By Alastair HamiltonOctober 26th 2020
Alastair Hamilton

Shetland has inspired an extraordinary volume of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, for a community of its size.

In fiction and poetry, many local writers have been active over the years, but the islands have also attracted the attention of authors from farther afield, ranging from Sir Walter Scott to Ann Cleeves.

This time, we look at what’s to be found in the non-fiction section, where the range of topics and writers is extensive; one article can’t possibly encompass everything that’s on offer.

Natural history

It’s no surprise that writers have extolled the islands’ rich natural history. Alongside Simon King’s very enjoyable Shetland Diaries (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010), a number of other books stand out, with birds very much the focus. Among them, the most comprehensive is The Birds of Shetland (published by Christopher Helm, 2004), compiled by seven of Shetland’s best-known ornithologists. It’s replete with photographs, line drawings, maps and graphs and is a must for the serious bird-watcher.

More recently, Paul Harvey and Rebecca Nason gave us Discover Shetland’s Birds (Shetland Heritage Publications, 2015; reviewed here) a photographic guide to all our feathered residents and migrants; and the photographs are simply superb. Also well worth tracking down is Seabirds and Seals (The Shetland Times, 2019), Jonathan Wills’ enjoyable and thought-provoking account of his 25 years as a wildlife guide; my review is here.

Shetland’s botany has been documented in several books. The standard work here is Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Shetland Islands, by Walter Scott and Richard Palmer (The Shetland Times, 1987), a comprehensive and detailed account.

However, Walter Scott (along with Paul Harvey, Roger Riddington and Morag Fisher) added another guide in 2003, Rare Plants of Shetland (Shetland Biological Records Centre), which homes in on 138 of the islands’ rarest plants. Another concise guide is A Photographic Guide to Shetland’s Wild Flowers (The Shetland Times, 2012) by David Malcolm.

Staying with the natural world, we have an astonishingly complex geology packed into a land area that’s slightly smaller than Greater London’s. An excellent introduction to it is A Photographic Guide to Shetland’s Geology, by David Malcolm and Robina R Barton (The Shetland Times, 2015). The authors lead us through 2,900 million years that saw continents drift, collide and separate. They explain just why Shetland’s geology is so complicated, featuring as it does the remains of mountain ranges, volcanic rocks, a major geological fault line and even deserts.

Human history

Shetland’s human history and pre-history have received lots of attention. Human occupation of Shetland began around 5,000 years ago and the islands are rich in archaeological remains; several sites are outstanding by any standard. It’s no surprise, then, that those with an interest in archaeology are very well served. As Shetland’s archaeologist, Val Turner, wrote in The Shaping of Shetland (published by The Shetland Times in 1998), “Shetland has been lucky enough, or attractive enough, to attract some of the very best landscape archaeologists to her shores.”

Several introductions are accessible to the non-specialist, such as Noel Fojut’s Guide to Prehistoric and Viking Shetland (The Shetland Times, 1993), but there are also detailed accounts of the major excavations that have taken place in the islands, notably at Jarlshof and Old Scatness. Papers are available from conferences that have taken place over the years, for example Shetland and the Viking World, the material from the 17th Viking Congress held in Shetland in 2013 (Shetland Heritage Publications, 2016).

There is, as yet, no single, comprehensive history of Shetland, but there is a rich selection of more focused accounts.

In Toons and Tenants (The Shetland Times, 2000) Shetland’s Archivist, Brian Smith, explores settlement and society between 1299 and 1899. He looks at land divisions and rents, beginning with a fascinating account of a dispute that arose in Papa Stour in 1299. Later, he goes on to examine how Shetlanders were forced by their landlords to fish for them and he chronicles the clearances, to make way for sheep farming, that took place in the 19th century.

Shetland’s position has been strategic in times of conflict, and during two world wars was the base for thousands of service personnel, aircraft and ships. In Shetland and The Great War (The Shetland Times, 2015), Dr Linda Riddell provides a gripping and detailed account of the islands’ experience during the First World War, including such extraordinary events as the arrest of the entire Post Office workforce.

During the Second World War, Shetland was the centre of operations for a covert operation in which the crews of small Norwegian fishing vessels braved the North Sea during the winter months to support the resistance to Nazi occupation of Norway. That story is brilliantly told in David Howarth’s book, named after the operation, The Shetland Bus (Gardners Books, 1998)

Another excellent insight into an aspect of Shetland’s history is provided by John Goodlad in The Cod Hunters (Shetland Heritage Publications, 2017) in which John tells the story of that part of Shetland’s fishing tradition and shows how it’s linked to the fisheries in Faroe and off Greenland. It’s thoroughly researched and full of detail about the personalities involved. You can read my review here.

Family Histories

Many other Shetland books offer insights into personalities long gone and two in particular come to mind. In Gardie, a Shetland House and its People (The Shetland Times, 2007), Wendy Scott provides an absorbing account of the house of Gardie, dating from 1724, which faces Lerwick from its position on the island of Bressay. Some notable visitors passed this way, including Sir Walter Scott and Sir John Betjeman, who described the drawing room as among the finest rooms in Scotland.

