New anthology will be read again and again

Bright Pebbles, edited by Mary Blance and Laureen Johnson. Hardback published by Shetland Islands Council in partnership with Shetland ForWirds at £14.99.

This anthology of Shetland poetry and prose is a beautifully presented hardback with a CD of selected poems, readings and songs.

The book is divided into seven chapter headings – Awa, Hame­grund, Sea, Lightsomeness, Love, Maakin and Lifespans – and the writers in Awa focus on leaving Shetland shores.

Laevin Lerwick Harbour, from Grace Barnes’ play Dancing With the Mune, will strike a chord with anyone who has left Shetland behind for a new life across the water.

Alan Burke’s poem Thoughts of an Ex-Serviceman also evocatively recalls memories of Shetland from far climes, yet while the serviceman’s memories are vivid and strong his wish to return is less so: “I’m frightened you have changed.”

Hamegrund is dedicated to living in Shetland, homecomings and celebrating the elements and nature and here there are memories from Bobby Tulloch of growing up in Yell and of bird watching and poetry by writers such as Stewart Smith, Gordon Dargie, Emily Milne and Jack Renwick.

The motifs of this chapter are pride of place and love of land and nature; from the Gannets of Noss to appreciation of the little things in life, such as Stella Sutherland’s poem Da Lights o Lerick fae da Bressa Side (and my personal favourite in the whole book).

A’m been awa, bit A’m come hame ta bide; Naethin A’m seen haes ony lure ta tyse Laek da lights o Lerick fae da Bressa side, An da hame folk, an dir wyes. The collection of literature in The Sea show how Shetland has been shaped by the rhythm of the waves, from whalers to fishermen to lifeboat men and herring girls.

John (Jack) Peterson’s (1895-1972) poem Seine Netters is just one of the included pieces which appears on the accompanying CD. It has been put to music and performed by Robert Sim and the resulting song is very effective at portraying a voyage to sea in the 1960s; the chorus “Hullo! Hullo! Daybreak calling Venture” is a call-out over the trawler radio waveband.

John Cumming’s story Uncles is a tale of a child’s memory of his sea-going uncles and it illustrates how vital fishing was as a living and how the industry made such an impact on all those involved. “Uncles’ spaekin was fu o unken wirds, spokken oot da coarner o der mooths . . . Da real wirld wis at sea an dey jöst cam ashore fur a brak.”

Lightsomeness opens with a passage from Aly Bain’s book Fiddler on the Loose and he recalls being a founder member of the Shetland Fiddler’s Society at aged 13 noting that the group was formed at a very important time when, post-World War II, there was an emphasis on a new way of life and old traditions were being forgotten.

A very lightsome addition is Charlie Simpson’s recipe for bannocks, which I will certainly be trying, and it is aptly followed by a treatise on the Big Bannock by Ewen Balfour.

The chapter on love is a short but powerful few pages. Three verses which appear on the CD are Stella Sutherland’s Sang, George P S Peterson’s Dee an me, written when he was courting his wife, and Mary Helen Odie’s Wild White Swan. The first two are read by the poets while the latter is sung by Jenna Reid (and appeared on her CD Laughing Girl). These three are just an example of how great the CD is, poems read by their creators, often archive recordings, and also reimagined and enhanced by music.

Maakin is prefaced by a stunning painting by Chloe Garrick; Lass Tak Dy Sock, written by Christine Brown as part of a project for the Unst Heritage Centre, discusses how girls were taught to knit by both parents in some cases and that although intricate patterns were knit, eye-strainingly, by lamp light there was at least some notion of health and safety with children being given hen’s quills to knit with, rather than sharp pins.

Lise Sinclair’s poem Alchemy, in memory of her grandmother, stood out in this chapter showing the balance and enchantment of life in rows of Fair Isle knitting.

Working life, crofting, fishing, oilwork and all the changes that have evolved in these are the subject of Lifespans. Lollie Graham, “poet laureate of crofting”, in his poem What Ken Dey? looked at the crofter’s life and poses the titular question of those “professors, politicians, experts – sae caaed”, who looked upon the industry and the folk who wrought in it, “through a steekit stimna a statistics”: What ken dey o da tracchle an swaet o da crö, Da helpin, willin hands Caain, markin, crugsettin, clippin, Drenchin, sortin, docking an dippin Til dayset comes an we braethe wis a bit, An aise wir wearied banes? Christine De Luca’s Aa change is another outstanding poem which reflects on the changes of Shetland’s landscape from the ice-age, to crofting and the coming of oil, the poet also recites this on the CD.

Finally the postscript of the book is Vagaland’s Beach of Bright Pebbles, which reminds us that changes will happen, live moves on, but lest we forget we share so much with those who have gone before us. The poem ends with Shetland humanity, of all generations, connected together.

I can’t begin to think how long it took Mary Blance and Laureen Johnson choose just some of Shetland’s canon to include in this book, no mean feat. The compilation is extremely readable – I read it cover to cover and I know that I will dip into it again and again. The illustrations and accompanying CD just heighten the enjoyment of the literature inside.

My only complaint is that it is so sad to see how many of the Shetland writers in the anthology have been allowed to go out of print. Surely an event as big as the Hamefarin could have warranted commemorative editions of some of the great works of the Shetland canon?

Vagaland’s poem ends with the lines “Part of the pulse of life. Night, day, earth’s seasons and times circling stars” – these closing lines are a perfect summation of all the works included in this wonderful anthology.

Bright Pebbles is available from The Shetland Times Bookshop.

Louise Scollay


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