18 Jan 2018
The Viking raids from the beginning of the ninth century probably wiped out the early Celtic church in Shetland since the first Viking settlers were pagan. Christianity was reintroduced after the conversion of King Olaf Tryggvason in 995, and for the next five centuries Shetland formed part of the Norwegian Catholic Church.
The earliest documented Shetland cleric was 'Svein the priest' on Papa Stour, mentioned in a document of 1299. A little later we hear of priests being appointed to Shetland from Bergen diocese. In 1195 Shetland was withdrawn from the Earldom of Orkney and ruled directly from Norway as a Crown Colony. The church was administered by the Archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim), assisted by eleven other bishops, including the bishop of Orkney.
The senior cleric in Shetland was the archdeacon of Tingwall who had his church at a prominent spot at the head of Tingwall Loch, just above the site of the old Norse parliament ('Law Ting Holm') on the promontory jutting into the loch. Legend has it that in the Norse period Shetland had three tower churches, similar to the one still standing on the island of Egilsay in Orkney, built by three Norwegian sisters.
The eldest gifted St Magnus's Church to Tingwall, the youngest gave the church of St Mary to Bigton, and the middle sister gave the church of St Laurence to Burra Isle. All three survived until the end of the 18th century when they were torn down to be replaced by the present Presbyterian kirks. Tingwall had probably been largely rebuilt as a steeple church in the late middle ages since a report on rebuilding Tingwall Kirk dated 1783 noted, "There can be no want of stones, for the steeple wants the dignity of antiquity to become a monument worth preserving. I therefore am humbly of the opinion that it should be used for the new church, especially as it is now the only remains of Popery in the country."
The burial vault (opened in 1952 and now used to preserve the grave slabs from the cemetery) is sometimes described as the only surviving fragment of the old parish church destroyed in 1788, but it dates from the 17th century. Nothing survives above ground of the medieval church.
Probably the most imposing relic of the Norse church in Shetland is the ruin of St Olaf's Church at Lund, Unst. It dates from about 1150.
Shetland still belonged to the Earldom of Orkney when the magnificent cathedral dedicated to St Magnus was built in Kirkwall.
The Norse settlers in Shetland were enthusiastic promoters of the cult of St Magnus and the church built in his honour at Tingwall was constructed from a similar red sandstone shipped from Orkney.
1. Viking longship from the cover of the book "West over Sea", a Festschrift in honour of Barbara Crawford.
2. Modern icon of St Olaf of Norway.
3. Nineteenth century drawing of Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, before restoration.
4. Egilsay Church, Orkney. Site of the martyrdom of St Magnus.
5. 18th century Tingwall Kirk, near the site of St Magnus' Church,Tingwall, showing 17th century burial vault.
6. Ruins of St Olaf's Church, Lund, Unst. 12th century.
7. St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. 12th century.
10 Jan 2018
Shetland crime writer Marsali Taylor talks about the setting of her latest book, "Death in Shetland Waters".
It was time to give Shetland a break. In just one year of her life, my intrepid sailing heroine, Cass Lynch, had tackled a film star murder, international art thieves, a coven of witches, a missing sailor and a troupe of opera starts ... along with the short stories, I'd committed over twenty murders in this crime-free community.
Luckily, Cass had also been doing a college course, to qualify her as a ship's officer - so I gave her a post aboard 'Sorlandet', the smallest of Norway's three Tall Ships. All I had to do was book a berth on a suitable journey for my story: from Kristiansand to Belfast, as part of the 2016 Tall Ships Race.
It turned out an unusual voyage. Kristiansand's enlightened social work department had filled the ship with youngsters: immigrant children from Greece, Ethiopia and Iran, Norwegian youngsters in difficult circumstances. Gathered together on the dock, some were clowning to hide apprehension, some were sullenly silent. One face particularly struck me: a girl wearing a Bob Marley fleece jacket, and a hat like a policewoman's, pulled well down over her brow. Her ferocious scowl said 'awkward' to my ex-teacher's eye; a right sea-lawyer there.
We were split into our watches, and introduced to the ship: hammocks, lockers, toilets and showers forward, navigation aft. Then it was climbing time. The youngsters' eyes lit up. To an adventurous teenager, a tall ship's rigging is a play ground, and they put on their harnesses and headed up the spider's web ratlines with enthusiasm. Me, I have a lousy head for heights, and after one foray along the yards, for pride's sake, I was happy to stay at deck level, taking my turn at lookout and safety watch, and standing under the tiers of sails with my hands on the great ship's wheel, and my eyes on the horizon.
It was a glorious voyage. We passed rock-polished coast with little white lighthouses, capped with red cones, and headed out into the ocean, sailing blindly through the mist. I was on lookout then, with two brothers, and all agreed how good it was to have a real job: with the radar off to let the rest of our watch stow the foremost sails, the safety of all of us really did depend on their sharp eyesight. Further out, the sea became the colour aquamarine was called for, and a pod of dolphins came to surf our bow-wake.
By now the youngsters had stopped being strangers. They'd responded magnificently to shipboard discipline, and even sulky Gabriel appeared on time for watch. Our team was the fastest launching the Man Overboard boat. Intelligent, wayward Sindre translated for the Ethiopians, and Kjell Sigurd learned everyone's tea/coffee preferences, and brought welcome cups of tea to lonely foredeck watchers. As for the girl with the scowl ... Lena was a star in the rig, and enjoyed herself so much that she joined in all the other watches too.
