The strangest thing happened in the Lerwick Tescos, where I stocked up on basics for a month staying at Sumburgh Head: when the person at the till asked if I’d like some boxes to carry everything in, she called me “du”. I hadn’t heard the familiar and informal “you”, pronounced “thu” in Orkney, addressed to me in casual speech, for maybe twenty years. I remember it as perfectly ordinary when I was younger (when I was peedie, corrects my mind), living in Westray (not on, corrects my mind), but when I’m home in Orkney now I never hear it, not with my half-in-half-out accent as a prompt, and definitely not in Tescos. Hearing it then felt like finding a diamond on the pavement, and over the next month I gathered pockets full of diamonds, because, again, it was perfectly ordinary.
I was in Shetland partly to retreat and work on my own Orkney language book, and partly to read, listen to and speak about as much of the Shetland language as I could, to find out what was happening there and what, maybe, other language revitalisation projects could learn from it. There were other things than the precious Tescos Du that struck me, sometimes astonished me. I went to Shetland ForWirds annual concert, which featured three or four generations of Shetland speakers in poetry, theatre and song, and had an audience of a couple of hundred. (The ForWirds website is stuffed full of resources and activity.) I burrowed through the Shetland section of the Lerwick library, which had around three times as many books in dialect, mostly poetry and storytelling but plenty other besides, as the same section in Kirkwall’s. One book, Bjorn Sandison’s children’s novel Mystery at Da Laird’s Haa, is the most fluid and natural Scots prose I’ve ever read, without ever compromising on the integrity of the tongue: with a vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that’s substantially different than the Orcadian I grew up with, I was amazed at how easy I found it to read, and put that down to the strength of the language around me.
I had the conversation about why the language seems stronger in Shetland than Orkney several times with different folk, and never were we able to pin it down exactly. Perhaps it’s to do with Shetland’s greater distance and Orkney’s greater involvement with global trade and colonisation, but given that both have a roughly 50/50 population of born and new islanders, or those with and without the local language, or however you want to name us, I think that’s probably a small part of the picture.
Reading Mark Ryan Smith’s Literature of Shetland, I’m struck by how unbroken the canon of published dialect work is. After Walter Traill Dennison’s Orcadian Sketchbook, apart from the too-neglected Christina Costie and Robert Rendall, there’s little to nothing in Orkney until the 1980s, while equivalent work in Shetland is followed by much more original authorship all the way through the 20th century. The role of the New Shetlander in fostering the local literature seems crucial. Some folk I spoke to wondered whether the popular success of George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir, who both chose English, and the latter of whom wrote against Scots, overshadowed local language writing and made us feel it wasn’t suitable for literary work. There was a question of whether a greater focus on Shetlanders writing for Shetlanders, rather than for a Central Belt audience, strengthened the tongue.
The dictionary work also occurred earlier and more comprehensively in Shetland, and by language partisans, whereas Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Norn was focussed on recording rather than revitalising, and Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Wordbook came later on, with the more accessible Orkney Dictionary with Margaret Flaws only in the 1990s. John Graham’s work also came with a complete grammar of Shetland, which helps legitimise it, whereas the grammar notes in the Orkney Dictionary are little and late, and we still have no complete record of the grammar of the language. The same battles in the education system — some trying to stamp out the language, some seeking to preserve it — happened in both island groups, but perhaps Shetland had a larger arsenal to deploy.
None of which is to say that there’s not exciting and enlivening work happening in Orkney. Hansel Co-operative Press, so engaged in Shetland’s language work, has also included Orcadian writing in its publications, and now Abersee Press is driving local publishing forward. Our dictionary’s online now, Scottish PEN’s Many Voices project supported local writers with a workshop that I hear’s still going, and I see more Orcadian written down now than I did twenty years ago, even if I hear less. Following the success of Shetland’s Wir Midder Tongue Facebook group, the Orkney Reevlers group has spent over a year now recording local language, encouraging folk to use it without fear or shame, and so has produced an invaluable record and piece of revitalisation: thanks, moderators.
I am feart, though, as many who love minority languages are, even in Shetland which is likely the strongest bastion of a minority Germanic language in these islands. Faced with global media, changing populations, aye-bidan stigmatisation, chronic underfunding, generational shifts, and all the other muddle of a changing world, it’s not always easy to see how the tongue you love can survive — or how it can adapt to new circumstances while retaining as much of what you love as it can. One thing I think about often is that this may depend on reaching a good accommodation between Orkney and English speakers, just as the survival of small islands depends on born islanders accepting some change and difference and new islanders adapting to and respecting the island history. Alison Miller, in an essay for Abersee’s Speak for Yourself, wrote courageously about the strange split in Orkney literature, where Orkney language work tends to be confined to community events like Harvest Homes and weddings and Young Farmers concerts, and English language work tends to be confined to authorised literary events where, worryingly, Orkney speakers are often neither seen nor heard; she points out that an anti-Orkney language prejudice can still often be heard and puts up barriers. Of course I, half Orkney and half not, would say this: to live in a muddled identity you have to bring the parts of it together somehow. But I can’t help thinking that the only way the language survives is the way the islands survive: being a bit of both, with native speakers and learned speakers both allowing each other to speak without shame.
I want to see, and be part of, more events and more books in Orkney that celebrate the language, til we can build them up to rival the scale of our Shetland cousins. I also dream of a revitalisation of the dictionary work, now that we’re digital, to help develop fuller grammars and records of spellings and keeps the words circulating: dictionary work that keeps the language living rather than pins it to the page. After spending a month up in the lighthouse, I also hope for more collaboration and traffic between the different islands and their languages: meeting with members of the ForWirds team, we dreamed up at least a dozen fantasy projects, from bilingual events to interisland translations, that are just waiting on a bit of money and a bit of energy to push them forward. On we go.