Another fascinating family’s story is told by J Laughton Johnston in Victorians 60° North (The Shetland Times, 2007). Centred on the five Edmonston brothers, born in the late 18th century, it follows them and their successors over the following two centuries. This was a family who achieved much, as doctors, naturalists, poets and novelists. It’s a story of love, tinged with tragedy, and it reaches all the way from Unst to the Galapagos. As at Gardie, the family had visits from notable figures of the time, who in this case included several leading scientists. They provided information about Shetland species to Charles Darwin.

Many of the sites that feature in Shetland’s story are illustrated in David Malcolm’s A Photographic Guide to Shetland’s History (The Shetland Times, 2018), and the book also offers short essays on many aspects of the islands’ heritage, from the Mesolithic period to the arrival of oil and gas.

Food and cooking

Domestic matters aren’t neglected, either. Food and cooking are as much a passion here as anywhere else, and of course the freshness of seafood and the unique qualities of Shetland lamb have inspired local and visiting chefs.

Charlie Simpson’s In Da Galley (The Shetland Times, 2000) is essential reading for anyone wanting to make the best of what Shetland’s larder has to offer, with seafood particularly in mind. Arranged seasonally, beginning in Hairst (autumn), it’s not simply a list of recipes. Instead, Charlie offers a series of short essays that explain the background to particular ingredients, with instructions and Shetland travellers’ tales woven into the story.

Another must-have is the more recent Shetland Food and Cooking, by Marian Armitage (The Shetland Times, 2014.) Again, this isn’t just a straightforward recipe collection; it begins with an account of dairy production and the history of the Shetland cow, then explores the range and potential of Shetlland’s fish, meat and vegetables. There are lots of recipes, too, some of them traditional, such as Krappin and Stap, which use combinations of oatmeal, fish and fish livers. However, Marian is inspired by a wide range of other influences, so there’s rösti, Armenian lamb and clafoutis, among many other things. All of them, of course, use Shetland produce.

For another take on Shetland food, the facsimile edition of Cookery For Northern Wives, by Margaret B Stout (Shetland Heritage Publications) is well worth dipping into. It was first published in 1925 and draws on the author’s deep understanding of food traditions in the islands. In its pages, we come across such recipes as Liver Krus (fish livers in a dough cup that’s roasted on the hearth); vivda (air-dried mutton); and Stooins (the green tops from young cabbages, boiled).

There’s hardly a topic that isn’t covered somewhere on the Shetland bookshelf. The challenges of gardening at 60° North are fully explained in The Impossible Garden (The Shetland Times, 2004), Rosa Steppanova’s journey through the seasons in the remarkable gardens that she has created. At Tresta, in the west mainland, visitors admire a wonderful collection of plants that demonstrate just how much can be done in a Shetland garden, provided that the vital ingredient, shelter, is in place.

For a practical guide to growing things, Alec Henry’s lavishly-illustrated Horticulture on the Edge (The Shetland Times, 2012) is essential reading. It’s not only a really helpful guide to what will grow in Shetland, but also all the skills and equipment needed to be a successful gardener.

Travel, walking and photographic guides

All the well-known travel guides to Scotland or the Highlands and Islands feature coverage of Shetland, although there may be limited detail and (depending on the publisher’s revision schedule) information may be somewhat dated.

For a fuller account, The Shetland Guide Book, by Charles Tait (Charles Tait Guide Books, 2018) is a good choice. Another option, older but very informative and with good maps and photographs, is Jill Slee Blackadder’s Shetland (Colin Baxter Photography Ltd, 2003)

For those who want to explore the islands on foot, the seven volumes in Peter Guy’s series, Walking The Coastline of Shetland (The Shetland Times, various dates) are indispensable. They cover virtually all the coastline and the guidance is very practical, aided by many plans, photographs and maps.

If you have space on a coffee table, a number of larger-format, well-illustrated accounts of the islands have been published over the years. Examples include Shetland: Land of the Ocean, by Colin Baxter and Jim Crumley (Colin Baxter Photography Limited, 1992) and the almost exclusively photographic Sips of Shetland, by Didier Piquer and David Cooper (VisitShetland, 2007). Whether or not you read French, it’s well worth seeking out Georges Dif’s classic Shetland: terre de vent (Editions Milan, 1989). Aside from wonderful photographs, it features an extraordinarily comprehensive bibliography (in English), with a particular focus on natural history, from a Frenchman who clearly fell in love with Shetland.

…And that’s not all

There are, of course, many more books that explore and document aspects of the islands’ culture and traditions, from boats to music and knitwear. There are biographies and autobiographies, too; but all of those will have to await another article.

The bookshelf marked “fiction” also awaits exploration and, in a future piece, I’ll look at some of the literature and poetry that Shetland has inspired, including dialect writing and dictionaries.

Not all the books featured in this article are still in print. However, they should be available in libraries, or on inter-library loan. For a current list of Shetland books, the best place to look is the Shetland Times Bookshop, where you can order online.

Happy reading!