Orkney and Shetland: The Last Prize

The Kingdom of Scotland has a long and vibrant history dotted with heroic victories and dark deeds. If one were to look at the Kingdom on a map centuries ago, however, it would not appear familiar to modern eyes.

With every victory and defeat, borders chop and change. Every conquest or annexation has its consequences; and so too does every royal marriage.

Up until the 15th century, what we know to be ‘Scotland’ on a modern map was rather fragmented. To the north the Islands of Shetland and Orkney were under Scandinavian control; conquests of an era long-gone when Norsemen ravaged the British Isles and realised that perhaps it was worth settling down in this new world.

To the west, the Hebrides had been under Scandinavian control for centuries. These autonomous regions were dotted with Scandinavian settlements and weren’t incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland until the Treaty of Perth in 1266.

The incorporation of the Hebrides into the Kingdom of Scotland is a story for another time though, and instead today we shall focus on Shetland and Orkney.

Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away

In 1472, Shetland and Orkney were handed over to the Scottish crown in lieu of a dowry for Margaret of Denmark – the daughter of King Christian I of Norway and Denmark and the prospective wife of James III of Scotland.

Now, you’re probably thinking: “giving up two crucial islands in the northern reaches of the British isles, was he mad?”

Margaret was betrothed to James III

He wasn’t mad, but he was rather short of coin. The marriage was part of a grand political arrangement – and an effort to relieve tensions between Scotland and Denmark – that would see James and Margaret marry, but King Christian could not afford the dowry payment of 50,000 Rhenish Florins.

He could, however, provide a deposit in the form of both Orkney and Shetland which would be held by the Scottish crown as a pledge. This arrangement worked both ways; Christian weds his daughter to James III, and either way Scotland has a sizeable sum of money or the opportunity to shore up the northern reaches of the British Isles.

These islands had long been an issue for the Scottish crown. For several centuries Shetland and Orkney had been under Scandinavian control. In 875, King Harald the Fair of Norway laid claim to the Northern Isles and they became a semi-autonomous Earldom until the 12th century.

In 1194, a failed challenge to the authority of the Norwegian crown brought the isles under direct control of the king.

King Christian I couldn’t afford the hefty dowry so instead choose to wager the Northern Isles

King Christian wasn’t balancing his cheque book very well it seems, and when it became clear that the promised dowry money would never appear, the end of Scandinavian control of the Northern Isles beckoned.

After the first year the payment hadn’t appeared and so more money was added to the pledge in a seemingly archaic Wonga-style arrangement. In 1470, the long-standing titles of earldom to Orkney and Shetland were ceded to James III and the Scottish crown.

The islands were officially annexed by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1472 during a process confirmed by parliament; thus the Scandinavian lordship over these rugged islands had ended.

A Lasting Legacy

The Scandinavian influence in the Northern Isles can still be felt to this day. Although a gradual deterioration of Scandinavian culture occurred and the Scottish influence grew, some remnants still remain.

The Norse language and way of life drifted away with the sands of time yet by the 17th century, the ancient Norse language of Orkney – known as Norn – was still spoken by a select few inhabitants in some settlements.

Up Helly Aa

To this day the inhabitants of Orkney and Shetland still take great pride in the heritage of the islands, retaining traditions such as Up Helly Aa.

Taking place every year at the end of January, Up Helly Aa is a celebration of the island’s Scandinavian heritage that involves the ceremonial burning of a viking galley (and is quite the spectacle). Dialectic influences still remain among the island’s population as well.


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