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Shetland Life column

Shetland ForWirds campaigns for the Shetland dialect. I'm  a member of the Shetland ForWirds committee and in January every year I write a column for Shetland Life on language matters. This is my most recent contribution. 

It’s going to be a cold winter. Weather forecasters are predicting freezing temperatures and snow across northern Europe, except, according to a chart I saw at the weekend, in Shetland where the winter is going to be ‘average’.  It struck me when I saw the chart that Shetland can be a surprising place – what you expect isn’t always what you get.


The weather map showed Shetland just outside an area that stretched from Russia and Finland in the east to Orkney and Ireland on this side of the North Sea. There are perhaps some parallels when it comes to the debate that’s raging in Scotland at the moment about the country’s constitution. Where are we going and how will the country look? The debate has engulfed normal politics and has so far been about legal processes and economic consequences. Culture and language haven’t featured, the future of Shetland and its relationship to the rest of Scotland is referenced only tangentially and if there is discussion on the islands about constitutional matters we in the Sooth have heard nothing about it.


Those of us interested in identity and diversity should be looking for as many opportunities as possible to advance our interests as the debate moves forward. Many argue that the union of 1707 prevented the development of Scots as a language with a full range of registers. From being a language of culture, politics and the law it became increasingly confined to the domestic sphere. That in fact is where we find it today – the domestic is now as much online as in the kitchen but there remains to this day a notion that Scots and Shetland dialect are suitable for unofficial spaces like facebook and youtube but not in formal situations like signage on public buildings or – in Scotland – at railway stations where Gaelic is now found even in areas with tiny populations of speakers. Will the constitutional change we now face – the greatest since 1707 - provide opportunities to secure the gains language campaigners have made since 1999 or is it an impediment to further progress? We must take part in the debate if we are to have any influence on its outcome.


When politicians are speaking about their visions of a future Scotland can we make sure that they explain how the country’s many diverse communities will benefit from the changes they propose? And can we begin talking to each other as language activists about what we want from constitutional change?  Will independence, further devolution or the maintenance of the status quo have any impact on the way language policy develops in Shetland? Devolution has brought many changes in the way we discuss and debate language policy – Shetlanders have played a key role in these processes. The admirable campaigning work done by Shetland Forwirds and the actions of folk like SIC Dialect Officer, Bruce Eunson, have been instrumental in raising awareness of language issues in Shetland and – crucially – have provided models of good practice which many on the mainland have sought to emulate. Campaigners in Shetland and the rest of Scotland have been talking to one another in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect which may be unique in our shared history. We must ensure that continues as the noise from the debate gets louder.


That weather chart I mentioned earlier showed Shetland apart from the rest of northern Europe and experiencing meteorological patterns distinct from its neighbours in Scotland and Norway.  There may be a debate happening in Shetland that is as different as the weather forecast for the islands this winter. It may be that Shetlanders will put forward plans that secure the islands’ distinct cultural landscape for future generations. Whatever the nature of the debate it is vital that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Anyone examining the literature of the 1970s – publications like ‘Island Futures’ edited by Roy Grønneberg – will note that the debate in Shetland was focussed primarily on technical matters of governance and in the broadest sense on economics. Rarely does culture or language get a mention and when it does it is usually in terms of asserting Shetland’s distinct – from the rest of Scotland – heritage. The experiences of linguistic discrimination and cultural deracination which Shetlanders and Scots have shared also demand attention. Our recent experiences of working together show that we can achieve change which benefits all our communities.  It’s important then that debate in Shetland is not constrained but open and inclusive where every possibility is explored and imagined. 


The accelerating pace at which change is taking place means that we must be prepared for every outcome and ready to promote the interests of our linguistically marginalised communities.  That requires us to be involved in the debate from the start.  We need to start asking questions, attending meetings, getting involved in discussions online and in the press. Lets make sure that Shetland’s voice is heard loudly and clearly where language politics is being discussed and lets make sure that language and culture begin to take a more prominent place in discussion about our future.