Books: Searching for the great Shetland novel

Jordan Ogg examines the work of Robert Alan Jamieson, a writer whose novels have spanned the past three decades and who has chronicled many aspects of life in these islands.

During the latter decades of the 20th century authors from urban Scotland gave new meaning to their cities through dark tales of alienation and trauma; while those from the nation’s more rural areas shed their kilts and savaged the popular image of the untouched idyll. One writer who began to make his mark around this time is Robert Alan Jamieson, a Sandness-born poet and novelist now resident in Edinburgh. Jamieson has contributed much wealth to Shetland literature over the past thirty years, and his novels in particular contain the prospect of great discovery for those interested in local culture, history and society.

Jamieson’s debut Soor Hearts (1983) is a fast-paced tale of murder and mystery, set at the turn of the 19th century. It opens in Mirkwick, a fictional village located in the north mainland. There, a stranger, later revealed as Magnus Doull, arrives after a 10-year exile, having left under suspicion of killing his friend. At the same time the laird’s son is returning from school in Edinburgh. He is filled with pretentious ideas about his social status and loathes the “peasant” people of the village. His father, on the other hand, has no ill-feelings toward his tenants, and in turn they consider him to be fair and just. However, the legacy of his forebears hangs over Mirkwick like a spectre.

The “three foot thick walls” of his residence were built by the local tenants in 1735 at the command of the then incumbent Scottish laird. The crofters who did the hard work received no payment and had no option to refuse, for “they either did as the laird wished, or found themselves turned out into the night, homeless”. Jamieson invokes the spirit of the dogged Shetlander of old in the tale of Gabriel Erasmusson, a crofter left destitute after refusing to help build the house. As a result, he and his family are evicted, a fate for which he is said to have cast a terrible curse on the laird and his descendants.
Like Erasmusson, there are two more characters who owe more to the legacy of Shetland’s past than they do to the present they find themselves in. The first is Aald Seemon, a stoic and wise man described as once having been “the best Haaf skipper in the area”; the other is Meenie Doull, who represents all that is superstitious about Shetland’s cultural heritage. Steeped in lore, Meenie possesses “the secret knowledge of healing”. She is visited by the people of the village when they are ill, but always under cover of darkness, to avoid any eyes that might inform the local minister of such heathen goings-on.

Meenie’s pagan ways are anathema to the Calvinist dogma enforced by the Reverend Cunningham, a scarecrow of a man from St. Andrews. His church exerts a strong hold over the folk of Mirkwick, but one that Magnus, high on the socialist ideals he has been exposed to during his exile, tries to break as the novel reaches its climax. At this point we begin to understand that it’s not so much the thought that Magnus could be a murderer which threatens the way of life in Mirkwick, but the unwelcome spirit of rebellion he brings back with him.

There are other stories orbiting the main tale that grows around Magnus. One that stands out is the tender account of two very different young women unknowingly bound by loss. This sees the author set his sights on Shakespearean-style tragic love, but to say any more would give too much away. Jamieson executes their tale brilliantly, and it’s partly for this reason that Soor Hearts is his most readable novel.

The late poet and scholar, Lollie Graham, who was a great influence on Jamieson, rightly said that Soor Hearts paints “a fascinating picture of a community in which many of us, for good or ill, have deep and potent roots”. These roots represent a way of life that by the time of Jamieson’s second novel, Thin Wealth (1986) is fast disappearing.

“Where is your identity, people of the North?” This question opens a key scene in Thin Wealth, and it’s one that haunts each character as they try to find their way in a community thrust into the upheaval of the oil boom.

The story begins in Lerwick in 1982:
“There is a new Lerwick rhythm – or rather a number of different beats, occasionally in time but often clashing – a cacophony of oil age sounds.

“There are strange faces on the winding main street, where once faces were familiar. New influences have penetrated through its skin of Northern tradition . . . There is less time to stop and talk, less time to exchange smiles, less time to think.”

This “Northern tradition” refers to a way of life that Lowrie a’Wurlie, an old crofter and one of the novel’s two central characters, tries to cling to as he faces the new age. He lives in the fictional village of Glimmerick, which appears to have changed little under the initial influence of oil. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes a crucible where the trials of Shetland’s industrial age have a profound impact on each villager.

Lowrie represents a vision of Shetland that belongs firmly in the past. His life is governed by the lay of the land and the movement of the seasons; and his pleasures are the quiet company of his wife, his trusty sheepdog and his flock of healthy yowes. But things are quickly changing for the old crofter.

