Aye, and Cheap Too – It Happened Today, February 20, 2017

What could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? Bleak, remote, picturesque, the ideal location for a hardy folk and their hardy ponies. By reputation the Scots won’t go rock climbing unless they have "full conditions" namely rain and wind that deter even other people crazy enough to rock climb. Och aye mon.

It is therefore a bit surprising to learn that both these island chains, which to my shame I hadn’t realized were northeast of John o’ Groats in the ancestral county of Caithness to which I have not been, itself allegedly more than a little remote, belonged to Norway until the 15th century.

Of course a lot of things "belonged" to Norway in the sense of having been seized by ferocious Vikings over the previous millennium or so. (And parenthetically I often wonder how those who feel that within North America we should do a kind of ethnic reset of landholdings to 1500 think we should undo the impact of those raids, invasions and random chaos.) But these two island chains, it turns out, wound up in Scottish hands via a pawn shop.

Perhaps you don’t fancy your chances of wandering into such an establishment with "Mainland" and its cousins (yes, "Mainland" is the largest of the Shetlands) under your coat and hoping the man at the desk will advance some money without a lot of questions about provenance. But it actually is what happened on February 20 of 1469 when Christian I of Norway put them up as security because he was having trouble scraping together a dowry for his daughter Margaret to marry James III of Scotland in what I suppose was regarded on both sides as a shrewd dynastic move.

It wasn’t. James III’s grandiose European schemes were of no benefit to Norway or his own people who he didn’t bother trying to govern well. And like so many of the Stuarts’ cunning plans James III’s ended badly, with his death in battle against rebellious nobles in 1488. (His son James IV was killed in the disastrous defeat by the English at Flodden. His son James V died shortly after the disastrous defeat by the English at Solway Moss. But I digress.)

The point is that Christian I pawned the islands and never redeemed them, Norway apparently becoming less interested in these picturesque rocks after unifying with Denmark which was bigger, warmer and less inaccessible. In 1472 they were officially annexed to the Scottish crown.

So what could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? I’ll tell you. Getting them in a pawn shop for a bargain price.