The most northerly homes of the Norse inhabitants of Britain
Unst is the most northerly island in the UK, and so was well located to be one of the first footfalls for Vikings coming to Britain. Recent work has identified 60 buildings which appear, from the earthwork remains, to be Viking or Norse. Three were excavated recently:
Underhoull - a hall house
Hamar - includes a byre at the lower end in its latest phase
Belmont (not fully excavated) - went through multiple alterations and rebuilding, one house on top of another
All of them were in upland locations and dated to between 1025-1220, suggesting that the surviving sites represent a secondary expansion of Viking settlement. Although located in land which appears unpromising today, each of these sites was part of a thriving farm with surviving traces of yard and infield boundaries still visible.
The results of these three excavations, particularly Hamar, were used to build a reconstruction longhouse at Viking Haroldswick. In addition, the Swedish-built Skidbladner, a replica of the Gokstad ship, now rests beside the house.
Unst also boasts a number of pre-12th century chapels. Of these, the churchyards at both Framgord and Lund contain simple cross-slabs, thought to be Viking. Framgord churchyard also contains six coped tombstones with straight ridges, dating to the 12th or 13th centuries.
Much of the shoreline of Shetland is indented with noosts – boat-shaped hollows, often stone-lined, above the high-tide line, where boats could be pulled up. One set of these at Lund has been dated and appears to be around mid-12th century in date.
Early Viking settlement
Evidence of the earliest Viking settlement of Shetland remains elusive. This would probably have been more coastal than the excavated longhouses in Unst, and one explanation for their invisibility is coastal erosion and sea level rise. Alternatively, sites which were good for settlement would have continued in use in future centuries. However, if houses were built completely in wood they would not be easily found. Additionally, it is hard to know how the land was managed before the arrival of the Vikings; excavations at Old Scatness, and also in Rousay in Orkney, demonstrate that there was early contact between the residential Pictish population and the Vikings. Only a handful of pagan Viking graves have been found from Shetland.
There have been two late Norse buildings excavated in Shetland which survive well today: one in Papa Stour, and the other, at Sandwick, Unst. The Unst farmstead dates to c.1300 and today is at the top edge of the beach. The discovery of a “cow-shaped” doorway (still visible), which was narrow at the base, but widened out higher up, has helped to explain how cattle got through doors which appeared to be too narrow in longhouses where only the lower courses survive.
Season - Months Open
Free, donations welcome at Viking Haroldswick
Interpretive panels at excavated longhouses
Trail guides at https://www.shetlandamenity.org/trails