Hannah Nicholson is currently working towards her MLitt degree in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She also graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a BA (Hons) in English with Journalism and Creative Writing in 2010, and during her studies she was a 2009 runner up of the English department’s Keith Wright Memorial Prize. Originally from Shetland, and a 2005 winner of the local library’s Young Writer of the Year Award, she is particularly interested in promoting the isles’ distinctive dialect as a medium of written and spoken Scots. She also currently has a poem featured on the website of Quotidian magazine.
Her novel-in-progress, Magnie’s Boat, is set in Yell in the 1920s and is inspired by a combination of local folklore and a personal interest in family history. The dialogue is written in Shetland’s own dialect, although the narrative is not. For reference, a Shetland dictionary is accessible here.
Magnie’s Boat, Chapter 1
Merran could still remember the day Magnie disappeared.
She was nine at the time. It was a bright sunny afternoon in May, with only the lightest breeze in the air. It rustled the fresh green grass that made up her family’s land near Cullivoe, in the north end of the island of Yell. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue, furnished by the occasional white cloud. The sun’s rays performed a xanthic dance on the surface of Colgrave Sound, the long stretch of sea water between Yell and the neighbouring island of Fetlar. Merran had never been there before, but on such a clear day she could see it from the front door of her family’s but-and-ben. She could also see Linga, the island that Magnie had told her about when she’d been younger. It was said that a man called Jan Tait had fought a bear in Norway as punishment for not paying his taxes, and when he’d beaten it, he had been pardoned and allowed to take it home. He’d left it on that island, tied to a post. Magnie had told her there were still circles in the ground in the place where the bear had once been. Merran had been enthralled. Maybe she would get him to take her to the island next time he was off and he could show them to her.
Since the weather was so beautiful, Magnie had declared his intention to head out in his little rowing boat and fish for mackerel for the family’s tea. He would only be on Bluemull Sound, the sheltered strait between Yell and Unst–another island nearby. He’d been in ownership of his vessel for around a year, having bought it with some of his Merchant Navy wages, and he revelled in his newfound freedom.
“Kin I come aff wi’ de?” Merran asked Magnie excitedly.
But Magnie showed that face he made when he was full of doubts, and he looked out of the window, then back at Merran.
“I doot no’ da day, peerie wife,” he replied gently, ruffling his hand through his youngest sister’s long brown hair. “Anidder day, mebbe.”
“Oh, a’right,” Merran sighed, not even trying to hide her disappointment. Magnie smiled.
“Al come back wi’ a guid haal,” he assured her.
“Will it be lik’ yun Galilee at we learned aboot in Sundee skule?” Merran asked excitedly.
“Better as yun,” Magnie said, winking at her.
The two exchanged smiles. Magnie may have been nineteen, and the oldest of the five, but he had always had a strong bond with his youngest sibling. This hadn’t changed even when he had been in charge of the croft during the Great War years, when their father, Ertie, was a prisoner of war in Holland. Merran hoped Magnie would manage all those fish on his own.
“Nixt time du’s aff,” she asked him, “will du tak’ me tae da bear’s island as weel?”
“Yea, I likely could,” Magnie said. “Canna be sure at da bear’ll be yundir, though.”
“Tak’ guid care oot yundir, Magnie,” Ruby admonished him as he left. “Da watters oot yundir at Bluemull kin cheenge ithoot ony prior keenin’.”
“Dinna du worry aboot me, Midder,” Magnie assured her. “Am been fishin yun watters fae I wis owld anoff tae hadd a pole. If am no’ back be tae time, send oot a search pairty.”
With that, he set off out the front gate and down the hill, and onwards to the pier.
The hours went by, and Magnie hadn’t come back. The day was still calm and bright blue. Ertie came in for his tea, along with Lowrie and Peter, Merran’s other two brothers. Merran’s sister, Betty, was by this time living and working in Lerwick.
“Whan time did he say he wid be back, Ruby?” Ertie asked. “No lik’ him tae be dis laet.”
“He said tae time,” Ruby replied, as she gazed out of the ben end window towards Bluemull Sound, her brow furrowed. “Dir somethin’ no’ juist aafil right wi’ dis, Ertie. We’ll need tae geng an’ look fir him.”
So Ertie and his two younger sons made their way down to Breckon beach in order to see if there was any sign of Magnie or his boat. After an hour the three of them returned. This time it was Ertie’s turn to furrow his brows. His face had drained of what little colour was left in it post-war.
“Dir nae sign o’ him, or da boat,” he said, his voice heavy with worry.
Merran could feel her heart sink into her boots. She looked up at her mother. On Ruby’s face there had appeared lines that Merran had never seen before. The look on her mother’s face was something she never wanted to see again.
When the family went to bed that night, none of them got a great deal of sleep. The following morning, the search parties were sent out to dredge the sound. All day Ruby paced the floor.
“I dinna understand it,” she said. “Da waddir wis da boannie yisterdee, a beautiful fishin’ day, an da soond wis flat calm. Dey wir nae sign o’ da watters turnin’. Whit could be come at him?”
“I dinna keen, my lass,” Ertie replied, going to her and trying to console her. “A’less dir been a whaal gotten separated fae its pod an’ laandit up here.”
“Wid it o’ gone fir him?” Ruby asked worriedly.
“No’ on purpose,” Ertie explained. “Yun kin worry dem, an dey sweem aboot in a blind panic.”
