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On the nature of tings: Shetland’s law courts from the middle ages until 1611

by Brian Smith (Original Publication - The New Shetlander, No 250, Yule 2009)

Everyone knows about Iceland's medieval assembly, the Althing, founded around 930 and held, romantically, in the open air at Thingvellir, with booths erected by the delegates nearby.[1] There is a vague idea in Shetland that we too had an althing, at Tingwall, where our Viking ancestors made laws and puzzled over court cases; as well as local assemblies at places like Sandsting and Lunnasting. Tingwall, wrote T.M.Y. Manson in 1936, was 'the meeting-place of the althing of the Norsemen in Shetland - the supreme court and legislative assembly for the islands.'[2] '[A]ll freemen', says J.R. Nicolson, 'were obliged to attend' there. [3]

Nearly everything in these passages requires scrutiny. Did Shetland have an althing, a general assembly of free men? We don't know. We had a lawting, at Tingwall, but that's a different matter, as we shall see. Is 'Viking' an appropriate designation for our representative institutions? Not without qualification. Most of what we know for certain about Shetland's law courts happened long after the Viking age was over. And what went on at Sandsting, or Lunnasting, when district assemblies met? Who was entitled to attend, and what did they do there?

In this little paper I give a flavour of what romantic antiquarians said about our tings, as I shall call them (Old Norse þing, an assembly.) Then I examine Shetland's lawting, and try to work out the dates when it flourished and died. I do the same for the district assemblies, although that is more difficult. Finally I investigate, very tentatively, the earlier history of Shetland's ting arrangements.

1.

Samuel Hibbert, a geologist and antiquary, approached Shetland's tings with (he said) 'the aid of a lively imagination'. [4] He wrote about them in his Description of the Shetland Islands of 1822, and in a hundred-page paper[5] read to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland a year later. Gilbert Goudie said later, unkindly but accurately, that Hibbert had expended 'much learning … perhaps uselessly'[6] on the subject.

Hibbert took much of his information from Icelandic sources, and concluded that Shetland's ting-site at Tingwall was much like the famous tingstead at Thingvellir.[7] His innovation was to recognise, or so he thought, archaeological vestiges of other Shetland sites.

The lawting holm at Tingwall and surrounding area, portrayed by the Ordnance Survey in 1878.

In Unst he viewed the steep hill called the Muckle Heog, between Baltasound and Haraldswick, and read the account of it that George Low had written in 1774. Low called the place Hanger Heog, and said that his informants regarded it as a place of execution: 'Tradition says', he related, 'that whatever criminal ascended the steps of Hanger Heog never came down alive'.[8]

The Muckle Heog is a prehistoric burial-place, and Low's name for it has nothing to do with executions. It is almost certainly the same as Hangerhaugen, near Trondheim in Norway, so named because it hangs over the countryside.[9] But Hibbert lurched from executions to tings, and soon thought that he had found a ting-site nearby. It was another prehistoric place, the Rounds of Tivla on the hill called Crussafield.

Hibbert regarded himself as an expert on the archaeology of tingsteads, and identified the structures on Crussafield as one.

'The construction of the tings', he said,[10]

… deserves particular notice. As superior causes were tried in them, they appear to have been formed by means of ranges of loose stones piled a foot or two high, into circles trebly concentric; while adjacent to them was occasionally to be seen a circle intended for the lesser or parish tings, which was only doubly concentric. At the Hill of Crucifield … the sites of ground thus marked out are three in number. The first of these is formed by three concentric circles cut into the stratum of soil that covers the rock, into which boulder stones and earth were thrown, until they rose above the level of the ground; the diameter of the outermost circle being 67 feet, of the middle one 54¾ feet, and of the innermost 40 feet. There is a small cen­tral heap of stones in the middle of the inclosure 12 feet in dia­meter.

But why the concentric circles? and what was the pile of stones? 'It cannot be doubted', Hibbert explained,

but that these circles were severally in­tended to divide, in an order of precedence, the different ranks of the tingmen who were convened. When the concentric circle was treble, the central space must have been devoted to the ac­commodation of the laugman, and to that of the raadmen or councillors who were with him; the large central stone, or pile of stones, being his doom-stool. The interval, which was formed by the second concentric circle, was intended for the laugrettmen. ... The last and largest interval formed by the third concentric circle was probably reserved for the opposite parties in an action, the plaintiff and defendant, for the compur­gators and witnesses, while the populace stood on the outside; for, as the law of Norway expressly states, none who were un­named could remain within the circle. Such was the division of office among the tingmen, for which the trebly concentric circle afforded ample lines of demarkation.

