Portrait of the Northern Isles, by Graham Uney. Halsgrove, £14.99
The publisher’s blurb on the jacket of Portrait of the Northern Isles says it is “a magnificent collection of photographs taken in all seasons within these wild island groups, introducing you to the savagely-beautiful landscape and gentle people of Orkney and Shetland”. I opened its pages with anticipation, but the rot set in early with a crassly amateur map offered on page four. I have to say that by the time I reached the back cover I was a sairly disappointed – and irritated – reader.
Orkney features first in the book, and as the pages turned I began to snort at the many misleading or downright inaccurate statements in the captions – and I’m really no expert on Orkney. For Scapa Flow, there was no mention of the Grand Fleet in WWI, or the scuttling of the German Fleet in 1919. We’re told “farming on Orkney is still very much a part of the economy” and that Lord Kitchener “had arrived in Scapa Flow to visit Admiral Jellicoe to discuss his account of the Battle of Jutland”. Dive boats moored in Stromness are described as “fishing boats”, while a trailer-load of bales in Rousay is said to be “bringing in the sheaves”.
By the time I read that “it was at Rackwick that the lady’s suspender belt was invented” I was fizzing.
Then we arrived in Shetland – and it got worse. The Lodberrie in Lerwick is “one of many wonderful old fishermen’s cottages”. Arthur Anderson called his company “the Peninsula Steam Navigation Company”. Clickimin Broch is “one of the oldest houses in Britain”. The Noup on Foula is a “wonderful little hill” and “many birds associated with high mountains nest on lowly Ronas Hill”. Finally, the caption beside a view of the Swedish- built Haroldswick longship tells us it is “a traditional boat under construction”.
The promised portrayal of us “gentle people” proved illusory, save for a distant shot of two men beside a boat in Kirkwall – and the White Wife at Otterswick. All the other humans depicted are tourists encountered around the banks, usually with backs to the camera. The portrayal of the places is no more than a set of holiday photographs, all taken from the same old angles, covering all the hot spots as listed in tourist guides, and some well-beaten paths along the coast. In years gone by you’d have seen many of them offered as postcards – The Old Man of Hoy, Scara Brae, Brodgar; Jarlshof, Scalloway Castle, Muckle Flugga. Again, the promised “all seasons” is downright wrong, for I could only find a handful of obviously winter images among ages of sunny skies and blue seas.
I ended up with the impression that the publisher, Halsgrove, has little knowledge of the current range and standard of publications about our isles, and didn’t realise the author has an awful lot to learn as well. As an introduction to the Northern Isles, it’s a very mediocre one, so my review copy won’t be going on any of my bookshelves. I’m not even going to present it to Shetland Library, as I sometimes do; if you come across it next week in a charity shop, you’ll know where it came from.