The Scottish island groups have long and rich oral traditions. However, while they feature in the Sagas and historic travel writings, their own printed literatures are relatively modern, with the earliest texts being about two hundred years old.

Sir Walter Scott was the most influential writer to visit the northern and western isles in the nineteenth century, but early native writers suffered from the lack of publishing industries or local journals in the islands. By the early twentieth century, the islands had weekly newspapers, with large sections of creative writing, and books were regularly published locally. With a growing audience readily available, literary activity increased.

^ Thomas Gibson operating the printing press in The Orkney Herald office, Kirkwall.
© Orkney Library & Archive

Header image: Eric Linklater’s glasses – see Stanley Cursiter page
© Orkney Islands Council

In Shetland, an important outlet for original writing is the The New Shetlander magazine, which first appeared in 1947, and to which Orcadian writers, such as George Mackay Brown, have contributed.

< The New Shetlander, Issue 1, March 1947
© Shetland Museum & Archives

As well as being sources of creative writing, the northern and western isles have also been the subjects of scientific, topographical and historical works by authors native to, or resident in, the archipelagos – suggesting that islands are best understood by islanders.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) lived in Shetland from 1933 to 1942 and wrote The Islands of Scotland (1939), while in Orkney and Shetland: An historical, geographical, social, and scenic survey (1965) by Eric Linklater (1899-1974), and George Mackay Brown’s Shetland: A search for symbols (1988), two Orcadian authors examine differences between the northern isles through the lenses of history and literature. Robert Rendall (1898-1967) brought an Orkney poet’s eye to two books on local natural history, Mollusca Orcadensia (1956) and The Orkney Shore (1960).

^ Hugh MacDiarmid photographed in Shetland with his family
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^Jack Peterson photographed by R. Ramsay, 1940s
© Shetland Museum & Archives

Shetland poet, John Peterson (1895-1972), known as Jack, was from the west-side of Shetland, the son of a school teacher. He served in the Seaforth Highlanders in World War I and was seriously wounded twice.

He later qualified for the Customs and Excise Service and served in different places around Scotland, including Orkney, where he met his wife, Belle Skea from Deerness. They moved to Shetland when Peterson became Principal Customs Officer in Lerwick and lived there for the rest of his life. He wrote poems about his experience during World War I, as well as some dialect poetry, publishing two collections in the 1920s – Roads and Ditches (1920) and Streets and Starlight (1923) – and featuring in several anthologies of Shetland verse. He was also on the editorial board of the The New Shetlander magazine.

When Peterson returned to Shetland after the war, his father encouraged his interest in photography. Peterson was skilful with boats, interested in wildlife, landscape and the lives of ordinary people, and all of these subjects feature in his photographs. He published two photography notebooks in 1948 and posthumously in 1985, and bequeathed most of his photographs to Shetland Museum and Archives. There is also a collection of photographs from his time in Orkney at Orkney Archive, including views of Hoy, Orkney’s West Mainland, Kirkwall and Stromness.

^ Belle Peterson, Jack’s wife, photographed by Jack Peterson, 1920s
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ Jack Peterson’s darkroom at Bridge of Walls, Shetland © Shetland Museum & Archives

^ Local photographer, Jack Rattar, and another launching his small boat in Brindister loch, Gulberwick, 1933, photographed by Jack Peterson  
© Shetland Museum & Archives 

^ Wester Sound, Walls, with Jack Peterson’s car in the foreground and Foula in the background, 1939-1946, photographed by Jack Peterson
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ Crowd gathered around the galley and Jarl Squad on the Esplanade at Up Helly Aa,
with Guizer Jarl, Jack Scott, 1959, photographed by Jack Peterson
© Shetland Museum & Archives

Robert Rendall (1898-1967), Country Sonnets & Other Poems, 1946

Robert Rendall, Country Sonnets & Other Poems, 1946; acc. no. 2017.99.1
© Orkney Islands Council

Robert Rendall was described by Stanley Cursiter in his memoir, Looking Back (1974), as “a self-educated man who touched on genius.” In addition to his natural history writings, Rendall published four volumes of poetry, much of it in Orkney dialect.

This volume of Country Sonnets was given to William Oliver who was a conscientious objector from Jedburgh, deployed at Longhope Post Office in South Walls from 1941 to 1946. Like Rendall, Oliver was a member of the Brethren. Rendall signed the book – his first published collection of poetry – for Oliver, and inscribed it, “A small reminder of Orkney”.