Hibbert knew that the ting at Crussafield was Shetland's original assembly site, perhaps because it was closer to Norway. It was only later, he reckoned, that 'the Legislative convocation held at Unst was removed to the distant holm of Tingwall'. [11]

Every step in Hibbert's reconstruction is fantasy. Later antiquaries added further details. For David Balfour '[t]he Althing [of Orkney and of Shetland] was the simple prototype of a modern Parliament, but the assembly was primary, not representative, and the estates met and voted together in one Chamber'.[12] He envisaged every man and every class rubbing shoulders at the meetings. Jakob Jakobsen even thought that he had discovered the Shetland equivalent of the Icelandic delegates' booths. He reckoned that the place name Scalloway meant 'the voe of the "skollas" or booths, occupied by the ting-men, assembling for the meeting of the general "ting" or law-court of the islands in Tingwall'.[13] Wrong again: Scalloway means the voe where an individual skáli, probably a prominent hall, stood.

Even a modern and well-informed writer like Gillian Fellows-Jensen sometimes makes bold assumptions. 'The thing-sites in Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and Man', she says, 'must have been taken into use in the course of the ninth century.'[14] We have a habit in the north of trying to push our institutions as far as possible back in time - without any evidence. [15] We should stop doing it.

I now turn to the history of Shetland's tings, as far as it can be recovered.

2.

If we want to understand Shetland's assembly sites, and those of other Scandinavian countries - even Iceland - we must modify any assumptions we have that they were always parliaments of free men. During the period when we have records, from 1299 onwards, Shetland's tings were dominated by royal representatives, to a greater or lesser extent.

Shetland may have had an althing. It is difficult to believe that the impressive site at Tingwall first came into use as late as the thirteenth century. Right in the centre of the islands, next to the head church and archdeacon's house, named in the same way as the Icelandic site, it looks old. But we can't be certain. It is worth looking at the situation in the Faroe Islands to see if we can spot what might have been parallels in development.

In the spring of 1273 King Magnus Hakonsson of Norway, known as Lawmender, wrote to his subjects in the Faroes to tell them to use his new law code. [16] That code transformed judicial arrangements in Norway and its colonies from the late thirteenth century on. A quarter of a century later, in his son Hakon's famous 'sheep letter', we read that the 1273 decree had been received at the Faroese 'althing'.[17] Local historians in the Faroes are confident that this refers to an ancient general assembly of the Icelandic type. All we can say for certain is that the Faroese althing was an assembly of some sort, presumably looser in form than its successor.

What we do know is that King Magnus and his successors were exerting more and more control in their provinces - even in Iceland. There, and in the Faroes and Shetland, the assemblies stopped making their own laws, if that is what they had been doing, and became places where royal legislation was promulgated and enforced. They became 'lawtings'.

We know what was going on in Shetland around 1300 because we have documents. Archaeology, especially archaeology of the Hibbert variety, can tell us little about assemblies and how they worked. From the documents, however, we can learn not only where the participants gathered, but who they were and what they were at.

In recent years Steinar Imsen has thrown much light on the officials who met at Tingwall, and what they were doing there. Wielding the Lawmender's code, they represented the crown, and were sometimes Norwegians themselves. But they interacted with the local community too. For Imsen the Shetland lawting, and lawtings elsewhere, were 'an instrument for royal rule as well as for communal self-rule'. [18] The Shetlanders could negotiate with the officials, and the documents show us how they did so; but the officials were in charge.

Imsen has also suggested that, after the Black Death, the part played in the proceedings by the Shetlanders themselves might have increased. We have a reference to a letter announcing the election of one of them, Nicol of Aith, as 'lawman generale of all Yetland', dated at the 'ting holm' of Tingwall in July 1532. It was authenticated by the common seal of Shetland.[19] But there was always tension at the lawting between royal and local representatives. It seems to have been partly resolved in the crown's favour in the late 1540s, when the last Shetland lawman left office.[20]

