Thumbs up for diverse island conference

Taking Shetland Out of the Box, a conference on island studies, was held at Shetland Museum over the weekend. With 120 delegates from all the world attending and over 50 presentations it promised to be an interesting few days. LOUISE SCOLLAY reports.

On Friday morning Ian Russell, director of the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen, welcomed everyone to the conference and handed the proceedings over to convener Adam Gyrdehøj, a Danish academic studying at the Elphinstone Institute.

Shetland was the first in a series of biennial Taking Islands Out of the Box conferences, Mr Gyrdehøj said, with 54 presentations from 22 different countries. He believed the event will give them the chance to build on something great with future events planned for Malta in 2011 and Åland in 2013, adding significant body to studies of island life.

After thanking the bodies and people involved in making the event possible – the Elphinstone Institute and Dr Russell, Donna Heddle and the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies and Brian Smith and Shetland Museum and Archives – Mr Gyrdehøj posed the question: why choose islands?

There was a surprising comparison of islands with Japanese “Kaiju”, or monster movie cinema, which highlighted symbols of the broad term “island” and depicted a community threatened and thrown into chaos.

Mr Grydehøj stressed that in placing islands under the microscope it was discovered, through the course of the conference, that small communities were frequently the leaders in developing trends and that islands reacted quicker to global and regional changes than larger communities.

He also placed value on the need for comparative studies which were important in finding out more about the dynamics of island living and how a community worked. He then officially opened the conference and handed over the proceedings to the first speaker.

The weekend was split into 12 separate topics incorporating aspects of island life; three 20 minute papers were presented in each section and chaired by another delegate.

Friday’s topics for consumption were Place Brands and Economies; the Music of the Islands; Emigrants and immigrants; Guising Traditions; Perspectives on Island Autonomy and Narratives and Discourses; although it was impossible to attend everything that was on offer as presentations were being held concurrently in both the auditorium and the learning room.

The first presentation I attended was on place branding and chairwoman Kate Coutts introduced Alistair Audsley from Truly Consulting in the Isle of Man.

His paper concerned culture and the country of origin effect, which from a marketing perspective gave a way to distinguish a product through consumer perspectives and how goods affected perceptions and intentions.

He discussed branding for tourism and that a strategic objective must be in place in order for it to be a success – part of the objective must include emotive elements which engage consumers and make the product cultural which provides the “truth” of the region – something that people want to do business with.

Mr Audsley noted the inefficacy of tourism branding which advertised areas as merely all “castles and beaches” and went on to show current tourism advertisements for the Isle of Man which put the resident at the centre, showing their island through daily activities such as riding a motor bike through the landscape, water sports, bustling community, etc.

The paper presented many insights into marketing tourism, but the concept of heritage in branding was overlooked in the advertisement.

Mr Audsley said that in building a marketing proposition heritage was considered in a separate category from culture; heritage was a huge part of the culture and particularly of an island’s culture. Personally I would have thought it a dangerous move to dissect it in such a way or undervalue heritage when it comes to advertising the area to potential tourists.

In the learning room Owe Ronström, from Gotland University, was chairing presentations on music of islands.

Katarina Juvencic, a research fellow of ethnology and cultural anthropology at University of Ljubljana, presented her paper This is Shetland at its Best, a study on the Shetland Folk Festival.

Ms Juvencic has spent many folk festivals in Shetland observing the celebrations and has collected oral testimonies from festival going Shetlanders and musicians alike.

She explained that Shetland’s economic revival from the oil industry put money into stimulating arts and heritage, which was aimed at home audience.

The folk festival was also aimed at a domestic tourist market and celebrated the local fiddle tradition and talent in Shetland. Even now 50 per cent of the bands in the line up were Shetland-based and more than a quarter of Shetland’s population bought tickets.

When coupled with the reliance of local volunteers and sponsorship the festival was still very much a local festival aimed at the local community; and local musicians were also an integral part because of their interaction with visiting artistes and a passing-on of Shetland tradition in music.

