I went to this lecture hosted by the Centre for the Irish and Scottish Studies last week. They were going to hold it in a lecture room with seating for fifty people. As the lecture was on the archaeological history of the Shetland and Orkney Islands every one who claimed to be a Shetlander or an Orcadian would be turning up. This proved to be correct. It was moved into a lecture theatre that could comfortably hold the hundred or so people who arrived to hear the speaker, a Yorkish-born woman resident in Scotland for twenty years. She had some fun stuff to show.

The Shetlands, at Skara Brae are the oldest known inhabited areas of the British Isles. The site was inhabited after the ice sheets rolled back. I would guess that they came from habitations further south. I doubt they decided to sail around the ice-free coasts and decided, let’s settle here! It’s always possible. Instead they made homes that have survived in this tree-less landscape. They were the ones who made it tree-less, perhaps it never got a chance to become forested (for a given value of forest). Here human beings made themselves at home. They built standing stones, which have been uncovered from the peat, and defensive stone towers called brochs.

I don’t know if these people were the celts. The speaker did not cover the movements of people until the significant one, the arrival of the Vikings. They left their mark, ransacking the grave sites they could find, and leaving early Norse graffiti in its place, much to the interest of antiquarians interested in Old Norse culture. The treasures they took were scattered across western Europe, from Scandinavia to France. The Vikings who settled the islands left their own dialect, Norn, which hasn’t survived in written records.

Lastly we were taken on a visit to the isolated island group of St Kilda beyond the Western Islands. The people here were poor, surviving by harvesting the bird-life. Apparently they maintained their own songs and music to entertain themselves. In the 1930s the authorities decided that the last villagers, about thirty-odd people should be housed in the mainland, and in the suburbs of Glasgow. The military took over the island and there is still a small permanent base there. It is set in the amazingly steep landscape, at the edge of the world, and for the people who lived there, at the centre of their lives.

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