Almost Scandinavian: Shetland’s “Red Bones” episodes connect

Revelers preparing for Up Helly Aa on Shetland.

Photo: Mike Pennington
Right: Revelers preparing for Up Helly Aa in 2005.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I just finished watching the “Red Bones” episodes of Shetland on PBS, based on one of four books by author Ann Cleaves. I was delightfully surprised how much Norse history was involved. From the start the influence is palpable. The main character, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, is having a conversation with his daughter Tosh who is off to a class on Norse mythology, donning a horned Viking helmet and Norwegian sweater. (Yes, I know horned helmets are historically inaccurate—but what can you do; they have taken hold of the popular imagination.)

A novice archeologist uncovers human remains. Not so surprising. However, they are not so ancient, perhaps only 60 years old. This shocking revelation opens the door to skepticism and fear when the townsfolk and police try to uncover to whom they belong.

We learn that the Shetland Bus is pivotal to this mystery. The Shetland Bus was the name given to an effort to halt the Nazis, comprising about 30 fishing vessels crewed mostly by Norwegians sailing between Western Norway and Shetland. The boats transported refugees, instructors for the resistance, intelligence agents, and military supplies. It proved to be a costly mission, as 104 lives and 10 boats were lost during its 104 trips. We discover that the owner of these bones may be a young Norwegian sailor who was part of the Shetland Bus and labeled a traitor in this town.

But the history of the Norse in Shetland stretches back much further than 60 years. 1,100 years ago this island served as a Norwegian colony, incorporating their laws and their language, which on the island is known as Norn. The former existed until 1611 and the latter continued until the 18th century. Although their rule ended centuries ago, their influence continues. These can be seen in place names, many spoken words, architecture, archeological sites, land management, genetics, superstitions, and traditions.

The Earldom of Orkney, which included Shetland, remained a Viking stronghold for over 700 years. There is even a Norse saga about this part of the world. Like the American colonists many Norwegians were disgusted by high taxes. According to the sagas that is what drove some to first settle here. It is wonderful to see how this history could be interwoven into this British television series, a truly entertaining history lesson.

Back to the story. Connecting the Viking past to the present is a necklace of Freya that the young archaeologist wears. It was given to her by Mima, a local, who tells her Freya is the protector of lovers. We later learn that Mima had received this necklace from the Norwegian traitor. Like all good sagas, jealousy, passion, and greed move the plot forward. I will not reveal any more of the story, so you can enjoy it yourself.

I will however, shed some light on other Scandinavian finds in this part of the world. One was discovered in Sandwick, by a boy chasing a rabbit down its hole. Here he uncovered a horde of silver ring pieces. A Viking ship burial and its finds, excavated at Scar Beach on the island of Sanday, included a double-headed dragon made from whale bone, which can be seen at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. Over 30 longhouses were discovered at Unst in Shetland. A significant Viking settlement existed at the Brough of Birsay, on the Isle of Orkney, which even contained a sauna.

According to the website Historic UK, Norse superstitions are still the custom, “For example in Orkney, urine is smeared on the plough before cutting the first furrow in spring, in order to promote fertility in the soil. At harvest time, the first sheaf used to be made into a kind of porridge, and the last household to finish harvesting had a straw dog, called the ‘bikko,’ placed on its chimney stack. A great insult and humiliation! It is said that the secret society of the ‘Horseman’s Word,’ whose initiates are told a word that gives them power over horses, is still strong in Orkney.”

Perhaps the most spectacular Norse find in “Red Bones” is the backdrop for Perez and Tosh’s chase to capture the murderer: Up Helly Aa, Europe’s largest fire festival. Up Helly Aa, an annual event held at the end of January in Lerwick, Shetland, is a jubilant festival marking the end of Yule. The Jarl, his crew, and a Viking ship lead the procession, which is followed by close to 1,000 guisers (costumed people) carrying torches. There are over 40 squads, each like a Mardi Gras crew. At the burning site the ship is set ablaze by 800 thrown flaming torches. This is followed by the squads entertaining and performing sketches around town.

This series is well worth watching just to see this spectacle—a burning ship, marching Viking tribes, and horned helmet spectators. And it’s authentic.

Ann Cleaves incorporates Scandinavian influences in her Shetland books so seamlessly that it leads me to believe they are a matter-of-fact part of Shetland life. Of course, there is some poetic license in the television version. Cleaves has “Red Bones” taking place in spring and included Up Helly Aa in another story from this series, “Raven Black,” which occurs in winter. Cleaves is relaxed about the series’ interpretation of her books and wisely states, “Prose and film are different forms. Besides, the book stops being mine every time someone reads it. Each reader brings their own imagination, history, and prejudice to the story and each writer has to learn to let go. Adaptation just takes the process a bit further.”

Incredibly, Cleaves’s focus on Scandinavian Shetland is coming full circle. An article in the Huffington Post from 2013, (when it aired in Britain), even credits its tone and temperament to Scandinavia, as it “leaned heavily in a Scandinavian direction for its slow, languid approach to the tale, and was all the richer for it.” Boyd Tonkin in The Independent, July 2015, describes the Shetlands as “almost Scandinavian” and states that the new wave of Nordic Noir is coming from within the UK. This circle is coming even closer as a Scandinavian Crime Fiction Festival—Iceland Noir, held from November 13 to 15—will be moved to Shetland this November, becoming Shetland Noir. The impetus for this seems to be Cleaves’s Shetland series.

It was a pleasure to see how Shetland’s Scandinavian history could be so well integrated into two episodes of a British television series, and how much Cleaves’s books and the television series it inspired are not only shedding a light on Shetland, but also its rich Scandinavian history. At the end of “Red Bones,” Perez is asked by his daughter, Tosh, if he still feels Shetland is the best place on earth to live, and he says yes, mentioning the sky and local birds. He also points out that on a clear day you can see Norway to the east and Iceland to the west. This brings us back to how geographic proximity evolved into the countless cultural connections that are continuing to this day and why this two-part series is one in which Scandinavians should definitely be invested.

This article originally appeared in the July 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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