Ms Juvencic was also keen to point out the uniqueness of the festival. Shetland’s remoteness already added to feeling of otherness, but the festival could also be regarded as a time out of time through the transformation of spaces. The folk festival club is the best example of that: Islesburgh Community Centre was transformed for four days to become the club – descended upon for loud music, drinking and dancing by revellers, people in every room, on every staircase, participating and observing in musical fusion, temporary realigning the space – a “re-enchantment of the world” as Miss Juvencic called it, with everybody working together for one another (for a change).

With this year’s festival still fresh in everyone’s minds it was a topical presentation and it was interesting to look at the festival as a marker of global music cohesion, as well as ritual of community-building which could be seen as transcending boundaries.

Malachy Tallack chaired the section on emigration and immigration in the museum’s auditorium. Jill Harland’s research, for the University of Otago in New Zealand, has revealed that migration from Orkney was not as forced as it was in Shetland, due to land clearances, and Orcadians embarked on an odyssey before settling – many going to Canada first and working for companies like the Hudson Bay Company before settling in Australia or New Zealand.

Shetland emigration was not very well represented in ships and passenger lists but cheap passages in the 1870s and 80s saw an enormous exodus of islanders between January 1874 and December 1877.

It was interesting to learn of the chain migration and kinship settlements of Shetlanders in Stewart Island, especially when my family name was mentioned among the names of settlers.

As part of ongoing research Jill is keen to hear from anyone who has information on their family history pertaining to migration to Canada, Australia or New Zealand from Shetland and Orkney; she can be emailed at From New Zealand we travelled back to Shetland with Emma-Reeta Koivunen and Deirdre Hynes from Manchester Metropolitan University, who presented a paper on touristic representations of Shetland entitled Sun, Sand and Sweaters. As part of ongoing PhD research the pair looked at VisitShetland brochures from the last three years and carried out an image analysis; each image was scrutinised for its underlying message including location, activities, props and people.

Of the 131 images used they discovered that the majority of the model “tourists” were women in the 20-30 age bracket, usually blonde and mainly accompanied by a masculine, sporty-looking man.

There were very few children in the images and of activities and locations the tourists were usually pictured in wide-open spaces with clear blue or sunny skies or in a pub in the midst of a music session.

Fifty-six per cent of the images included no people at all; these were nature images of animals, birds and local wildlife. There were very few with locals in any of the pictures or many of tourists and locals mixing, while hardly any of the images included locals at work or craft.

Ms Hynes and Ms Koivunen concluded that branding the islands in this way gave the impression that Shetland was a modern place with very few agricultural activities; tourists could expect a young, well-connected population and an unspoiled paradise with permanently cloudless skies. Their analysis of the brochures also found lack of any mention of Shetland’s crofting past and present, knitting tradition, dialect or even the oil.

It was disappointing to learn that there were very few images of anyone over the age of 40 in the official tourist brochure for the isles or that it may appear that activities and amenities for children might be overlooked.

The result from this study which I found most alarming was that, allegedly, every model pictured – in three years of official tour guides – is white. It would seem that quite a different picture, than our own local, culturally diverse identity, appears to be sold to potential tourists, which poses the question who is the preferred tourist?

The afternoon sessions kicked off with a series of presentations on guising traditions. Linda Riddell’s presentation on Up-Helly-A’s Myths and Misconceptions lead the way for two further presentations on the nature and function of guizing with evidence from Newfoundland from the 19th century and from the North Isles from more recent fieldwork by Terry Gunnell.

Ms Riddell’s paper dealt with the misconception that Up-Helly-A’ was an ancient Norse tradition and discussed the Victorian tradition of tar-barrelling from which the Viking festival actually has its origins. It was not until 1889 that the burning of a boat, rather than a drum of flammable liquid, was introduced as a regular feature of the proceedings, but even then there were no other Viking motifs until 1906 and the creation of the Worthy Chief Guizer.

More Norse symbolism was imbued in the festival after this, but, as Ms Riddell suggested, the Viking references were intended to be tongue-in-cheek from the beginning.

