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This article is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.

The Literature of Shetland Mark Ryan Smith

In his 1943 autobiography Lucky Poet, produced during the decade he spent in Shetland, Hugh MacDiarmid wrote ‘It is amazing that the Shetlands should have given us no poetry… no poem that is worth a minute’s notice and nothing of any value at all in any of the arts’. In one sense MacDiarmid was right. Unlike the Gaelic-speaking regions MacDiarmid was so taken with, Shetland has no classical or ancient literary tradition. The reasons for what MacDiarmid saw as a lack of literary development and sophistication are complicated but Shetland’s unusual history can provide some answers. Politically, Shetland was part of Scandinavia until 1469 when it was passed to Scotland as part of a marriage dowry. Linguistically, a Scandinavian tongue, Norn, was spoken alongside Scots in Shetland until some time in the eighteenth century. When the Scots makars were in their pomp, Shetland was still a Scandinavian outpost. There is no body of Norn literature and, even if there once was a skaldic or bardic tradition, no fragments of it have come down to us moderns. But, in a much more important sense, MacDiarmid was wide of the mark. From the early nineteenth century to the present day, despite the lack of precedent, Shetlanders have been writing about their islands, their lives, their culture and their language. This article is a brief introduction to some of the things they have written.

Map of Shetland

Map of Shetland, reproduced with permission, from Lynn ...

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