Insights into island life promised as 60 academics prepare for big conference

On 7th-10th May, Lerwick will play host to an international island studies conference, Taking Shetland out of the Box: Island Cultures and Shetland Identity. The event is a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Institute, the Shetland Museum & Archives and the UHI Millennium Institute’s Centre for Nordic Studies. Here, organiser ADAM GRYDEHØJ outlines the development of island studies and gives a glimpse of some of the themes to be debated.

Island studies is an emerging academic discipline, which first came into being in the late 1980s, thanks to the efforts of energetic economists and political scientists at the University of Malta. It has grown steadily in prominence since then and can now claim dedicated academic outposts in Japan, Australia, Åland, and Prince Edward Island, the latter of which publishes Island Studies Journal. Behind the concept of island studies lies the idea that, despite the great diversity of island com­munities, islands are subject to common dynamics, and meaningful comparisons can be drawn between places as different as, for example, Orkney and Singapore. This is complimented by a holistic per­spective that views island issues in the context of their insularity.

This leads to a breaking down of traditional academic barriers: island economy needs to take note of island culture, which is itself linked to insular geopolitics and so on.

Despite the fact that island studies has been, theoretically speaking, an interdisciplinary field since its conception, until relatively recently contributions from the social sciences far outweighed those from the humanities. This is, however, starting to change. In 2007 saw the founding of Shima, a journal of island cultural studies, which has had the effect of making folklorists, historians, ethnomusicologists and other culture researchers aware of the opportunities within this discipline. Furthermore, island studies research in the humanities and social sciences is beginning to overlap, and Shima and Island Studies Journal are starting to publish articles from outside of their respective focus areas.

Even though island studies is becoming better integrated in the realm of print, however, it remains the case that those researchers interested in policy and those interested in culture tend to live in their own worlds and attend different conferences.

Taking Shetland out of the Box is an attempt to redress this imbalance. This event marks the first dedicated island studies conference to address itself to both sets of academics and to bring their different types of expertise into contact. The conference’s 60 or so speakers come from a wide variety of cultural and scholarly backgrounds. What binds this group together is a fascination with and love for islands.

Such a large number of presenters allows the event to be split into “parallel sessions”, so that two sets of thematically-grouped present­ations will run simultaneously. The advantage to having parallel sessions is that it lets conference participants select which presentations they would most like to hear and avoid topics that are of limited interest to them. So, no-one has to hear about economics or ethnomusicology, tourism or trows – it is all according to taste. An additional benefit to this interdisciplinary set up is that presentations will by necessity be comprehensible to general audiences and will avoid the use of specialist terminology.

Although most of the present­ations at the conference will concern island culture, we aim to show that the various aspects of island life are all intertwined. Besides the event’s regular paper sessions, the conference includes a series of special sessions entitled Perspectives on Island Autonomy. These consist of presentations by politicians and civil servants, primarily from autonomous North­ern European islands. The speakers will discuss the varying degrees of legal autonomy in their island communities and the effects these have on culture, economy and geopolitics. On the final day of the conference, all of the political speakers will come together to take part in a discussion forum in which they will take questions from the audience. Although most of the presenters for this session series and forum are still unconfirmed, we can announce that the line-up includes Richard McMahon (External Relations Policy and Legal Advisor, States of Guernsey) and Høgni Hoydal (Member of the Faroese and Danish Parliaments).

It is not all realpolitik though. Taking Shetland out of the Box also looks at some positively unreal aspects of island identity. For example, the conference features a session on The Meeting of Cultures in Island Folk Belief. This will consist of talks by Fiona-Jane Brown (Elphinstone Institute) on belief among Shetland and North East Scottish fishermen, Anna Pietrzkiewicz (Polish Academy of Sciences and Humanities) on the symbolic meanings of Icelandic fairy traditions and Yealtaland Books’ Andrew Jennings (University of Edinburgh) on connections between the Shetland landscape and traditions of supernatural hags. Archaeology also has a role to play here. What makes the conference’s archaeology present­ations particularly exciting is that they tie in to the event’s theme of intercultural contact by looking at what Northern Isles archaeology can tell us about island identity. Presenters include Elizabeth Pierce and Erin-Lee McGuire (University of Glasgow), discussing the Norse archaeology of Orkney and Shetland, and Lauren Doughton (University of Manchester) on Shetland’s Neolithic and Bronze Age remains. The conference’s session on Guising Traditions will feature a talk by Terry Gunnell (University of Iceland), one of the most prominent researchers in the field of both Old Norse and modern-day ritual activities. Dr Gunnell’s presentation will analyse guising in Yell, Unst and Fetlar, placing these traditions in an international context. Also, Linda Riddell (University of Edinburgh) will look at how Up-Helly-A’ has been portrayed in writing, and Joy Fraser (Memorial University of Newfoundland) will describe the history of violence surrounding 19th-Century mumming traditions in Newfoundland.

