By Alastair HamiltonNovember 25th 2020
Alastair Hamilton

Shetland has long stimulated writers of both fiction and non-fiction. There is much to enjoy in the fiction section, as well as a remarkable range of poetry.

The history of Shetland’s literature is thoroughly and thoughtfully explored by Mark Ryan Smith in The Literature of Shetland (The Shetland Times, 2014). He makes the point that, whilst story-telling, song and folklore must have been part of life here for a very long time, the disappearance of the old Norn language meant that the prose and poetry in which it would have been composed – whether or not written down – disappeared too. Shetland does feature in Norse sagas, but not in a central role, and otherwise the record is fragmentary.

Printing and publishing only began in Shetland in the second half of the 19th century; indeed, less than two centuries ago, the first, short-lived local newspaper was printed in London. Today, we’re well aware of the benefits of having local publishers. In particular, the Shetland Times Ltd has made a huge contribution to the development of Shetland’s rich library.

Local writers did begin to make some impact during the 19th century but it was Sir Walter Scott who put the islands on the literary map. He visited in 1814 and, eight years later, he went on to publish The Pirate, a novel set in the islands. Scott was fascinated by Shetland’s Scandinavian connections and was familiar with Scandinavian literature. He was much less sure-footed when it came to the islands’ history, but that didn’t stop The Pirate becoming a best-seller.

It’s to Scott that we owe the name of one of our finest archaeological sites: long before its riches were uncovered, he christened the old house at Sumburgh ‘Jarlshof’, and it stuck.

With the arrival of local publishing towards the end of the century, there was a dramatic increase in local writing. In Shetland – and across Scotland – it was often enriched by the use of local dialects. For example, here is James Stout Angus (1830-1923) writing about a daisy (kokkilurie):

Dey wir a peerie white kokkilurie ‘at grew

At da side o da lodberry waa;

Hit wid open hits lips ta da moarneen dew,

An close dem at nicht whin da caald wind blew,

An rowe up hits frills in a peerie round clew

As white as da flukkra snaw.

Lodberries are those jetties (literally, ‘loading stones’) with stores and houses from which traders worked; flukkra is a wonderful word for the largest snowflakes, which seems to me to capture perfectly the way they float down in thick clouds.

Another writer was one of the remarkable family of Edmondstons, generations of whom – practising mostly as naturalists and doctors – have lived in Unst. Jessie Margaret Edmondston Saxby (1842-1940) was atypical of writers of her time. Born in Unst, her husband’s fragile health prompted a move to Argyll and, after his early death, she moved to Edinburgh, returning to Unst in her fifties. Not only did she make a living from writing, with almost fifty books and hundreds of articles to her name, she also wrote mostly in English rather than dialect and introduced a strong element of adventure, infused with Viking sentiments. An extract from The Saga Book of Lunda appears above.

She supported the suffragette movement and some of her writing explored the circumstances of a Shetland woman of her time.

Saxby’s writing influenced a young Basil Anderson (1861-1888), who sadly did not survive tuberculosis at the age of just 26. He is noted for a striking contribution to Shetland literature, Auld Maunsie’s Crü, in which the creation and evolution of the crü – a Shetland stone-built shelter for growing kale – becomes invested with much deeper and enduring significance.

Had Anderson lived longer, perhaps he might have produced a body of work to equal that of an acknowledged master of Shetland literature, J J Haldane Burgess (1862-1927). Today, we’re annually reminded of him by the words he wrote for the Up Helly A’ song, but there is much, much more to his work. Born in Lerwick, he lived in the town all his life, except when he was at university in Edinburgh; before going there, he had already written the first book ever printed in Shetland.

A linguist whose portfolio included Esperanto, he accomplished what he did despite going blind while still a student. He found rich stimulation for innovative dialect writing in the lives of working people and drew on Scandinavian inspiration, too. In his outstanding Rasmie’s Büddie, he created a collection of dialect writing, and a character, that influenced not only his immediate contemporaries but also those who came after him.

The next major figure in the Shetland literary landscape was not from the islands. Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) was the pen-name of Christopher Grieve. A native of Dumfriesshire, he and his second wife, Valda Trevelin, lived in Shetland from 1933 until he was called to work in a munitions factory during the Second World War. They rented a cottage on the island of Whalsay that’s still known as the Grieve House. Of all the novelties of Shetland life, it was the landscape that stimulated his best work, including On a Raised Beach. Here’s a short extract:

Deep conviction or preference can seldom

Find direct terms in which to express itself.

Today on this shingle shelf

I understand this pensive reluctance so well,

This not discommendable obstinacy,

These contrivances of an inexpressive critical feeling,

These stones with their resolve that Creation shall not be

Injured by iconoclasts and quacks. Nothing has stirred

Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago

But one bird.

As Mark Ryan Smith affirms, It would be impossible to write about Shetland literature without acknowledging the impact of The New Shetlander, now older than any literary magazine in Scotland. It first appeared in March 1947 and it has provided a platform and a stimulus for Shetland writers ever since. The first edition launched competitions for both dialect and English writing, one of them on the theme of “The Shetland I’d like to see”, and the choices that confront people and their governments has been one of the magazine’s themes.

