The Shetland IslandsCategory: Land + People
By W. P. Livingstone
The Shetland Islands have always been more or less of a mystery to people in southern lands. At one time they were regarded as a myth. To-day they are in some respects as unknown as they were a century ago.
Many think of them as shrouded in northern mists, bare, bleak, and windswept, with a climate the most inclement in Britain, with a summer without night and a winter without light. When you mention to others that you are about to visit Shetland they look at you as Voltaire looked at Boswell when the latter intimated that he and Dr. Johnson were going to the Hebrides. It was as if he had talked of going to the North Pole. “You do not wish me to accompany you?” Voltaire remarked. “No, sir.” “Then I am very willing you should go.”
On maps of Scotland the islands are not as a rule shown in relation to the mainland. They may be placed in the Moray Firth, or imposed on the north of Ireland, or left to the imagination. They are classed with Orkney, both being considered a unity, although the two groups lie far apart and have no direct connection or any community of interest social or economic. All they have in common is parliamentary representation, a century-old arrangement.
Government departments and public bodies have a tendency to include them in the term “Highlands and Islands”, which gives rise to the supposition that Gaelic is spoken by the people. Letters bear odd addresses. An English business firm recently sent one to “Messrs.—, Shetland Islands, Atlantic Ocean.” Unst, one of the isles, is often confused with Uist in the Outer Hebrides.
The native population are proud of being British, but they think of themselves as apart and different from the Scots. They do not use the word Scotland: their synonym for it is “the South”. It is not the “motherland.” This attitude puzzled men of the Services from English and Scottish towns who were stationed in the islands during the two world wars. “Do not call us Scots, please,” the young women would say to them. “But why? You are Scots.” “No! We are not,” they insisted, “we are Shetlanders.” A Shetland author, Haldane Burgess, the blind novelist makes one of his characters say, “We are not Scotch; we have never been Scotch; we will never be Scotch; we repudiate all connection with the Scotch.” It is a sentiment which has its roots in the far past.
Shetland is not only a county, it is a country. The various isles and districts are like Scottish counties, having their own customs, traditions, and brand of dialect. Not one is typical of all. Yet the essential life and atmosphere is the same throughout the whole group. It is doubtful if any other county has an historical background so romantic or presents a field of research bristling with so many interesting problems. Most visitors come under the spell of the islands. There is a sense of remoteness and detachment from the rest of the world, an austere yet wistful loneliness, a silence and peace independent of the accidents of weather. It is not the depressing loneliness of desolation and emptiness, or the loneliness of a city, but one that braces and heals and invigorates.
The present population is estimated at a little under 20,000. A large proportion of the young men are always serving in the Mercantile Marine, but apart from a number of farmers and stockbreeders there are no fewer than 3,214 small holders. Shetland is a crofting country. It isincroft-land that one comes closest to the soul of the people, a very shy and inarticulate soul which takes some time to know.
The language is standard English, as good, if not better, than that spoken in other counties of the kingdom. A Shetlander on war service said that while stationed in England he was called to the telephone where a native of Staffordshire was speaking to a Northumbrian at the other end. “They could not make one another out,” he said, “and I, a Shetlander, had to act as interpreter.”
But like other counties, Shetland has a dialect, and there is much misunderstanding about it. When the islanders refer to the “Shetland dialect,” what they mean is Norn, the old Norse speech, a form of which is still spoken in Iceland. “Our mother tongue” they call it, “our ancestral speech.“ Of a poet’s verses it is said they are “all in the Shetland dialect, English is foreign to him.” Again it is asserted that “the language of the Vikings still forms the main element in the dialect.” In reality, the vernacular of to-day is Scots, the Scots of the Lowlands, with a proportion of old Norse words, many of them modified by time, and all gradually disappearing.
The Shetland character is different from that of the Highlander. The Highlander is grave, proud, and emotional: Shetlanders, do not possess his Celtic feeling for romance and poetry. “We are a prosaic matter-of-fact people”, they say.
Quiet, simple, unassuming, courteous, and hospitable, Shetlanders take some knowing. They have not the quick temperament produced by city life and seem reserved and unresponsive. But always friendly they will greet you when you meet them and stop and talk. In Shetland a township is a family, the members of which take a kindly interest in each other. Reciprocal sympathy and help is a natural element in their lives. One of their finest traits is their simple goodness to those in need, a selfless service which is done as a matter of course and not talked about.