John J Graham - Champion of the Shetland dialect
John J. Graham 1921-2008
The strength of the dialect in Shetland today is due in no small measure to John Graham who has died at the age of 86. Throughout his life he was involved in promoting his mother tongue in his writing, in the classroom and in the wider community. It felt fitting that at his funeral service we sang his Shetland translation of the 23rd Psalm and that the minister who took the service, the Reverend Charles Greig, himself a former pupil of John Graham, read his own translation of 1 Corinthians 13.
Although he grew up on a croft speaking the dialect he learned as a bairn, John Graham felt he didn’t fully appreciate its vitality until he was a teenager in the 1930’s. He was at work one day when a colleague showed him a copy of the classic Shetland poem, Scranna, by Haldane Burgess. The poem was a revelation. John typed it up and memorised it – it sparked off a life long enthusiasm.
After war service in the RAF, John went to Edinburgh University and graduated with an Honours M.A.. He came home in 1950 to become principal teacher of English and History at the Anderson Educational Institute in Lerwick. He remained there until 1966 when he was appointed head teacher at the Lerwick Central School. In 1970, he got the opportunity to become the first head teacher of the Anderson High school when the two secondary schools in the town were merged with the introduction of comprehensive education, a development he truly welcomed. John was a natural communicator and, as hundreds of his pupils can testify, he was a genuinely inspiring teacher. He believed “da classroom is da key ta da schule”
His influence was felt far beyond the classroom.
He’d already contributed poetry to the “New Shetlander” magazine when he was a student and continued to write for the journal which Peter Jamieson had founded in 1947. In 1956, he and his brother Lollie Graham became joint editors and it proved to be a long and happy partnership until they stepped down in 1998. Throughout those years, the “New Shetlander” was a forum for debate on Shetland’s political and cultural life. It also offered a platform for writers, many of whom chose to write in dialect, such as Stella Sutherland, Jack Renwick, Rhoda Bulter and T. A. Robertson who as Vagaland had a poem in every single issue till his death. The Graham boys also encouraged younger writers like Christine da Luca, Laureen Johnson and Robert Alan Jamieson, who describes John Graham as “my literary faider.”
It was with T. A. Robertson that John collaborated to produce a very useful little volume “Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect” which came out in 1952. It’s since been reprinted and remains an essential handbook for anyone keen to learn more about the Shetland dialect. John and T. A. Robertson collaborated again in 1964 when they selected some of the best dialect poetry and prose for a slim volume with the title of “Nordern Lichts”. This book was published by the Education committee of Shetland County Council and distributed to all schools in Shetland. Over 4o years later, with his brother Lollie, John edited “A Shetland Anthology” of poetry which includes a wealth of 20th century dialect poetry, much of which first appeared in the “New Shetlander”.
John also compiled a Shetland dictionary, the first edition in 1979. Since then it’s been revised three times, adding more words and definitions, and it has never been out of print, remaining a local best seller. John set a rule for himself that “only words and expressions which I have personally encountered are included” and he also drew up a English-Shetland section which he felt folk would appreciate.
Another essential tool for dialect students is Jakob Jakobsen’s “An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland” the two volumes which were originally printed in English in 1928 and 1932. They had long been out of print and by the 1980’s could fetch astronomical prices at local book sales. John was president of the Shetland Folk Society which decided to reprint it in 1985 making it accessible to more people.
John loved to tell a story so it isn’t surprising that he became a novelist. He ventured into historical fiction and the dialect featured in both his novels. The first came out in 1987. “Shadowed Valley” is a vivid tale set in the Weisdale valley during the Clearances. John wrote most of the dialogue in Shetland and, five years later, in his second novel “Strife in the Valley”, he wrote more of the story in dialect. He also wrote dialect plays for local drama groups. His final publication was an entertaining little book of humorous Shetland stories he’d collected over a lifetime of yarning with people.
He was pleased when BBC Radio Shetland started broadcasting over thirty years ago.. He played a significant role in getting it off the ground, chairing the local Advisory appointed by the BBC. He was one of the first voices on air on 9th May 1977 welcoming the new station and highlighting the benefits it could bring to the community. He saw it developing a valuable role in ensuring the survival of the dialect and he contributed to many programmes.
After he retired from teaching, John spent twelve years as a councillor, pursuing his political ideal of a Shetland with more control over its own affairs. He always welcomed debate, encouraging it in the classroom, in the community through the means of the Alting debating society he helped found in the 1950’s and in the Town Hall chamber,
It’s hard to imagine Shetland in the last fifty years of the twentieth century without the contribution that John Graham made. Those interested in language and dialect form only one group with good reason to be thankful he was so committed to the past, present and future of the community that he loved. It was very much a life of public service and the tributes that have been paid to him reflect his – and demonstrate the regard he’d earned as a teacher and headmaster, scholar, politician, historian and writer.
He was awarded an OBE for services to Education in 1979; his peers in the field had made him a Fellow of the teaching union, the EIS in 1980; and he got an honorary degree from Aberdeen University in 1985 for services to education and literature. On home ground, he’d won the Shetland Literary Prize on three separate occasions. However, John remained a modest man who strove to encourage others. The many research students who beat a path to his door found a welcome that one overseas visitor described as “helpful, generous and gracious.” That’s how he was and will be remembered by all of us.
It’s not always a cliché to say that behind every successful man is a woman. John married his wife Beryl in 1954. She was devoted to him, supporting him in every way in his public life while they shared a happy and fulfilling family life as partners, parents, grand-parents and great grand parents.
Convenor, Shetland Forwirds
Scots Language Resource Centre Association Ltd. t/a Scots Language Centre, A.K. Bell Library, York Place, Perth, Scotland PH2 8EP
Registered in Scotland as an Industrial & Provident Society No. 2451R(S). Scottish Charity No. SCO21747
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