There were no more lawman appointments, and there were resentments. In 1577 more than 700 Shetlanders came to Tingwall to complain about Lawrence Bruce, a tyrannical official, and they complained bitterly that they had 'bene in tymes bygane, lyk as thai ar instantly [at present], grevuslye rubbit, oppressit and spoliat of thair gudis and substance be sic men as hes borne and beiris authoritie and offices abone thame'. [21]

The assembly of 1577 wasn't a lawting, strictly speaking: it was a series of courts where the Shetlanders spelled out their grievances to some royal commissioners from Edinburgh. But they were at pains to explain what they thought a lawting should be. 'This lawting', they told the visitors, 'is the principall court haldin in the cuntrie in the haill yeir, to the quhilk all men aucht to cum … that hes land and heritage or grit takkis [leases] of the king'.[22] They believed that they themselves should organise the proceedings: 'na men', they said, should deliberate on cases 'bot cuntriemen that kennis thair awin lawis'.[23] Witnesses from Bressay complained that at the then recent lawting scarcely half of the assessors had been Shetlanders. [24]

Their emphasis was on public rather than private proceedings. They regarded public deliberations and decisions as virtuous; private ones as suspect. Bruce's servants had forced individuals to sign a document: they had done so outside 'ane lawting and commown assemblie of the haill cuntrie, as thai depone suld have bein in sic casis, bot done pryvatlie be pryvat persounis in pryvat places, unsworne'. [25] More than a quarter of a millennium after the formation of the lawting, the Shetlanders were still fighting to keep their end up there.

In the 1570s Lord Robert Stewart moved the assembly from Tingwall to Scalloway.[26] No doubt Robert had a house there, and it must have seemed that the royal officer was taking the institution into his own hands. Perhaps the decision to hold the courts of 1577 at the traditional site was a tacit complaint about that. But the lawting remained at Scalloway, and was eventually held in the great hall of Earl Patrick's new castle in the village. In August 1604, for instance, 'the lating court of the contrie of Yeitland, callit the principall and heid court thairof', was presided over there by Patrick himself.[27] More than half the jurors were Shetlanders, small landowners: things had improved since the 1570s. They were still consulting 'the chepturis of the law buik', [28] Magnus Lawmender's old code of the 1270s, in their proceedings.

But the lawting's days were coming to a close. The last reference we have to it is from 1608, when Earl Patrick's substitute issued a precept summoning some miscreants to appear before him 'the first, second or third dayis of the nixt heidcourt, callit the lawtyng' [29] Earl Patrick fell from power shortly afterwards. After a short period of chaos, the crown swept away Shetland's laws and local institutions in 1611.[30] Shetland's lawting became a sheriff court. [31]

3.

We can glimpse the Shetland lawting in action, prior to its removal to Scalloway, in contemporary documents, and in accounts written after its heyday, especially one of 1700 by John Brand. Brand's sober account (on this subject at least), written four generations after the fact, is more credible than Hibbert's later fantasia.

We know from the letter of 1532, and from local tradition, that the officials carried out their deliberations almost surrounded by water at the loch of Tingwall: on Tingaholm, as it was called. Prior to the 1850s the tingstead was a holm in the loch, linked to the mainland by a causeway; since then, following the draining of water from the loch, it has been a grassy promontory. John Brand reported that 'three or four great Stones are to be seen, upon which the Judge, Clerk and other Officers of the Court did sit';[32] by Low's time, in 1774, they had been torn up, to make space for grazing.[33] Meanwhile, the other participants 'sat in the open field' below the kirk.[34]

'All the Country concerned to be there', went on Brand, 'stood at some distance from the Holm on the side of the Loch, and when any of their Causes was to be Judged or Determined, or the judge found it necessary that any Person should compear before him, he was called upon by the Officer, and went in by these steping stones, who when heard, returned the same way he came'.[35] Gillian Fellows-Jensen makes the point[36] that such a geographical arrangement must have made the proceedings difficult, by holding them up; but there seems no doubt that that is how they were organised. Of course, there must have been times when bad weather made shelter imperative. In May 1307, for instance, the officials made their decision in the archdeacon's kirk next door. [37]

Brand heard an interesting story about the lawting's proceedings. His informants told him 'that when any Person received Sentence of Death upon the Holm, if afterwards he could make his escape through the crowd of People standing on the side of the Loch, without being apprehended, and touch the Steeple of the Church of Tingwal, the sentence of death was Retrieved, and the Condemned obtained an Indemnity: For this Steeple in these days was held as an Asyl for Malefactours, Debitors Charged by their Creditors &c. to flee into.'[38] Sanctuary in churches was common in medieval Europe.[39]