I'm sorry to say I caused mayhem among them. Word got around, of course, that I was an author looking for ideas ... and so I got them. Loads of them; even our dignified Captain Sture sidled up to me, and said,'You know if I was going to dispose of a body on board ...' This is why these murders are probably the nastiest Cass has had to deal with ... committed by an appropriately nasty murderer.
After a magical two days of nothing but sea all around us, we sighted Fair Isle, then Orkney. Not long after that, we were slipping down the west coast of Scotland, with the sea back to polished pewter, and a day after that we sighted Ireland. The arms of Belfast Lough stretched out to enclose us, and we came in under four great cranes like mechanical horses. My proudest moment was helming her in, with Captain Sture himself giving me orders.
It had been a wonderful voyage. I never use real people in my books, but my watchmates were dead keen to be included, so, with their permission, they're all there, with my best wishes for their future ... and no, none of them is allowed to be either perpetrator or victim of the murderous events Cass has to deal with on board!
Marsali Taylor's latest book "Death in Shetland Waters" was published on 23rd November 2017 and is available from the Shetland Times Bookshop or online from Amazon.
9 Jan 2018
One of the most tangible links to Shetland's early Christian past is the Monk's Stone found in the churchyard at Papil on Burra Isle.
It probably dates from the eighth century (the time of St Bede and the Golden Age of Lindisfarne) and shows five monks, one on horseback. It came from a saint's shrine and may represent the first Celtic missionaries to Shetland. One interpretation is: "Holy men, carrying gospel books (or portable altars) is satchels, with an elderly saint (or bishop - the rider), cam across the sea where they set up the Cross." The stone is now in the Lerwick museum.
Standing at Lerwick harbour it is possible to see the coastguard look-out tower on Ander Hill, Bressay. About a mile to the north of this (to your left, looking from Lerwick) is another important early Christian site at Cullingsburgh. An elaborate stone with a carved cross and the figures of monks (very similar to those found at Papil) was found here and it is of special interest since it shows a mix of Celtic and Scandinavian styles. This was probably carved in the late Ninth Century when the Viking settlement of Shetland had already begun and it has an inscription in Ogham script.
The early Vikings were pagan and most of the early Celtic sites were probably destroyed. It is likely that there had been many small monasteries of Irish or Celtic monks using Shetland as a staging point on missions even further north to the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
Archaeological research in the 1960s identified likely sites for Celtic hermitages at Blue Mull, Unst on the Burrier of West Sandwick, Yell, and on the Kame of Isbister in Northmavine. The many place names including 'Papa' or 'Papil' also comemmorate Christian sites which pre-date the Scandinavian settlement.
At Cullingsburgh you can still see the ruins of the medieval church of St Mary. The graveyard runs over an earlier prehistoric broch which rises up on the east side. The Bressay stone was found near here. The medieval church may well sit on the earlier Celtic site. Was it a monastery? Who knows, the Bressay stone is carved from schist which is found on Burra Isle but not here. Whoever carved it probably had the Papil stone available before him as a model for the figures of the monks.
It is certainly in a beautiful location beside the sea and is well worth the walk up from the Bressay Ferry. A copy of the Bressay Stone can be seen in the Lerwick Museum.
At this date Shetland was part of the Pictish kingdoms which covered large parts of North East Scotland. Much new information on the 'Papa' sites can now be found on the "Papar Project" website. A link follows.
7 Jan 2018
The Mother-Church of Shetland?
Perhaps the earliest Christian site in Shetland is associated with St Ninian, whose feast day falls on 16th September.
St Ninian's Isle is to be found in the South Mainland, about 24 km south of Lerwick and is clearly signposted from the main Lerwick to Sumburgh road. The island is linked to the mainland by a beautiful tombolo of white sand. The chapel site is a little to the right on first reaching the island and is enclosed by a wire fence with interpretative boards within.
There were five seasons of archaeological excavation here from 1955 to 1959, and on 4th July 1958 a local schoolboy working on the dig - Douglas Coutts - uncovered the famous St Ninian's Isle Treasure. Twenty eight silver objects (bowls, brooches and parts of weapons) were found buried within the medieval church under a broken stone slab. The originals are now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but replicas are to be seen in Lerwick Museum.
One of the sword-chapes had a Latin inscription,"INNOMINEDS" - abbreviated from "In nomine Dei Summi", "In the name of God the Highest", which shows thatits original owner was a Christian. It was probably buried in an earlier church on the same site about AD 800 and may have been hidden away at the time of the early Viking raids.
There is a strong local tradition that St Ninian's Isle was the Mother Church of Shetland, but there are no pre-Reformation documents relating to it and the chapel fell out of use during the 16th century Reformation. The Revd. John Brand, visiting the site in 1700 wrote, "To the North West of the Ness lyes St Ninian's Isle, very pleasant; wherein there is a Chappel and an Altar in it whereon some superstitious People do burn candles to this day." It is a sign of continuing Catholic devotion on the site into the 18th century.
Pont's map, published in 1654, shows it as 'S Tronon's Yle'. In other areas St Ninian has also been known as St Trinyon.
St Ninian was apostle to the people in the South West of Scotland in the Fourth Century. There is nothing to link his original missionary journeys to Shetland. Christianity was probably brought to these islands by Celtic monks in the late 7th century.
The "Shetland" website has some beautiful photographs of St Ninian's Isle and suggestions for a 6 km circular walk around the island.