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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt