‘SOME DEY LEUCH/BIT IDDERS GRET’: Mark Ryan Smith’s The Literature of Shetland

Mark Ryan Smith The Literature of Shetland (Shetland Times, 2014)

by Stewart Sanderson

Just over a year ago I visited Shetland for the first time. It was a long-awaited trip, facilitated by the opportunity to do some archival work on the twentieth-century poet William J. Tait. Starting early, in the space of twenty four hours I travelled from the Borders, the southernmost part of Scotland, to the most northerly. Stopping off en route in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and, briefly, Kirkwall, the long journey managed to cover a fair proportion of the rest of the country in passing. The late-night stop in Orkney was particularly memorable, though I never left the ferry. I’d spent a great deal of time in the islands, and it was strange to see St. Magnus’ Cathedral lit up orange in the darkness; a building I’d been inside many times, with the homes of people I knew dotted all around it. It all felt oddly faraway as the boat pulled off, heading north.

To make my slim travel grant go further I’d decided not to book a cabin, electing to take my chances on the sofas in the bar. Needless to say, after a gruelling and essentially sleepless night I arrived in Lerwick, ready to hit the archives, where in due course I encountered Mark Ryan Smith. During my relatively brief time in Shetland, mostly spent in Lerwick, I realised several things. While there were evident links between Orkney and Shetland, the latter was nonetheless an utterly distinct place in terms of its landscape and culture. Moreover, the story of that culture, particularly its literature, was far richer and more complicated than I’d hitherto appreciated.


The Literature of Shetland, which grew from Smith’s PhD research at Glasgow, is the first book-length attempt to tell that story. It therefore constitutes a significant landmark for Shetlandic writing, as well as for the wider Scottish scene. Like Simon Hall’s 2010 The History of Orkney Literature, which also began life as a Glasgow PhD thesis, it should be on the reading lists of all those interested in the local, the regional and the insular dimensions of Scotland’s literary tapestry. The elucidation of non-national literary traditions within Scottish literature is particularly exciting at the present moment, for obvious reasons; Smith is content to leave this aspect of his work largely unstated.

For better or worse, The Literature of Shetland is likely to continue to be mentioned in the same breath as The History of Orkney Literature. However, as Smith’s introduction stresses, the present study remains a very different work. Eschewing fashionable theoretical formulations of the archipelago, he points out that, whereas Orcadian writing begins nearly a thousand years ago, with the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga, Shetlandic literature is, at least as far as the extant corpus goes, barely two centuries old. Beyond that we have a few scraps of Norn, a ballad or two; little more. Going by the fragmentary ‘Unst Lay,’ written down by a collector in 1865, the loss of the older Shetlandic oral literature has been a tragic one:

Nine days he hang pa da rötless tree,

For ill was da fök an göd was he;

A blöddy met was in his side,

Made wi a lance at widna hide;

Nine lang nichts i da nippin rime

Hang he dere wi his naked limb,

Some dey leuch

Bit idders grett.

This tantalising snippet is all that remains of a once much longer poem, a gallimaufry of Christian and Odinic theology, which at some point made the jump from Norn into the Shetlandic form of Scots. Smith goes on to discuss the work of a number of early nineteenth-century Shetland writers, whose works have largely been ignored by subsequent generations of scholars and readers. His critique of Margaret Chalmers, Dorothea Primrose Campbell and Thomas Irvine is adroit and even-handed. Nevertheless, reading his quotations from their works, I found myself longing for more fragments as compelling as the ‘Unst Lay,’ which was evidently still in oral circulation at the time they were writing.

MacDiarmid made similar objections to the vast majority of Scott’s oeuvre, claiming, notoriously, that he would swap the lot, Waverley and all, for a short story or two in the vernacular. It is with Scott’s novel The Pirate that Shetland enters the literary mainstream, with Sir Walter the first of several non-Shetlandic authors to be treated prominently here. Assessing Scott’s “dubious grasp of Shetland and Orkney history,” Smith points out that The Pirate was nevertheless the first attempt to make literary capital out of the islands’ Scandinavian heritage, essentially opening the floodgates for future generations of Nordically inclined litterateurs. Again, one wishes that the novelist had been able to collect and preserve a few more shreds of the old oral literature on his travels in the archipelago; what a treasure a Minstrelsy of Thule, comparable in scope to that of the Scottish Border, would have been.

