There are belts to clinch, belts of bling and belts to hold up breeks, and then there is perhaps the most remarkable belt of them all – the Shetlander’s knitting belt. From that sturdy item, many yarns may spool, and they in turn create patterns, pick up motifs of tradition and knit up something warm to be held precious for generations to come. Robert Alan Jamieson (known without his first name) wears just such a belt.
His multicoloured literary life includes co-editing the Edinburgh Review and teaching in the city’s University. He is the author of several novels, including Da Happie Laand, which was described in The List as “one of the most important Scottish Books ever”. His most recent poetry collection, Nort Atlantik Drift: Poyims Ati’ Shaetlin double plies Shetlandic with English on the facing pages.
Speaking in Dundee, Jamieson shared his aim “to familiarise the faraway”, not least for his own children, who were born and brought up on mainland Scotland. Through his own consistent and readable transcriptions of that oral tradition, his sons and even those of us who have yet to visit the islands may hear the tongue of his grandparents.
Kirsty Gunn was keen to unravel some of his narrative strands, feeling in them that “fiction that is real”, which she knows so well in her own work. Jamieson agreed, elaborating on “the sense that, as with Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, you want to go back and read it again [These are] books which are elusive.” In that spirit, the writer began to tease out his own elusive tale,–a barefoot man appeared on his Perth doorstep, with his brogues under his arm. The man had just walked from his father’s funeral in Crieff, and the shoes belonged to the deceased. He had gone as far as he could in those ill-fitting shoes . He sought a minister. Jamieson was no man of the cloth, but was as warm-hearted as the best of the kind. He took him in and sheltered him for three days. From that haunting beginning, Jamieson fashioned his story; in his fictional New Zetland (whose made-up dialect gave him tremendous fun) and always in the forefront of his mind was the question “What if?”: “What if his guest had found his reverend? What if?”
Jamieson read on, claiming that his chosen section was “not poetic”, but historical, and a key part of the narrative, lining a time when feudal “near slavery” was ending in Shetland, “and London as distant as Uranus”. It sounded poetic to me. Here was a twisting of narrative, reportage, detail and even humour, and as Kirsty Gunn observed, we heard the re-arrival of the Norse Saga, as the writer pursued an ideal of “a creative fiction that cannot be filmed but has to be read”. He held tight to keep the reader wondering, even at the final page. He allowed that some parts may be incomprehensible to the non-Shetlander, and offered the audience a cheery “take it or leave it” instruction.These too were the patterns in his poetry. He had tried to write in what he called “Shinglish”, but that never knitted up for him. His soul-warming Shetlandic transcriptions work and can be read aloud and understood before the English, even by this mainland Scot.
There was no time left for a formal question and answer session in the hall, but perhaps that was not a bad thing. Jamieson had given generously from his magical belt, and somehow further questions in the one-to-one setting of the post-reading signing session seemed more intimate and most fitting of all.