Why are Orkney and Shetland not Scandinavian today?

Published 27th Jul 2007

Orkney was already ruled by the Scandinavian kings at the beginning of the Viking Age but why are the islands no longer Scandinavian? We have to go back to 1468/9 to find the answer.

There are substantial traces of Scandinavian influence and Viking settlements in the whole of the North Atlantic area. This is also the case with Orkney and Shetland, where the place-names and the archaeological sources reflect an almost complete Scandinavian dominance. Getting on for 100% of the major place-names of the islands are of Scandinavian origin and numerous traces of Scandinavian habitations have left their clear mark on the landscape. The language became Scandinavian and in Orkney and Shetland, for example, a special Nordic dialect developed that became known as Norn and this continued to be spoken right down until the 18th century in many parts of the islands.

Orkney was politically, strategically and with respect to transport an important area and the islands were colonised by the Vikings already at the beginning of the Viking Age. The original population of the islands – the Picts – had to accept the transfer of power to the Vikings and from the middle of the 9th century the islands, according to the written sources, were ruled by Nordic jarls. The centre of power probably first lay in Birsay but it was later moved to the present chief town of Kirkwall. Christian I (1426-81) was king of Denmark from 1448-81 and of Norway from 1450-81, as well as of Sweden for a shorter period from 1457-64. Both Orkney and Shetland formed part of King Christian I’s possessions and from the political point of view they belonged to Norway until the close of the 1460s.

Christian I waged many wars and was often in difficult situations economically and politically. In order to strengthen his position he entered into an alliance with Scotland: In 1468 Christian I’s daughter, the princess Margrete, was married to King James III. On paper her dowry was said to be 60,000 Rhenish florins.

The Scottish king probably knew very well that it was quite impossible for the impoverished Christian I to get hold of such a large sum of money. Instead, Christian was allowed to mortgage Orkney to Scotland for 50,000 florins and make do with handing over 10,000 florins. Unfortunately, Christian I only managed to scrape together 2,000 florins and he therefore had to mortgage Shetland in 1489 for the remaining 8,000 florins.

The Scottish king must have been more than well-satisfied, for the mortgage, together with the future income from the islands, became a considerable economic asset. Norway, on the other hand, had to suffer for Christian I’s high diplomacy and the subsequent kings were later enjoined to redeem the mortgaged possessions.

The pledge was never redeemed, however, although negotiations were started on several occasions – most recently in the middle of the 17th century. Agreement was never reached on the matter and the islands were never redeemed – Orkney and Shetland remained in Scottish hands.

Anne-Christine Larsen, mag.art. 

Created by Anne-Christine Larsen, archaeologist, head of Exhibition, the Viking Ship Museum