16 July 2010

The Shorkneys: Orkney and Shetland in the Renaissance

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

 As I mentioned in our previous post, Shetland and Orkney both used to belong to the Norse. But when the King of Denmark (who was also the King of Norway) fell into debt, he was forced to forfeit the islands to Scotland in 1468 in lieu of a dowry for his daughter Margaret, who was sent over to marry King James III of Scotland. A year later, Christian I pawned Shetland to the Scots, too.

Under the Scots, the islands enjoyed a kind of golden age. They benefited from trade connections with Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark, and the Scottish crown pretty much left them alone.

This wasn't always a good thing, however. Around 1600, Patrick Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Orkney, after brutalizing the local peasantry and spending himself into debt, actually went to war with the Sheriff of Shetland to back up his claim to ownership of the islands.

(What the 2nd Earl of Orkney might have looked like.)

For a while, things went pretty well for Patrick, but the escapade eventually landed him in prison in Edinburgh--and his son was hanged by the Sheriff of Shetland and a band of local malcontents. 

So Patrick Stewart: Petty tyrant? Mad genius? The greatest Star Trek captain of all time? You be the judge.

The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall (Orkney)

Most of what we know about Patrick Stewart comes from unreliable sources, and recent scholarship suggests he wasn't the huge jerk everyone makes him out to be. 

But whatever the size of Patrick's jerkitude, we do have him to thank for two of Scotland's most impressive Renaissance residences. The older of the two is Patrick's fortified palace in Kirkwall, Orkney.

The palace boasted both form and function: it included an enormous great hall, where the Earl and co. presumably got their respective grooves on . . .
(Historical reenactment.)

. . . and the place was built to withstand an attack from his next-door neighbor, the Bishop of Orkney.

Yes, the upstart Patrick set up shop right next door to the King's most powerful agent in the Northern Isles. You know the drill: keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Patrick clearly bested the bishop as far as style was concerned: the Bishop's Palace is a tall, narrow, grim sort of a place, decidedly Medieval next to the Renaissance splendor of Patrick's new pad.
But apparently the bishop had Patrick beat in terms of function: the Earl's Palace was the site of Patrick's last stand, and had to be surrendered when opposing forces fired a cannon into one of those beautiful windows.

During the confusion, Nana may or may not have let her hair down in a failed effort to help Patrick escape.

Scalloway Castle, Shetland

Patrick's other house--in Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland--is another thing altogether. Where the Earl's Palace is an inviting house set in a small park in the middle of town, Scalloway Castle is a formidable tower house perched on a windswept spit of land. (Windswept even by Shetland standards!)

To access the castle, you have to sign out a key from a local hotel.
Nothing quite like letting yourself into a castle!

The inside couldn't be more different from the palace at Kirkwall: Scalloway Castle is pretty dim and grim. The living quarters would have been packed into the space below, with several levels of wooden floors and a roof that has been long since gone.
In fact, Patrick Stewart's two residences are a good summary of the differences between the two regions themselves: Orkney is by far the milder and the prettier of the two, whereas Shetland is far grimmer--though that has a way of being beautiful, too!

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