Unst is nearer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Edinburgh, and it was Norwegian before it was Scottish, the result of Viking invasions in the 8th century. Before that, it was inhabited by the Picts.
Nobody is really sure what happened, of course (unlike the transfer from Norwegian to Scottish power in the 14th century, the political shenanigans of which are well documented – needless to say, Norway might have a valid claim to Shetland, even today…).
There are three possibilities.
- the Vikings landed in Shetland and specifically Unst and peacefully coexisted with the Picts until the two cultures were completely integrated. Everyone knows how peaceful those Vikings were
- the Vikings landed and killed all the male Picts, taking the women for their own
- the Vikings landed and basically killed everyone, removing every last remnant of Pictish culture
One clue which archaeologists and anthropologists reckon is pretty telling involves the place names. Unst is full of place names derived, apparently, from Norse languages. No, not “full of”; it consists ENTIRELY of place names derived from Norse and Anglicised versions of them. The are no Pictish place names at all.
They believe that had any Picts survived the Viking invasions, their place names would have survived, too. The most likely scenario is (3), annihilation of the Picts by the peace-loving Vikings.
Unst’s Viking history is revelled in today, despite its bloody nature. Viking costumes can be seen (though much more so in Lerwick, where Viking weapons and regalia decorated the walks of the B&B I stayed in). On Unst they apparently elect a Viking chief. Near where I stayed in Haroldswick is a replica longship, the Skidblader, and they are building a Viking longhouse.
There are archaeological remains of Viking settlements all over Unst. A large group of settlements north of Belmont at Snabrough appear as a series of mounds and ridges, stones poking through the soil, the outlines of large buildings and rooms, maybe farms.
There are remnants of Unst’s prehistory: there are two large standing stones and, in the field next to where I was staying, were the unmistakable remains of a stone circle. Well I think they were unmistakable, but they do not appear on any map and i haven’t been able to find any reference to them. Perhaps they are a more modern creation; perhaps I am just imagining it. But whilst I have looked for stone circles marked on maps many times before, all around Scotland (often fruitlessly), I have never ever found, or believed to have found, a stone circle not marked on a map. Except this once.
Shetland became Scottish through marriage. Kind of. Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway, was married to James lll of Scotland, and had a big dowry. Unfortunately, Norway was broke, so Scotland took Orkney and Shetland as security: the islands were pawned, basically. Apparently, when Norway later tried to pay, Scotland wouldn’t accept, deciding to keep the security rather than the cash. Scotland then just annexed the islands.
They ruled the islands – whose people were basically Norse – via a series Earls, who generally behaved badly, leading to various revolts. So the Earls built castles, like Muness (across the road from one of the large standing stones), built by the people they were designed to oppress.