Prof. Gunnell’s presentation on guizing in the North Isles was the particular highlight of this section. He discussed the difference in guizing traditions between the north and south portions of Shetland and the different names of guizers such as skeklers, John Banes and Grøliks.

The important function of a guizer as a bringer of luck was also discussed, in the dark half of the year and also at weddings; there was a distinct similarity with wedding guizers and the Irish “strawboy”. The presentation was enhanced with a PowerPoint slide show including pictures of Shetland guizers wearing the traditional straw outfits complete with tall straw hat adorned with ribbons, but it was only when you went and saw the straw outfit in the museum that you got an idea of the skill that went into creating such a disguise for the purpose of social drama at Hallowe’en or Christmas and the bringing of luck to a home or a newly-married couple.

One of the last sections on Friday was on narratives and discourses and the two lectures I saw presented went from powerful Shetland women to surly Shetland men.

Lynn Abrams from the University of Glasgow is no stranger to the topic of Shetland women, having written the book Myth and Materiality in a Women’s World: Shetland 1800-2000 in 2005. In this presentation she analysed the male and female roles and relationships in order to see whether or not the unique characteristic of egalitarianism existed between the sexes in Shetland.

Prof. Abrams stressed that women’s roles had been a metaphor for Shetland distinctiveness, given that they had to be equal to or better than a man as they had to learn skills in order to subsist while men were away from home or indeed if the women were unmarried or widowed.

But how did these powerful women impact on men? There were high migration rates in men during the 19th century and men were also notably absent from the isles due to fishing and whaling industries. The males that were left in Shetland found themselves marginalised by the dominant women, the frustration of which often presented itself in domestic violence.

The balance of power between the sexes in Cunningsburgh may or may not have had to do with their lingering reputation for surliness, but Brian Smith explained the history of their brusque repute.

Starting with a quote from George Low, who wrote of Cunningsburgh in 1774, that the Cunningsburghers were a “stout, hardy race and the wildest in Shetland”.

It would seem that their reputation for being wild and rude comes from a fight between local men and Burra men in 1771 over the harvesting of rashes. Their rude character only followed them through the centuries – the “quarrelsome Saxon pirates” fighting amongst themselves, with figures of authority and with anyone who seemed to pass through the village!

Mr Smith delivered a very entertaining last lecture of the day and sent us away with a smile on our faces.

Friday evening concluded with a buffet courtesy of the museum’s Hay’s Dock Restaurant, hosted by the European Commission Office and music from Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag.

Saturday boasted presentations on island archaeology, heritage and identity formation and folk belief and the first keynote presentation of the event.

Val Turner has been an archaeologist in Shetland since 1986 and has always been interested in how Shetlanders are pro-active in their own projects.

There are many local history and archaeology groups in Shetland and they are usually instrumental in discovering new sites and taking on much of the responsibility of organisation and maintenance of sites. The removal of the burnt mound in Bressay last year to the Bressay Heritage Centre and the Papa Stour Stofa Project are two good examples of local involvement.

Ms Turner’s presentation focused on how communities can be empowered by local involvement of dellin’ into their own past – she thought that the burnt mound in Bressay came at a time that the island was at risk of losing its sense of community due to the plans for a tunnel and that in working together they managed to find a new cohesion.

Her paper also raised the important issue of ownership – if an artefact is found in Shetland, should it not remain here, not only as a marker of Shetland’s history, but also lending itself to our identity? The St Ninian’s Isle Treasure is a good example of this.

Giant women were next on the agenda with Andrew Jennings’ research into the grotesque hags of Shetland’s past. In fact this was a bit of a misnomer as he explained that many giantesses were regarded as the most beautiful, but in Shetland we seemed to have had our pick of the mean and monstrous. Place names in Shetland were indicative with names such as Grola, Goorn and Goreskirm being adaptations of giants’ names.

The legends of how these hags affected the landscape were very interesting as were Mr Jennings’ comparisons with examples of giant legend in the Celtic tradition with the Callieach, the hag of the winter period.

