Shetland, Sea and Stone

Today I’m proud to feature a few of Shetlander Ryan Leith‘s photos of his home. These striking images give you an idea of just how powerful and relentless the North Sea is–especially when the waves are juxtaposed against towering stone stacks of over one hundred feet in height. Please click on any of the photos to check out his Instagram page: he also has pictures of birds and dogs, people.

I’ve never been to Shetland myself, but his photos struck me and reminded me of the Orkney Islands. The Orkney Islands, for anyone wondering, are a group of islands roughly 9 miles off the very northern tip of mainland Scotland. The Shetland Islands, on the other hand, are 110 miles from mainland Scotland.

Both of these groups of islands have seen many faces, many cultures, and many hands. Viking ruins dot both archipelagoes, and the islands are filled with stone circles that were ancient before the vikings even thought about going on long sea trips to steal other people’s stuff.

Orkney has been populated for at least 8,500 years, and ancient stone-hut villages still attest to this fact. Shetland has also been occupied since the Mesolithic Period. The islands house archaeological sites that are basically a nerd’s paradise.

I’ve personally visited (and sat in) a ruined viking church that was the site of a brother-against-brother blood feud. I’ve also eaten a hummus sandwich in an un-excavated broch in a sheep pasture, which is an Iron Age circular stone tower. It was over 2,000 years old, so it had lots of sheep around it and was covered in grass, but still.

Further down the historical timeline, the islands were colonised by the Norse in the 8th and 9th centuries when the vikings decided that settling was, in some cases, a better long-term financial plan than plundering. The Brough of Birsay, a ruined Viking village on a tidal island right off mainland Orkney, is a testament to this. Also, it’s where I nearly got stranded whilst hitch hiking.

Norse influx and influence led to both Orkney and Shetland being annexed by Norway in 875 C.E. by Norwegian King Harald Fair Hair. I don’t know much about him, but I assume he was blonde.

Further south, the Isle of Mann (where my some of my dad’s family is from, actually) and the Hebrides were also Norse colonies. They were transferred to Scottish hands in 1266 as a result of the Treaty of Perth, but Norse sovereignty continued to be recognised in Orkney and Shetland for years to come. However, Scottish influence in the islands only grew.

Influence, domination, and control of the islands ebbed and flowed with trade. There were marriage dowries between Scotland and Norway gone awry, tyrannical earls, and lots of swapping land between hands, but the islands have remained tied at least in law to the Scottish crown since 1469. Formally, the Crown of Scotland absorbed the Northern Isles in 1472.

Today, the islands maintain a distinctive culture of their own. When I visited, I was particularly struck by the difference in their accent/dialect and the strong rock climbing history in the islands. I want to learn more about these places, and I want to take some of my American rock-climbing buddies there to see the archaeology, drink a few pints*, and enjoy some of the sea crag climbing.

But even my own childlike awe and enjoyment of the isles only serves to speak to the age and magic of the Northern Isles. They’ve evolved so much, but in all this history, the incessant pounding of sea against stone remains unaltered. Erosion itself has never left, and the sea never stops.


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