The Stewart Earls of Orkney and the History of Orkney and Shetland
Northern Studies: Volume 29 (1992)
The Northern Isles have their own national, or at any rate quasi-national, historical tradition. It is quite separate from that of Scotland, though it is clearly connected to it; and it offers parallels to the nineteenth-century growth in historical consciousness elsewhere in the British Isles. There is no term in the vocabulary of the Northern Isles which corresponds to the notions of ‘Bonnie Scotland’ or ‘Merrie Wales’, but there is no doubt that in Orkney and Shetland there grew up a similar vision of a romantic past. The conversion of tar-barrelling high jinks in Lerwick to the celebration of ‘Vikingry’ at Up-helly-A remains the best known manifestation of this spirit.
This vision was not purely the creation of antiquarians, though there was a flowering of historical talent in both Orkney and Shetland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; but it was reflected through the views and outlook of at least some of those historians. When Orcadians and Shetlanders looked to their ‘old traditional past’ from the ‘modern British and imperial future’ (Ash 1980, 9), they saw something quite different from their fellow-subjects across the Pentland Firth. Edward Eunson, former convener of Orkney Islands Council, drew attention to this in his introduction to W.P.L. Thomson’s The History of Orkney. The popular historical perception of Eunson’s youth was drawn from published versions of Orkneyinga Saga, from Tudor, Barry and Balfour’s ‘Odal Rights and Feudal Wrongs’ and summarised for children and the general public in the Orkney Book of i909.