What You Don’t Know About the Vikings

Yes, they were brutal. They also had women leaders, coveted luxury, and encountered more than 50 cultures from Afghanistan to Canada.

A cold drizzle falls as we shiver in the streets, waiting for the Viking lord and his band of raiders to appear. It’s a raw January night in the old Shetland town of Lerwick, but there’s euphoria in the air.

Beside me, a man with two young children laughs as he spots a red smoky haze rising behind the town hall. “Looks like they torched the whole building,” he shouts, to grins all around. Fire, after all, is why we are here. It’s Up Helly Aa, the great incendiary celebration of the Viking past in Shetland. Like everyone else, I’ve come to see a Viking ship burn.

As the lord’s squad and dozens of others pour into the street, fire seethes from hundreds of torches. A roar of delight goes up from the crowd as it catches sight of the sleek longship the raiders tow. The Vikings first landed on these rocky shores north of the Scottish mainland some 1,200 years ago, crushing the local resistance and taking the land. For nearly seven centuries Norwegian lords ruled Shetland, until they finally pawned the islands to a Scottish king. Today the old Norse dialect—Norn—is all but forgotten in Shetland, but the islanders remain intensely proud of their Viking past. Each year they prepare obsessively for Up Helly Aa, assembling, plank by plank, a replica of a Viking ship.

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