Arguing that one of the key problems confronting early-nineteenth century Shetlandic writers was the absence of a suitable vocabulary with which to describe their highly distinctive local reality, Smith goes on to discuss the islands’ gradual growth in creative confidence over the second half of Victoria’s reign, linking this in part to the emergence of a local newspaper culture. For the (then) popular novelist Jessie Saxby, Scott’s precedent was clearly an important one, freeing up rich seams of Norse background material for her to play with. The other key development of this period was in the realm of dialect writing, initiated by Thomas Irvine and now developed by a number of poets and prose writers, in particular James Stout Angus and Basil Ramsay Anderson. The former’s most celebrated poem, ‘Eels,’ is, as Smith suggests, “very odd indeed”, having arisen from an 1877 “controversy in the Shetland Times about whether live eels could be generated by placing horses’ or pigs’ hairs in a burn”. Surprisingly not, implies the poem, which begins with a decaying pig left lying in a waterlogged peat cutting and ends with the incorporation of the resultant eels into the local economy. One wonders what Ovid might have made of it. Anderson, who died of tuberculosis at twenty six, seems a very different poet, and another tragic loss. His standout poem, ‘Auld Maunsie’s Crü,’ adapts the pastoral conventions of the kailyard to make serious statements about the Shetlandic landscape and its human occupants.

The key figure for late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Shetland writing, whose work prepared the ground for later developments, was the polyglot poet and novelist J.J. Haldane Burgess. A committed Marxist, Burgess was apparently aware of the more radical use to which the islands’ Viking past might be put, applying a form of historical materialism to what, for earlier writers, had been a less ambiguously Romantic trove of story and fable. In this, and in his role as something of a mentor figure for younger writers, he prefigures the important engagé strand of subsequent Shetland writing. It is, however, as a poet in the vernacular that Smith values him most, arguing that Burgess’ 1891 volume Rasmie’s Büddie is “one of the most important collections of Shetland dialect writing.” The first book written entirely in Shetland dialect, the poems revolve around the crofting existence of an elderly islander, Rasmie, whose symbolic value as conduit for tradition is occasionally undercut by his creator’s wicked sense of humour. This is particularly evident in the poem, ‘Scranna,’ in which the devil pays the old man a visit, hoping to make off with his immortal soul. Perhaps connected to the rich Scottish tradition – ‘Tam O’Shanter,’ Hogg’s Confessions and so on – of bringing the powers of darkness into contact with everyday life, one of the most telling aspects of the poem is its linguistic composition. While Rasmie speaks Shetlandic, the language of the narration also, the devil, as one might expect, speaks English: “An his een lookit at me as sharp laek as preens:/Dan he says, ‘Look at me, I’ve been years in the Kirk, – […].”

Dialect, as Shetlanders seem happy, by and large, to refer to their vernacular, was to be one of the key areas of concern for twentieth-century writers. Smith contends that the various figures who emerged in Burgess’s wake (including the aptly named James Inkster) were, by and large, content to follow in his footsteps without much resistance or significant advancement in terms of a literary programme. With the exception of the First World War poet John Peterson, there was apparently little development in subject matter or formal approach. Until the early nineteen thirties, that is, when Hugh MacDiarmid arrived in Whalsay. Penniless, with a young family to support, having recently suffered the twin shocks of syphilis and a nervous breakdown, the poet nevertheless managed to write around six hundred pages of his Collected Poems on the island – not to mention the thousands of pages of critical prose and correspondence he produced there between 1933 and 1942.

Smith writes engagingly of MacDiarmid’s Shetland work, in particular Stony Limits, with reference to which he emphasises the strong influence the English writer Charles Doughty exercised on this phase of the poet’s production. Returning to the difficulties earlier Shetland poets had faced, fumbling for the sublime in their wind-battered, treeless islands, he points to the innovative use MacDiarmid made of Doughty’s Arabia Deserta in poems like ‘On a Raised Beach,’ for many readers his masterpiece. Going on to make the case on behalf of the infamously dense work which eventually coalesced into In Memoriam James Joyce, Smith is once again prepared to incorporate writing by non-native Shetlanders into his tentative canon. This is of course laudable, for all that his MacDiarmid chapter stands out among the rest of the book, requiring a different, perhaps more challenging kind of critique than the forgiving archival approach taken with the majority of the writers discussed. Few poets have produced work as compellingly unforgiving as that of MacDiarmid’s Shetland period. Here, the anonymous author(s) of the ‘Unst Lay’ perhaps come closest, in terms of compulsion at least.

