Shedding new light on Northern Scottish islands literature


By focusing on the continuities between historic and contemporary writers, Writing the North has developed a new body of Northern Scottish islands literature, and new audiences for it.

What was the problem? 

Orkney and Shetland have a vibrant community of poets and novelists at work today. Likewise, these Northern Scottish islands have a rich literary history.

Exploring the many continuities between the historic and the contemporary is challenging, given the geographic dispersal of the many people who can contribute to the process, including literary historians, museum professionals, writers and their audiences.

Bringing these groups together was the key to unlocking a range of archival and contextual material, shedding new light on forgotten writers, and inspiring new work.

What did we do? 

Writing the North was a year-long project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to explore the writing of Orkney and Shetland. The project leaders were Penny Fielding, Grierson Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Mark Smith of Shetland Museum and Archives.

The research focused not only on offering new insights into existing texts, but on making connections between the past and present writers and generating new work.

As well as academic activity and outputs, Writing the North involved a programme of public events, debates, readings and exchanges on the islands, including a major exhibition at the Shetland Museum and Archives. It also involved online engagement (including through mapping, animation and blogging), the production of a new book of poetry, Archipelagos, and a lesson pack / film-based project for island schools with close ties to four of the authors.

Unst lighthouse engraving
Writing the North gave our pupils an understanding of rural life in Shetland six or more generations ago and of the socio-economic life of ordinary people. It also gave them a concrete feel for the hardships of life and the consequences of the Clearances in their own locality. The project helped them with their own creative writing and to understand how words can be used to convey dramatic, life-changing moments.
Head Teacher, Aith Junior High School
What happened next? 

The Writing the North exhibition ran for six weeks in Lerwick, Shetland. It told the story of Northern Scottish islands literature, not only through texts, but through sound recordings, illustrations and rare archival items, including personal objects and artefacts. One visitor wrote:

“How exquisite to discover your literary hero’s own handwriting. I was suddenly in heaven… what a feast for the reader and writer that I am”.

To promote new work generated by the project, talks and readings were held on the closing day of the exhibition (10 May 2014). Such was the success of the format, which gave an insight into the creative process, that a similar event was held the following year in Edinburgh. As the research was now complete, the event was made possible through collaboration with partners, including the Scottish Poetry Library and the Scottish Storytelling Centre (where the event was held). Extending the conversation to other artistic forms, it included a performance by Fair Isle musician, Inge Thomson, who joined Penny Fielding to talk about the project on Scottish Television (STV).

Social media, including a blog and Facebook feed, has extended the project’s engagement further into 2015. Most recently, this has led to linkages with Education Scotland’s Scots Language Coordinator for Orkney, Dr Simon Hall; BBC Radio Orkney has also been instrumental in promoting the project on the islands.

The schools project engaged over 100 children in writing, directing, producing, shooting and editing a total of four films about islands authors. Writers (professional and amateur) continue to mark the locations which inspire their work on the online Writing the North map; the youngest being eight.

About the researcher(s)

Research unit

Subject area:
  • English Literature


  • Arts & Humanities Research Council

Related study programmes