Finally, the arrival of dozens of delegates at Tingwall, many on horseback, caused damage. A decision was made, at an unknown date, to recompense the local landowners. '[A]t every end of the Loch', Brand said, 'there is a House, upon whose Grass the Country Men coming to the Court did leave their Horses, and by reason the Masters of the Houses did suffer a loss this way, they were declared to be Scat [tax] free, hence at this present time, two places in the Parish of Sansting do pay Scat for the one, and Coningsburg in Dunrossness for the other.' [40] The practice continued long after the demise of the lawthing. As late as 1713 one of the landowners so recompensed, John Umphray of Asta, sold his right to the Cunningsburgh scat to three people who actually lived there. [41]

4.

There are half-a-dozen place names in Shetland with -ting in the second part of them. This is a very unusual situation. Such names are uncommon anywhere; to have so many in Shetland requires explanation.

All but one are the names of parishes, which form a sort of circle in the centre of the islands: Delting, Lunnasting, Nesting, Sandsting and Aithsting, with Tingwall to their south. There must have been a ting in each place. With the exception of Nesting the -tings are named after townships: Dale in Delting, Lunna in Lunnasting, Sand in Sandsting and Aith in Aithsting. Some of these places were the sites of parish churches: that is, they were important places. They may have been the homes of local potentates as well.

There is one more name, a tantalising one, which appears only in two documents, of c.1510 and 1628: Neipnating, a tax-paying district in the parish of Nesting.[42] The name is now unknown. It can only derive from Old Norse * Gnípnaþing, the ting at the 'neaps' or steep hills. The hills in question are on the coast below the township called Neap, in the north-east of the parish. The name and its meaning were still remembered in 1809: Edmondston tells us that 'The spot where the court was held at Neep is still to be seen, with the bench before it, and was called Neepsnating.'[43] Confusingly, the parish where Neap sits also has a -ting name: Nesting, presumably from nes, a promontory. But where is the ness? At a pinch it might be the promontory where Neap itself lies.

Fellows-Jensen believes that Shetland's -ting names are late. I agree with her. But what is their precise date, and what is their significance? We may have two clues. First, there are no -ting names in Orkney. The contrast with Shetland is great, and may well suggest that the situation here postdates the separation of Shetland from the earldom of Orkney in 1195. Institutions in Shetland and Orkney which differ often date from the post-separation period.[44]

Our second indication may lie in two more Shetland -ting names, now obsolete, but recorded in documents of the early fourteenth century and never again mentioned. In September 1321 the archbishop of Nidaros presented priests to two parishes in the diocese of Orkney, called 'Þvæitaþing' and 'Rauðarþing'. According to a related document Þvæitaþing was in Shetland, and we may assume that Rauðarþing was here as well.[45] I suspect that these names have disappeared without trace not because they are ancient, but because, as Fellows-Jensen suggests, they were modern. I propose that they didn't 'catch on', and fell out of use.

Jakobsen suggested that Þvæitaþing might have been 'the "Westside" [of Shetland] … where all the farms named Twatt … are to be found'; and that Rauðarþing was maybe 'the north part of Northmavine … which formerly must have been called *Rø, as the northmost part of it is called "North Roe"'.[46] If he is right, and his proposals are reasonable, it sounds as if most (if not all) of Shetland's districts got -ting names, but that only those in the amorphous central mainland of the islands continued in use.

We can now speculate about how Shetland's -ting names, including Þvæitaþing and Rauðarþing, came into existence. Given the dates of the last two, I propose that we may be looking at a reorganisation like the one that we know was carried out by Duke Hakon Magnusson in Shetland's fiscal affairs. Hakon, no doubt with the assistance of Shetlanders, abolished Shetland's 'Orcadian' land-units and rental and taxation arrangements around 1300, and replaced them with local ones.[47] What is more likely than that he founded and named our modern parishes as well? I suggest that Shetland's ting-parishes were a result of the new broom that Hakon and his servants were wielding everywhere in Shetland around 1300. It is far less likely that names like Delting were created later than that. The chaotic period from the Black Death to 1490, when our -ting names begin to appear in documents, is not a time when we should expect major change in the local polity.

