Hello and welcome to episode 16 of the podcast. In today’s show, I’m talking about books and literature from Shetland.
“What to read” is something that I’m asked time and time again. I’ve written a blog about my favourite Shetland fiction books, and this podcast will include those, as well as my favourite non-fiction books too.
I’ll ease you in gently and begin by introducing my favourite Shetland fiction novels and the reasons why I’ve chosen them. Where they are still available, I’ll leave a link in the show notes on my website for you to buy them.
Links I speak about in the show:
Book a slot at the Shetland Archives
A Guide to Shetland’s Best Fiction
The Clearances blog
The Shadowed Valley by J. J. Graham
Thin Wealth & Soor Hearts by Robert Alan Jamieson
Podcast episode with Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves Shetland series
Shetland Sailing Mysteries by Marsali Taylor
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
Dancing with the Ferryman & Dreaming in Norwegian by Frankie Valente
Catherine of Deepdale by Millie Vigor
Lowrie by Joseph Gray
The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott
Shetland Folklore podcast
A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter
A Midsummer Foy by Janice Armstrong & Meilo So
The Galleon Girls by Laurie Goodlad
Traditional Life in Shetland & Shetland Folklore by James R. Nicolson
Shetland’s Heritage of Sail by Charlie Simpson
Shetland Fishing Saga by C A Goodlad
Mairi Hedderwick’s Shetland Rambles
Antique & Collectable Shop, Lerwick on Facebook
Guddicks: Traditional Riddles from Shetland by Amy Lightfoot & Laurie Goodlad
Kirstie’s Witness by Sheenagh Pugh
The Collected Poems of Vagaland
Rhoda Bulter poems
The first book that I’ve chosen is Shadowed Valley by John. J. Graham. This book was first published in 1987 - the year I was born.
This is a book that I come back to time-and-time-again and one that I named my eldest child from – Hansi. I read it while I was pregnant, and it has stuck with me ever since. The book is based on the clearances in the Weisdale Valley. These clearances saw an entire community evicted from their homes within a generation by the landlord, David Dakers Black, in the 19th century. Although the book is a work of fiction, it is based on fact and is provocatively brought to life in the careful prose of Graham, one of Shetland’s great writers. I wrote a blog about the clearances which I will also link in the shownotes to give you a sense of this period in Shetland’s history.
John Graham was born in 1921 and, after serving in the RAF during the Second World War he studied English at Edinburgh University. On returning home, he taught at the Anderson Institute until 1966. He then became headteacher of the Lerwick Central School and then the Anderson High School before retiring in 1982. He was a prominent member of the local community before his death in 2008.
John Graham’s work was not restricted to the Shadowed Valley, he also wrote Strife in the Valley in 1992. This is another fictional novel that is based around the Clunies-Ross family who were merchants in Weisdale in the 18th century. The ruined house of the Clunies-Ross family can still be seen at Sound, Weisdale.
Graham’s work wasn’t just reserved for works of fiction. He is responsible for several notable works on the dialect language including Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect which was first published in 1952 and The Shetland Dictionary, first published in 1979 which is an indispensable guide to our local dialect.
As well as these writing achievements, he was also the joint editor of New Shetlander magazine, a quarterly journal that is still in existence today.
Moving on, the second book that I’ve chosen is Thin Wealth by Robert Alan Jamieson.
This is a fantastic exploration of Shetland’s social history and the changes that the islands felt as the oil industry marched in in the 1970s, shaking the community to the core and bringing great change with it. For some, these were welcome changes, delivering opportunity, adventure and a cosmopolitan feel, but for others, the march into modernity was too much to bear. Another work of fiction but, for those who lived through the oil era, the story resonates many truths. For me, a post-oil boom Shetlander, it is enlightening to dive into the politics and chaos that this time brought through the words of Robert Alan Jamieson. He writes a lively narrative and paints vivid pictures of a bygone Shetland.
Another favourite of mine by Robert Alan Jamieson is Soor Hearts – another captivating read about murder and mystery at the turn of the 19th century.
Robert Alan Jamieson is a Scottish and Shetland poet and novelist who grew up in Shetland but is predominantly based in Edinburgh. He has written extensively, but these two are my favourites of his - they rake up all the nostalgia of the past that we all crave from a period in Shetland’s history that is just out of my reach.
Now I couldn’t come here and not speak about Ann Cleeves and her tremendous Shetland series that include: Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning, Dead Water, Thin Air, Cold Earth & Wild Fire.
I was so honoured to have Ann on the first series of the podcast speaking about her writing. She is such an inspiration to me and I can’t quite comprehend how she finds the time or the energy to churn out the quantity of books that she does. If you missed that episode, I’ve linked it in the shownotes below so you can listen again.
The bestselling series of crime novels by author Ann Cleeves, based in Shetland, is the basis of the popular crime drama Shetland, featuring detective inspector, Jimmy Perez. Author Ann Cleeves spent much time in Shetland before writing the gripping series, and you can be assured an edge-of-your-seat read with these books.
Ann Cleeves isn’t the only crime writer who is inspired by Shetland as a setting for crime novels. Marsali Taylor has published a whole series of Shetland Sailing Mysteries, including Death on a Longship, The Trowie Mound Murders, A Handful of Ash, The Body in the Bracken, Ghosts of the Vikings, Death in Shetland Waters, Death on a Shetland Isle and Death from a Shetland Cliff.
Next up is The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
Malachy is one of the most prominent writers in Shetland today – and a beautiful writer at that – with several great titles to his name, including 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home and The Un-discovered Islands.
Published in 2018, The Valley at the Centre of the World takes the reader on a thoughtful journey as the lives of those living in The Valley unfurl and play out. It raises pertinent questions about belonging, community and all that is lost with time. Written in Malachy’s natural and poetic style, the words weave a beautiful portrait of life in one small corner of Shetland. The Valley is where generations have lived, traditions have been passed down, new faces have built on the fabric of the community and integrated into the Valley’s rhythm. But what happens if all this is lost? What happens as times change?
This was a book that I couldn’t put down from start to finish! And, the good news is, he just announced that the book is to be released in several languages so if you fancy a Shetland fix in your language, this book is now available in Italian and German.
Next up is Dancing with the Ferryman by Frankie Valente
This is a book that will make you fall in love with falling in love. It will take you back to those first butterflies, the anticipation of a kiss, and all the magic that is stirred into a love story. This is chick-lit Shetland style.
Frankie Valente has written numerous books, including Dreaming in Norwegian, also set in Shetland and based around the Shetland Bus. But for those stomach-flip moments, Dancing with the Ferryman is unrivalled.
Dreaming in Norwegian is a tale that takes Lisa Balfour back in time to the Shetland Bus operation of the Second World War. Whilst trying to capture her grandfather’s wartime story, she unexpectedly falls in love along the way.
Next on the list is Catherine of Deepdale by Millie Vigor
This is another fictional tale set in a small, rural Shetland community. Like Malachy Tallack, Millie Vigor sets the stage with beautiful descriptions of both people and place and taps into the deep sense of community that underpins much of our heritage.
Millie Vigor, an octogenarian, was born in Dorset but chose Shetland as the main stage for her captivating trilogy, beginning with Catherine of Deepdale, and followed by No Skylarks Sing and Paying Davy Jones. Despite not being a Shetlander, Millie captured much of the essence of the isles in her writing, and of the three, Catherine of Deepdale was her finest piece of writing.
I felt that the other two books in the trilogy felt a bit rushed and lacked the beauty and slow drama that we found in Catherine of Deepdale. This has just the right serving of nostalgia for all the timeless sentimentalists amongst us.
Lowrie by Joseph Gray is the next book that I’ve chosen in this selection of fiction.
This book is great fun! What began as a series of short stories published in the Shetland Times quickly became one of Shetland’s best-loved literary treasures. Written by Joseph Gray in the 1930s and illustrated by the incredibly talented and much loved F.S. Walterson, these stories are hilarious depictions of everyday life in Shetland at the time, heavily focused on the croft, as well as fashions of the day and new inventions. Ironically, perhaps, the first short story is called A Wrastle wi’ a Hen – and if you’ve seen my Instagram stories, you’ll know we have our own wrestle with a hen and a certain little four-year-old! Written in the Shetland dialect, this is well worth the effort, but be warned, if you’re a non-Shetland reader, you might want to invest in The Shetland Dictionary to accompany this read!
I can’t not do a list of Shetland fiction and not include The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott
Best-known for the Waverley Novels, Sir Walter Scott based his 14th Waverley Novel, The Pirate, in Shetland. Inspired by a trip north in 1814 with the famous Stevenson family who were tasked with building the numerous lighthouses in Shetland, and beyond, Scott based The Pirate around Shetland’s southernmost tip. Scott didn’t publicly acknowledge authorship of the books until 1827 – five years after The Pirate was published. My first encounter with Scott’s work was The Heart of Midlothian (seventh in the Waverley series), an interesting if, like many 19th-century novels, gruelling read! The Pirate is based loosely on the life of a pirate, John Gow as Captain Cleveland and it was set around 1700. A captivating tale of shipwreck, love, loss and piracy that has, like most of Scott’s work, stood the test of time. An interesting side note appears from the story: In the book, Scott uses the Laird’s House at ‘Jarlshof’ (now in ruin) as a setting in the novel. It is from this description that the archaeological site takes its name. The literal translation comes from the Old Norse ‘Jarl’, meaning Earl, and the German ‘Haus’, meaning house – so Jarlshof translates as the ‘Earl’s House’.
Probably the most challenging read on this list, but if historic writers float your boat then this one’s worth a bash!
For my final picks in the fiction department, here are a few for younger readers.
First up is a fantastic story called A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter
Perhaps not necessarily for the younger reader – I read this when I was 21 and finished it in one sitting, as it was so captivating, but certainly one for those in their early teens.
This is a haunting tale, based on the selkie (seal) stories of our folklore, the ability of seals to take human form and shed their skins to pursue men or women on land and carry them away back to the sea. This tale is based on a young man who appears at the door on a stormy night, from a shipwreck, he says – but twelve-year-old Robbie knows that the truth is more haunting …
This is undoubtedly a book that both children and parents will equally enjoy.
If you missed my podcast about folklore I’ve linked it in the shownotes as I speak quite a lot about the selkie stories in there.
Next up is A Midsummer Foy by Janice Armstrong and Meilo So
I love this book; it’s a flamboyant and colourful portrayal of summer, written by Janice Armstrong and brought to life by illustrator Meilo So. This is a brilliant book for toddlers and a great way to introduce them to Shetland’s culture – starting with a fishing trip and culminating in a great midsummer foy (party) in the Great Hall on the island of Vaila.
This book certainly has all the good-feelings of summer in Shetland and is beautifully presented in hardback format.
To this list, I’m going to add my little tale – as yet unpublished, although I am working with an illustrator to bring it to life. This is a story, based on the history of the Spanish Armada. I wrote it for my bairns and published it on the blog. I’ll leave a link to the story in the shownotes - this one is called The Galleon Girls.
So that’s my totally non-comprehensive list of Shetland’s best fiction. I’m hughly aware that I have omitted some of Shetland’s best-known writers including Jessie Saxby, a prolific writer and folklorist, and J.J. Haldane Burgess who wrote so much and gave us the famous Up Helly Aa song! To choose favourites from them would be almost impossible. Also, for today’s reader, the selection above gives a far more accessible and current look at Shetland’s culture through the eyes of more contemporary writers and I in no means wish to take away from the contribution that writers like Saxby and J.J. Haldane Burgess made to Shetland’s literary scene.
First up are James R. Nicolson’s Shetland Folklore and his other great title, Traditional Life in Shetland. Both of these are fantastic starting points to give you an understanding about how people in Shetland lived and worked in the past. He looks at the customs, calendar traditions and stories and explains it in a way that anyone can understand. Both of these give a real sense of what life on a traditional Shetland croft in the 19th century might have looked like.
Other good folklore books include John Spence’s Shetland Folklore, Ernest Marwick’s Folklore of Orkney & Shetland and Black’s County Folklore of Orkney & Shetland.
Fishing is another great part of Shetland life, both yesterday and today and two of my favourite books that look at the sea are Shetland Fishing Saga by Alistair Goodlad (or C A Goodlad as the title says), that was published in 1971 and Shetland’s Heritage of Sail by Charlie Smith which was published in 2011.
Some of my favourite peeks into a bygone Shetland come from the Victorian travellers who came here in one form or another and documented their adventures in a kind of travel writer-esque style.
Some of the best amongst these are:
George Low’s tour through Orkney & Shetland in 1774 and the Reverend John Brand’s Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth & Caithness. John Brand was a Minister and was appointed to join a delegation to the Northern Isles in 1700/01. As a Minister he had a particular interest in religious affairs, but the book contains rare accounts of the population, land use, occupation and social life and, if you listened to my podcast on Witchcraft a few weeks ago, you’ll have heard me mention Brand on more than one occasion. Samuel Hibbert, visiting in 1822, is another that gives such a fantastic account of the people and their customs, and this is another that I turn to time and time again.
Others include Christian Ployen’s Reminiscences of a voyage to Shetland in 1839 and Edward Charlton’s Travels in Shetland 1832-52. He came to Shetland as a young medical student and documented his visit well and John T. Reid’s Art Rambles in Shetland. This is a fantastic account of his time in Shetland in 1867 that was published in 1878. Reid’s work included fantastic sketches that he did as he travelled around, and these tell us so much about life at the time. Reid later inspired the wonderful Mairi Hedderwick to follow in his footsteps with her 2011 Shetland Rambles.
I co-authored a book that was published in 2013 called Guddicks: Traditional Riddles from Shetland. I did this book with Amy Lightfoot who is an ethnographer based in Norway. We both had a shared love of old Shetland guddicks - or riddles that were being forgotten to history, so we saved them. I collected all the guddicks I could, and Amy shared lots of social history from interviews that she had carried out in Shetland over the years and the whole book was beautifully illustrated with her lively woodcuts.
I’m not going to mention any other non-fiction books other than two of my favourite biographical accounts. The first is a memoir by Allen Fraser about growing up in the 1950s and 60s in Yell and, later his career in the Met Office and later as a tour guide. Allen is a great pal of mine who, as a geologist and tour guide has given me lots of advice and help over the years. His book is well worth the read and has an unforgettable title - A Town Called Toilets!
Another is Kirstie’s Witness by Sheenagh Pugh which is a harrowing account of Kirstie Cadell. In 1855 Kirstie and her three children were evicted from their room in Sooth Kirk Closs (now Church Road) and refused assistance from the council – she and her children, now homeless, were forced to sleep in the stairwell of the Tolbooth, a building that overlooks the Small Boat Harbour in Lerwick, where she dies of hypothermia and starvation. This book is her story and one that will break your heart to read.
It would be negligent of me not to mention my favourite Shetland poets, and there are so many to choose from but, without a doubt my favourites are Vagaland, or TA Robertson and my favourite is his Collected Poems. Another favourite is Rhoda Bulter and I’ll link these in the shownotes.
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my podcast. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.