Nancy Ramsay (Mrs W.S. Hewison), Robert Rendall,
1948, pencil on paper

Nancy Ramsay (Mrs W.S. Hewison), Robert Rendall, 1948, pencil on paper; acc. no. 1995.65
©Orkney Islands Council

The pencil portrait of Rendall was done by Nancy Ramsay, an art teacher at Kirkwall Grammar School for many years. She sketched and painted under her maiden name in Orkney and in France, Spain, and other locations around Europe, when she and her husband, journalist and author, William Hewison, were on holiday.

Rendall was an amateur artist and it was while painting at Aikerness that his stool went into a hole which was discovered to be the top of the Broch of Gurness, an Iron Age round tower. Four of his oil paintings are in the collection of Orkney Museum. 

1. Robert Rendall, St Magnus Cathedral, 1918, oil on canvas board; acc. no. 1332
Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Robert Rendall

2. Robert Rendall (attributed to), Head of a dog (verso), no date, oil on canvas; ref. no. PCF 8
Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Robert Rendall

3. Robert Rendall, Coplands Lane (recto), no date, oil on canvas; ref. no. PCF 8
Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Robert Rendall

4. Robert Rendall, Tankerness House, no date, oil on canvas board; ref. no. PCF9
Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Robert Rendall

In Shore Poems and Other Verse (1957), Rendall writes of the farmer as artist, shaping Orkney’s landscape. By extension, Rendall shapes Orkney’s literary landscape by putting his vision into words, a theme that would be taken up by George Mackay Brown in shaping Orkney’s history through his writing:

The Artist

He took a plough for a palette knife, an island
For his canvas, primed by wind and weather.
Faded designs of moorland browns and yellows
Were scored upon its surface, cancelled markings
Of ancient artistry by ruder craftsmen.
Upon great fields of abstract composition
He laid a thick impasto, ridged and furrowed,
Then used his crops for colour – rows of turnip
Bright emerald green, and golden corn for sunshine,
Soft meadow hay for delicate bronze and russet,
+++Touched here and there with scarlet; and for figures
+++Placed in his picture’s foreground sheep and cattle,

reproduced by permission of the Estate of Robert Rendall

^ Alexander Moffat, Iain Crichton Smith, 1980, oil on canvas; acc. no. PG 3073
© Alexander Moffat, National Galleries of Scotland

Island poets, Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998), whose parents were from Lewis, and Sorley MacLean (1911-1996), from Raasay, comprise some of the best-known writers of the Scottish literary renaissance, alongside Hugh MacDiarmid and George Mackay Brown. These authors were painted by Edinburgh-based artist, Alexander Moffat (b. 1943) formerly Head of Painting at Glasgow School of Art – for the Seven Poets portrait series commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council for exhibition at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre and the Pier Arts Centre in 1981.

They also appear in a group portrait by Moffat, Poets’ Pub (1980), now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in an imaginary setting combining their favourite drinking haunts in Edinburgh – Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal.

^ Alexander Moffat, Poets’ Pub, 1980, oil on canvas; acc. no. PG 2597
From left to right: Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith,
George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch.
In the foreground is Alan Bold and, on the steps behind, the art critic, John Tonge.
Seated to the left is Stella Cartwright, friend and lover to several of the poets.
© Alexander Moffat, National Galleries of Scotland

George Mackay Brown describes a similar scene in the poem Norman MacCaig, written in 1996, a few months before his death, and posthumously published in Travellers in 2001:

Milne’s Bar, Rose Street, Edinburgh
– A Saturday afternoon in 1956.

Sitting here and there about the unlovely tables,
Sydney Goodsir Smith, Tom Scott, Norman MacCaig,
Robert Garioch, George Campbell Hay, Alexander Scott
And other bards
Whose lyrics, scratched on the backs of envelopes,
Would never fly into books.

A cry on the steps, ‘Chris, he’s here!’
And the bards rise to greet their king, Hugh MacDiarmid,
Just off the Biggar bus.

(This Orkney bard sits alone.
He is too shy – as yet – to visit the bards’ table.
Enough to look at them, with longing.
Their words have flown out of books
To sit, singing, on the branches of his blood.)

And now, a few days since,
The last of those poets is dead,
MacCaig, he with the head of a Gaelic chieftain
And the courtesy,
His tongue an edged and glittering dirk
Against whatever is ill made, unworthy.

May the mountains
Gather about him now, in peace, always.

By permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown

Alexander Moffat (b. 1943), George Mackay Brown,
1980, pencil on blue paper

Alexander Moffat, George Mackay Brown, 1980, pencil on blue paper; acc. no. 1997.230
© Alexander Moffat. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

The large oil portrait of George Mackay Brown in Orkney Museum’s collection is part of the Seven Poets commission. Moffat commented, “All portraits begin with the live encounter between sitter and artist. Few people actually knew what these poets looked like when I painted them – and there’s a sense that we understand them as human beings now in a way that wasn’t always the case, not only words on the page, but living people in company and with their own stories.”

Moffat travelled to Stromness in 1980 and spent a week making a series of sketches of George Mackay Brown, one of which is also in the Museum’s collection. Some were made in the poet’s living room surrounded by books, others in the bar of the former Braes Hotel: “I wanted the painting to have a uniquely Orkney setting and that’s why the hotel sketches, with Stromness and Scapa Flow as their backdrop, are reflected in the final portrait. George was an easy subject to work with. We’d met in Edinburgh in the early 1960s and we had a good catch up, with George keen to hear news of the other poets he knew from that time.”

Alexander Moffat, George Mackay Brown, 1980, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1997.229
© Alexander Moffat. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

All seven portraits were reunited in 2018 for Landmarks: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, at Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, and Montrose Museum and Art Gallery, displayed alongside new paintings by Ruth Nicol depicting the landscapes in which the poets worked.

^ Alexander Moffat working on the restoration of his portrait of George Mackay Brown, 2018
© Alexander Moffat.

^ Margaret Tait, 1936
© Orkney Library & Archive

Born in Kirkwall, Margaret Tait (1918-1999) trained as a doctor in Edinburgh. In the early 1950s, she went to Rome to study film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia. She set up Ancona Films in Rose Street on her return to Edinburgh, close to the haunts of the poets depicted by Alexander Moffat, some of whom featured in her short films. In 1964, Tait made Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait and Palindrome, featuring Stella Cartwright.

In the 1960s, Tait moved back to Orkney, continuing to practise as a doctor in order to fund her films and publications, which include three collections of poetry. Her long poem, Jean waits for the drunk man thistle-gazer, written in response to Hugh MacDiarmid’s A drunk man looks at the thistle from 1926, was discovered among Tait’s papers in Orkney Archive and published in 2019.

Margaret Tait (1918-1999), The Hen and the Bees: Legends and Lyrics, 1960

Margaret Tait, The Hen and the Bees: Legends and Lyrics, 1960
© Margaret Tait from the Pier Arts Centre collection

The poem For Using from her 1960 collection, The Hen and the Bees: Legends and Lyrics, shows that Tait applied a scientific eye for detail to the practicalities of making art, whether poetry, painting or film-making; for she painted too – watercolour figures and abstract shapes for her animated films. Tait was adept at marrying words, music and pictures into creative visions exploring themes such as life in the landscape, town or city, domestic spaces and portraits.

For Using

Material things are only tools
Or they’re nothing.
Food is a sort of tool,
Fire is a warming tool,
And paint-brushes, pencils, cameras, books
All tools of a kind
For making a life
Or lives.
But too much food is poison,
Comfort a permanent anaesthetic,
And too many paint-brushes, cameras, books
Waste away as toys.
A tool has the feel of the user’s hand on it
If it’s a real tool.
A tool that is fully used
Gets a bloom on it
From its own essential-ness.
All other bits and things are clutter.

(March/April 1958)

© Margaret Tait

In 1957, The Drift Back was made for the Rural Cinema Scheme and County Council of Orkney Education Committee. It showed a family returning to Harbreck Farm on Wyre, giving a sense of hope and rejuvenation of the north isles at a time of depopulation. Tait noted in the short essay Two-way drift that people return to Orkney because “they love the place”.

Watch The Drift Back (1957) directed by Margaret Tait via the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive here.

^ Stills from The Drift Back (1957)
© Orkney Library & Archive

Work table belonging to Margaret Tait,
nineteenth to twentieth century, softwood

Work table belonging to Margaret Tait,
nineteenth to twentieth century, softwood; acc. no. 2017.69.1
© Orkney Islands Council

Tait’s work table is decorated at one end with different shades of blue paint. It appears briefly in Where I Am is Here (1964) and Tailpiece (1976) where the camera lingers on empty interiors and furniture as Tait leaves her family home at Buttquoy, Kirkwall.

In total, Tait made thirty-two short films and one feature-length film, Blue Black Permanent (1992). Many of them are inspired by and set in Orkney, providing glimpses of landscape and island life through her eyes, and featuring her poetry, such as Orquil Burn (1955).

Margaret Tait died in Kirkwall in 1999 and was recently honoured with a plaque in St Magnus Cathedral, the first woman to be added to ‘Poets’ Corner’. Her short films can be viewed via the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive here.

^ Margaret Tait and Peter Hollander, Perugia, 1952
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Gunnie Moberg at the opening of the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness 1979
photographed by her son Colin
© Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive

Born in Sweden, photographer Gunnie Moberg studied pottery at Edinburgh College of Art. She moved to Orkney with her husband, artist and bookseller Tam MacPhail, and four sons in 1976, settling in Stromness.

Moberg worked as a photo-journalist for local and national press, and her photographs of island landscapes were published in magazines and books.

She published several titles on Orkney, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands . Her aerial views, portraits, shore studies, landscapes and studies of plants in her garden were exhibited in Orkney, Shetland, Edinburgh, Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Her work is in the collections of the Scottish Parliament and the National Galleries of Scotland.

The Gunnie Moberg Archive is held at Orkney Library & Archive.

George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) and Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007), Stone, 1987

George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) and Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007),
Stone, 1987
©Artists’ estates / Colin Hamilton.
This edition from the Orkney Library & Archive collection

Stone was commissioned by Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton, whose bookshop Moberg had come to know while living in Edinburgh. Her photographs are close studies of the shore at Warbeth, just outside Stromness. In the poem, Seascape: The Camera at the Shore, George Mackay Brown describes the setting:

Seascape: The Camera at the Shore 

In the rockpool a child dips (shrilling) 
Fingers, toes. 

Below the widest ebb it opens, 
The lost sea rose. 

Then, drowning rose and reef and rockpool 
The west inflows… 

The Atlantic pulse beats twice a day 
In cold gray throes. 

Shy in a rock-caught crumb of earth 
One seapink shows. 

Scotland, scattered saw-teeth, melts like petals 
In the thin haze. 

Lucent as a prism for days, this shore, until 
A westerly blows. 

Then stones slither and shift, they rattle and cry, 
They break and bruise. 

Shells are scattered. Caves like organs peal 
Threnody, praise. 

Tangles lie heaped in thousands, thrust and thrown 
From the thunder and blaze! 

Silence again. Along the tidemark wavelets 
Work thin white lace. 

Among that hoard and squander, with her lens 
Gunnie goes. 

By permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown

^ Gunnie Moberg photographs from Stone
© Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive

Gunnie Moberg’s husband Tam MacPhail (1938 – 2020), originally a sculptor from California, took over the bookshop Stromness Books & Prints in 1976. The bookshop published Gunnie’s first book Stone Built, a series of aerial photographs of Orkney in 1979. Stromness Books & Prints opened in 1970 as a second-hand bookshop run by Charles Senior, then by John L. Broom, the local librarian, who began to sell blue Penguin paperbacks. Both were friends of Sylvia Wishart and George Mackay Brown. The bookshop is now run by Sheena Winter who was Tam’s assistant for many years.

Artist Calum Morrison, born in Lewis, but now living in Orkney, painted The Bookseller of Stromness in 2005. Among the books are George Mackay Brown titles including Orkney Pictures & Poems, a collaboration between poet and photographer, George and Gunnie, published in 1996. Robert Rendall’s The Orkney Shore is also visible.

To hear artist Calum Morrison talk about this painting and his life between the Western Isles and Orkney, visit the audios page here.

Calum Morrison, The Bookseller of Stromness, 2005, oil on canvas; acc. no. 2006.44
© Orkney Islands Council, purchased with a fifty per cent grant from the Art Fund and the National Fund for Acquisitions


Sails in St Magnus, 1993, oil on canvas

Sails in St Magnus, St Magnus Cathedral, 1993
Installation view
© Alistair Peebles, Brae Editions

The fourteen Sails in St Magnus were a collaboration between artists Erlend Brown, Dave Jackson, Andrew Parkinson and Mary Scott, and writer, George Mackay Brown, based on the story of St Rognvald’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1151. They were created in 1993 for the St Magnus Festival and hung between the pillars in St Magnus Cathedral. They have since been displayed in Orkney, Shetland, Norway and Edinburgh, most recently in St Magnus Cathedral in 2017, marking 900 years since the martyrdom of Orkney’s patron saint.

^ Erlend Brown, Dave Jackson, Andrew Parkinson, Mary Scott,
Sails in St Magnus: Pilgrimage of Earl Rognvald, 1993,
oil on canvas; acc. no. 1994.41.1
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Erlend Brown, Sails in St Magnus,
‘In Kirkwall, the first red St Magnus stones’, 1993,
oil on canvas; acc. no. 1994.41.2
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Mary Scott, Sails in St Magnus,
‘An Orkney wintering. Stone poems in Orkahowe: “Great treasure”’, 1993,
oil on canvas; acc. no. 1994.41.3
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Andrew Parkinson, Sails in St Magnus,
‘Bishop William: A blessing on the pilgrim sails’, 1993,
oil on canvas; acc. no. 1994.41.4
© Orkney Islands Council

Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson, Seven Waves, 2017 and 2019,
oil on canvas, displayed in St Clement’s, Rodel, Harris

The installation, Seven Waves, by Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson, re-visited the story of St Magnus and the work of George Mackay Brown for the Magnus 900 Orkney cultural festival in 2017, commemorating the anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom on Egilsay. George Mackay Brown’s nephew, Erlend Brown, writes, “It seemed apt for Dave and I to use George’s poem cycle, Tryst on Egilsay. I had inherited George’s own copy of the limited edition of 130 copies by The Celtic Cross Press. A further spark for us was George’s introduction to the poems, where he likens their structure to waves and tries to imagine what is left out of the story, as told in the Orkneyinga Saga. A large wave, which unexpectedly hits Magnus’s ship on the journey to Egilsay, is also seen by him as a portent of his death.”

Seven Waves was originally shown in St Magnus Kirk, Birsay, an eighteenth-century church which replaced Christ Kirk, built by Earl Thorfinn, Magnus’s grandfather, after his pilgrimage to Rome around 1050. It was the resting-place of St Magnus’s bones when they were brought back to Mainland Orkney before they were moved to the new Cathedral in Kirkwall.

In 2019 Seven Waves was exhibited in the medieval St Clement’s at Rodel in Harris in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland which cares for the church. St Clement’s was engraved by William Daniell in 1819 and is described as the finest medieval building in the Outer Hebrides. In response to this new setting, the artists painted further imagery onto the backs of the canvas waves and George Mackay Brown’s poems were translated into Gaelic, emphasising the links between Orkney, the Outer Hebrides and Scandinavia.

^ Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson, Seven Waves, 2017 and 2019,
oil on canvas, displayed in St Clement’s, Rodel, Harris
© Lea Schütz-Cohen

Pamela Beasant, John Cumming, Morag MacInnes,
Mailboats: playing with wind and tide, 2008

Mailboats: playing with wind and tide, 2008
©Hansel Cooperative Press

Hansel Cooperative Press was established in Stromness in 2003 by artists and writers John Cumming, Fiona Cumming, Frances Pelly and Christine De Luca to promote literary and artistic works relating to Orkney and Shetland.

Mailboats took the launching of wooden vessels containing messages by the population of Hirta, St Kilda (two examples of which can be seen at Stromness Museum), as the starting point for pairings of poets and sculptors from Orkney and Shetland and the subsequent launching and finding of their ‘mailboats’.

^ St Kilda mailboat, launched on 29th July 1981;
found in Birsay, Orkney by Jacko Linklater; acc. no. 2013.3
© Stromness Museum

< St Kilda mailboat in the style of a naval vessel;
found on Birsay shore by Jacko Linklater; acc. no. 2013.4
© Stromness Museum

Yvonne Gray and John Cumming, Reflections: poems & drawings, 2013

^ Reflections: poems & drawings, 2013
Yvonne Gray & John Cumming
© Hansel Cooperative Press

Reflections is a book of poems by Yvonne Gray with drawings by John Cumming. In its title and style, it pays tribute to local artist, Sylvia Wishart.

Archipelagos: Poems from Writing the North (2014)

Writing the North was an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project between the University of Edinburgh, Shetland Museum and Archives and Orkney Library and Archive from 2013 to 2015. It explored the writing of Orkney and Shetland, making connections between island literature from the early nineteenth century and creative writers working today. The project culminated in the publication of Archipelagos, new work in response to historic texts by Orkney and Shetland writers Raman Mundair, Robert Alan Jamieson, Morag MacInnes, Jim Mainland, Yvonne Gray, Alison Miller, Pamela Beasant and Jen Hadfield. The collection can be downloaded here.