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A Nordic Odyssey to Hjaltland: On the track of Norse fishermen?

On the track of the first sedentary Vikings in Great Britain were DEGUWA members Frank Lappe and Daniel Zwick as part of a NAS-Scotland team.

Author: Daniel Zwick M.A.

In August 2006 a NAS-Scotland team under the supervision of its new head Peter Pritchard carried out an underwater archaeological survey on the Shetland Islands (Old Norse: Hjaltland), ably assisted by Clive Richardson, who is native to this island. Equipped for a tantalising journey into the past of this legendary island and – of course – with diving gear, the crew members Jessica Berry, Jill Hooper, Frank Lappe, Robert Mowat and myself travelled to the islands amidst the roaring waters of the North Atlantic. Our target was the remains of a tidal fish trap at Uyeasound, in a sheltered bay on Unst. It consists of a crescent shaped structure of mixed rubble with a gap in the middle, which encloses an extensive oval-shaped portion of the beach. It was assumed that it might be of Norse origin, as it falls into a rich regional context.


The Shetland Isles are rich in Norse heritage, which is well reflected in numerous well preserved sites like Jarlshof, a stunning place with an unearthed Norse hamlet, which was built upon a site that was inhabited continuously since the Bronze Age. Norse heritage is also well reflected in place-names like Thingvellir (Old Norse for 'parliament plains') and in sagas and folklore. On Unst alone, over 30 Norse longhouses were excavated. From up the 8th century many regions of the British Isles were infested by pillaging hordes of Norsemen. It was different on Unst, for it was arguably the first part of the British Isles which was colonised lastingly by Norse settlers in the 9th century. Hence it is a region of considerable archaeological interest. It is currently investigated by the 'Viking Unst' initiative of the Shetland Amenity Trust in cooperation with the University of Copenhagen.

The role of the NAS team at the northern outpost of the British Isles

Our NAS project in Uyeasound enabled us to contribute to the Trust's fascinating stock-taking of ancient sites. The beginning however was rather unspectacular, for the boulders of the fish trap structure needed to be cleared from kelp. In only three days a large section of the structure was uncovered and – if ever there was a doubt – it became apparent now at least that this was not a random collection of stones, but an anthropogenic feature for it consists of closely packed boulders. Whilst my colleagues have already started to remove the underwater weeds, I was lost in the sand dunes of Jutland, Denmark, stuck with my vehicle and only after half a day of many curses and of patient labour I did manage to get out. I had to rely on collecting driftwood from the beach in order to improvise a track-way. Ironically the collecting of driftwood had been also a major task for early Shetlanders, due to the total lack of indigenous wood. Fortunately I did not missed the ferry to the Shetlands and finally joined the team just two days later.

Eventually we started to carry out a survey of the entire site, taking advantage of this type of location: At high tide, selected measurements were taken and sketches were drawn under water, whilst we supplemented and checked the drawings and carried out an EDM survey at low tide. The mean tidal range of 1.5m is quite modest, but it was slightly more as we were very close to a spring tide period. Bob was given the doubtful honour of wading into the water to hold the prism, which reflects the EDM signal back to the total station. It calculates the distance and the vertical angle through trigonometry. A very efficient technique, but nevertheless Peter also relied on written notes of the measured data, for he has learned from bitter experience not to trust any computing devices. We accomplished to measure the extent of the feature, but unfortunately we did not succeed in finding any associated organic matter or artefacts, which might allow an indication for the date of this site. But the advanced state of decomposition (arguably through re-use of its stones) and the lack of oral or ethnographic records of the recent past indicate an early date. Hence it becomes feasible to evaluate this fish trap tentatively within the overall context of the 'Viking Unst' study of the Shetland Amenity Trust.

The same location: ca. 1000 years ago

On an early morning a Hjaltlander with his eldest son was seen wading into the fish trap basin at low tide. In the middle of it was a narrow inlet, which had been blocked by a wattle fence at the turn of the tide. It has left some sea creatures captured in this shallow artificial pool when the water drained away.
Skilfully he and his son scooped the trapped fish; they caught flounders, turbots, plaices and even a salmon. This is just the start of a toilsome day and they were already looking forward to find shelter in the house around the stove in the evening. Two of his relatives have already started to load their vessel. Most often it is used for fishing, because the catch of the fish trap merely supplements the diet. But today they were about to transport their surplus for bartering and a share as levy for their chief. Although their ancestors have paid their levy with all due obeisance to the chiefs from the dawn of times, they did now only so with greatest reluctance: It was only a few moons ago since the inhabitants of this northernmost island made encounter with a fleet of Danish Vikings, to whom they had to leave the whole catch of the day. They got off lightly in both respects, as they all knew, for nobody lost his life on this day. Since the rulers of these islands, Jarl Thorfin and his brother Jarl Bruse, made themselves subject to the Norse King Olaf Haraldsson they neglected the defence, but nevertheless continued to levy the lands. The skald Otter Svarte aggrandized these affairs in the poem he composed about King Olaf:

