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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Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.