The work of dozens of writers has appeared in its pages. Not all of them have been from Shetland: there were early contributions from nationally-known figures including MacDiarmid, Naomi Mitchison, Maurice Lindsay and George Mackay Brown. But Shetland writing naturally took centre stage and in the magazine’s first fifty years, a number of local contributors stood out, including T A Robertson (writing as Vagaland); Billy Tait; Rhoda Bulter; brothers (and for a time joint editors) Laurence (Lollie) Graham and John Graham; and Stella Sutherland.

John Graham is remembered for his many contributions to Shetland life and literature; among them were The Shetland Dictionary (The Shetland Publishing Company, 1979) and two novels, Shadowed Valley (Shetland Publishing Company, 1987) and Strife in the Valley (Shetland Publishing Company, 1992). Both are set in the district of Weisdale, in the west central mainland. The first chronicles the clearances that took place there in the 1840s, when crofters were displaced to make way for sheep farming. Strife in the Valley is set earlier, in the 1780s, when the community faced other hazards, including the Royal Navy’s press gangs.

More recently, the writing of further local contributors has featured, including Christine de Luca, Robert Alan Jamieson and Laureen Johnson. Other authors and poets have made a home here too, including Sheenagh Pugh and Jen Hadfield.

An excellent recent anthology of Shetland writing is Bright Pebbles: Poetry and Prose from Shetland (Shetland Islands Council, 2010). It offers the work of a host of Shetland writers – more than 50 of them – and if proof were needed of the extent and variety of the islands’ literature, there is no better evidence.

Jen Hadfield was the youngest-ever winner of the T S Eliot Prize in 2008 for her poetry collection, Nigh-No-place, locating Shetland as prominently on the British poetical map as in MacDiarmid’s heyday. She has won several other awards. Her poetry and her other creative endeavours are mostly energised by her surroundings. However, she casts her inspirational net much wider: it has stretched (in Singing / Breathing /Trembling) to Mexican Nahua rainbow lore preserved in the Florentine Codex. Her most recent collection is Byssus (Picador, 2014) but a further volume, The Stone Age (Picador) will appear in early 2021.

Another young Shetland poet, who in 2018 won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, is Roseanne Watt. My review of her collection, Moder Dy (Mother Wave) can be found here. Roseanne, based in Edinburgh these days, moves between Shetland (or Shaetlan) and English in a way that one reviewer described as ‘never less than natural’, and her compositions are informed by a deep understanding of Shetland tradition and superstition and there’s an excellent dialect glossary. However, she takes inspiration from elsewhere, too, as in Fox.

Many other authors are active, indeed it would take another article to do justice to them all. They include, for example, the wide-ranging novels of Alastair Christie-Johnson or the portraits of Shetland life drawn by Kari Williamson or Laureen Johnson.

Though there’s great variety in much of the writing of those I’ve mentioned already, there’s also a continuity flowing from the shared experience of living in Shetland and responding imaginatively to the islands’ landscape, weather, wildlife and community.

Those elements are recognisable in the most recent genre to be set in Shetland: murder mysteries. Murder is fortunately very rare in the islands so, as a credible setting for a string of murders, the islands are perhaps an even more unlikely choice than the fictional county of Midsomer. But that hasn’t prevented two authors from bestowing on their readers - in excellent novels - a body count that runs a long way into double figures.

Ann Cleeves’ series of mysteries, featuring a Shetland detective, Jimmy Perez, have been hugely successful. The eight Shetland novels began with Raven Black, published in 2006, which won a Gold Dagger Award, and continued with White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009), Blue Lightning (2010), Dead Water (2013), Thin Air (2014), Cold Earth (2016) and Wild Fire (2018). All are published by Pan MacMillan.

Four of them were the foundation for the BBC television dramas and the characters continue to inhabit further series of Shetland, which has won audiences all over the world. Five seasons have already been broadcast and shooting for the sixth and seventh, delayed by the Covid pandemic, will take place in 2021. All of this attention has attracted many visitors to Shetland for the first time, keen to visit the locations used in the series.

Marsali Taylor, who lives in Shetland’s west mainland and came to Shetland to work as a teacher, has so far also written eight crime mysteries, beginning with Death on a Longship (2012), which was followed by The Trowie Mound Murders (2014), A Handful of Ash (2014), The Body in the Bracken (2015), Ghosts of the Vikings (2016), Death in Shetland Waters (2017), Death on a Shetland Isle (2018) and Death from a Shetland Cliff (2020). Death on a Shetland Croft will follow in 2021 and Death in a Shetland Park is in preparation. All are published by Headline Accent.

The stories feature Cass Lynch, who – like Marsali Taylor herself – is a keen yachtswoman. The narratives benefit from the author’s intimate geographical and cultural knowledge of Shetland, not to mention her familiarity with the sea and sailing. Ann Cleeves has praised these Shetland Sailing Mysteries as “a must-read for anyone who loves the sea, or islands, or joyous, intricate story-telling.”

Surveying the shelves in the Shetland Times Bookshop, it’s astonishing just how much writing the islands have stimulated from authors from the islands and from farther afield. Whether you’re interested in non-fiction, for example about Shetland’s natural environment or human history, or are looking for absorbing novels or endlessly varied poetry, there’s something for everyone. You can buy books online from the bookshop, helping to support one of our local businesses and, of course, the writers.