This is not intended to be a history either of Shetland, or Fair Isle. It is merely a collection of background information to fill in gaps for people who do not know about Scotland and her history, but who wonder about what came before, “Fair Isle Ghosts”.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Keep these words to the fore, for it is all too easy to view history through rose-coloured spectacles, or to judge it by today’s standards. The past was a very different time and even though we try, we do not understand it fully!
Scotland has a long and chequered history, one swamped in myth, fabrication and the reporting of events many years after they occurred. Lacking other sources, older historians regularly created credible stories that we now question. History was often just that: his story, and his story, and occasionally, her story. Today, there is a real effort to separate fact from fiction, aided by new research, archaeology and genetics. But even today there are gaps and all we can do is to discuss our theories and search for more information. Rival historical opinions make for lively discussion.
To illustrate how modern discoveries change the way we look at history, consider a few recent finds. In 2015 archaeologists from Reading University found animal bones, plant remains and a fireplace on Islay (in the Hebrides) that they reckoned were 9,000 years old. Then, on the last day of their dig, they found tools estimated to be 12,000 years old, the earliest recorded evidence of human activity in Scotland, Mesolithic people living at the edge of the retreating ice sheets. In an instant our view of the past changed. At the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney, work is in progress on a site that includes a 5,000 year old building that is 25 by 20 metres, with 5 metre thick walls. Nearby lay the bones of an aurochs, a huge, extinct animal, related to a cow. In 2009 in Orkney, the earliest depiction of a human face surfaced on a carving, now called the “Westray Wife”, dating from 3,000BC. Also in 2009, near Stirling, a novice treasure hunter unearthed four ornately crafted gold torques, dating around 300 to 100 BC. These spoke of experienced and possibly local craftsmen, with a strong Celtic influence. Who knows what will turn up next?
Genetics is equally active. While genetic markers reliably indicate mass movements of populations, they also reveal more local indicators that destroy earlier “stories”. In Argyll, we are told that 12% of men still have DNA that links them to Ireland in the 5th century. Almost 30% of Shetland’s men show Viking DNA, while the number reduces to 25% in Orkney and 17% in Caithness. Meanwhile, the Celts, presumed by many to be a specific genetic group, are not. Groups in Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have proven to be distinct, but different from each other. It appears that the Celts were a culture, rather than a related genetic group. As always with genetics, be warned. “It’s a wise man that knows his father” is no idle saying and not everyone gets the result they want from a test. The MacNeils of Barra, who believed their clan descended from an Irish prince, discovered that they are more likely to be of Viking stock. As clear evidence emerges of Pictish markers, we now know that this mysterious group did not “disappear” when attacked by the Vikings.
There is much to be discovered.
Scotland did not exist as a true entity until the 16th century. Prior to the Viking attacks in the 9th century the Scottish mainland was inhabited by a collection of different tribes, often at war with each other. Although their relationships with outposts like Fair Isle is not clear, the sophisticated religious culture that spread south from Orkney to affect the rest of the British Isles, no doubt existed also on Fair Isle and Shetland. We believe that the Vikings defeated the flower of the Pictish aristocracy and probably that of the Gaels and British tribes too in AD 839, but when Kenneth MacAlpine emerged from this disaster it was not as King of Scots, but as King of Pictland. Scotland was not yet a country. So how the people of Shetland viewed themselves just prior to the Vikings we can only guess, although we assume that they continued to mirror actions, lifestyles and beliefs on Orkney and the Scottish mainland. Because of its geographical position, no doubt Shetland was one of the first ports of call for the Vikings, probably before the 793 raid on Lindisfarne, and we know that the Northern Isles remained under Norwegian power until it was given to the Scottish crown as a dowry in 1468. Thus today, the islanders exhibit a blend of many influences.