By RYAN TAYLOR
HIS WRITING has been a treasure to many in Shetland for almost 30 years, but now the work of veteran author James W Irvine has been officially recognised by the King of Norway.
The celebrated writer was presented with the highly prestigious Saint Olav’s Medal at a ceremony in Lerwick’s Town Hall on Monday – given in recognition of his writing on Norway.
Friends and family members gathered to see Mr Irvine, who at the age of 91 has written over 20 books since he retired in 1977, presented with the medal by honorary Norwegian consul John Smith.
Mr Irvine said he was greatly honoured to receive the award, describing the event as “one of the greatest days of my life”.
“It’s not every day I get a medal from the King of Norway. It’s a great honour to be here, because I have a strong connection with Norway.”
The connection blossomed when Mr Irvine was asked by members of Lerwick Community Council to compile accounts of the war by ex-Norwegian servicemen.
“They asked me to go to Norway to interview as many of the Norwegian war veterans as I could, and they would preserve the stories I collected.
“It was the sort of thing I was just waiting for someone to ask me to do, and I jumped at the chance.
“Those days spent in Norway were probably the biggest highlight of my life, because we made so many friends.
“I had so much in common with the ex-servicemen there, and the stories I got from them were absolutely astounding.”
Following his visit Mr Irvine wrote the book The Waves Are Free, which studied the wartime Shetland Bus operation that transported vital supplies to Nazi-occupied Norway from the isles. It proved so popular it was translated into Norwegian.
“That was probably the greatest honour that’s ever been done to me,” he said.
Mr Irvine, whose wife Bella speaks fluent Norwegian, has since made frequent return trips to Norway, and many of his friends from across the water have come to visit him.
Plans for the award ceremony emerged after the former editor of the Norwegian newspaper Bømlo Nytt, Else Marie Øvesen, was in touch with chairman of Shetland Bus Friendship Society Jack Burgess and Derick Herning of the Norwegian Shetland Friendship Society.
Mr Irvine paid tribute to Ms Øvesen for recommending him for the award, and showed concern for her following a recent bout of ill health.
She was too poorly to attend the event, despite making plans at the last minute to charter a flight to Shetland.
The medal would normally be presented in Norway by the King himself, but council convener Sandy Cluness made the Town Hall available for the event because of the writer’s advancing years.
Mr Irvine said the Town Hall was a fitting location for the ceremony to take place.
He said the Town Hall was his “favourite building” in Lerwick.
“I don’t care what they build with government money, or oil money or wind money, they will never surpass this building.”
Mr Cluness said he was delighted to make the hall available for the occasion.
“It’s not often we get a request from the King of Norway to do something, and when Jack Burgess and I discussed this we were sure it was the right setting.”
One of Norway’s most prestigious honours, the St Olav’s Medal is only normally presented three times a year.
It is awarded for “outstanding services rendered in connection with the spreading of information about Norway abroad and for strengthening the bonds between expatriate Norwegians and their home country”.
Mr Smith said it had been a great honour to present the award to Mr Irvine.
“He is a worthy recipient of the St Olav’s Medal,” he added.
Mr Burgess said it was right that Mr Irvine’s work should be recognised.
“The literary work Jimmy has done in fostering good relations between Norway and Shetland is being recognised in a very special way.”
Born in 1917 at Exnaboe, Virkie, Mr Irvine was brought up in the area before schooling at what was then the Anderson Educational Institute. He went on to study at Edinburgh University, from where he graduated in 1939.
Mr Irvine saw six years of army service, and went on to become further education officer for Shetland for a while before reverting to teaching.
He became headmaster of Bell’s Brae Primary School in 1966, a position he held until he retired in 1977.
He was made a Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland in 1973, and awarded the MBE in 1974.
He wrote his first book in 1980, and his writing became more and more prolific, until in 2004 he completed what he described as his last book, Final Curtain.
Since then, however, he has written three other books, and he admitted he was working on a fourth.
“I didn’t think anybody at the age of 90 would write another book, but I got a bit fed up, and just to fill in time I’ve written in long hand more or less the whole of a book.”
He said it was based on Shakespeare’s The Seven Ages of Man, and would compare Shakespeare’s idea of a man’s life with his own.
“Given another year and a half it could be completed,” he said.