“The seed of this project was sown when I found myself referred to as an ‘incomer’ on a Shetland website. The term incomer is interesting: it’s used widely to make the distinction between those who are born and bred Shetlanders and those who have chosen to live in the islands. This set me thinking about the whole idea of ‘incoming’ and who is an ‘incomer’. Clearly the movement of people from one area to another is a constant and has gone on from time immemorial. Shetland has seen wave after wave of people coming to its shores from the earliest settlers around 6,000 years ago, through to the Vikings, the Scots and others, up to modern times. This is attested to in the language, surnames, traditions, history, music, folklore and all the elements which, together, constitute Shetland’s culture.
This movement of new peoples into the islands is a factor that has contributed to Shetland’s rich cultural heritage and helped shape what the island community is today.
As I explored these ideas it occurred to me that it would be interesting to set the contemporary incoming of new people into Shetland against the history of incoming that the islands have experienced in the past. It also struck me that many groups of incomers have settled and made Shetland their home without leaving much documentary evidence of their experience of incoming. In this way two of my main aims were identified: to attempt to place contemporary incoming along-side the long history of migration to the islands; and to take the opportunity to record the stories and experiences of recent migrants to provide some kind of documentary record which would be added to the Shetland Archives, giving presence and voice to incomers who haven’t, to date, featured heavily in archival materials.
It is important to note that the project was formulated as an artist’s enquiry into the nature of ‘incoming’ and not an academic study – a number of which have already been carried out. It does not pretend to be comprehensive either in terms of an historical analysis of migration to these islands or in terms of contemporary movements of people to Shetland.
During the project I met with many people, not all of whom agreed to participate in the project but who were open to meeting with me and sharing their experiences off the record.
The project’s recorded interviews encompassed Shetlanders who originate from Austria, Burma and China to Slovenia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Many of these people had lived in Shetland for longer than they had lived in the country in which they had been born.
I wanted the recordings to offer a snapshot of incomers’ lives and experiences in Shetland today. The interview was more a conversation than an academic information-gathering exercise. I had drawn up some baseline questions in an effort to maintain the conversation should it dry up. I offered participants the opportunity to not answer questions they felt uncomfortable with and to introduce topics that were of interest to them. Frequently, there would be excellent ‘pre-record conversation,’ which would be very interesting and revealing, but unfortunately this information would not be covered in the recording.
Of course, some groups of people are absent from or poorly represented in the project. An open call was made for people who were willing to be interviewed and others were approached personally. The interviews in the project are with those who responded to the open invitation or who were approached and agreed to be interviewed.
There are probably many reasons why certain individuals or groups did not respond, both personal and cultural. Interviewees were being asked to speak about their life journey that had resulted in their settling in Shetland and it is understandable that many would find this too personal. By coming forward people were being asked to identify themselves as ‘incomers’ and it might be that some might not wish to identify themselves in this way. Clearly there will also be cultural reasons why certain individuals or groups did not take part.
During the open call process for the project, it is very interesting to see who did identify themselves as ‘incomers’. Although one cannot rely on this as a measure of who feels assimilated into Shetland, to the extent of not identifying with the term ‘incomer’ – there are obviously many reasons why people might not come forward – but it does indicate that you don’t have to come from another nation to feel that you are an incomer or are as regarded as such.
The people I met had chosen Shetland as their home. They came from diverse backgrounds, were often highly educated or skilled.
My process as an artist and writer is often visually led. A chance encounter with an image, painting or photograph can frequently trigger a series of questions. Whilst engaging with these questions I draw out a narrative which ultimately leads me to the making of new work.
I didn’t approach this project with any preconceived ideas but on my first day in the Archives, I was introduced to the wonderful, in-house database of records and photographs. I typed in the word ‘Indian’ and encountered a remarkable image.
The photograph was a portrait of a dapper Indian doctor, who first came to Shetland in 1899... “
The above is an extract by Raman Mundair from the publication: The Incoming Project -Some Shetland Voices.
A flavour of some of the interviews gathered during the project can be found here www.shetlandamenity.org/incoming-map
Full recordings and transcripts of interviews can be found at Shetland Archives.
The Incoming Project
Some Shetland Voices
Edited by Raman Mundair
Includes contributions from Brian Smith, Ian Tait and Rosa Steppanova
Published by Shetland Museum and Archives
Lerwick, Shetland, ZE1 0WP