"From Hjaltland, far off in the cold North Sea
Come chiefs who desire to be subject to thee:
No king so well known for his will, and his might
To defend his own people from scaith or unright
These isles of the West midst the ocean's wild roar
Scarcely heard the voice of their sovereign before
Our bravest of sovereigns before could scarce bring
These islesmen so proud to acknowledge their king"

[Source: Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Ch.108, by Snorri Sturlson (ca.1179-1241), translated by Samuel Laing, London 1844].

Otter certainly forgot to mention that in verity Thorfin had no intention of being made the king's subject. In fact he was given the prospect not to leave Olaf's court alive if he had not done so, whilst his brother Bruse was given two-thirds of the Orkneys and Hjaltland as a fief for his willing subservience. Hence Thorfin with the smaller fief, yet better versed in the trade of war than his brother, did little to organize the defence of the brothers' fiefs. This, however, was about to change a few years later, when Bruse waived his right to one third of the fiefs to Thorfin in exchange for the obligation to defend the islands. Pshaw...politics! These matters were of little concern to the aforementioned Hjaltlander, who was seen unmooring the vessel right now and who was just shouting over to his sons not to forget again to untie the wattle fence and to knot sinkers to the new net.

The archaeological context

The fish trap in Uyeasound is the only one, which has been investigated so far on the Shetland Islands. The total number of registered fish traps in Scotland currently amounts to 137, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we extend the focus into Wales, there are certain parallels to other tidal stone-built fish traps in Aberarth or in the Menai Strait between Anglesy and Gwynnedd, where they are known as 'goredi' (in Welsh) or 'goradau'. The only difference is that both Welsh fish traps are more exposed to the elements, as the first is located at the coast of the Irish Sea, whilst the traps in the Menai Strait are built in very powerful tidal races, which naturally require a stone-built structure.

The fact that the sheltered Uyeasound fish-trap is similarly built of stone is probably not so much because of a cultural affinity, but due to a more obvious circumstance: It is – as already indicated –  due to the total lack of indigenous wood, that the islanders had to rely on stone as major building material. It is also manifested in numerous ruins of Norse longhouses, which are traditionally built of timber, but on the Shetland Islands, they are of stone. Turf was used as heating material - as it is today - and possibly to thatch the roofs of the houses, like in Iceland. Such a precious material like wood was probably only used for tools, weapons, structural elements in buildings and for the repair of vessels. In Harold's Wick there is such a vessel that needs repair. It is the last Scandinavian longship, which arrived in Unst and was - somewhat anachronistically – abandoned as late as 2000 AD by a crew of Swedes and Norwegians in a failed effort to circumnavigate Sumburgh Head at a strong gale. It was attempted to sail to America in Leif Eriksson's wake, but Harold's Wick on Unst became its fateful destination.

It is SKIDBLADNER, a 1:3 scale reconstruction of the 9th century Gokstad longship, which was eventually purchased by the Shetland Amenity Trust. It had been the largest longship before HAVHINGSTEN (the Skuldelev 2 reconstruction) was launched in Roskilde in 2004. In this deserted landscape it appears like a bizarre remnant of a past, immortalised in the collective memory of the islanders' ancestry...a bit lost and unreal like many aspects on these islands. This is also well manifested in the living tradition of Nordic boat-building, such as the clinker-built fishing vessels known as 'whillies' or 'eela boats', 'yoals' and 'sixareens', of which there are some specimen exhibited in the Unst Boat Haven. But basically they could be found in sheds, on slipways or at moorings all across the islands.


It was a memorable project with a great team! Whilst Bob's dry humour complemented the wet conditions splendidly, Jill deserves the main merit for insuring our survival by volunteering to victualise us. Sincere thanks are due to our project leader Peter for organising this excellent expedition into the past of this striving fishing community.
This article was published in the NAS Newsletter 2007.2.




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