There are those who imagine that parishes and their boundaries are ancient and unalterable. The Orkney antiquary Storer Clouston, writing about Shetland and Orkney parishes, was one of them. 'Bounded by the marches of a heathen lord's jurisdiction,' he announced, 'the parish minister visits his flock today; hard by the site of the temple where that forgotten chieftain sacrificed to Thor, he preaches on a Sunday'. [48] But Peter Sawyer has reminded us that such boundaries, fixed as they likely were at a time when tithe came to be paid, need not be ancient at all.[49] Usually we have no record of them until the nineteenth century.

My proposal, then, is that Shetland's parish tings date from around 1300: that is, that they postdated Shetland's connexion with the earldom of Orkney, and were coeval with Shetland's lawting. It may be that the establishment of the lawting, and of our parishes and their district courts, plus the assessment of land for rent, and perhaps even tithe,[50] were part of the same official programme. [51]

We have a relatively early record of a local ting in action. On midsummer's day in 1538 a court met at Gardie in the island of Yell, to consider a problem about land.[52] It was a glittering occasion. The lawman of Shetland presided, with lawrightmen from Unst and Yell, and a dozen assessors, at least one of them from Unst as well: in other words, it was more than a merely parochial meeting. A representative of the king was present too, and the main party in the case, Gervald Williamson, a Shetlander living in Norway, was installed (illegally) as lawman of Shetland by Christian of Denmark a year later.[53]

I used to wonder if Gardiesting, at the shore at Gardie, might be a ting-site, the very place where the ting sat in 1538. It is spelled Gardiestaing on the Ordnance Survey Map,[54] but there is no taing (tongue of land) there today. It may even have been part of the land won by Gervald in the 1538 case.[55] But we should beware of uncorroborated place name information. The earliest reference to the place is in a document of 1812, which reveals that a merchant called William Spence of Gardie had built business premises there in 1754.[56] A closer look at Gardiesting makes me suspect that the topography there has changed, no doubt in connexion with Spence's mercantile activities, and with those of his successors: it was a busy place for a long time. [57] Perhaps there had been a taing there after all. Certainly, 'Gardie's taing' would have been an appropriate name of a typical Shetland kind for Spence's base. The ting of Gardie is a tempting notion, but it isn't sustainable.

The 1538 meeting gives us an idea how a local ting in Shetland might have operated. There are later records of district courts in Shetland, but they postdate the disappearance of the lawman, and the arrival of Robert Stewart in the islands. By that time, if we keep in mind what was happening to the lawting, things were changing. Robert and Patrick Stewart attended the district courts, but it is difficult to imagine such noblemen sitting in judgment in the open air. Perhaps even local people ceased to relish meeting outdoors on such occasions. Earl Patrick's courts seem to have met in his local officials' houses. The court of Nesting met at Neap in 1602-4, for instance.[58] But it likely did so because the foud of Nesting, William Manson, lived there, rather than because Neap (as we have seen) had been an old ting-site.

5.

Trying to understand the organisation of justice in Shetland before Magnus Lawmender's time is a near-hopeless task. I have portrayed a system of lawting and district tings in Shetland from the late 13th century on, the result of Magnus's new law code and his son's reforms here. But what preceded it is obscure, and may well have been less orderly. I conclude with some notes on the subject.

Our best information about that distant period may be a document and some place names. In Bergen in September 1490 a division took place of the property of the nobleman Hans Sigurdsson.[59] Hans had had lands in Shetland, and the assessors of 1490 listed them along with the rest of his large estate. They must have taken their information from a much older document, because the lands on Shetland's Westside are said to be in 'Vogafiordwngh', and others in the north of Shetland to be in Mawedes 'otting', divisions unknown in any later record.

There is no puzzle about the nature of these Shetland districts: they were quarters and eighths of the islands, old administrative units known in Norway and elsewhere. 'Vogafiordwngh' means the 'voes' or Waas quarter; Mawedes 'otting' the eighth at the narrow isthmus, the physical feature - Mavis Grind - that now gives its name to the parish of Northmavine.