The sea provides us with the largest melting pot of themes covered in the conference; tradition, identity, culture, heritage, folkloric belief, narrative. Fiona-Jane Brown, from the Elphinstone Institute, explored the similarity between Shetland fishermen and their “brothers at sea”, those from the North-East of Scotland.

The superstitions which have plagued fishermen for centuries were emerging parallels between the two areas, such as the importance of nicknames for all land creatures and also for people such as a minister.

It was thought that the mention of land animals would affect the catch and fishing would be halted if an animal was found on board. Similarly a minister, with connotations of death coupled with his challenging religious authority in a community, was never welcome aboard a boat and was called the “upstander” or “sky pilot” by fishermen.

Past taboos were still upheld but were dying out. Some older members of crew observed taboos, but it would seem younger members ridiculed the traditions as nonsense.

This paper generated a lot of discussion about the nature of superstitions and I am sure that Shetland superstitions could constitute a presentation all by itself at another event.

The afternoon session on island texts and contexts held for me one of the highlights and also the only lowlight of the entire conference.

Kate Coutts is head teacher at Uyeasound School and also leader of the Shetland Coaching and Leadership Programme. Her presentation was on Metasaga, a tool employed in leadership development which allowed pupils to access local culture, heritage and landscape and engage in self-reflection.

Emerging through similar work done in Africa, Metasaga encourages self-reflection in people from diverse backgrounds from school children to business executives. A group of people may be taken to a local landmark and asked to identify five or six “stops”, place, value, themes, soundtrack and these were attached to a significant metaphor. For example, one group visited a windmill and ideas of energy, innovation, force and dancing were attached to the landmark by the group. These metaphors were then used to develop personal reflection and delegates were asked questions such as what is your driving force? What makes you feel energetic? Tasks also grew from the questions, if the blades of the windmill looked as if they were dancing then the group danced too and engaged with the landscape in a similar way; music too could be attached to the experience.

Non-directive coaching and appreciative enquiry are at the heart of Metasaga, and its highland equivalent Metasgeul (Story in Gaelic). Each delegate was given instructions to complete their own Metasaga and pay a visit to the yoals and sixareens in the museum and study them thinking about ourselves in relation to the boats, the crew and the elements, etc.

I was amazed at the simplicity involved in Metasaga and how powerful it was in instilling leadership skills and re-framing thinking – a very potent tool indeed. However, after all the power things fell a little flat.

Gideon Thomas was to present a paper on The Ethnographic Analysis of Contemporary Sociolinguistic and Cultural Traditions in Orkney – an attempt “to examine how language choice is a reflection of local identity and tradition” (as per the paper abstract) and consequently how tradition and identity were affected by such choices. However, the paper was based entirely on a presentation made to the University of Edinburgh to request to study the topic as a PhD project, so there was no evidence from Orkney on language whatsoever.

This was a shame as the presentation was based completely on Mr Thomas’ wishes and hopes for such a project, as opposed to a useful insight into island life, and only two minutes of the presentation concerned his reasons for choosing Orkney as a subject.

The presentation was even more redundant as he was unsuccessful in his bid to do the PhD so Mr Thomas wishes and hopes for his thesis remain so for the time being, although he did succeed in putting at least one member of the audience to sleep.

In the following discussion, while my neighbour had woken up and asked me worriedly if she had been snoring, someone asked Mr Thomas how long he had spent in Orkney researching the topic and he replied that he had never been there. It was suggested that it would be valuable to spend some time there before considering undertaking such an important study.

I look forward to seeing Mr Thomas at Taking Malta out of the Box and hearing his some of his research findings in 2011.

The last presentation of Saturday was keynote speaker Carsten Jensen, a Danish author whose novel We, The Drowned is based in his childhood home of Marstal in south Denmark.

Mr Jensen was keen to write a novel which incorporated Denmark’s seafaring past as well as immortalising the town of his birth in fiction.

On returning to Marstal to research his book he found that the best archives were the residents themselves who could tell him all about their history and who the most colourful local characters were. He said the greatest form of entertainment in the town was to people watch and gossip about who they saw coming in off the ferry.

