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Pillage Life

A small island community celebrates the carnage of yesteryear

Author Tom Rowley Illustration Peter Oumanski

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SCOTLAND – The Scalloway Boating Club has seen better days. Ruddy-faced regulars sit on rickety wooden stools, trading insults with the barman. When the Viking hordes arrive, the regulars glance up momentarily and then, without comment, return to their drinks.

Scalloway is the second largest settlement in Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands, but the population is small enough that everyone in this bar has, at some time, played a part in the town’s annual Fire Festival, which commemorates the first Viking invasion of the Shetlands, in the 8th century. No one here is impressed by horned helmets anymore.

The chief of the Vikings at this year’s event is oil rig worker Kenny Grant, who will later lead a rabble of 45 men through the town, hollering Nordic oaths and thrusting flaming torches aloft. Now, he hitches up his cloak to perch on a stool, propping his ax and shield against the bar as he orders a pint of local lager.

Grant and his fellow Vikings work hard to maintain historical accuracy—though it’s unlikely that their forebears were as fussy about their battle garb. “It is quite hard to alter the costume,” says Grant, picking at his tunic. “But every year the public expects a new and glamorous design.”

Accordingly, each of the event’s Vikings has spent around $1,300 updating his kit, interlocking the chain mail by hand and fashioning wristbands from salmon skin. Rehearsals have taken place throughout the year, and every man has grown a beard for the occasion.

Many islanders can trace their ancestry back to the Scandinavian warriors who wreaked havoc here 13 centuries ago, and the annual parade that marks the invasion dates back to the Victorian era. There is a sense of history and ceremony to Scalloway’s Fire Festivals, but there are also vast amounts of beer consumed.

“The Vikings did a lot of sacking and pillaging, but we can’t get away with that these days,” Grant says before ordering another pint. “The most we can hope for now is a kiss from the girl at the back of the hall.”

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