24th February 2018
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Why the Vikings found Unst so ‘hospitable’

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Maritime historian Graham Anthony will be giving a talk about Vikings and their settlements in Unst on Friday in the Unst Heritage Centre.

According to Mr Anthony, the Vikings found the isle very much to their liking.

His talk, Vikings, Warriors on Land and Sea, will also touch on the Vikings as traders, going as far as Baghdad.

Mr Anthony said: “As the Vikings headed westwards, the sight of the Shetland Islands would reassure them that they were on course. Their pilot book, the Hauksbok, told them to head due west, keep south of the Faroes and Iceland to reach Greenland. They were in fact following latitude 61ºN, which was to become a regular trade route for 300 years as they settled on Greenland and established Christianity.

The Vikings soon found the hospitable island of Unst an ideal place, to settle and grow food, to assist ships in trouble, and to provide a base to subdue and plunder the wealthy monasteries and cities to the south.” These would have been deemed soft targets, he said.

However the Vikings also travelled further, according to Mr Anthony, who lectures on the subject on cruise ships. He surmised that the Vikings, with their seamanship and boat-building skills, and with around 40 armed and highly-trained men on each of their longships, could “walk into” areas virtually unopposed. It is possible four or five boats travelled together on these missions, with the men acting like “private armies”.

Their shallow boats could cope with crossing the Atlantic and they are reputed to have got as far as Newfoundland. However Columbus got the credit for the discovery, said Mr Anthony, as the “Vikings were not spin doctors”.

Muslim texts also indicate that Vikings traded with the Muslim world, probably prior to the 10th century. It is likely they traded furs and jewellery – they were skilled metalworkers – in exchange for luxury goods.

Mr Anthony said: “Regular records in Arabic from the Muslim world speak of Viking incursions around the Caspian Sea and Baghdad. They tell of some plundering of towns, but speak more of trade.

“The Vikings brought furs, tusks of walrus, honey and beeswax, jewellery and amber, together with good quality weapons. More sinister was the supply of white skinned slaves, highly prized by the Muslims.

“Silver coins, beads, silks, and luxury clothes were taken in return.

“As the Russian and Muslim academics become more involved via the internet with the ongoing research into the Vikings, we can look forward to more reports of Viking activities.”

As well as giving the talk, 1t 7pm, Mr Anthony is also taking the opportunity to find out as much as he can. He is interested in how initial exploration led centuries later to more organised trade, and was fascinated to discover the graves of two Bremen merchants in the graveyard at Lund, Unst.

About Rosalind Griffiths

I am a Shetland Times reporter covering news, including health stories, and features. I have been in Shetland for more than 30 years.

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