Shetland's Literature

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J.J. Haldane Burgess, one of the great figures of Shetland's literature, author, linguist and Scandinavian scholar who overcame blindness

Shetland’s Literature reflects its history: five hundred years of Norse rule, followed by five hundred years of Scottish and British - this, in very simple terms, is the political reality of the last millennium. Before the Norse, millennia of mysterious peoples and an immediately precedent Christian Celtic period; prior to and into the British age, three hundred years of Hanseatic trade with "Dutchies". All of these aspects of history have inspired and influenced Shetland's writers - just as the unchanging landscape of the "Auld Rock", its weather, seasons, its flora and fauna, have provided a touchstone in the midst of sometimes tumultuous change; as the land itself is refuge from that other great favourite subject - the sea.

Jessie M. E. Saxby, author of over 30 books

Old Norse and Norn

The earlier Norse language faded slowly, taking at least as long as three hundred years to die out in certain isolated parts of the archipelago such as Foula and Unst, as first Lowland Scots and then English became the language of power. Yet the Norn even influences the kind of Scots spoken here today, in lexicon and grammar, and perhaps there is still a touch of Dutch to the sound of it. This unique mix has come to be termed Modern Shetlandic Scots.

Little remains of the old Norse tongue, Norn, in script form, and what is extant seems often corrupted, though the fragments are fascinating. Those have been studied in depth, and scholars have notionally fixed the old Shetlandic Norn as kin to Faeroese and Vestnorsk. The oral tradition for which Shetland was famed in the Norse era, when it was known as a land of bards, died with the language - though it may well be that some of the old folktales and ballads were translated into the oral tradition we now know in Modern Shetlandic Scots, and that the continuing proliferation of writers in Shetland is an ongoing form of that tradition of "bards" - even across the difficult cultural shift from Scandinavia to Britain.

British era

In the British era, which properly began for Shetland with the Napoleonic Wars, Shetlanders have developed a literature in variant written forms of the spoken Shetlandic tongue, as well as in English - the first widely published writers were two daughters of the Lerwick gentry, Dorothea Primrose Campbell and Margaret Chalmers writing for the most part in a rather formal English. Subsequent Shetlandic writers such as James Stout Angus, George Stewart and Basil R Anderson helped forge the written form of the native tongue.
Hugh MacDiarmid, the great 20th C. Scottish poet, and resident of Whalsay

There are now a number of titles that might properly be termed ‘Shetlandic' or 'Shetland' classics, in the sense that they found a ready market among Shetlanders when first published and became, in time, somehow definitive of some part of the islands' culture. These works are not always the works of natives - 'incomers' and 'blow-bys' have made considerable contributions, as in the cases of Jakob Jakobsen and Hugh MacDiarmid for instance, to literature about Shetland. It is a sad fact that much of this literature is currently out of print and has been, in some instances, for a very long time. As a result, subsequent generations of Shetlanders have grown up unaware of this tradition – and specialist readers, the scholars beyond the islands who might be interested, remain oblivious to the work.

Rhoda Bulter, greatly loved writer of the late 20th C.

Yet Shetland, there is no doubt, can add another strand to the great weave that is world literature. It is a unique strand, itself woven of many threads, where the Anglic meets the Nordic, as the section of Shetlopedia titled Shetland Authors demonstrates.



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