JULIET Mullay didn’t get much chance to go to the Edinburgh Fringe growing up on Shetland.

But after leaving the islands to study theatre at Dundee University, the 21-year-old is bringing her first-time play to the world’s biggest arts festival.

Under the Mirrie Dancers – the Shetlandic name for the northern lights – tells the story of two siblings who return to Shetland from the mainland following the death of their mother.

The play was born out of an experience Mullay had during a project at the National Theatre in London.

“I wrote a wee bit of a story about Shetland and they sort of took it and made it into a short play,” Mullay told The National.

“But it ended up being very much a wealthy, English person’s perspective on what it was like to be from Shetland.

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“I was so young at the time and I remember feeling a little bit taken advantage of. It made me really want to tell my own story in a way that felt genuinely authentic”.

That’s not to say Mullay pulls her punches when writing about Shetland.

“I think there can be a slightly rose-tinted perspective of Shetland in the media,” she said.

“But, obviously, when you grow up somewhere you have a very different relationship to it.

“I wanted to show what that more personal relationship to the islands was like, particularly for a young person”.

Mullay and director Tom McGoldrick, 22, met at university and bonded over their upbringings in island communities.

McGoldrick spent much of his childhood on Jersey and said the play depicts the realities of rural existence for many young people.

The National: Actors during rehearsals for Under the Mirrie DancersActors during rehearsals for Under the Mirrie Dancers (Image: Juliet Mullay)

“There’s definitely crossover,” he said. “We were both raised in places where you’re not granted privacy in the same way young people are on the mainland.

“If you do something embarrassing as a teenager, people will remember it and talk about for years to come.

“A lot of people grow up in that kind of tight-knit environment and realise that, actually, it makes them quite uncomfortable.”

The closeness of island communities is further complicated when going through grief, said Mullay. 

She said: “My personal experience was that it was hard to move on from someone’s death because you’re constantly reminded of that person through all the other people that knew them.

“You’ll see their friends every time you go out and it’s like you’re stuck with that person’s memory in a way you wouldn’t be on the mainland”.

However, Mullay stressed that the play isn’t meant as a critique of Shetland and that the characters come to appreciate the mark the islands have left on them.

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That holds particularly true in the case of the islanders’ dark sense of humour.

“Living in Shetland is a lot more extreme than people might expect,” said Mullay.

“But the way people deal with it is through humour, often pretty dark humour, which I think can also be true of grief”.

This is the first time either one of the duo has staged a production at the Fringe – a process that is not without its challenges.

“You can definitely tell that the Fringe isn’t really designed for brand new writers and artists,” said McGoldrick.

“The sheer cost of doing it and all the paperwork can be quite intimidating. But we’ve been lucky with our venue and the Fringe has been  very helpful with a lot of the technical stuff like music rights, which we didn’t expect.”

With all the logistics in place, Mullay said the only thing that makes her nervous is what her fellow islanders (and family members) might think of it.

She added: “People from Shetland are so proud of where they come from and that’s understandable, it’s an incredible place.

“But it means when you’re critical of an experience there it can get quite contentious. I wasn’t even sure I would want people from Shetland to see it.

“But I think young Shetlanders will have such a different reaction to it than someone from an older generation.

“I’m excited to see what my siblings think and to see if they agree with my perspective”.

Under the Mirrie Dancers will be on at the Laughing Horse @ The Three Sisters (Fringe venue 272). August 20 -27. Pay what you can. Tickets can be bought on the Edinburgh Fringe website.