Deciding to keep the residents up to date with how his novel was shaping, Mr Jensen held regular readings at the library and the locals were always keen to fill him in on aspects of island living and maritime history he was missing out.

So invaluable were the people of the town that he joked that the only parts of the book that came from him was the invented day-to-day events, everything else came from them, as the people he interviewed were only keen on imparting the most exciting parts of their history.

We, The Drowned is not released until the autumn in this country, but it seems the semi-fictionalised, semi-biographical account of the town’s history is the ultimate dedication to the village and the people of Marstal.

There had been a lot of excited discussions regarding a presentation of the Papa Stour Sword Dance in the museum; it was a new experience for conference-goers from home and away with the majority of the Shetland delegates not having seen it before, let alone the visitors.

George Peterson, a retired teacher from Brae High School, gave a brief history of the dance, that it was known to have been performed at the end of the 18th century but had been reduced to being performed in three or four year intervals, between Christmas and New Year in Papa Stour.

By 1963, due to depopulation, there were not enough boys to carry out the seven-piece dance and Mr Peterson suggested that, rather than allow it to become extinct, it could be performed by pupils in Brae for their end-of-session concert.

Mr Peterson briefly discussed the format of the dance; each of the seven men represented the seven saints of Christendom; St George, St David, St Andrew, St Patrick, St John, St Anthony and St Denis.

St George introduced each saint and challenged him to dance a step upon the floor before they joined up together and danced in an unbroken circle.

The “seven saints” drew a large crowd in the museum foyer and the formation of the dance was incredibly well choreographed. There was also a good deal of dialogue involved and I was eager to learn more about the background history.

The following discussions, by Paul Smith and Michael Preston respectively, both centred on textual analysis of the dance.

A document, transcribed by James Scott of Melby, contained instructions of the dance which, ultimately, inspired Sir Walter Scott to create a fictionalised account of it in his novel The Pirate of 1822. This was the document Dr Scott had acquired from another “very old” transcription of 1788.

Prof. Smith’s presentation, while important to the textual history of the Papa Stour Sword Dance, mainly focused on the life on Dr Scott and the question of which version of the dance is the most accurate.

Prof. Preston, from the University of Boulder, Colorado, also discussed the textual relationship between Dr Scott’s description of the dance and a description which appeared in Samuel Hibbert’s Description of the Shetland Isles of 1822.

Research into documentary evidence is important to understanding the dance’s history, but, after watching the dance for the first time, I was eager to hear more about the underlying drama in the dance. I was also interested in the dance as a calendar custom and if sword dancing was commonplace throughout the isles: it’s a shame there was not someone to present a paper on narrative, drama and custom aspects of the dance too.

The second keynote speech of the conference was given by Bo Almqvist, whose analysis of how legends migrated to Shetland focused on three tales – The Seal Wife, The Fairy Midwife and The Finn Messenger.

Each tale was accompanied by a map showing other areas where the story could be found; stories like The Fairy Midwife was common all over Europe, but the pattern of some were more concentrated, such as The Seal Wife which was confined to coastal areas around Scandinavia, the UK and Ireland.

Prof. Almqvist also made note of how versions of folk tales varied in different areas and not just on a global basis; tale content can differ from Shetland to the mainland but also the difference can occur between a one area of Shetland and another.

After a weekend of over 50 different presentations on perspectives of island life it was down to Brian Smith to draw the conference to a close.

He thanked Mr Grydehøj for his persistence and hard work in his vision for the conference and made note of how the after-presentation discussions have proved extremely productive.

Mr Smith finished by saying the whole event had been “an unalloyed success”; as well as addressing important cultural, political and historical issues in island studies lasting friendships had also been made.

Mr Grydehøj was keen to express his thoughts on the weekend. He said: “I really think the event was an enormous success. As convener, it’s obviously gratifying to hear people saying it was the most enjoyable conference they’d ever been to.

“What really made the event stand out was the sheer diversity of participants. You don’t often find folklorists listening to brand consultants and vice versa. The whole conference just had a great atmosphere.”


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.