The foundation of The New Shetlander magazine in 1947 was perhaps the key event in the islands’ twentieth-century literary and cultural history. Having successfully ridden out the travails and minor crises afflicting all little magazines for nearly seven decades, the periodical continues to this day as the principal place of publication for many Shetland writers, including Smith. Assessing the various writers gathered around the magazine in the first few decades of its existence, he is keen to point out the continuing radicalism of both editors and contributors, especially in the context of the oil boom of the nineteen seventies. This said, for some writers, a certain provinciality of outlook remained. One is interested to learn that when Vagaland (T.A. Robertson) passed away in 1973, a notice in The New Shetlander mourned his passing by noting that the current issue, No.107, was the first to lack a contribution from the poet. Smith implies that, while Vagaland’s dialect poems are well-crafted and sincerely felt, they are perhaps overly satisfied with an uncomplicated pastoral vision of the islands, opposed to an equally uncomplicated and negative vision of modernity. At both poets’ best, he is reminiscent of the Orcadian Robert Rendall. One also thinks, to an extent, of George Mackay Brown, who as a young man wrote a number of letters to The New Shetlander, belying his later reputation in his frustration with what he saw as the backwardness and insularity of certain tendencies in the literatures of both northern archipelagos.

Shetland has not yet produced a GMB; a writer of great talent who achieves fame outwith the islands by representing them to the wider world, in this case doing so primarily in English. Reducing Brown to his common abbreviation, I mean to touch upon the more problematic aspects of his great popularity, as well as its more positive consequences. Singing for the islands may be far from straightforward, as the rather bumptious, even arrogant correspondence in The New Shetlander suggests. The islands may, initially, resist being sung, or prove most amenable to a certain kind of song; the kind which idealises rather than critiques.

William J. Tait is, for the moment, Shetland’s best answer to Brown. Unlike his Orcadian counterpart, Tait wrote little prose (though he experimented with drama) and did his best work in the vernacular. Brown purported to reject Marx’s “moon-cold logic.” There is a strain of radicalism in Tait’s work, traceable perhaps to Burgess and his successors, which endures till the end. Brown rarely left Orkney, or even Stromness; though his mother was a Gaelic speaker he was, essentially, a monoglot. Tait lived outside Shetland for much of his life; some of his best work is in translation, particularly his masterly dialect versions of Villon. I quote the opening stanza of the Shetlandic Ballade des Pendus:

O bridder men, livin as eence did we,

Hae nae hard herts at wis, fur as ye tak

Peety on wir black sowls da Loard’ll be

Gligger ta blenk an ee sood yours be black.

Here see wir crangs hing, five or sax;

As fur da flesh we oesed ta feed ower weel,

Maidin wi wirms, it’s scaffed noo, every peel;

Ta moeld an ess wir dry banes waste awa.

Lit nae man mock dem as dey dirl an sweel,

Bit pray da Loard at He’ll furgie wis aa.

Smith provides an eloquent close reading of Tait’s “masterpiece” ‘A Day Atween Waddirs,’ a long geographically inclined work which, while vividly intertextual, draws especially upon Four Quartets to situate the individual human life in the Shetlandic landscape – and wordscape. While he also wrote in Scots and English, it is in the Shetland dialect that the poet really takes off. Smith compares Tait to Sorley MacLean, and ‘A Day Atween Waddirs’ to ‘Hallaig.’ This is a revealing comparison, not least because the effort it takes to think it through makes Tait’s individuality clear. ‘Hallaig’ is a tragic poem; the terrible cry of a culture’s defeat. ‘A Day Atween Waddirs’ is cognisant of the ruin wrought by historical time, but is nevertheless an ultimately optimistic work. Like Robert Lowell, who visited him in Stromness, Brown was a sick soul, who fought tuberculosis and manic depression with alcohol. Going by the many references to booze and late-night assignations in Tait’s writing, he was no stranger to a social drink. Nevertheless, his poems are, as one might expect of a committed socialist, ultimately positive in outlook; they depend neither on the symbol of an ancient, unchanging Shetland (presently embattled by the incursions of a transient modernity) nor on the open wounds left by cultural and linguistic clearance. He deserves to be better known.

