Shetland and Orkney’s literatures are relatively modern things. The earliest written texts we have are about two hundred years old, but both archipelagos have oral literatures which are much older. In places which had low levels of literacy, and with printed matter quite hard to come by, storys, proverbs, riddles and songs were one of the only forms of entertainment available. People used the spoken word to record events and genealogies, to pass on wisdom, to warn of dangers, and to make each other laugh.
During the nineteenth century, printed literature became much more widespread in Orkney and Shetland. With people reading more, some islanders worried about a loss of oral literature and lore. They thought that people would be less likely to remember and tell stories if everything was available in books. Ironically, the fact that folklorists wrote down and published what they heard in the islands meant that a great deal of folk material is now available to modern readers.
The interest in using the past can be seen in other genres too. In 1873, Orkneyinga Saga was translated into English for the first time, making an important work about Orkney’s history available to many new readers. And, at around the same time, writers started to produce historical novels about the northern isles. J.J. Haldane Burgess in Shetland and J. Storer Clouston in Orkney both drew on the islands’ norse past, writing novels which tapped into the contemporary British vogue for Viking novels. The romanticisation of Vikings continues today, but the foundations were laid by writers and intellectuals over a century ago.
History continues to influence island writers. George Mackay Brown drew on ancient Orkney in his works, becoming one of Scotland’s most well-known authors, while at the same time remaining a distinctively local man. And, in Shetland, the writer John Graham wrote two historical novels about events in the little community of Weisdale on Shetland’s west side.