Lying some 110 miles off the coast of mainland Scotland, the 100 or so Shetland Islands form a rugged archipelago. 

The northernmost point of the British Isles, Shetland is also situated between Norway to the east and the Faroe Islands and Iceland to the northwest, making it the perfect staging post in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic sailing routes. 

The Norse occupation of the Shetland Islands lasted more than six centuries and left an indelible mark on the local culture and tradition. 

Today, Shetland celebrates its Viking heritage through the Up Helly Aa series of events in January and February. 

The Shetland dialect is also potted with Norse words, while Norn, a local language that evolved from Old Norse, was spoken as late as the 19th century. 

Thanks in part to the remoteness of the Shetland Islands and the relative lack of development, the archeological evidence is also incredibly rich. 

In total, there are more than 5,000 archeological sites, many of which have revealed Norse buildings and artifacts. 

In particular, the island of Unst has some of the most beautiful preserved longhouses outside Scandinavia. 

Jarlshof, a site with layers of history from the Neolithic era to the Viking Age, showcases the evolution of human settlement in the Shetland Islands, including the first Viking longhouse discovered in the British Isles. Photo: PaulT (Gunther Tschuch) / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jarlshof: Layers of history 

Jarlshof, already featured in our article about the top ten Viking attractions in Scotland, is a major historical and prehistorical site with finds dating back to the Neolithic era. 

Arguably, its most spectacular sight is a set of Bronze Age structures, including a smithy and a cluster of wheelhouses. 

Prior to the arrival of the Vikings, Jarlshof is believed to have been inhabited by the Picts, a group of people that inhabited parts of northern Britain. 

The Norse are thought to have landed on the Shetland Islands between 700 and 750, just before the dawn of the Viking Age

As the Vikings launched an ever-increasing number of raids throughout the British Isles before moving into extended campaigns of warfare, conquest, and exploration, the Shetland Islands swiftly became an important strategic location. 

It is clear that Jarlshof soon became a significant settlement. 

Here, archeologists identified the first-ever Viking longhouse discovered in the British Isles, as well as substantial evidence of fishing and agriculture. 

Nearby, a second site at Old Scatness also contains several artifacts from the Viking era. 

Tingaholm, located beside Tingwall Loch on Shetland's Mainland island, served as the site of the local Norse parliament, evidencing the Viking's structured approach to governance and law. Photo: Andrew Tryon / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tingwall: Local Norse governance 

Shetland officially became part of Scandinavia in 875 when it was annexed by Norwegian King Harald Fairhair, along with the Orkney Islands.

The islands would remain under Norse rule until 1469, when the king of Norway, Christian I, pledged the archipelago against the dowry of his daughter Margaret, who was to wed James III of Scotland. 

The local population, however, followed Norse law until 1611, when the parliament ratified an act that decreed it should follow Scottish law instead. 

Early in the occupation, the Vikings instigated their own rough and ready form of governance. 

This included the ting, or þing in Old Norse, where the local chieftains and townspeople assembled to try offenders, enact new laws, and address other issues of the day. 

On a scenic promontory next to Tingwall Loch on Mainland, the largest of Shetland's islands, you will find Tingaholm, the site of the Shetland parliament until the 16th century. 

There are also several other settlements in the Shetlands whose names suggest they were once local places of assembly, including Aithsting, Sandsting, and Lunnasting. 

Archaeological findings from Unst reveal the Vikings' domestic side, with artifacts from longhouses including household items and evidence of agricultural practices, underscoring the Norse's adaptation to island life. Photo: Unstphoto / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Unst longhouses: Vikings domesticated 

Given that the Norse resided in the Shetland Islands for many centuries – with many never leaving at all, of course – it should be no surprise to learn there are ample examples of their domestic life on the archipelago, too. 

The Vikings are believed to have first settled on the island of Unst, where the remains of more than 60 longhouses have been found. 

In particular, three notable longhouses at Belmont, Hamar, and Underhoull have provided striking evidence of the Norse influence on the islands. 

The excavation at Belmont uncovered a boat-shaped longhouse with partial finds of hearths, benches, and paved areas. The site also uncovered several household items from soapstone and nearby grazing land for domestic animals. 

At Hamar, a beautifully preserved longhouse is intriguingly known to locals today as Jacob Johorasen's house. 

A third longhouse at Underhoull revealed several modifications that indicated a long period of occupation. 

The site has also yielded several fascinating artifacts that highlight the Vikings' domestic activities, including line sinkers, pottery vessel fragments, spindle whorls, loom weights, and whetstones. 

In Cunningsburgh, on Mainland island, the Catpund soapstone quarry's archaeological finds underline the Norse mastery in exploiting local resources, reflecting its strategic importance for Viking settlers. Photo: Andrew J Shearer / Shutterstock

Catpund quarry: Mining for raw materials 

Back on Mainland, Shetland's largest island, the Catpund soapstone quarry also gives us an indication of Norse craftsmanship and industry. 

Hundreds of Viking artifacts made from soapstone, or steatite, a soft, metamorphic rock that becomes hard and heat-resistant after being placed in a fire, have been found on the Shetland Islands. 

While the quarry at Catpund was used both before and after the Viking Age, most of the activity dates from in and around the period of Norse occupation, suggesting it was a valuable source of the material. 

Soapstone bowls found 15 miles away at Jarlshof are thought to have been cut from the rock at Catpund, and it is believed the Norse used the stone as a local alternative to pottery. 

The village of Haroldswick, directly linked to Harald Fairhair's 9th-century voyage to the Shetland Islands, today hosts a vibrant homage to Viking culture with a reconstructed Viking longhouse and a detailed replica of the Gokstad ship. Photo: PaulT (Gunther Tschuch) / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Haroldswick: Tribute to Harald Fairhair 

Harald Fairhair, the famous first king of Norway, traveled to the Shetland Islands in 875 to secure the Norwegian claim to the archipelago. 

Back on the island of Unst, you will find Haroldswick (meaning Harold's bay), a sheltered cove that today houses one of the most northerly settlements in Britain. 

Haroldswick is home to a full-scale Viking longhouse reconstruction that offers an evocative image of the Norse presence on the island, not to mention the Skidbladner, a majestic full-size replica of the famous Gokstad ship

Nearby, the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven also offer a fascinating guide to the local history and maritime traditions.

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