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Scottish Traditional Tales
Shetland Storytelling


Storytelling in Shetland might accompany any sort of indoor activity - carding, spinning or knitting for the women, winding straw or heather ropes, making straw creels or mending nets for the men perhaps - and it could shade imperceptibly into everyday gossip. Apart from a few tales like The Boy and the Brüni’ which seem to have been told only to children (generally, according to Tom Tulloch, with a moral message), every sort of story, however wonderful, would be part of local tradition. Travellers can generally draw a firm line between the imaginary tales told just for amusement, where the usual hero is ‘Jack’ or ‘Silly Jack’ and seldom a traveller himself, and ‘true’ tales of encounters with ghosts or Burkers which concern named people and places (and even in these, if they are not about himself, Stanley Robertson says he will freely change the names from telling to telling just for variety). In Shetland not only tales of second sight or the press-gang but migratory fairy legends and international wonder-tales would often he told, if not of named people, certainly of named places far back in time. Even that most imaginative of Shetland storytellers, the late Brucie Henderson of Arisdale, Yell, noted for his ability to make a story out of anything’ and a dramatic story at that, nearly always named the place where the story happened and often added people’s names and even precise dates - the last almost certainly invented on the spot each time he told the story - to set it firmly in the historical record. Tom Tulloch was surely showing a very modern scholarly detachment from his own tradition when he remarked that though his family set the scene of ‘The Boy and the Brüni’ at the Erne’s Knowe, storytellers elsewhere would no doubt have set it at a knoll close to their own homes.

The atmosphere of the stories differs from that of travellers’ tales not only in this sense of belonging to a settled order but in the whole attitude to what is being told. A traveller may tell stories of princes and witches (seldom of fairies, who belong too much to the ground they live in) from an outsider’s point of view, but still get involved with their emotions. Women in particular are inclined to take a sentimental view, though not excessively so: the family bond was paramount to travellers, and cruel parents or disloyal children would naturally be abhorred and good ones praised. Shetland story-telling has more of the dour phlegmatic outlook of the supposedly typical Lowland Scot, or perhaps the laconic intensity of the heroes of Norse sagas. The story is left normally to speak for itself, and even the speeches of the characters tend to betray little emotion, though here there are differences in approach: Brucie Henderson’s snarling voice for a foiled witch contrasts with Tom Tulloch’s preference for indirect speech over direct. Shetland humour, according to the late George Nelson, is generally cruel, consisting of skjimp or afftak, sarcasm or the deflation of pretense; though there is also a rich vein of picturesque speech and hyperbole in tall tales and anecdotes of character, where the speaker -a Shetlander of course - is laughed with rather than at. But the quick-fire fun-poking and the occasional common touches which undermine the whole wonder-tale genre in Andrew Stewart’s storytelling belong to a quite different tradition.

This brings in a final point, where again Shetland is closer to the few older Scots folk-tales that have been printed than to traveller renderings. Few Lowland travellers speak a very broad Scots, even in Aberdeenshire, and unless they use cant words are generally much easier for any speaker of standard English to understand than, say, the Scots dialogue of the Waverley Novels. The decorative runs’ such as the Hey the road’ passage or the alternative through sheep’s parks and bullocks’ parks and all the high and low mountains of Yarrow’ are rarer, briefer and less high-flown than their Gaelic equivalents. Shetlanders have a stronger accent and a far richer dialect, mainly Scots in basic structure (apart from the use of ‘is’ rather than ‘has’ to form the perfect tense) but full of Norse vocabulary. (Some features of the accent can be very confusing to outsiders, for instance the alternation between wh and qu which can make a Yell man say ‘white’ for ‘quite’, but a Papa Stour man talk of a ‘long quite beard’. We have avoided over-phonetic transcriptions but tried to suggest the dialect, and in one particularly confusing case, the change of voiced and unvoiced th to something more like d and t respectively, have left the usual spelling when it is possible to tell, say, ‘there’ from ‘dare’, except in ‘The Fiddler o’ Gord’, whose teller maintains that for his dialect at least the sounds are identical, as they are written in the Shetland books.) There are also hundreds of dialect proverbs and turns of phrase which can add greatly to the expressiveness of the storytelling, particularly dialogue - ‘the thing can tell a tale ‘at canna bear a burdeen’, ‘Gud be about thee.’, ‘I warrant thee thu couldna..?’, ‘I have a craa to pick wi him!’, ‘they focht and they better focht.’ The result can he a spare and rather formal use of language, with a poetic ring to it akin to the older Scots tales and indeed to the best Gaelic storytelling, though perhaps it leaves more details to the hearer’s imagination than the vivid colloquial torrent of most travellers’ style. -AJB


 

 


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