These divisions, whatever pieces of Shetland they comprised, precisely, must have been ancient. They do not resemble any Shetland districts of more recent times. In Norway quarters and eighths were parts of a whole 'fylke' or province, and were early in date. [60] Norway's Gulating law contains references to quarter-tings as well as the tings of the whole fylke.[61]

Shetland had another old division: the herað, which appears in several place names as 'Herra'. There are Herra-names in Yell, Fetlar, Lunnasting and Tingwall, and they refer to largish districts: the In Herra and Oot Herra in Mid Yell, for instance, comprises all the townships on the east and west sides of the big inlet called Whalfirth. Once again the division might have a ting: there is a reference to a ' heraðs þing' in Magnus Lawmender's code of 1274,[62] and there were still faint echoes of the idea in Shetland 600 years later. In the 1890s Jakob Jakobsen visited Fetlar, and '[d]uring my stay …' he wrote, 'an elderly woman living there told me that, according to an old tradition, the Isle ... was formerly divided into three small districts, each with its own thing, the present "Herra" being one of them.'[63] The connexion made by that woman between the Herra and the law is very striking.

Finally, we must consider Shetland's Gallows Hills. There are more than a dozen of them, in every part of the islands, [64] reminders of sites where local rough justice was carried out. Two of them are called Gulga and Wilga, from Old Norse gálgi, simply meaning gallows. Except in one case they do not bear much relationship to later or ting-sites, if any at all, and, once again, we may assume that they are early.

The exception is the Gallows Hill that lours over the valley of Tingwall, a mile south-west of Tingaholm, in the middle of yet another district called the Herra.[65] Perhaps the holm in the Tingwall Loch had been a heraðs ting, probably a pre-eminent one - maybe an althing! part of an archaic system of law courts in the islands, with its gallows nearby, long before a central lawting came into existence in the islands.

6.

It's time to sum up. Shetland might have had an althing, a general assembly of free men, during the centuries after the Scandinavian settlement of the islands. If so, it probably met at Tingwall. Sometime in that early period Shetland was divided into administrative units called quarters and eighths, but also into much smaller ones called heraðs, which may have had their own tings.

In the late 13th century Magnus Hakonsson's new law code came into use in the islands, and royal officials took control. First the regime established a lawting at Tingwall, where the new laws, and revisions to them, were promulgated. But if sheriffs and lawmen were to visit district tings, as we find Thorvald Thoresson doing in the North Isles around 1306,[66] there would have been a need to streamline things. A system of multiple herað-tings would have been too burdensome to administer efficiently. [67] It looks as if that is why our new district tings came into existence, at Delting and elsewhere: as part of a thorough reformation by Hakon Magnusson of public life in the islands. 300 years later Earl Patrick Stewart was still travelling around Shetland's local tings, in his sedan chair, and using the Magnus code there and at his lawting.

Notes

[1] I am very grateful to John Ballantyne, Barbara Crawford, Steinar Imsen, Laureen Johnson, Elizabeth Morewood, Alex Sanmark, Jørn Sunde, Ian Tait, Willie Thomson and Doreen Waugh, for useful information and comments.

For a classic account see George Webbe Dasent, The Story of Burnt Njal, 1, Edinburgh 1861, pp. cxxiii-clxx.

[2] Thomas M.Y. Manson, Manson's Guide to Shetland, Lerwick 1936, p.154.

[3] James R. Nicolson, Shetland, Newton Abbot 1975, p.40.

[4] Samuel Hibbert, A Description of the Shetland Islands, Edinburgh 1822, p.276.

[5] Samuel Hibbert, 'Memoir on the tings of Orkney and Shetland', Archaeologia Scotica, 3, 1831, pp.103-210.

[6] Gilbert Goudie, 'The fouds, lawrightmen, and ranselmen of Shetland parishes', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 26, 1891-2, p.204.

[7] Hibbert, Description, pp.269-70.

[8] George Low, A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland, Kirkwall 1879, p.154.

[9] See my notes on the subject in Olwyn Owen and Christopher Lowe, Kebister: the four-thousand-year-old story of one Shetland township, Edinburgh 1999, pp.296, 307.

[10] Hibbert, 'Memoir on the tings', pp.179-80.

[11] Hibbert, Description, p.278. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland. Inventory of Shetland, Edinburgh 1946, no. 1574, cites a note by James T. Irvine that on a rock at Gunnister in Unst, next to another prehistoric monument, 'was held the earliest Law Ting Court in Shetland, afterwards removed to Tingwall'. This is a variant of Hibbert's tale about Crussafield.

[12] David Balfour, Oppressions of the Sixteenth Century in the Islands of Orkney and Shetland, Edinburgh 1859, p. xix.

[13] Jakob Jakobsen, The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland: two popular lectures, Lerwick 1897, pp.114-15.

