A rare glimpse into what was intended to remain private
Shetland: A Love Story by Kay Wheatcroft. Published by The Shetland Times Ltd at £20.
This book features a collection of love letters written during the mid 19th century. In it you won’t find any mention of phones, emails, cars, or the shorthand messages found in texting which seem to fill many of our lives these days.
Our instantaneous society seems to have completely lost the beautiful art of letter writing. I thought that the idea sounded good when I saw the pre-publication advertising, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the read.
Kay Wheatcroft, the editor, is the great-granddaughter of Robert Jamieson and Barbara Laing, and has brought to life this long-distance courtship of the late 1850s. By long-distance, I mean from Sandness to Gulberwick.
Think back to a time when 16 months could pass before the couple were able see each other again.
Think of the formality of the time – “My dear Jamieson . . .” – a form of address which is so unknown to today’s familiarity.
The descriptions of everyday activities and events fill this book with accounts of social history of the period.
Their simple but hard lives were regulated by the landscape, the weather and the seasons.
A photographer arriving at Sandness was viewed at first by the locals as a visitation of the black arts, although opinions soon began to change.
“After a day or two this feeling became considerably weakened, if not entirely eradicated and there was a rage, a demand, a mania for likeness taking which was truly inspiriting. Married wives came dressed in their bridal attire, young lasses decked in their finest and best, married men in their Sunday’s coat and with their Sunday’s face and young lads with hair shining, sailor’s tie and best and brawest jackets.”
Life was definitely a different experience from what we have today.
Mark Sinclair’s photographs take the book to another level. The evocative black and white photos are deliberately used to show Shetland as it would have appeared to Robert and Barbara, with locations ranging from Hermaness to Dunrossness.
Beautiful seascapes with swirling tides sweeping over rocks, sheep’s oo caught on barbed wire, lonely roads, and a stark Scalloway castle all feature thoughtfully within these pages.
The book has been beautifully put together from the pictures of the envelopes inside the front cover, with their penny stamps, to the postscript giving the history of the letters.
The love and humour shine through these letters – a rare glimpse into what was intended to be a private correspondence. The letters can be read in full, or dipped into at will – whatever is your pleasure.
Letters can be ephemeral objects, easy lost or destroyed, misplaced during housemoves or considered irrelevant as the years go on.
It is therefore remarkable that the letters that inspired Hamefarer Kay Wheatcroft to produce the book of her great grandparents’ courtship have survived in excellent condition. Not only that, but Kay has the letters from both partners, neatly stacked in date order and wrapped in acid-free tissue paper in yearly bundles from 1858 to 1861.
The letters telling the story of Robert Jamieson (1827-1899) and Barbara (nee Laing, 1838-1923) will at some stage be gifted to Shetland Museum.
After the couple’s deaths the letters, still in their tiny individual envelopes, bearing “penny red” stamps and addressed simply Robert Jamieson, Schoolmaster, Whiteness, or Miss Laing, Schoolhouse, Gulberwick, were sent to their son, one of their eight children, who lived in Dublin.
They eventually went to his son, Kay’s father, in Leeds. However, before this the chest in which the letters were kept was put into storage along with other family furniture. There was a fire at the warehouse, but miraculously the letters were not affected.
Kay’s parents never managed to read all the letters but around 20 years ago Kay, now retired from a career spanning work in broadcasting, PR and stage management and based in York, decided to do so.
She said: “Each evening after work I would come home and sit in my great-grandfather’s wooden chair and read a few letters. They were difficult to read fluently because of the cursive script so I had to read them slowly. Then I typed them out. In the days before word processors it took an age.”
Kay later cut out “great gushing chunks” (strange to think the couple only actually met three or four times before their wedding) and “small gossip not intended for a wider public”. Also ditched was a discussion on the life of social reformer Thomas Carlyle – Robert and Barbara were clearly rather intellectual.
Kay said: “I wanted to get the overall narrative of the courtship and their everyday lives.”
She approached various publishers about a book but was told the document she eventually prepared was “too sentimental for today’s taste”.
However, after seeing a book of Shetland photographs taken by Mark Sinclair she had a “lightbulb moment”. Her book, she decided, would have the letters’ text in two columns on the left hand side, replicating the size of the original letters, with black and white Shetland landscape photos on the right. Kay contacted Mark Sinclair and the pair collaborated for the next two and a half years without meeting.
Kay knew what she wanted: “The photos had to be very pared down and honest in the same way that I had edited the letters, [I wanted] the essence of everyday life.”
The photos do reflect the text, however – one of a roofless house complements the letter describing how a schoolhouse roof has to be repaired, and another, with a description of Barbara’s childhood, is accompanied by a photo of daisies.
Kay said she had found many of the letters very touching, especially the 19-year-old Barbara’s worries about moving to Sandness (where Robert later taught) after being in Gulberwick all her life, and of the problem of how to get a ring the right size when she and Robert hardly met.
Kay said: “When I typed the letters I imagined my own life compared to them. I’ve got a warm bedroom and bathroom, I can cook a joint of meat in the oven, but the heart and head is the same.”
Also in Kay’s possession is the handstitched waiscoat of heavy floral cotton Robert wore to his wedding. It was presented to the museum this week.