Obituary: Stella Sutherland, poet

A renowned poet from the Shetland Islands has died aged 91.
Stella SutherlandStella Sutherland
Stella Sutherland

Stella Sutherland

Born 7 October 1924, Bressay Shetlandl; Died 15 October 2015, Lerwick, Shetland

Stella Sutherland saw her works appear in publications spanning over eight decades, from 1942 to the present day, with her latest piece appearing as recently as this year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She has been hailed as one of the ‘most gifted and original Shetland poets of the 20th century’.

Stella was born at the Old Manse on the island of Bressay, opposite the capital of Lerwick, in the home built by her grandparents, Tammie and Jeannie Anderson.

Her early years were spent in Hoswick, in her father’s home village of Sandwick.

But, according to her daughters Elizabeth and Linda, her summer holidays were always at the Old Manse, building a store of happy memories, and laying the foundation for her enduring love of Bressay, above and beyond any other place.

They say “She was especially close to her Bressay grandmother, and was greatly upset by her death in 1933, when Stella was just nine.

“It was then that she first tried to write a poem. The following year brought another major change to her life, when her mother accepted the post of schoolteacher in Foula.”

Though she didn’t always enjoy it at the time, in later life Stella came to appreciate the lessons learned while living on Foula, from a tiny, tight-knit community of people who knew how to make the most of the island’s own limited resources, how to get by when weather prevented the mailboat from bringing goods and letters for weeks on end, how to find pleasure in the scenery and wildlife, and fill any leisure hours with music-making, handicrafts, and - especially in Stella’s case – books.

It was in Foula, too, that Stella’s life as a writer really began. In May 1942, she started contributing to the privately-circulated journals of the Shetland Poetical Circle, and her first published poem appeared in Manson’s Shetland Almanac of 1942.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In 1943, Stella left the island to work in Lerwick. Her first job was in the NAAFI kitchens, but her typing skills quickly found her a better one, in the office of the Royal Engineers at the North Ness. By the end of the war, she was chief clerkess in the RE’s stores department.

Her next job was as library assistant, working first in the rooms above what is now Ferdiemaet, towards the south end of Commercial Street, and later in a now-demolished building on the corner of St Olaf Street and the Town Hall Brae.

But Stella’s heart was always in Bressay. She visited often, staying at the Old Manse, and it was in Bressay that she got to know her husband Lollie.

After their marriage in 1949 a third island entered Stella’s life, for the bulk of Lollie’s work each spring and summer was in Noss, off the east coast of Bressay. For the next twenty years, Noss was their summer home.

Winters were spent on Bressay, first in Gunnista, then briefly at the Glebe, and from 1953 at Cruetown.

In Bressay, Stella became an active member of the community. The kirk was always important to her, and for many years she shared the organist’s role with Mrs Madge Gifford.

She had a good alto voice, and if not playing the organ she would often be in the kirk choir.

Sometimes she sang, or played piano for others, at the local concerts that were a regular feature of community life in the 1950s and 60s, and quite a few of those concerts featured a humorous sketch written by Stella and acted by local folk.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For a number of years, she was employed to take singing classes at the local school for an hour or two each week. She voluntarily extended her role here, helping the pupils prepare for participation in concerts and other community events.

Throughout those years, Stella continued writing, with The New Shetlander as the main outlet for her work. Her contributions now included stories, and the serial Through a Croft Window, as well as poems.

The 1970s were a time of change for Stella. Lollie and his brother had given up the tenancy of Noss, and Lollie found work at the Heogan factory.

Stella herself went back to work in Lerwick, in the office of the College of Agriculture. She continued there until she felt that caring for her beloved mother in her later years was her more important priority.

In 1976, she decided to submit an entry to the Scottish Open Poetry Competition, and was thrilled when her poem ‘Aa My Selves’ was placed third.

Lollie died in 2008. Stella was devastated, but her indomitable spirit, together with help from family and friends, kept her going until her own ill-health forced her to move to Lerwick in 2013.

And still she was writing. As her daughters explained: “To her, it was as necessary as food and fresh air, and in her last years she said, more than once, that if she couldn’t write she might as well not live.

“In her prize-winning poem ‘Aa My Selves’, Stella herself acknowledges what her friends also know, that hers was a complex personality, with as many facets as talents – and she had a good few talents, in addition to her skill with words.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Most notable, perhaps, were her musical abilities, and the eye for colour that made her a skilled knitter of Fair Isle.

“She was outgoing, sociable, and hospitable, easily making friends with people of all ages and from all walks of life. She could also be stern, forceful, and formidable, particularly when angered. Fewer people, perhaps, will know that throughout her adult life she endured periods of depression, sometimes almost disabling.”

It took courage for Stella to pull herself out of those times, and courage, both physical and moral, was one of her most notable characteristics. She would stand by her views - and, if necessary, fight for them - no matter what the cost to herself.

Shetland archivist Mark Smith said Stella Sutherland was a central member of a group of writers who emerged after the war.

He said: “In my opinion, alongside WJ Tait, she is the most gifted and original Shetland poet of the 20th century.

“She didn’t publish a huge amount, I think she probably thought very carefully about what she put into print.

“To keep thinking and observing and writing over such a length of time is some achievement. When I spent time with her, I was struck by the sharpness of her mind and the intelligent, considered, but also forthright way she spoke about things.”

Stella Sutherland is survived by her daughters, Elizabeth and Linda, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.