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Northern Lights – Scottish Review of Books
by Malachy Tallack

Northern Lights

August 3, 2014 | by Malachy Tallack

IN my second year at university, in a tutorial that had touched on the work of Edwin Muir, I was asked a difficult question. Remembering that he had an islander in the class, our tutor – Dr Reid, he was – turned to me and grinned. ‘So,’ he said, ‘why has Shetland not produced a writer like Edwin Muir, or like George Mackay Brown?’ I can’t remember quite how I answered, though I do still recall the uncomfortable pause that preceded my response. Had I been more cocky I might have dismissed the question as ridiculous. After all, Shetland has a population of 22,000, roughly equivalent to that of Elgin or Bishopbriggs. Its lack of literary giants can be blamed, indisputably, on its lack of people. But what lay behind Dr Reid’s question was something rather more than good-humoured provocation. It was a point with a barb. For the failure of my home islands to produce writers of world renown is indeed notable, but only because Orkney and the Western Isles have produced so many. We have been shown up, if you will, by the success of our neighbours.

Over the past hundred years, Scotland’s islands have between them enriched its literature to a degree that far exceeds what might be expected from such limited populations. Consider, for example, Alexander Moffat’s painting, Poets’ Pub, which brings together eight of the country’s most significant literary figures from the latter half of last century. Of those eight, three are islanders – Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith – and the work of a fourth, Norman MacCaig, was strongly influenced by the culture and language of his Scalpay-born mother. The painting’s central figure, Hugh MacDiarmid, is not often thought of as an island writer but, according to Mark Smith, the poet’s nine-year residence in Whalsay should not be forgotten. It is an important chapter in his life, as well as in the story of Shetland literature.

In The Literature of Shetland, which tells that story, Smith does not attempt to answer Dr Reid’s lingering question. He does not begin from that defensive position. Instead, he acknowledges that the islands are ‘not a presence in any account of Scottish literature’, and then ‘addresses this absence’. In doing so, Smith explores a tradition that is entirely unfamiliar to most Scottish readers, and he brings to light writers who will rarely have been read outside the islands before. That is an important task, and this is a valuable and necessary book.

Shetland literature is young – barely two hundred years old – and it begins in loss. Before 1800, literacy was extremely limited and there was no local media in the islands. The native language, Norn, had died the previous century, and with it the oral poetry that once certainly would have flourished. The first Shetland writers of the modern era, then, did not have an indigenous tradition from which they could draw. They had an absence, and were forced to start anew.

The lack of a literary history was part of the islands’ appeal for Walter Scott. His novel The Pirate, which was largely set in Shetland, appeared in 1822, at precisely the moment that local writers were first considering how to imagine their place. To him, Smith writes, the archipelago was ‘a pristine canvas, a tabula rasa, onto which he could project his Scandinavian-flavoured tale’, and as one of the best-known authors in the world it was inevitable that Scott’s vision of the islands would be influential. Before The Pirate, there is no evidence that locals were eager to emphasise their Norse heritage, but afterwards there is no doubt. That history was to become a key feature of island writing in the years ahead.

The growth of local media and a local readership through the nineteenth century had two important results for Shetland writers: firstly, they could aim their work at an audience already familiar with its subject matter; and secondly, they were no longer restricted to writing in English. In the prose of George Stewart’s Fireside Tales, and the poetry of James Stout Angus, Shetlanders saw their dialect and culture reflected in a literature that was distinctly their own. And in Basil Ramsay Anderson’s poem ‘Auld Maunsie’s Crü’, published in 1888, shortly after his death at the age of 26, islanders had a work that was local in focus but sophisticated in its ideas and its use of language.

Among the writers of that century, the most successful (in financial terms, at least) was Jessie Saxby. Though her work is little read now, it was Saxby who truly took up Scott’s idea of Shetland as a place whose Norse identity was still intact (a place ‘more Scandinavian than Scottish’, as lazy journalists like to repeat). For Saxby, that identity and that history were not just of academic interest, they were about values – in her case, the values of empire. Like many Victorians, Saxby believed that the British Empire had parallels in that of the Vikings. When she said, in 1892, that ‘the Britons of to-day are wonderfully like the sea kings who came and conquered our islands centuries ago’, she was echoing the words of others, such as RM Ballantyne, who twenty years earlier had written that ‘much of what ismanly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!’