“Soothmoothers” are moving into Glimmerwick, “a gigantic alien” has descended upon Sullom Voe, and his wife has found a job within its filthy black heart. As the novel develops, Lowrie’s sadness for the waning of the traditional way of life is symbolised by the oil, and his grief is captured in the forlorn words, “Tinks du will it ever be da same again?”, which echo throughout.
The novel’s other central character is a young woman named Linda. She is haunted by her troubled childhood – a father lost at sea and a mother placed in a mental hospital. Her past is intangible, lost in a time that appears foggy and almost forgotten.

Linda’s story is a search for belonging. We are taken through her unsettled youth, learning that she grew up in Glimmerwick with her adopted aunt and uncle. Having finished school at the Anderson High, she moves to a caravan park in the east of the islands, then to a rented room in Lerwick. Each move represents an unsuccessful attempt to find belonging and security, which only comes when she returns to Glimmerwick near the end of the novel. By this time Linda has overcome many of the trials that life has given her – a missed opportunity at art college, two failed relationships and the absence of her parents.

What helps Linda open the door to her future is Lowrie. They becomes mutual keys, each unlocking the other to a new identity as the oil age draws to a close. To Lowrie, Linda becomes a mode of catharsis, a link to the past, but one that is based in the future; and to Linda, Lowrie is a mosaic containing the fragments of a past that will fill the gaps missing from her sense of self.

Lowrie’s journey to find his place in a new Shetland is resolved by telling Linda about a time long past, but one which represents the roots of an identity that belongs to them both. Together they symbolise Shetland itself at the time of oil, caught between past and future, under the heavy fist of industrial capitalism.

Jamieson’s third novel A Day at the Office (1991) is poles apart from his earlier works. It sees the author depart from Shetland and move toward a more experimental narrative style. An unidentified worker sits at a desk bored somewhere in an office in urban Scotland. There he conjures three characters, each with deeply disturbing psyches, who at times appear as if they’re about to burst into real life. Split-seconds of lives; hours and days; all the smells, sounds, feelings and thoughts of a city and its people battle for room on the page at once. Such literary cunning places this novel at the heart of the post-modern movement that grew in Scottish literature during the closing decades of the 20th century. The novel was a critical success and saw Jamieson make his mark as a writer of national importance.

Shetland past and present, along with a national awareness, a broader outlook and a firmly grounded reputation sets the scene for Jamieson’s most recent and ambitious work to date, Da Happie Laand, which was published this summer. Here we see traces of Jamieson’s earlier novels: the historical aspects of Soor Hearts meet Thin Wealth’s concern for lost identity; and the experimental style of A Day at the Office continues, but this time in a more accessible, yet no less determined way.

The novel speaks of Shetland in a way that looks both inward and outward. This is a Shetland writer telling a story of home from the perspective of characters who are almost exclusively seeing the islands from a non-local person’s point-of-view. This gives the tale flight, which allows it to do everything that the Shetland novel ought to.

The story begins with Jamieson himself, who is working as writer in Perthshire. He tells us of how he came upon the diary of a troubled young man named David, along with a collection of manuscripts, letters and emails written by various other people. These were passed to him by a former neighbour in the hope that the author might make sense of the strange story fermenting between the layers and the lines of the documents.

The sources are key here. They span six centuries of Shetland history, eight generations of one family, and the confused thoughts of a man described by one character as his “lost sheep”. As the documents are pieced together we visit at a place called New Zetland, a South Pacific island colonised by Shetlanders in the 19th century, following the arrival of a whaler named Jack Kuliness. Upon its shores an unusual blending of community occurs, where the new island and its indigenous people gradually begin to reflect aspects of the old island the emigrants left behind. This duality of location forms the backdrop for the ensuing tale, which develops around David’s quest to find his father in a place that may or may not be Da Happie Laand.

This novel is huge in historical scope, covering the isles’ Scandinavian history, the period of Scottish rule and the eventual drift into the late-modern era. Diaspora features heavily in its account of a remote community destroyed by famine, then by consequence, through emigration to distant lands in the South. We also meet some of the more intangible elements of local culture: music, wit and most notably the Shetland dialect, which is rendered at length in Jamieson’s craftsman-like Sandness idiom.

Recently I’ve heard some talk about whether there is, or ever will be a “great Shetland novel”. I’d say that Jamieson has produced some pretty good contenders for the title. If you’ve already encountered his work then perhaps you’ll agree. And if you haven’t, then go and find out for yourself. They’re well worth it.

Jordan Ogg


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