Saturday, March 18, 2006

Not Celts but Vikings

It must be true, it was just on Radio 4. It seems Sandi Toksvig is a member of the same Scottish clan as our family, the Gunn clan. Some expert in such things wrote to her and said that this is the only clan that is not Celtic, but Viking in origin. That's no surprise really, as my father's family hail from the island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetlands. These islands were once part of Norway, but as some kind of dawry arrangement, were handed over to Scotland by the king of Norway in lieu of cash when he was a bit short of readies.

It seems my great grandfather (William) left the Shetlands in the late nineteenth century got married and had a son, William Thomas in 1901. William died in his 30s, and the boy and his mother went back to live with William's father (also William Thomas) on Unst. WT (senior) died in 1914, and my grandfather left Unst for the last time as a early teenager, and came to Glasgow, where my dad and his brothers all grew up.

I grew up knowing vageuly that we had some connection with the Shetlands, but we had no relatives up there, and nobody in the family had ever been back. I thought we should put this right, and in Novermber 2002, my dad and I spent a week driving around the Shetlands. It's a stunning place. We went back there in January 2004 for 'Up Helly Aa', which celebrates the Viking heritage. It happens on the last Tuesday of January, and starts down in Lerwick Harbour at 7am, with the reading of the proclamation by the Guiser Jarl, surrounded by his 'squad' dressed in full viking regalia (complete with the best collection of beards I've ever seen). In the evening, the town's street lights are turned off, and nearly 1000 guys in various costumes, stage a flaming torchlit procession. Absolutely inbredible. This kicks off a night of debaouchery as 40-odd 'squads' of men in fancy dress travel around a dozen 'halls' where they perform, and eat the victuals provided by the women. I started the night as a spectator, but got dragged into playing sax with one of the squads, then joining them for the rest of the night, as they drove around the icy streets, in a lorry adapted for carrying people (just strap a container to the back, add some ropes to the sides to hang on to, a few benches, and large amounts of beer and whiskey!). The final gig was at 8am, followed by breakfast and another day's drinking, ending up in The Lounge for an afternoon music session. There are a few pics on my website - one day I'll get round to putting the rest up there.

If you're trying to find your Shetland ancestors, then I can highly recommend visiting Bayanne House, either online or in person. Their database is excellent (though navigating it takes a bit of getting used to).


Post a Comment

<< Home