But while Saxby’s views were fairly standard among Britain’s ruling class (to which she belonged) there was, among less privileged writers, an alternative and more radical perspective developing. One of the most consistent and characteristic features of Shetland writing has been its political engagement: a socialist streak that sits alongside and often hand-in-hand with its nostalgic one. Among the earliest of these radicals was Laurence James Nicolson, whose single collection Songs of Thule (1894) combined turgid lines praising Shetland’s ‘lone majesty’ and ‘wave sounding shore’, with verses that railed against mainstream Christianity, and instead applauded ‘Fearless Science daring to be free’.

The poster-boy of the Shetland radicals, however, was J.J. Haldane Burgess, a teacher and linguist who, despite going blind at university, completed his education and went on to be one of the islands’ most revered writers. Burgess’ collection Rasmie’s Büddie (1891) was the first to be written entirely in the dialect, and his decision to express himself in that way was as political as it was literary. Shetland’s people and language had been oppressed, and to use that language in poetry, to use it to express complex ideas, was to act against that oppression. The poems’ eponymous narrator is a crofter. He is also intelligent and thoughtful. Both language and man are raised above their previous status in Burgess’ work. They are reimagined. Rasmie’s Büddie, Smith argues, ‘shows that the local speech can be used in complex, abstract and challenging ways … [and extends] the thematic and intellectual reach of Shetland dialect poetry’. Here, Burgess ‘really sets the agenda for what comes next’.

The longest-running literary journal in Scotland is the New Shetlander. It was founded in March 1947 by Peter Jamieson, and had its roots in the Marxist and literary circles which, since Burgess’ days, had very much overlapped. In its early years, the magazine published not only local writers but also those of current and future national renown, including Eric Linklater, George Mackay Brown and Hugh MacDiarmid. By that time, MacDiarmid had moved south. During his nine years in Shetland, he had barely engaged, if at all, with the islands’ writers and intellectuals. He had, indeed, been entirely dismissive, claiming that ‘not one … through all the centuries of human history has ever achieved expression on any plane of literary value whatever’. But when the New Shetlander launched, he was far more supportive, recognising the magazine’s place within the Scottish Literary Renaissance that he had spearheaded.

Despite the familiar characterisation of Shetlanders as ‘fishermen with crofts’ (as opposed to Orcadians, who were ‘crofters with nets’) it is not the sea that provides the central image of Shetland writing, but rural life. Burgess’ Rasmie was just one example of an archetype begun in the nineteenth century that continued long into the twentieth. Smith argues convincingly that this obsession with the croft allowed writers to explore themes of change, and often to descend into nostalgia. For unlike the sea, which ‘looked much the same to the Vikings as it did to trawler men in the middle of the last century’, he writes, ‘crofts, and the people who live on them, are often faced with a changing world … the certainties of their communities are under threat’.

That sense of recoil from the modern world, combined with the romanticising of a rural past, were a defining feature of the work of several New Shetlander writers, such as T.A. Robertson (who wrote as Vagaland), Rhoda Bulter, George PS Peterson and the Graham brothers, Lollie and John, who together would edit the magazinefor forty years. Though Smith’s tastes clearly lie elsewhere, these writers are among the most popular that Shetland has ever produced, certainly among local readers. Indeed, what is striking about this period, particularly from the 1970s onward, is the degree to which the magazine both tapped into and fed a genuine appetite for dialect writing in the islands. In print and in performance, poets were in real demand. It was a popularity that was linked to the general unease many felt in the early years of the oil industry. Fear of losing the dialect, fear of losing what was uniquely ‘Shetland’ about Shetland, fear of losing what Vagaland called ‘da aald true wyes’: poetry served to celebrate and to conserve those threatened things. It served as a marker of identity.

Smith does not go quite so far as to suggest that the New Shetlander itself was limiting literary ambitions during this period, but the hint is there. For the very health of the publishing scene in the islands meant that writers did not need to reach beyond Shetland; they had an audience waiting, and that audience knew what it wanted. There was, in a sense, a mirrored-room effect, in which the same ideas and themes were bounced back and forth within its pages. So while the magazine provided a platform for generations of islanders (the present reviewer included), it also, at least for a time, perpetuated what Smith calls the ‘bad things about Shetland dialect writing – nostalgia, sentimentality, an idealised view of the islands’.

