After I’d been commenting enthusiastically on posts reviewing the books he (re)publishes, I was thrilled to be contacted by Michael Walmer offering me a review copy of this enthralling reprint, Peter Jamieson’s “Letters on Shetland”, which forms part of his Northus Shetland Classics imprint. This is what his website says about his publishing venture: “He will continue to publish books by authors lost to the current viewfinder, from recent times and those longer ago, who have special meaning for him. These authors are also selected as being those whose voices should be more readily heard, and who extend vitally the literary canon.” and how lovely a set of aims that is. This was one to savour and I appreciated the fine design and quality of the book as well as the contents.

Peter Jamieson – “Letters on Shetland”

(21 February 2022, from the publisher)

Peter Jamison was born in Lerwick and a self-taught expert in Sheltland writing and language. He founded a magazine, “New Shetlander”, and published two books, this one in 1949. It takes the form of a series of letters addressed to an interested correspondent (sometimes he specifically answers their questions, though the interesting introduction by Brian Smith and a publisher’s note to it suggest that it was a literary device rather than an actual person), so the topic usually changes fairly often and there’s something for everyone interested in history and geography and the sociology of small island life.

After describing the layout and arrangement of the main Shetland islands, we get information on the farming and fishing, economy and language, place names, people’s names, etc., with sections and chapters in Shetland dialect, which is not too hard to decipher if you’re OK with dialect in general and gives an authentic and rich feel to the chapters describing people’s everyday lives. I very much enjoyed the letter covering the bird sanctuary at Hermaness and the bird-watcher who reports on his charges in a “lonely vigil”. The descriptions of sea life and the experiences of Shetlanders who travelled the world on various vessels, often coming across compatriots as they went, were also fascinating.

The particularly interesting chapters deal with the Shetlanders’ experience of the Second World War, which I’m afraid I hadn’t particularly stopped to think about. Of course, the islands occupied a strategic point between Germany and the UK, and so were heavily defended and also attacked, with the islanders usually reacting with curiosity rather than fear. The influx of people from the mainland and also from Norway appears to have added to the islanders’ circles (and gene pool) and there are also some fascinating descriptions of the Germans’ pre-war interest in the islands, with ships appearing in their harbours and engaging in exercises. These sections are often written in diary form, giving an immediacy akin to the Mass Observation publications out of London, etc.

The final letter looks to the future, making suggestions on how the poverty in the islands could be lifted and the residents’ economic outlook improved. I’d love to know more about whether that happened and would welcome recommendations for further reading.

There are several excellent photographic pages in the book – although they’re printed on the paper stock of the book rather than as shiny plates, the reproduction is good and we have both lovely landscape scenes and images of people going about their daily business.

A good and interesting book that is valuable both for the general reader interested in first-hand accounts and descriptions near to the time the events took place and also, of course, as a primary source for researchers. Thank you to Michael Walmer for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.