This did not reassure Ruby, nor any of the children.
There had still been no news when they went to bed that night either. Then, the following day, their neighbour Bertie Fraser came striding up the hill and shouted at Ertie. Ertie called on the family and they all ran down to the beach.
They were greeted by the sight of an upturned little boat being dragged ashore by some of their neighbours. Merran recognised it immediately; it was finished with cream-coloured paint and had a blue trim. When it had been pulled up on to dry land she ran down towards it. As she did, tears left salty tracks down her cheeks. When she reached the boat, she threw herself upon it and the sobs engulfed her. She was so shrouded in her own sorrow she didn’t notice her mother collapse and have to be carried back up the hill to the croft. Finally, she felt a hand on her shoulder and peered up. Bertie’s kind face peered back at her.
“Come alang noo, my bairn,” he said softly. “Du canna lay here aa’ day.”
“Laeve me,” she choked through her sobs. “Juist laeve me.”
“Nah, Merran,” Bertie soothed, “come du, lass. Come hame tae de fokk, dey need de wi’ dem.”
He gathered her up in his arms and carried her back up the hill. Weak from sobbing, all she could do was lean helplessly over Bertie’s shoulder and allow him to take her away from the scene.
The days following were a blur. Ruby spent most of them lying in bed, swallowed by grief. Upon hearing the news of her brother’s apparent death, Betty returned from Lerwick. It was left mostly to her and Merran to keep the house in order and to cook the evening meal although they themselves were grieving. Meanwhile, Ertie, Lowrie and Peter kept the croft going as best they could. Since there was no body to bury, a memorial service was held in the kirk. Magnie had made many friends during his time in the Merchant Navy, and the presence of those who weren’t still away bolstered an already large turnout. Still there was no explanation for how this had come to pass, for how could Magnie have possibly got into difficulty when there was no obvious sign of trouble on the water? The only plausible explanation was Ertie’s suggestion about a distressed stray whale.
Some days after the memorial service, Ruby took all the photographs of Magnie down and put them away in a box, which she then placed in a drawer in the living room. When her mother wasn’t looking, Merran found the box and went through the photographs. Her lost brother gazed steadily out at her from them. Merran could picture the blue of his eyes and the black of his hair even through the sepia tinge of the pictures. She could also envision his smile, mischievous and warm, even though he was straight-faced in many of the photos. Her favourite was one of him at the peat hill from the previous summer, taken shortly after his return from sea. He was wearing the same outfit he’d had on the day he vanished–his blue flat cap, a knitted Fair Isle jumper, dark blue trousers and a pair of rubber boots. He was smoking his father’s pipe and smirking as he did so. Merran compared it to another photo of him in his Merchant Navy uniform. In that one he was straight faced and neatly turned out. She took her favourite one and kept it in her bed, under her pillow. Magnie might have been dead, but she didn’t want his presence to disappear from the house, like those of her grandparents when they passed.
Of course, despite everything, life for the Williamsons had to go on. Betty remained at home for a few months until she was certain that Ruby could manage without her, then she returned to Lerwick. Lowrie, who was fourteen, left school that summer and also remained on the croft to help out his father. Both Merran and twelve year old Peter continued their education. Merran hoped to become a teacher, but despite her academic achievements her father had other ideas.
“Dinna be sae stupeet, lass,” he scoffed at her. “De, a teacher?”
“Oh, but Faedir,” she protested, “I wid love tae…”
“Oh, of coorse,” Ertie sneered, “I sood send de awa’ tae hae an education, an’ den du’ll mairry an’ hae bairns an gie it aa’ up, an hit’ll o’ been a total waste. Du’ll do as du’s telt!”
Merran pleaded and begged, but her father wasn’t for backing down. Her teacher didn’t get much further with trying to convince him, and so Merran, too, was destined to leave school at fourteen like her siblings before her. During this time, Magnie’s boat remained upturned on the spot where it had come to rest on Breckon beach. Steadily the paint peeled and the wood mouldered, and so the little vessel that had served to feed the family so many times fell into disrepair. It made Merran sad–that boat had been Magnie’s pride and joy for the last year of his life. He and his brothers had hoped to eventually save to buy a proper fishing boat together so they never had to go back to the whaling or Merchant Navy. Lowrie and Peter still planned to do this when they found others willing to jointly buy a suitable vessel.
Five years passed, but Merran never walked past Breckon beach without acknowledging her brother’s boat–without a grave it was all they had to remember him by. Sometimes while on the beach she would go and stand with it, and she would feel his presence. Merran sometimes couldn’t help but think of what Magnie would be like now, at twenty-four, had he lived. He had been a handsome and cheerful young man, and had caught the eye of many a lass on the island. Perhaps he would have married one of them, and they would have had lots of children. Merran tried not to cry. It all felt terribly unfair.
The wind began to pick up. Merran shivered and swept her hair out of her face as best she could and pulled her shawl around her. She was turning on her heel to go home when a figure standing next to Magnie’s boat caught her eye. She squinted. It appeared to be a woman examining the boat. Despite having never seen her before, Merran felt drawn to the woman, and decided to descend down the hill to the beach to speak to her.
The whole time that Merran made her way down, the woman never took her eyes from the rotting corpse of Magnie’s boat. She certainly didn’t seem to register Merran’s presence, no matter how close she got. When she was only a couple of feet away, Merran spoke up.
“Hello?” she called.