Rhoda Bulter

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Rhoda Bulter
Rhoda Bulter in Nesting
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Rhoda Bulter (1929 - 1994), Shetland author, is one of the most loved Shetland poets of recent times. Her first poem was published in The New Shetlander in 1970, following which she became a prolific writer in the Shetland dialect. She was a frequent contributor to Radio Shetland, both reading her work and as one of the famous double act "Tamar and Beenie' with Mary Blance. Almost as important as her ability to write was her ability to read her work in a voice which made the feeling of the poem come alive to the listener.

When Rhoda Bulter died in 1994, the whole of Shetland felt a profound sense of loss. Though she was primarily known as a poet, she had come to be a local celebrity through her regular contribution to Radio Shetland, her journalism and personal appearances. For various reasons, her literary legacy is as yet uncollected. Besides the four slim volumes of verse published in her lifetime - Shaela, A Nev Foo a Coarn (subsequently combined as Doobled-Up), Linkstanes and Snyivveries - she also wrote a regular monthly column for Shetland Life magazine, the fictional Beenie’s Diary.

"… Rhoda Bulter (1929-94) is one of our most popular poets today. She published four volumes of verse all in the dialect ... Humorous, satirical, meditative and always vividly descriptive her poetry is a triumphant assertion of the vitality of the Shetland dialect today. Her poems reflect an intense love of the local scene, the land and the sea, the flowers, the birds, the animals, and the crofting communities she knew when young. Her pictures of the old traditional life could have been simply nostalgic, but she is saved from this by the vivid realism and intimacy of detail which vitalise, these scenes. She is conscious too of the darker side of life and is moved to bitterness and anger by the destructive side of man, his greed, his abuse of the land, his cruelty to wild life, industrial exploitation and the ultimate crime of nuclear war … …Rhoda Bulter never regarded land as a commodity. She saw herself as belonging to that land, a land to care for and to love. …" Laurence I. Graham, "Shetland Literature and the idea of community" in Shetland’s Northern Links: Language and History, (Edinburgh 1996)
the cover of Rhoda Bulter's 1978 volume from Thuleprint

“ ... Rhoda Jernetta Ann Johnson was born on 15th July 1929 in Lerwick. Johnson she remained until her marriage in January 1949 to Dennis Bulter, 'Met man’ from Lerwick Observatory. Her father, Jeremiah Johnson, a seaman by profession, came from West Houlland in the parish of Walls. Her mother, born Barbara Huano Thomason, was from Da Horn, Lower Skelberry, Lunnasting … As she gave herself to the demands of motherhood her other creative skills lay quiescent, disturbed now and again by a bairn's rhyme, reflecting the fun and the excitement of their family life. Like everybody else her family experienced stresses and strains, coming out of these with the unifying bonds all the more clearly defined, and stronger. The eventual Rhoda emerged - perceptive, honed in the years of parental and marital adjustment. Her experience gave an intensity and profundity to the outpourings of her pen. Rhoda's first published writing was in the pages of The New Shetlander - the poem 'Fladdabister' - embodying as it does the familiar combination of an evocative description with her gift of placing what she had seen in a historical and social context. It was a happy union with 'The New Shetlander', rewarding to both. Never long missing was her explosive humour … Her vigour and versatility got fuller and fuller expression as her family came to adulthood. The riches of her mind and pen poured forth in remarkable measure, firstly in her verse. There followed Beenie’s Diary in Shetland Life, then ‘Tamar and Beenie' on Radio Shetland, using so freely the dialect word. Her radio and TV work, based on scripts provided by herself, enriched us all …” Edward Thomason, introduction to Mindin Rhoda, (Lerwick, 1995)

Rhoda and Dennis Bulter's grave in Lerwick
Photo by Shetlandpeat.

“ … The voar number of The New Shetlander in 1970 contained a dialect poem entitled 'Fladdabister'. The theme - a description of an old Shetland crofting township - was commonplace; the author was modestly concealed behind the initials RB. Readers accustomed to a diet of Shetland verse might well have braced themselves for the usual dose of nostalgia laced with the obligatory taekit ruifs, trowie burns and simmer dims. But one didn't have to read very far into 'Fladdabister' to realise that here was something different; alive, fresh and vivid. The mayflooers 'klined da knowes' and 'sproot fae da sides o burn brigs'; dockens 'staand laek bolts o roost'. Here was a writer who didn't stifle her verse in tired, outworn phrases, but used the Shetland dialect with vigour and startling immediacy ... Notice was being given of a new and authentic voice in dialect poetry, and over the past eight years a flood of poems has come from the pen of Rhoda Bulter. Her first collection, Shaela, appeared in 1976 to meet with such a tremendous response that it almost sold out within the year. Another volume - A Nev Foo a Coarn -appeared in 1977 and was met with similar enthusiasm. This new combined volume is designed to meet the continuing demand for her poetry as well as to present in a more permanent form her writings to date ... Rhoda Bulter is passionately attached to Shetland, its people and their native tongue, its landscapes and natural life. She spent two childhood years in the remote rural peninsula of Lunnasting, and that period of close contact with the old traditional way of life left a vivid imprint on her imagination. The Irish novelist, Edna O'Brien has said "I believe that memory and the welter of memory, packed into a single lonely and bereft moment, is the strongest ally a person can have". Rhoda Bulter's memory is the fountain¬head of all her poetry - a memory with the power of almost total recall which she can summon to recreate past scenes such as the old-style country shop in 'Gjaain for da Airrents', or illuminate descri¬ptive pieces such as 'Lookin Back Alang' and 'Da Uplowsin'. This is one of the major strengths of her poetry; the power to recreate scenes and situations through a series of detailed and authentic images. The memory comes through, clear and unblurred by sentiment … … Although the source of her inspiration lies mainly in the past, she does not confine herself to a backward-looking view of things. One of the rare qualities of her verse is its variety. She can move from richly comic character sketches such as 'Muckle Leezie Jean' and 'Boanie Picters' to moving studies of people as in 'Aald Daa' and 'Ann Eliza'. She can weave a web of pure fantasy as in 'Da Phottoo' and 'Da Sark', or serious reflections on life like 'Bul My Sheep' - one of her finest poems - and 'Wir Inheritance'. …” John J. Graham, foreword to Doobled-Up.


Bibliography

CD - Bide a start wi' Me

This 22 track CD, a re-release of her 1976 LP was issued through BleatBeat Records on 9th December 2006 and featured recordings of Rhoda reading the following selection of her poetry:

  • Bide a start wi' Me
  • Fladdabister
  • Gjaan for da airrents
  • Mairch
  • Neeborly Feelin
  • Bül My Sheep
  • Sea Pinks
  • Wadder
  • Rüts
  • Da Exile
  • Yule E'en
  • Delight
  • Da Bargain Book
  • A Coorse Day
  • Da Keepsake
  • Da Tale O' Da Gluff
  • Aald Daa
  • Da Trooker
  • Why
  • Hame Again
  • Da Boags' Spree
  • It
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