The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Island Life

Island Life

Island Life

Island LifeSome of the best pieces of writing from Orkney and Shetland are about the lives of ordinary folk. In small rural communities people enjoyed reading about familiar ways of life, and crofters are perhaps the most prominent characters in Shetland’s literature. By concentrating on their localities, writers give us a unique view of islanders’ lives.

The first island writers to use their local enviroment in a creative way were women. In early-nineteenth century Shetland, Margaret Chalmers and Dorothea Primrose Campbell, wrote books that are important today because they are the first of their kind. Campbell published two books of poetry in 1811 and 1816, and in 1822 she released Shetland’s first novel, Harley Radington. Chalmers, however, was a much more accomplished and interesting writer. Her sole book of verse, published in 1813, is obscure today, but it contains some of the finest poems by a Shetland author. Her poem ‘The Rose of the Rock’ utilises a prominent coastal feature near Lerwick to investigate complex themes in a strikingly original way.

These early writers are obscure today, and even in their own time they never became famous. This was partially due to the lack of a publishing industry or local media in the islands. The Orcadian author Mary Brunton, a contemporary of Chalmers and Campbell, did become well known, but her works do not use Orkney as a source of inspiration. Later in the century, the Shetlander Jessie M.E. Saxby became one of the most successful island writers. By that time, the literary landcape in the northern isles was very different.

By the end of the century, books were regularly published in Orkney and Shetland. Both archipelagos had weekly newspapers, most of which included large sections of creative writing. And, with education becoming compulsory in 1872, the standard of literacy was much better. With writers able to publish their work locally, and with an audience readily available, there was a big increase in literary activity, especially in Shetland.

In the next century, Shetlanders continued to enjoy an encouraging platform for their creative work, with the appearance of the New Shetlander magazine in 1947. The magazine continues to this day and has published hundreds of local poems and stories since its inception.