[14] Gillian Fellows-Jensen, 'Tingwall: the significance of the name', in Doreen Waugh, ed., Shetland's Northern Links: language and history, Edinburgh 1996, p.26.

[15] For a good example see Arne Thorsteinsson, 'Hvussu gamalt er grindadrápið?' Varðin, 53, 1986, pp.65-6. He concludes, without any sources, that the Faroese whale grind is as old as human life in those islands. For more thoughts on the syndrome see Brian Smith, Toons and Tenants: settlement and society in Shetland, 1299-1899, Lerwick 2000, pp. xi-xii.

[16] Gustav Storm, ed., Norges Gamle Love indtil 1378, 4, 1885, pp.353-4.

[17] Christian Matras, ed., Seyðabrævið, Tórshavn 1971, p.45.

[18] Steinar Imsen, ' Tingwall and local community power in Shetland during the reign of Håkon Magnusson, duke and king', in Barbara E. Crawford, ed., Papa Stour and 1299: commemorating the 700th anniversary of Shetland's first document, Lerwick 2002, p.69.

[19] John H. Ballantyne and Brian Smith, eds., Shetland Documents 1195-1579, Lerwick 1999, p.196. For more about the seal see Barbara Crawford, 'The Shetland lawthing seal', New Shetlander, no. 127, 1979, pp.22-4.

[20] Steinar Imsen, Norsk Bondekommunalisme fra Magnus Lagabøte til Kristian Kvart: del 2, Lydriketiden, Trondheim 1994, p.259.

[21] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.223.

[22] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.208.

[23] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.200.

[24] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.200.

[25] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.223.

[26] It has usually been assumed that it was Robert's son, Earl Patrick, who transferred the court to Scalloway, after he built a castle there. But there are references to lawtings and other courts being held in the village as early as 1574, under Robert's auspices: Shetland Documents 1195-1579, pp. 167, 200, 233; John H. Ballantyne and Brian Smith, eds., Shetland Documents 1580-1611, Lerwick 1994, pp.49, 62.

[27] Gordon Donaldson, ed., The Court Book of Shetland 1602-1604, Edinburgh 1954, p.144.

[28] Donaldson, Court Book, p.43.

[29] Shetland Documents 1580-1611 , pp.214-15.

[30] Shetland Documents 1580-1611 , pp.261-2.

[31] On 20 August 1612, to be precise: Robert S. Barclay, ed., The Court Book of Orkney and Shetland 1612-1613, Kirkwall 1962, p.18.

[32] John Brand, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland-Firth and Caithness, Edinburgh 1701, p.121.

[33] Low, Tour, p.77. Writing in 1809, Arthur Edmondston said that 'the site of the bench and surrounding seats can still be traced': View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands, 1, p.130.

[34] From an account of the late seventeenth century: J. Bruce, ed., Description of ye Country of Zetland, no prov. 1908, p.18.

[35] Brand, Brief Description, pp.121-2.

[36] Fellows-Jensen, 'Tingwall', p.23.

[37] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.2.

[38] Brand, Brief Description, p.122.

[39] Wendy Davies, '"Protected space" in Britain and Ireland in the middle ages', in Barbara E. Crawford, ed., Scotland in Dark Age Britain , St Andrews 1996, pp.3-5.

[40] Brand, Brief Description, p.122.

[41] National Archives of Scotland, RS45/7 folios 417-18, instrument of sasine of 11 August 1713 in favour of James Halcro and Laurence and George Tullochs.

[42] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.267; National Archives of Scotland, E41/7, folio 8v.

[43] Edmondston, View, 1, p.132. 'Neeps-' is presumably a translation of the genitive plural gnípna- into a Scots plural. For a parallel see the name j Stufum (dative plural) in an Orkney document of 1329, which becomes Stowis in documents of the 16th century (Stews in South Ronaldsay): Hugh Marwick, Orkney Farm-Names, Kirkwall 1952, p.174. I am grateful to Peder Gammeltoft for assistance with *Gnípnaþing and j Stufum.

[44] Brian Smith, Toons and Tenants, p.6.

[45] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , pp.3-4.

[46] Jakob Jakobsen, The Place-Names of Shetland, London and Copenhagen 1936, p.126.

[47] Smith, Toons, chapter 1.

[48] J. Storer Clouston, ed., Records of the Earldom of Orkney, Edinburgh 1914, p.432.

