Shetland's proud musical tradition

The tunes and players of the islands are today recognised around the world, writes Malachy Tallack


I am in Glasgow this weekend, visiting friends and attending the annual Celtic Connections festival. This event, lasting several weeks, and spread across numerous venues in the city, attracts artists and visitors from all over the world.

This year, as part of the festival, a special “Shetland night” took place in the Royal Concert Hall, attended by around 2000 people. The concert, which included an impressive line-up of acts from the islands, was organised by Chris Stout, a Fair Islander, and one of this country’s best-known fiddle players.

Shetland has long had a reputation for producing excellent musicians, particularly fiddlers. It has been said that, at one time, every house in Shetland would have a fiddle hanging on the wall, and more often than not, there would be at least one person in the family who could play it.

Like storytelling, music brought people together, and helped to strengthen a shared sense of value and tradition. Shetlanders are proud of their musical heritage, and the tunes and players of the islands are today recognised around the world.

Young people in Shetland today are strongly encouraged to play musical instruments, and free musical tuition is available to school children throughout the isles. In the past, tuition has tended to focus on traditional music, but there is certainly more diversity of teaching available now.

When I was at school, I can’t recall being pushed to play an instrument, though that may have more to do with my own lack of interest than the school’s. My brother was the musical member of the family. He learnt to play the piano and the violin from a very young age, then, later, he added drums to the list. Looking back, I think it may have been the ever-present noise of the fiddle – in school, at concerts and at home – that led me, eventually, to pick up the guitar. And while song-writing is not a skill that has traditionally been encouraged or even valued to any great extent in Shetland, that attitude is now, I hope, beginning to change.

Back in Fair Isle, music is as important as it is in any other part of the islands. Throughout the year, our occasional dances are accompanied, necessarily, by local musicians, who valiantly forgo the pleasure of dancing for that of playing.

During the summer, too, fortnightly concerts are put on at the bird observatory, for the benefit of visitors and a few keen islanders. The regular performers are the island’s resident ‘vocal group’ Fridarey, plus, for the past few years, me. Fridarey (which was the original Norse name for Fair Isle) sing a combination of traditional songs, Shetland poetry put to music, and original compositions, and also play tunes from Shetland, Scandinavia and beyond. Comprised of five members of the same family, Fridarey are perhaps unusual in a Shetland context, certainly in recent times, because of their emphasis on singing rather than simply playing tunes. In them, I think, the traditions of both music and storytelling are brought together, and visitors certainly value the chance to directly experience something of the island’s culture in that way.

Shetland’s reputation for creating music and musicians has continued to grow, and each generation seems to produce new and original talents. Their understanding and appreciation of the tradition from which they have come is as important as it is unusual. But the fact that there is more to Shetland music than just fiddles has been only slowly recognised. I hope that those lucky enough to attend the concert in Glasgow this weekend will have been left in no doubt that Shetland can produce the best of both.

Photo by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.