Concluding with a number of contemporary figures, Smith, himself a fine writer of poetry and creative prose, points to a considerable diversity of concerns and formal approaches, ranging from the traditional to the experimental. His judgements of the living are, as he stresses, necessarily provisional. Suffice it to say that the diversity and strength of contemporary Shetland literature is, considering the islands’ sparse population, little short of remarkable.

The Literature of Shetland is the first book of its kind to appear in the islands. It is lucid, entertaining and enthusiastically committed to its subject. On their own, these attributes would be sufficient to underscore its importance. However, it also comes at the same time as a crossroads in Scottish political and cultural history. At the time of writing, much remains possible. Both sides in the independence debate have a great deal invested in Shetland, for obvious reasons. Smith’s work, which retains something of the outline and feel of a doctoral thesis, explores a deeper, infinitely richer side of the islands, which will endure long after the oil runs out, whenever that may be (estimates vary with the political wind). Anyone interested in the literatures of Scotland will find much to interest them here; which is not to say that they will necessarily agree with all of Smith’s conclusions. On the final page, he writes that The Literature of Shetland “does not disrupt any existing picture of Scotland’s literature but, in engaging critically with a large collection of material that finds inspiration in the country’s northernmost archipelago, we perhaps find that those pictures have been embellished with an additional Shetlandic hue.” Some will, no doubt, applaud this generous catholicity of approach. However, it strikes me that one of the most exciting aspects of Shetlandic and Orcadian writing is its potential to complicate existing pictures of Scotland’s literature. Whatever happens this week, insufficiently self-critical, centralising images of the nation are something many, perhaps most, of Scotland’s writers would like to see challenged. Something of this challenge is perhaps implicit in Smith’s study; we will have to wait a little longer for a more explicitly radical history of the Shetlandic literary tradition.


After finishing in the archives, I jumped on the ferry to Whalsay, intent on finding the house (in the wonderfully named village of Sodom) where MacDiarmid had written ‘On a Raised Beach.’ It took me a while – one cottage seems largely the same as another when a few of them are spread out over the heather in a loose clutch – but it was a sunny day and I got there eventually, passing a centuries old but intact Hanseatic trading station and a plaster mermaid in someone’s front garden en route. The house seemed much changed inside, though the outer carapace of the structure seemed essentially the same. Now a bothy for walkers, an overnight stay can be arranged, for a fee, through the local authority. I had my tent, but found the key in the lock so decided to take a look inside. There were newish looking bunkbeds in the main room, with a sparsely fitted kitchen occupying the other. There was no inside toilet. It wasn’t much, but it had been enough.

I leafed idly through the visitors’ book, thinking of other poets I knew had made the same pilgrimage. Beside it someone had left a dog-eared copy of the Carcanet Selected Poems. I flicked through it, perhaps turning to ‘On a Raised Beach,’ perhaps not; I can’t remember. I thought of the poem, anyway, as I walked away from the house, looking back frequently. I wandered up the road, then left it behind, coming eventually on the Neolithic ruins of Yoxie and Benie Hoose, facing the sea on Whalsay’s east side. I sat for a long time there, peering out at the vague skerries occupying the middle distance, then continued my brief circuit of the island, passing its tiny airstrip on the north end, before circling south, heading inland past peat cuttings and tumbledown walls. That night I camped by a tiny lochan, struck by the lonely loveliness of the place. So far north, evening took a long time, but eventually the last dregs of sumptuous orange and pink lowe filtered away, leaving me in darkness till morning, when I woke to a grey drizzle of smirr. Walking over the heather to catch the ferry back to mainland Shetland, my laptop wrapped in several plastic bags to protect it and all the Tait material I’d typed in Lerwick, I was glad I’d made the trip. That night I took the Aberdeen boat, fortuitously bumping into a friend from Glasgow taking the same ferry. Shortly after we left Lerwick the captain came on the tannoy to tell us that an oil helicopter had ditched into the sea; we were being diverted to help look for survivors.

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