In 1814 Sir Walter Scott visited Orkney and Shetland to look at lighthouses. At the time he was a well-known poet and had just published, anonymously, his first novel, Waverely. In 1822, taking inspiration from what he saw and heard during his short trip north, he wrote his best-selling novel The Pirate. When Scott released the book, there weren’t many writers from Orkney or Shetland and the novel introduced the islands to thousands of readers all over the world.
The two archipelagos were a great source of inspiration for Scott and, throughout the nineteenth century, several writers, mostly producing non-fictional works, came north and wrote about what they found. Other writers drew on Scott’s novel in an imaginative way. George Eliot, for example, namechecks The Pirate in her novel The Mill on the Floss.
Scott was the most influential writer to visit Orkney and Shetland in the nineteenth century. By the time of the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s, however, few people were reading The Pirate. That movement was concerned with making a modern Scottish literature and, in 1933, it’s main player, Hugh MacDiarmid, came to live in Shetland.
When Scott wrote The Pirate he was the most famous author in the world. MacDiarmid’s involvement with the islands, in contrast to the growth in Scott’s reputation, saw his work become ever more challening and difficult. In the earlier part of his career MacDiarmid produced sparkling, memorable Scots lyrics that remain some of the finest poems ever written in that language. When he came to Shetland, however, his writing changed. He worked mostly in English and, often drawing on the stony landscape he saw in the isles, his work become pre-occupied with geological and scientific terminology. The poems he wrote in Shetland were also very, very long. Difficult poems of such length, both in the 1930s and today, are unlikely to find a widespread readership and MacDiarmid sometimes struggled to have his Shetland work published in the way he originally envisgaed.
Today, Scott and MacDiarmid remain the two most important literary visitors to Orkney and Shetland.