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.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder