Arts blog: Shetland & Orkney used to be centre of empire

Musician Malachy Tallack. Picture: Contributed
Musician Malachy Tallack. Picture: Contributed
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FROM The Island of Dr Moreau to Shakespeare’s “isle... full of noises” (which, post Olympics, is pretty much co-owned with Danny Boyle), The Lord Of The Flies to Treasure Island, John Donne to George Mackay Brown ... writers have been inspired by islands for as long as they’ve been writing.

So what is it about these small swells of land rising from seas all over the planet? What is it about these faraway places where we can find treasure, nature, secrets, madness, dreams, nightmares, and sometimes even ourselves. What is it that keeps us coming back – if not by boat, then at least by page – to islands?

“I’ve always lived on islands and like lots of people, have always been fascinated by them,” says Malachy Tallack, writer, editor, creator of new online magazine The Island Review, and perhaps most importantly of all, resident of Shetland.

“Islands give you an immediate sense of what it means to be a human being out there, surrounded by water. There is the metaphor of the person as an island but there is also a deep fascination with the island as a world in itself. Islands are tantalising because they seem knowable. We can walk across them. Yet at the same time they are mysterious places to which we are inexplicably drawn. Mysterious yet knowable – that’s what makes islands so fascinating.”

Tallack, by day a reporter at the Shetland Times, launched The Island Review in February. A beautiful and ambitious website devoted to writing, visual art and other island flotsam, it’s billed as “a haven in the vast and stormy online ocean”.

Recent posts include a poem about an uninhabited Orcadian island by Andrew Greig, an excerpt from Island Practice, a book by New York Times writer Pam Belluck, and musician and photographer Reuben Wu on the extreme and otherworldly beauty of Svalbard.

Tallack edits The Island Review alongside poet Jen Hadfield (winner of the TS Eliot and Edwin Morgan poetry prizes) and writer and singer/songwriter Jordan Ogg. It’s a clever idea, a zine anchored in Shetland but casting its net out to island lovers the world over. In the fortnight after its first call for submissions, Tallack received writing from as far afield as New Zealand, the Caribbean, and Mauritius.

How exactly would he define an island? “We’ve deliberately left it open,” he says. “Islandness can refer to people as well as places and to a mindset as much as a place. Certain islands such as Britain or Ireland may seem less like islands because of their size yet Britain is still talked about as an island nation. What does that mean? How does being surrounded by water affect people’s sense of themselves?”

The Island Review publishes new work every Monday and Friday and “flotsam” every other weekday. It also features published work by established writers including D H Lawrence and J M Coetzee. And it’s always on the lookout for submissions by new writers and artists inspired by island life.

“I suppose some people see islands as retreats,” Tallack says. “But I think it’s a mistake to think of them as cut off places. Look at Shetland and Orkney during the Norse period. They were the centre of an empire.”

He’s interested in how we interact with islands. “They are places where people coexist with the landscapes. It’s not about domination. So much of modern life is about hiding, ignoring, or obliterating the natural world so islands are precious places where the two things accommodate one another.”

In his twenties, Tallack lived on Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom.

“It’s the kind of island where if you stand on the highest hill, you can see water all around you,” he says. “Fair Isle is a place that many people would consider to be remote. But when you’re there, in the midst of that community, it’s the centre of the world.”

• The Island Review can be found at