There were, though, always exceptions, and for Smith there were two in particular. Though less prolific and less well-known than many of her contemporaries, Stella Sutherland is undoubtedly among the very best writers the islands have produced. Her poems are often more personal, more complex and more optimistic than those of Vagaland and others. And when she does tackle themes of rural life, such as in ‘At da Croft Museum’, Sutherland does not glamorise or romanticise, but instead focuses on the ability of people to keep going despite the hardship they suffered: ‘Dey yearned forever upward’ she wrote, ‘laek da flooers / bund i da seed under black tons o time – / draemin o light, strivin towards da light, / an dybin on an on becaase dey most’.

If Smith’s book can be said to have a hero, though, it is William J. Tait, who Hugh MacDiarmid believed ‘unquestionably deserves a high place in the ranks of contemporary British poets’. Indeed, Billy Tait is the one Shetland writer who could comfortably have sat among the eight in Sandy Moffat’s painting, and his portrait hangs today in Edinburgh’s Milne’s Bar. Although Tait was among the founders of the New Shetlander (and like the Graham brothers, like Peter Jamieson and like J.J. Haldane Burgess, was an ardent socialist) he was critical of the ‘mawkishness’ of some of his contemporaries. In ‘A Hogmanay Sermon’ he called for Shetland writers to ‘fin your tree! Poo ower your een / Nae mair ooey blankets’. Islanders, he declared, should write about things ‘as laek as no, / We canna mention in da New Shetlander’. Tait’s poetic language combines Shetland, Scots and even Norn words.

It is not the spoken dialect that others sought faithfully to reproduce, but an amalgamation, a creation, that serves the work he wished to do. Language, in Tait’s writing, is detached from identity. And while he engaged with his own place, he did so too with other places, and with images and cultures from far beyond Shetland’s shores. His first dialect poem was a translation of Villon that was unlike anything that others in the islands were doing. Like much of his work, it was adventurous, playful and intelligent. Smith does not fully disguise his disappointment when he writes that, while Billy Tait ‘was the most important poet of his era … subsequent writers have not followed the paths he cleared’.

The question of what is – and more pertinently, what is not – ‘Shetland literature’ is not so simple to answer as might first be imagined. How should we consider the use of Shetland in the crime novels of Ann Cleeves, for example? Cleeves lived in the islands for a short time and has been a regular visitor ever since. Her quartet of books set there may not be great literature, but are they ‘Shetland literature’? And what, for a very different example, of Donald S. Murray, who lives in the islands but writes mostly of his native Hebrides? On that second question, Smith is clear. Those considered in this book, he writes, ‘are brought together because Shetland is a presence in their work’. This approach makes sense, particularly for a doctoral thesis, as which this study began life. But it does lead to certain omissions. While it is no surprise that J.M. Ledgard is absent here – lauded by critics in Britain and the US, the novelist is hardly known at all in the islands where he was born – the fact that Willa Muir goes without a mention is more notable.

This is not a weakness, however; it is legitimate choice. If there is a weakness to this book, it is that its final chapter, on contemporary writers, is too short. The best-known of these, Christine De Luca and Robert Alan Jamieson, are allowed reasonable space. Paolo Dante Ritch is praised for his ‘rollicking energy and rhythm’; and Jim Mainland is given an enthusiastic introduction as an inventive writer in both dialect and English, and perhaps the closest literary heir to Billy Tait. Jen Hadfield – by far the best-known writer in the islands today – is galloped over in a few paragraphs. Alex Cluness, who has been described in these pages as ‘one of the UK’s best and most original poets’, here gets less than a sentence to himself. Others, such as James Sinclair and the late Lise Sinclair, go unmentioned. Smith acknowledges the difficulty of assessing contemporary writers within a study such as this one, and his decision to skimp is understandable. But readers will be left wanting to know more. My hope is that a second edition of this book will one day be necessary, and that it will come complete with an expanded final chapter. But I hope, too, that Shetland writers past and present will find a new audience as a result of Mark Smith’s commendable work.

The Literature of Shetland

Mark Smith

The Shetland Times, £22.99, ISBN 978-1-904746-88-1, 274PP

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