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Reviews / An essential addition to every Shetland bookshelf

AT LAST, Linda Riddell’s very accessible PhD Shetland and the Great War has been turned into a book, writes Jon Sandison.

Its narrative sublimely intertwines the local story of war against that of the national and global context, with poignant inter-linked photographs. Two overarching themes of Linda’s book are geography and community. These continual threads run through each chapter.

Her analysis and narrative, in tandem with primary research and sources, is meticulously referenced and centres on the impact of war on Shetland, its people and its environment, and how our community responded to it.

The author’s motivation for this work came out of her PhD with, as she herself points out, “not a huge amount of amendment”.

She had already produced a Masters dissertation on the herring fishing from 1880 to 1893, so the Great War was to her a “chronological progression”. The author adds that it is “very definitely based on Shetland and Shetlanders’ experience of the war, approached primarily from the local rather than the war angle”.

Her book, which comes with illustrated photographs, is supported by integrated data tables and demographic appendixes. As Shetland archivist Brian Smith pointed out at the book’s launch, it is more than a military history. Linda takes the reader on a historical journey.

I thoroughly enjoyed how, from the outset, she provides great depth of focus on Shetland identity, local history and geography, thus ensuring that the reader is aware of how our islands are different from elsewhere in Britain. She makes the point that, long before the Great War, Shetland’s history had been affected by geographical location.

The availability of “an attractive Norse history and culture” connected to geography supported the rejection of a national identity in favour of a local one, Linda writes.

Shetlanders had pride in their isles and their identity was generated from “a geographical isolation, a distinctive ethnic background, history and dialect, a seafaring way of life, memories of oppression and a strong community ethic”. Perhaps some things have not completely changed.

But, although a local story of war, it is inevitable the book is tied to the world war. Linda mentions how Shetlanders preferred their transport links to be directly with the ports of Aberdeen and Leith. It is no coincidence that so many Shetland men in the army served with the Gordon Highlanders of Aberdeenshire, and Royal Scots of Edinburgh. Quite a number fought and died in the trenches on the Western Front, and elsewhere.

The book tells of how the home front in the islands was inexorably linked to wider global events, and how our community responded to the coming and outbreak of that war, but also how we adapted to it. It is a timely reminder that Shetland’s role in the Great War was universal.

There is in-depth analysis of our economy and society on the eve of war, encompassing key elements such as emigration, crofting, agriculture and fishing. Seafaring provided much of men’s work, while most women – apart from the affluent – knitted for sale.

Linda reminds us that many men were employed in the Merchant Navy, which they combined with fishing, without which Shetland’s economy was probably unsustainable. The author adds that, as it does today, the economy depended upon global trade.

She looks in detail at living conditions, leisure, politics, newspapers and the church, reminding us that Shetland was, even then, very much connected to the outside world.

Linda goes into depth on the build-up to war, patriotism, the rivalry between Britain and Germany, militarism of society, and reminds us that Germany was an export route for Shetland. She makes clear that, as well as the Royal Navy, Shetland also had a territorial army to ensure its defence.

Interestingly, Linda describes the visit of the German fleet in 1904 and how a mock night attack by the German fleet on Lerwick was refused. The German admiral expressed amazement that he was not allowed to take a small town that “could not possibly be of any use to Germany, even in the case of war with Britain, which of course, was unbelievable”. A very haunting anecdote.

It is a reminder that – to some – war was not an inevitability. With this in mind, it is little wonder that upon the outbreak of war, the reaction of Shetlanders was probably not unusual – “some initial excitement, consternation, rather than enthusiasm”.

I found the section on volunteers, recruitment and conscription particularly captivating. Linda provides poignant and harrowing accounts of Shetland service personnel’s experience, war poetry and details of campaigns and casualties. The narrative reminds us of Shetlanders’ involvement in all the theatres of war, such as Gallipoli and the Italian Front.

The majority of Shetland soldiers served in “kilted” regiments and this “must have seemed alien to many Shetlanders, who would have found it strange to be described as ‘Scottish’ or addressed as ‘Jock’.”

Linda provides fascinating detail on the Royal Navy’s vital role in Shetland, with the 10th cruiser squadron supporting the blockade, anti-submarine and minesweeping activities, North Sea convoys and coast watching.

Shetland was “on the frontline of activities that contributed both to the blockade, which in turn led to the breakdown of Germany’s fighting capacity and the indiscriminate sinking of ships which brought the United States into the war, and to the maintenance of trade, which sustained Britain’s population.”

The book examines the impact of the war on industries such as fishing and knitwear, as well as how the community was affected and played its part through relief funds, egg collections, cigarettes for Tommy, sphagnum moss collection, and the role of women. This – along with detail of how our newspapers reported the war – provides a comprehensive understanding of Shetland in these years.

The concluding analysis and narrative of the armistice and peace, as well as post-war challenges, including housing, roll of honour, commemoration and war memorial, is a captivating and crucial record in itself.

Many books have been written about the Great War. Libraries and bookshelves were already bursting at the seams long before the 100th anniversary. Historians and academics continue to add to this plethora. That is all good, but there will be much repetition. Not so for Linda’s overarching, unique work.

This element of our own heritage – so often overlooked – has at last been given the thorough detail, authority and clarity that it so richly deserves. It provides a crucial local resource for academics, historians, enthusiasts and casual readers alike; an essential addition to every Shetland bookshelf.

We have had to wait many years for this work – 100 years, in fact. We can be grateful that Linda’s perseverance, hard work, focus and meticulous eye for detail has borne fruit, and the story of Shetland and the Great War has finally been told.

One criticism would be that the first edition of this seminal work should have been published in hardback. It deserves this.

“Lest we forget”, the words of Rudyard Kipling in his poem Recessional passed into common usage after World War One. Linda has ensured that future generations, in Shetland and beyond, will not forget the islands’ role in this global conflict.

 

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