The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Willa Muir and Shetland

Willa Muir and Shetland

Guest post by Aileen Christianson

Willa Muir (1890-1970), novelist and translator, was neither born in Shetland nor ever lived there. But she had strong family links; her father, mother and paternal grandmother were all been born in Unst, and other relatives in Yell. Born Minnie Anderson, 13 March 1890, Montrose, Forfarshire, Willa was the oldest of the four children of Peter Anderson (ca. 1865-99) and Elizabeth (Betty) Gray Anderson (1867-1930). Peter was a draper and ran his own business in Montrose from 1889; Betty was a dressmaker; first cousins, they had married, February 1889. Muir traced her restlessness to her parents’ status as emigrants from Shetland to Montrose: ‘All emigrants are Displaced Persons. My parents were D.Ps in Angus. So I grew up not fitting into Angus tradition and therefore critical, resentful, unsure’ (journal; 1947-Jan. 1848). She later wrote that she spoke Shetland at home, a kind of English at the private school, and Montrose in the street and at the Board School, and that this flexibility in dialect led to her facility in languages (Willa Muir, Belonging 20).

Willa’s birth certificate lists her as Wilhelmina Johnston Anderson. She was clearly named for her maternal grandmother Williamina Johnston (b. 1836), married 1862 in Unst to William John Anderson (b. 1834). Her parents’ common grandparents were Jerome William Anderson (b. ca. 1795), of East Yell, and Janet Margaret (b. 1799) of Mid Yell. Her paternal grandfather was Peter Anderson (1829-66); her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Ramsay (1831-1909), lived with the Andersons in Montrose during Willa’s childhood and probably spoke Shetland to Willa. Her paternal uncle was Basil Ramsay Anderson (1861-88), born in Unst and died in Edinburgh; his poetry was published in Broken Lights: Poems and Reminiscences of Basil R. Anderson (Edinburgh, 1888). He died young (before Willa was born) but his existence as a poet must also have suggested the possibility of pursuing a writing life to her.

Willa Anderson first met Edwin Muir (1887-1959) in Glasgow, September 1918; he became her husband and a poet and literary critic. At their second meeting, December 1918, they talked about his origins in Orkney and hers in Shetland, and where they felt they belonged. Edwin told her about his displacement from Orkney to Glasgow and the ‘shocks he suffered’ (Belonging 18), while Willa spoke of her first shock being in relation to language, ‘my first words were in the Norse dialect of Shetland’ and, age two, she remembered being mocked outside in the Montrose street by older girls squealing ‘in delighted mockery’ at her dialect (19).

Muir’s connection to Scotland was probably ambiguous from that moment she was made to feel an outsider at the age of two on the streets of Montrose. Her ingrained sense of insecurity about herself may have been grounded in that early sense of the family having been displaced from Shetland to become outsiders in Montrose, doubtless compounded by the financial insecurity that followed her father’s death when she was nine. She then married Edwin Muir, a man who had lost several of his family when he was still young after a traumatic move from Orkney to Glasgow and who felt even more of an island outsider in mainland Scotland. So, despite never having lived in Shetland, through language and background she retained a strong sense of identity with it, and never applied the same negative perceptions to it that she did to Scotland.

 Aileen Christianson is the author of  Moving in Circles: Willa Muir’s Writing  (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2007).

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