The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Sounds of Orkney and Shetland

Sounds of Orkney and Shetland

Sounds of Orkney and Shetland

Island LifeOne of the biggest differences between writing from Orkney and Shetland is the use of local languages. Most Shetland authors have produced at least part of their work in dialect, whereas the trend is musch less prevalent in Orkney. This makes Shetland’s literature very distinctive, but it has also meant that the readership for Shetland writers’ work has been limited. In contrast, several Orcadian’s have become internationally famous authors, producing work in English that is still identifiably of its place. There are several Orcadian dialect writers – Walter Traill Dennison and Robert Rendall, for instance – but their work has been largely overshadowed by their better-known contemporaries.

The use of dialect by Shetland writers can first be seen in a few isolated texts at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that the trend really took off. Encouraged by the emergence of a lively local media, Shetlanders wrote poems and stories, often very long ones, in the language they spoke and heard every day. Many Shetland writers of the Victorian period, including James Stout Angus, Basil Anderson and J.J. Haldane Burgess, continue to influence dialect writers today.

Despite the widespread popularity of dialect in speech and text, the use of the language in schools was discouraged until not long ago. In 1950 a teacher from Cullivoe in the island of Yell wrote in the Shetland News that ‘I’m afraid that in the future Shetland boys and girls will have to find ways and means of making a living outside Shetland, so it’s up to themselves and their teachers to see that they develop suitable speech’. By suitable, she didn’t mean Shetland dialect. Today things are different, and schools do a great deal to teach children about the local tongue.