First of all the reader should understand that Zetland (Shetland) has, for most of its modern history, not been part of Scotland. For the majority of it's time it has been firmly Norse and some would say that it's heart is still very much nordic. The language is Norn, and Gaelic is virtually unheard of; its has its own flag and wears it proudly; many locals take any opportunity to blank out relationships with Scotland and to emphasise their Viking ancestry. In geographical terms Zetland includes the islands of Unst, Yell, Fetlar, Foula, Fair Isle and the mainland island of Shetland.

It is generally agreed that Christianity first came to Zetland in the Celtic period, probably in the early 7th Century. At this time, and for several centuries before, the islands were inhabited by the people known as the Picts.

In the 5th Century the southern Picts came under Christian influences emanating from Whithorn, but it is doubtful whether these influences penetrated to the far north until considerably later. The notion of a mission to Orkney and Shetland from Ireland in the late 6th Century also presents difficulties. Christianity of a broadly "Celtic" form extended over most of Scotland with active centres in both the northern islands groups. It is quite possible that some sites were founded by Irish peregrini whereas others were due to the missionary zeal of individuals from the Pictish lands.

Besides those at Papil on West Burra and St Ninian's Isle, archaeological evidence also suggests early sites at Mail (Cunningsburgh), Lunna, and Kirkaby (Westing) in Unst. R.G. Lamb also suggests that there is good reason to believe that settlements on Blue Mull (Unst), on the Burrier of West Sandwick (Yell), and on the Kame of Isbister in Northmavine at the very least were Celtic in origin but that those at Strandburgh off Fetlar, and others, were evidently Norse.

The arrival of the Norsemen in Zetland around AD780 must have brought a profound change, but that it involved an obliteration of Christianity until its official re-imposition by King Olaf Tryggvason in AD995 may be doubted. Scholars today feel that the evidence collected to date indicates a fairly slow and relatively peaceful colonisation process - in spite of the reputation of the men of the raven - and Archaeological evidence would suggest that by AD900 the Norwegians in Zetland were already turning to Christianity. In these early days it came under the influence of the Bishops who were based in Orkney.

There seems to be a definite association between chapels and SCATTALDS. Although the Scattald became a fiscal unit, it seems to have been in origin a settlement group, and if the distribution of identifiable chapel sites is examined, they certainly appear to occur most frequently in the areas in which the earliest Norwegian settlements took place and to correspond to a marked degree with Scattalds. This is particularly noticeable in Unst, Yell and Fetlar, where more than 40 sites, or one-third of the total chapel sites in Zetland, have been traced. While the evidence is far from conclusive it does seem to suggest that the original cause of the proliferation of chapels in Zetland was the desire of local leaders to make provision for Christian worship on their own lands for themselves and their neighbours. The chapels, once established, remained the property of their founders, and although some passed out of use once a system of territorial parishes had been organised, others remained in being for a prolonged period alongside the "head churches" (Hovedkirke or Sognekirke) of the new order. It may be noted that in some Zetland parish churchyards distinct sections were allotted to particular districts which were responsible for the adjoining part of the enclosing wall as well as for a proportional share of the upkeep of the church building. In Man and Orkney these obligations appear to have been in replacement of an earlier duty to maintain a local chapel and burying-place.

In the Medieval period, at the local level, the ecclesiastical organisation conformed to the general pattern that prevailed throughout western Europe. It was based on the parish (Sokn or Sogn) under its parish priest (Sogneprest), save that in the scattered territories of the Norwegian church a single priest might be in charge of a group of churches forming a "priest's district" or Prestegjeld. Within this district, one church would be the Hovedkirke or Sognekirke.

See also: the Diocese of Orkney.


Archdeaconry of Zetland pages were last updated on: 14 October 2005
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