Shetland’s literature isn’t very well known, but the writing that has emerged from the isles over the last two centuries is an eclectic and regionally distinctive body of work. Hundreds of poems and stories have been inspired by Shetland – by its language, its coastlines and landscapes, by its ways of life – and, in Writing the North, we will be exploring this literary tradition.
Before the start of the nineteenth century, though, there isn’t much of a literature to speak of. A few scraps of ancient poetry survive, but Shetland’s writing really only gets underway with three writers who were active two hundred years ago. Margaret Chalmers, Dorothea Primrose Campbell, and Thomas Irvine were the first Shetland writers. Chalmers’ single volume of poems, published in 1813, contains some of the finest verse by a Shetlander. Her poem ‘The Rose of the Rock’, which recounts a trip to Noss, is a neglected Romantic masterpiece. It deserves to be much more widely read than it is.
In contrast to these writers is Walter Scott, whose 1822 novel The Pirate really put Shetland on the map. Scott’s popularity brought Shetland to a mass audience for the first time, and had a large part to play in the idea of the northern isles as being culturally Norse.
Despite their pioneering efforts, the early local writers didn’t build lasting reputations and were all forgotten by the time the first great flourishing of literature took place in the isles. In the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, Shetland changed. Newspapers and books began to be published, and education became compulsory. Encouraged by this, dozens of local men and women started to write, and names such as James Stout Angus, Basil Anderson, J.J. Haldane Burgess, and Jessie M.E. Saxby emerged. This was a golden age for Shetland’s literature and the influence of these writers can still be felt today, especially for anybody writing in the Shetland dialect.
This era, however, was petering out by the First World War. After the conflict, there was still plenty of work being published, but it had little of the verve or ambition of earlier writing. Between the wars, John Peterson was the most notable local author, but in the 1930s in Whalsay, Hugh MacDiarmid was producing thousands of lines of poetry and prose, some of which had penetrating things to say about his adopted home.
Locals paid little attention to what MacDiarmid was writing but, in the late 1940s, we can see his indirect influence in the foundation of the New Shetlander magazine by Lerwick Communist Peter Jamieson. The magazine still appears four times a year, and is the most important publication for local writers. From Vagaland (the nom de plume of T.A. Robertson), Billy Tait, John and Lollie Graham, Stella Sutherland, to Robert Alan Jamieson and Lise Sinclair, the New Shetlander has been an encouraging place to send work. Anybody interested in discovering more about Shetland could do worse than look through the 263 issues of the magazine.