The Literature of Shetland

Smith, Mark Ryan (2013) The Literature of Shetland. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information:


This thesis is the first ever survey of Shetland’s literature. The large body of material the thesis covers is not well known, and, apart from Walter Scott’s 1822 novel The Pirate, and Hugh MacDiarmid’s sojourn in the archipelago, Shetland is not a presence in any account of Scottish writing. ‘The Literature of Shetland’ has been written to address this absence. Who are Shetland’s writers? And what have they written? These are the fundamental questions this thesis answers. By paying close attention to Shetland’s writers, ‘The Literature of Shetland’ extends the geographical territory of the Scottish canon.

‘The Literature of Shetland’ covers a chronological period from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Virtually no creative poetry or prose, either written or oral, survives in Shetland from before this time so, after a brief discussion of the fragmentary pre-nineteenth century sources, the thesis discusses the archipelago’s literature in eight chronologically arranged chapters.

Chapter One concentrates on a group of three obscure early nineteenth-century Shetland authors – Margaret Chalmers, Dorothea Primrose Campbell, and Thomas Irvine – and also explores Scott’s involvement with the northern isles. Chapters Two and Three discuss an important period at the end of the nineteenth century, in which books and newspapers were published in Shetland for the first time, and in which a number of pioneering and influential local writers emerged. Jessie M.E. Saxby became the first professional writer from Shetland and, in the work of George Stewart, James Stout Angus, Basil Anderson, and especially J.J. Haldane Burgess, the Shetland dialect developed as a serious literary idiom. These writers laid down foundations for much of what came next. Chapter Four discusses the end of this period of growth, with James Inkster posed as the last significant figure of his generation, and the war poet John Peterson as the first local writer to depart from the literary principles which developed in the Victorian era. Chapter Five looks at the work Hugh MacDiarmid did in Shetland from 1933-1942. MacDiarmid is not really part of the narrative of the thesis, but the work he produced in the isles is vast. Because he does not need to be introduced in the way the other writers do, this chapter takes a different approach to the rest of the thesis and looks at MacDiarmid’s Shetland-era work alongside that of Charles Doughty. Doughty was a crucial presence for MacDiarmid during his time in the isles, and considering their work together opens up a better understanding of the work MacDiarmid did in Shetland. Chapters Six and Seven discuss the second major period of growth in Shetland’s literature, focussing on the writers associated with the New Shetlander magazine, an important local journal which emerged in 1947. The final chapter then looks at contemporary Shetland authors and asks how they negotiate the literary tradition the thesis has worked through. This chapter also discusses the Shetland-related work of several non-native authors, Jen Hadfield being the most well known.

In moving through these authors, as well as providing necessary introductory material, several general questions are asked. Firstly, because almost all the writing studied emerges from the isles, the question of how each writer engages with those isles is consistently relevant. How do local writers find ways of writing about their native archipelago? Do writers who are not from Shetland write about the islands in different ways than local people? The thesis shows how Scott and MacDiarmid, the two most famous non-native authors dicussed here, draw on earlier literary sources – the sagas and the work of Doughty – to construct their respective creative visions of the isles. And, in discussing the work of local authors, it will be shown that, in the early period covered in Chapter One, landscape is the most prominent idea whereas, from the Victorian era to the present day, the croft provides the central imaginative space for Shetland’s writers.

A second question that runs through the thesis is one of language. Almost every local author has written extensively in Shetland dialect, and this study explores how they have developed that language as a literary idiom. The thesis shows how Shetland dialect writing gets underway in the 1870s, and how writers have continued to expand and diversify that literary tradition. The two most innovative figures to emerge are J.J. Haldane Burgess and William J. Tait and, after demonstrating how the corpus of writing in Shetland dialect has grown, the thesis concludes by examining the ways in which contemporary writers engage with the vernacular legacies their predecessors have left. Extensive use of the local language gives Shetland’s writing a regional distinctiveness, and this thesis shows how some writers have been enabled and inspired by that idiom, how some have taken dialect writing in exciting new directions, but also how some have felt limited by it and how, by not using the language, some writers have been unfairly ignored by local editors and critics.

The thesis also shows that, in its two main eras of development – at the end of the nineteenth century and in the middle of the twentieth – Shetland’s writers took their cues from the general movements in Scottish writing. In the Victorian period, developments in local letters paralleled the interest in regionality and upsurge in vernacular writing that are marked characteristics of Scottish writing at the time. And, in discussing the emergence of the New Shetlander and the writers associated with it, the thesis demonstrates how the second period of flourishing in Shetland’s literature is part of the wider cultural movement of the Scottish Renaissance.

The picture of Shetland’s literature the thesis offers is a self-consciously heterogeneous one. Despite the marked use of the vernacular, the thesis resists moving towards an encompassing definition of the large body of work covered, preferring to celebrate the diversity of the writing that Shetland has inspired during the last two centuries. Questions of engagement with the local environment and the use of the local language are constantly asked, but the primary scholarly contribution offered by ‘The Literature of Shetland’ is a realignment of Scotland’s northern literary border.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Due to copyright restrictions the full text of this thesis cannot be made available online. Access to the printed version is available once any embargo periods have expired.
Keywords: Shetland, poetry, fiction, Scottish literature, regionalism, islands, archipelago
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PE English
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: Riach, Professor Alan
Date of Award: 2013
Depositing User: Mr Mark Ryan Smith
Unique ID: glathesis:2013-3938
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 22 Feb 2013 10:50
Last Modified: 22 Feb 2013 10:50

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