[49] Peter Sawyer, 'Dioceses and parishes in twelfth-century Scandinavia', in Barbara E. Crawford, ed., St Magnus' Cathedral and Orkney's Twelfth-Century Renaissance, Aberdeen 1988, pp.41-2.

[50] My suggestion about tithe may seem far-fetched. But when we first have detailed accounts of Shetland tithe-payments, in Smyth's rental of 1628 (National Archives of Scotland, E41/7), we find that they take almost exactly the same form as those of rent and tax. This is an extremely unusual form for tithe-payments. The rent, tax and tithe have been assessed on the basis of the local unit the 'last of land', which is descended from the markebol - the unit, I have argued, that was used in Hakon Magnusson's valuation of c.1300: see Smith, Toons and Tenants, chapters 1-2.

[51] David Balfour thought that he had found a reference to a ting called a 'varding' in the complaint of 1577 (Oppressions, p.71). That might have led the unwary to imagine that Shetland had had a series of 'voar' tings, held at spring-time, like the 'vár-þing ' of Iceland. But scrutiny of the original document shows that the reading is 'fauding ting' (Shetland Documents 1195-1579, p.215), perhaps referring to a court conducted by a foud or bailie. Amusingly, Balfour thought that a 'varding' might be a 'Vard-thing' ( Oppressions, p.129), presumably a ting held on top of a ward hill. The proceedings would have been even more chilly than usual.

[52] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , pp.40-2.

[53] For Gervald's adventure see Shetland Documents 1195-1579, p.44, and C.C.A. Lange, ed., Norske Rigsregistranter, 1, 1861, p.57. The note to the entry about him in Shetland Documents is inaccurate.

[54] Ironically, by the late 17th century some Shetland writers were beginning to think that ting-names in Shetland were actually taing-names. Inc.1680 a writer about Delting thought that the place was 'so called, because it is a Dale with a Tang or Ness' (Bruce, Description, p.78); and in c.1790 the minister of Tingwall imagined that his parish was called after 'the Law-Taing', 'a point of land stretching out into the water' below his manse (Donald J. Withrington and Ian R. Grant eds., The Statistical Account of Scotland, 19, Wakefield 1978, p.484). Meanwhile, Hibbert's map of Shetland ting-sites in his 'Memoir', p.126, contains several taings, and even Gruting (grýtingr, a stony stretch)!

[55] It was part of 15 of 24 merks of land in Gardie owned by the Scott family: National Archives of Scotland, RS47/4, folio 166, instrument of sasine in favour of David Spence. David Scott of Reafirth acquired 7½ of the 15 merks from Gervald's daughter in 1574: Shetland Documents 1195-1579, pp.161-2.

[56] National Archives of Scotland, RS47/4, folio 166.

[57] I am grateful to Elizabeth Morewood for discussing Gardiesting, her home, with me, and John Ballantyne for assistance about the documents.

[58] Donaldson, Court Book, pp.1, 65. It is interesting that in 1604, when Earl Patrick himself presided at the Nesting court, it met at Brough (p.131), almost certainly at the home of the great landowner Hew Sinclair (despite the fact that the two weren't on good terms. Presumably Patrick put his foot down.)

[59] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , pp.21-3.

[60] Rolf Fladby, 'Attung' (Norway), and Magnús Már Lárusson, 'Fjerding' (Norway), Kulturhistorisk Leksikon for Nordisk Middelalder, 1, 1980, column 278, and 4, 1981, columns 379-80.

[61] R. Keyser and P.A. Munch, eds., Norges Gamle Love indtil 1378, 1, Christiania 1846, pp.21, 88.

[62] R. Keyser and P.A. Munch, eds., Norges Gamle Love indtil 1378, 2, Christiania 1848, p.127.

[63] Jakobsen, Dialect and Place Names, p.126n.

[64] Brian Smith, 'Gibbets and gallows: rough justice in Shetland, 800-1700', http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/09/gibbets_and_gal.html. The paper needs correction about some matters of fact, but gives an outline of the problem.

[65] For an early reference to this 'Harray' see Shetland Documents 1195-1579, p.35. The hill of Herrislee, to the north-east of Tingaholm, also preserves the word.

[66] Shetland Documents 1195-1579 , p.2.

[67] I am very grateful to Jørn Sunde for discussion about this point.

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