njuggle, and she patrols an archaelogical site in Ghosts of the Vikings - but, as they say in the Shetlands, those are tales for another time.