When the conference moves into its sessions that truly focus on its “meeting place for cultures” theme, the event’s international make-up becomes evident. One such session is Intercultural Interaction and Identity Formation, which takes a broad view as to what constitutes an “insular community” by looking at cultural as well as geographical islands. The session consists of talks by Simon Brooks (Cardiff University) on how Welsh-speakers and the Romani people of Wales have both taken on the mantle of linguistic minority cultures, Ulrika Wolf-Knuts (Åbo Academy Uni­versity) on mainland Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, Madan Kumar Mahato (Organization for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage) on the development of group identities in culturally-diverse Nepal and Mari Sarv (University of Tartu) on how historical Swedish-Estonian conflict is expressed in the song culture of Estonia’s islands. The History and Identity For­mation session considers many of these same issues, featuring presentations by Atina Nihtinen (Åbo Academy University) on the similarities between Shetland and Finland’s culturally-Swedish Åland archipelago, Sebastian Seibert (Clausthal-Zellerfeld) on how Old Norse history has influenced Orcadian identity, Lynn Abrams (University of Glasgow) on gender relations in Shetland other island communities and Maysam Behra­vesh (University of Tehran) on how the insular nature of the United Kingdom as a whole has shaped British history.

Yet another take on these topics emerges in the Heritage and Identity Formation session, which will include presentations by Owe Ronström (Gotland University) on how islands themselves can be considered heritage, Jacqui Mulville (Cardiff University) on how archaeology has shaped identity in Scilly and the Western Isles and Prajun Thapa Chhetri (Organization for the Conservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage) on the meaning of heritage in Nepal.

Shetland’s maritime culture means that these islands possess a history rich in Emigrants and Immigrants, a session featuring talks by Wendy Wickwire (University of Victoria) on Shetland emigrant JA Teit’s attempt to shape British Columbia in Shetland’s image, Anders Errboe (Danish Musicians’ Association) on his own family’s historical roots in islands across Northern Europe, Jill Harland (University of Otago) on similarities and differences between Orcadian and Shetland emigration patterns and Anne Sinclair (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland) on Fair Isle’s multicultural history.

For those intrigued by the links between culture and economy, the Place Branding session will be of considerable interest. This session consists of presentations by Ruth MacKrell (Isle of Man International Business School) on whether national identity can be branded, Emma-Reetta Koivunen and Deirdre Hynes (Manchester Metropolitan University) on how Shetland is represented in tourist literature and Michel J Leseure (Isle of Man International Business School) on the uses and successfulness of place-branding initiatives.

Among the conference’s other sessions, one that stands out it is a discussion forum on the intersection between storytelling and identity, featuring Gutcher’s noted storyteller and guide, Lawrence Tulloch. Other notable speakers at the conference include Brian Smith (Shetland Museum & Archives) and Donna Heddle (Centre for Nordic Studies), who will discuss aspects of Shetland and Orkney history respectively, and Philip Drummond (New York University in London), who will talk about how Scottish islands have been portrayed in film and on television. Additionally, we are very pleased to be hearing from Lino Briguglio (University of Malta), one of the foremost scholars in island studies, who will tell us how economic realities have influenced culture in the Maltese island of Gozo.

The conference will bring to Shetland two excellent keynote speakers, each of whom will give 45-minute-long talks. One of these speakers is Bo Almqvist, former head of the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. His talk will place Shetland’s supernatural legends in a Nordic perspective. The other keynote speaker is Carsten Jensen, probably most popular novelist writing in Denmark today. He will discuss his own experience of culture and history in the maritime village of Marstal on the island of Ærø.

The conference itinerary includes side events as well. It is expected that the European Commission in Scotland will sponsor a dinner/reception, with live music, that will be free for all conference participants. Additionally, partici­pants can sign up to take a bus tour of Scalloway, North Mainland and Northmavine, hosted by Lawrence Tulloch. Finally, there is the opportunity to attend an evening of Shetland culture with the Bigton storyteller Elma Johnson.

Most of the speakers at the conference hail from outside the isles, but Taking Shetland out of the Box is definitely designed with Shetlanders in mind. So, if you have an interest in island culture, politics, or economy, you should definitely consider attending, even if it is only for the events during the weekend. For students and Shetland residents, conference registration costs £30; for everyone else, the price is £50.

The February issue of Shetland Life will include an article that provides a bit more background to the conference and a discussion of just why studying islands is important.

You can see a provisional con­ference programme and learn how to register at the event’s website: Spaces are limited, so if you want to take part, make sure to register soon. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about the conference, feel free to e-mail me at:


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