A COMPENDIUM of three short stories by writers from Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles has been published, forming the second part of the ambitious Between Islands project.
Aimed at exploring cultural connections shared by Scotland’s three main island groups, Between Islands is the brainchild of Alex Macdonald, who programmes Stornoway’s An Lanntair venue (the Hebridean equivalent of Mareel).
The book was launched at an event in An Lanntair on 4 June, bringing together the works of Shetland writer Roseanne Watt, Orcadian Alison Miller and the Western Isles’ Kevin MacNeil.
The first installment last year saw songwriters Arthur Nicholson, Willie Campbell and Kris Drever get together to write songs and perform a concert in each group of islands.
Alex is already looking towards part three of the project, based on fiddle music and featuring Shetland’s Maggie Adamson alongside Jane Hepburn from the Western Isles and Orkney’s Louise Bichan. It is hoped the trio will perform a short tour and possibly produce a tune book too.
Funding for Between Islands is secured on a project-to-project basis, but Alex is hopeful she’ll also be able to put together another writing initiative.
“Between Islands is all about collaboration,” she said. “Whether that be getting musicians, writers, artists, historians or promoters together is immaterial, as ultimately we each have such amazingly talented people available in each area that individually appear strong but collectively are perhaps unbeatable…”
Music ‘ingrained like a stick of rock’
The key to selecting the writers, Alex said, was finding three people who were “very familiar with the language that is used, in reality, in the communities”.
Kevin elected to write about herring girls, Alison opted for a story based on the war years and Roseanne decided to explore Shetland’s Norse mythology in a modern context.
On a visit to Shetland this spring, Alex pointed to the striking similarities in landscape, culture and life experience between the three places.
The importance of music is “ingrained like a stick of rock through the people, whether it’s singing, in our case, or having a fiddle in your hand”.
She said you’d be hard pushed to find professional touring musicians from Shetland who had not appeared on a Western Isles stage.
Alex began the project where “instead of focusing on the differences, they’re a thing to be explored and celebrated, and the similarities linked in”.
Nods to today’s political upheaval and isles’ Viking heritage
Roseanne, 25, who grew up in Sandwick, has mostly written poetry up until this point, and says she found adjusting to writing a 10,000-word story to be challenging, exciting and “a lot of fun”.
She is currently doing a PHD in poetry and filmmaking in Stirling having previously completed an MLitt in creative writing at the same university.
“My supervisor Kathleen Jamie describes poetry as being the sprinting of the writing world, whereas a novel is much more like a marathon,” she said.
Her multi-perspective short story, The Rootless Tree, follows the story of a Mossbank family struggling to come to terms with the death of their youngest boy.
It is set against the backdrop of a looming environmental disaster, marked most notably throughout the story by the disappearance of the wind – which might be an implausible concept for many of Shetland’s inhabitants to get their heads around!
Roseanne says she wanted to write about the dangers of remote islands being viewed as “peripheral” by those in power during politically fraught times.
Referring to the humanitarian crisis spawned by Syria and other trouble-spots in the Middle East – and, of course, the UK’s vote to leave the EU – she feels the current political climate feels like “one of insularity, exclusion and broken connections”.
“I tried taking that idea to its extreme – on both personal and political levels,” she says. “I’m not entirely sure how successful I was on this, as the deadline and word limit caught up with me in the end, so I’ll leave it up to the reader to judge me as they see fit!”
Roseanne also wanted her story to include “a nod” to Shetland’s Viking heritage, while keeping the story within a contemporary setting.
The story is structured around several different points of view, and divided into chapters named after realms or events in Norse mythology
Its title is drawn from an ancient Shetland poem, The Unst Lay, which refers to both Odinic and Christian theology and is “generally just my favourite dialect poem of all time”.
“The main reason I used it alongside my story is that the poem itself is a fragment of a longer piece that has since been lost to time – which didn’t survive translation from the old language to the new; a resonance that definitely chimed with some of the things I was trying to write about.”
Writing not always a solo pursuit
She was thrilled by the chance to work with Kevin and Alison, who each provided island scenes from Orkney and Lewis for her to write about in the first part of her story.
The three writers were in regular email contact throughout the writing process, meaning that “though writing can be such a solo pursuit, this project definitely didn’t feel that way”.
“Another part of the brief was to use the local museum and archives, and I’m indebted to the help of Mark Ryan Smith in this, who provided me with some really fine material on the dialect, and some fantastic oral history recordings.”
Roseanne is full of praise, too, for Alex’s work on the various strands of Between Islands: “It’s such a valuable and important cultural project, and I’m absolutely honoured to have been part of it.”
She believes a lot of shared heritage between here, Orkney and the Western Isles has been lost.
“In Orkney and Shetland we are very aware of our shared Norse heritage, and we’re very aware of that binding us together, but not very much idea of the kinship we have with the Hebrides, and it’s really important because there are many things that connect us together.”
Kevin, who has published a string of outstanding works including powerful, gritty 2006 novel The Stornoway Way, has spoken previously of the difficulties inherent in writing directly about communities of small islands.
Roseanne said she strived to avoid feeling under pressure to become a spokeswoman for the community.
“It’s hard to maintain perspective when you’re worried about representing an identity – I’m just trying to be honest in how I perceive my community, I don’t think I’m saying anything that isn’t true.”
She thought last year’s songwriting collaboration was “amazing – you couldn’t go wrong with the kind of musicians that they had”, and hopes Between Islands goes on to look at visual arts and filmmaking in addition to the planned fiddle collaboration.
Dividing her time between Shetland, Edinburgh (where she lives) and Stirling, Roseanne feels the local writing scene is “quite healthy” but “perhaps not as good as it could be”.
“There’s definitely a lot of local writing happening, and I think we’re at a really exciting point with dialect as well, in terms of questioning and criticising use of dialect and its presence in Shetland.
“Shetland ForWirds has been incredible in promoting dialect. For Screenplay this year, we have an award for best use of dialect in film, but whether it will continue to be under cuts and things is an entirely different matter.”
Roseanne also has a poem featured in the August issue of ‘Gutter’ magazine, and will be screening a series of film-poems at Screenplay in September as part of a project called ‘Death & His Mistress’, a collaboration with soundscape artist and musician Adam Howard.
- Participants are being sought for the 2017 Between Islands booklet, and anyone interested can contact Alex Macdonald by phoning An Lanntair or emailing email@example.com. You can learn more about the overall project at www.facebook.com/betweenislands.