Local culture: Why islands?

Adam Grydehøj explains the thinking behind the forthcoming conference on island culture and identity: “Taking Shetland out of the Box”.

I came to Shetland in January 2007 in order to undertake fieldwork for my PhD in Folklore with the University of Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Institute. Following established procedure, I promptly got a space in The Shetland Times’ “Our Readers’ Views”, trawling for people who might be interested in speaking with me. In this missive, I used the perhaps unfortunate line that Shetland sometimes appeared to be “the centre of the universe.” This choice of words was rewarded with a Smirk cartoon featuring a crofter informing a visiting alien that “Some people call this the centre of the universe.”

Even though I left Shetland in August 2007 and have not been back since, the islands still seem like the centre of the universe to me. They have also – at least temporarily – become the centre of the universe to a good number of other people as well. Part of the reason for this is the upcoming conference, “Taking Shetland out of the Box: Island Cultures and Shetland Identity”, which will be held at the Shetland Museum and Archives on 7th to 10th May of this year.

Planning for this event had begun already in March 2007, and I cannot claim that, back then, I realised just how far out of the box Shetland would be taken. In fact, “Taking Shetland out of the Box” now looks like something a misnomer: of the 60-or-so presentations we have planned for the conference, just over a third of them are primarily about Shetland. The rest take in a bewildering variety of geographically- and culturally-insular locales, from Guernsey to Gotland, from to Newfoundland to Nepal, from the Isle of Man to Malta. Furthermore, it is not all about folk music and fire festivals (though there is plenty of that too); the conference represents a unique attempt to take a holistic view of island life.

If my research has shown me anything, it is that people enjoy their comfort zones just a bit too much. For example, there are not too many folklorists out there who know a thing about the practicalities of tourism policy, and there are probably even fewer tourism strategists who have given much thought to the work of folklorists. Equally, how many economists and historians have anything but the vaguest of awareness of each others’ fields? “Taking Shetland out of the Box” will try to change that in its own small way. It is not a conference about island folklore or island economics or island history or island geopolitics; it is a conference about islands as a whole, in all their complexity.

Why study islands – as opposed to, say, one particular island – in the first place? Is there really anything that ties islands in various parts of the world together? “Island” is certainly a broad category. In Shetland, there may be the tendency to see islands as geographically-small, sparsely-populated places. Orkney, the Western Isles, and Faroe definitely fit the bill. But what about Greenland? Greenland resembles an island community, but it is a mind-boggling 1477 times larger than Shetland. There is the matter of perspective too: London is a whole lot bigger than Lerwick, but for some people, the United Kingdom itself is an island state, hence the fact that “Taking Shetland out of the Box” will feature a presentation on how the United Kingdom’s insular status has shaped its history. This talk, by the way, will be given by a student from Iran, a country that is almost seven times as large as the UK.

And islands are hardly homogeneous as far as population goes either. Jersey has 52 times the population density of Shetland, but even this is nothing compared with the tiny Mediterranean island state of Malta, which holds a population of about 420,000 in an area just 20 per cent as large as Shetland.

Malta may be exceptional, but it is not the exception to any rule. In fact, in terms of population density, 12 of the world’s top 20 countries and autonomous jurisdictions are islands. It was actually at the University of Malta that Island Studies first distinguished itself as a distinct field of research, which also serves as a reminder that, for many people in Europe, thinking of “islands” means thinking of sunny beaches in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. So, what is it that makes islands special? What bridges these differences and makes an event like “Taking Shetland out of the Box” worthwhile?

For one thing, islands that are limited in either land area or population tend to make excellent laboratories for study. This sort of insular status means that there is less evidence that needs to be analysed. For example, in my own studies on the historical development of Shetland identity, I can reasonably expect to be able to read every popular history book written about Shetland in the 1890s. I could never attempt something similar if I were instead studying, say, Denmark or England. Furthermore, even though no researcher can take every variable into account, islands of the sort we are discussing at least reduce the numbers of variables involved. If we go back to those Shetland popular historians from the 1890s, I can research them and learn about the sorts of outside influences to which they were exposed, thereby allowing me to make quite educated guesses as to how certain ideas from Scotland, England, Scandinavia, and so on entered Shetland during this period.

It is not just about these sorts of islands being easier to study though. Their smaller sizes and/or populations mean that they also tend to react more quickly to global and regional changes than do larger communities. Island economies, for instance, are usually limited in scope. Even islands with high population densities, like many of the Mediterranean islands, often find themselves leaning on just a couple of major industries and iconic products. When broader financial forces hit these industries (most obviously, in the current climate, tourism) islands are forced to adapt more quickly than are better buffered mainland communities. This means that, far from being changeless backwaters, islands are frequently at the cutting edge of development trends.

The same is true, for different reasons, of culture. In islands, relatively few cultural actors can make a significant impact. For example, Shetland’s music culture has been strongly influenced by the special interests and obsessions of individuals, like Tom Anderson’s fiddle music and Peerie Willie Johnson’s jazz. This also means that even low levels of immigration sometimes results in the dispersion of foreign traditions throughout the community.

There is a tendency to view islands as isolated places and assume they have always been so. However, as a number of presentations at “Taking Shetland out of the Box” will argue, historically, this was not necessarily the case. Prior to the development of mechanised land transport, boats were by far the fastest means of long-distance travel, and being surrounded by water acted as a link with other communities. It is only now, in the days of ferries that seem to exist solely for the purpose of moving cars from place to place, that the ocean seems like much of a barrier. Another reason why islands, no matter how small and barren, were often highly sought after pieces of real estate in the past is that they combined their accessibility with easy defensibility. If you know that any potential attackers will be coming by sea, you are able to plan accordingly, and island fortresses have historically offered the opportunity of defending strategic areas with disproportionately small numbers of people. Hence, to use only examples of islands that will be represented at the conference, Scilly, Jersey, Guernsey, Gotland, Åland, and Malta were all heavily fortified during the late-Medieval and Early Modern periods, in some cases even to the extent that the majority of their populations lived inside of fortifications.

So, islands do manage to overcome their differences. “Taking Shetland out of the Box” offers Shetland the chance to take a leading role in the gathering together of the disparate strands of island life. Such has been the interest that this conference has generated internationally that we are working on turning it into a biennial event that will be hosted by various European island communities. With this in mind, we are now making preliminary plans for a 2011 follow up, “Taking Malta out of the Box: Island Culture, Economy, and Identity”, and we are provisionally hoping to hold a “Taking Åland out of the Box” event in 2013.

We have always aimed for the 2009 conference to be for sake of Shetlanders just as much as it is for the sake of academics. We have thus tried to make the event as accessible as possible in terms of price (which is £30 for Shetland residents), content, and number of attendants. We also recognise that work issues may prevent some individuals from taking part in the activities of 7th and 8th May, and we have nothing against people making plans to attend only during the weekend portion of the event. So, if you have an interest in the communities of Shetland and other islands, we welcome you to participate in “Taking Shetland out of the Box”.

To see a provisional programme and to find out how to register for the conference and its side events, please visit our website at: www.abdn.ac.uk/elphinstone/events/shetland.

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 event, feel free to e-mail me at: shetlandconference@abdn.ac.uk.

Adam Grydehøj


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