Up-Helly-Aa: What did the Vikings Ever Do For Us?

All that raping and pillaging meant Vikings weren’t the most welcome of guests, but the Nordic gatecrashers were central players in ancient Scottish life. Nowadays their famed horned helmets are more likely to be seen atop a marauding stag party than a boatload of berserkers. To find out more about the original fans of fighting, drinking and sex, Hannah Adcock explores five ancient places where they used to reside.

Mousa Broch, Shetland
This Iron Age tower is over 13ft high and one of the finest examples of its kind. More importantly, it’s old enough to have seen some fairly exciting goings on. In the spring of 1153 Erlend the Young had a bit of a crush on Earl Harald's mother, a good-looking woman, even if she was a bit full of herself. Her dear old son refused permission for the match, so Erlend kidnapped Margaret and whisked here away to the broch at Mousa. Her enraged son followed, but finding the broch pretty difficult to conquer, he was soon reconciled with Erlend. The marriage took place soon afterwards. The mum and ‘the Young’ were happy ever after.
Getting there: Take a ferry from Aberdeen or Scrabster to Shetland (you’ll need photo ID), www.northlinkferries.co.uk. The Isle of Mousa is accessible by boat from Sandwick, www.mousaboattrips.co.uk

Iona Abbey, the Isle of Iona
Iona is best known as the place where St Columba rocked up about a millennium and a half ago. Deciding this cute little island was a great place for a grand religious settlement, he set about building a monastery. Despite the tiring work, he still refused himself any luxuries. In fact, he was so tough that he slept on a pillow made of stone. A couple of centuries after his death, the Vikings got rather too interested in Iona. After some pretty horrific attacks, the monks sent away some of their treasure for safe-keeping to Kells in Ireland. It’s possible the lusciously illustrated Book of Kells was actually created on Iona.
www.isle-of-iona.com, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk
Getting there: Take a CalMac ferry to the Isle of Mull from Oban or Lochaline at the southern end of Morvern. Then take a small CalMac ferry to the Isle of Iona from Fionnphort, www.calmac.co.uk

Freswick Castle, Caithness
Not exactly a candidate for sainthood, Swein Asleifsson pillaged and plundered his way round Britain, finally dying with a sword in his hand at the grand old age of 55. Orcadian writer Eric Linklater has called him ‘the Ultimate Viking’ and he was certainly pretty impressive. At one point, cunning Swein even faked his own death to try and put an enemy off his scent. He had a stronghold at Lambaborg Castle, thought to have been here at Freswick in Caithness, as well as a nice pied à terre up on Orkney.
Getting there: You can take a Stagecoach bus to Thurso, Caithness, from Inverness. www.stagecoachbus.com

Largs, Ayrshire
This was the scene for one of the last great Viking scraps in Scotland. In July 1263 King Håkon Håkonsson is thought to have sailed from Bergen with 200 ships, stopping off in the Hebrides to wait for some extra support from the King of the Isle of Man. Their fleet must have been one hell of a sight, but the weather wasn’t so great (typical Scotland) and the Norse king was soon in trouble. With some of his ships forced ashore by foul weather, he had to get the rest landed as soon as possible. Did the Scots win or was it a draw? Who knows, but why not visit the Largs Viking Festival to watch some re-enactments and ritual boat burning.
Getting there: Ayrshire is situated to the south-west of Glasgow and can be reached easily by train or bus.

Maeshowe’s Runes, Orkney
Vikings might be best remembered for their blonde good looks and pillaging ways, but they were also a dab hand at graffiti. The Stone Age tomb of Maeshowe is covered with more than 30 runic inscriptions, possibly made by bored and cheeky Vikings caught in a snowstorm or maybe just in search of a hard bed for the night. Gems include: ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women’ (carved beside a rough drawing of a slavering dog) and ‘Thorni f*cked. Helgi carved.’ I’d like to see what the guidebooks make of that. Others runes conform to the ‘I woz ere’ industry standard.
www.orkneyjar.com, www.visitorkney.com
Getting there: Take a ferry from Aberdeen or Scrabster, www.northlinkferries.co.uk (you’ll need photo ID). The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is to the west of the island; book a tour or hire a bike. Public buses are few and far between.

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