Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - On-line from Ronas Voe to Schenectady

The green light on the plastic box is a signal of potential and possibility, of connection and communication. After six years' hounding, pleading, threatening and berating of BT, finally ISDN has come to the shores of Ronas Voe.

The Integrated Systems Digital Network is a much-vaunted way of enabling individuals and businesses to video-conference and connect computers at speeds faster than a drug-fuelled sprinter. But for me it was always about radio. I spent three years commuting weekly between Shetland and mainland Scotland to present BBC Radio Scotland's flagship morning show, aware all the time that with an ISDN connection to my house, I could easily present the programme from my seaside office, gazing out at the red granite of Ronas Hill. But BT would not - could not, they insisted - provide such a service.

That was despite intensive publicity drives aimed at convincing southern businesses that they could easily uproot themselves from the satanic mills of Surbiton and set up all-singing, all-dancing, all- Internetting operations anywhere in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Cute little whitewashed crofthouses were shown, with their relocated inhabitants cheerfully reprogramming supercomputers in Sydney, operating Nasa satellites or setting off nanonuclear explosions in the Utah desert.

It was bollocks, of course. Sitting in my whitewashed cottage, all I wanted to do was speak clearly to some people in Glasgow and Inverness so my voice could be relayed to the rest of the nation. Too tricky by half.

Now, though, I am on-line to the world in digital purity, but too late for the daily radio show. The air commuting became too much to bear (every air pocket an imminent crash), and I returned to a life of freelance pig-farming, shepherding, fishing and long-distance newspaper journalism. Still, a 15-minute weekly radio harangue is now set to emanate from the homestead, and other possibilities hang in the air like static. We have, belatedly, the technology. It may even be possible to use it.

Radio has always been important in Shetland, and it is still crucial to the lives of many telly-less inhabitants, or during the frequent losses of power in winter. It has, in a very real sense, changed island culture. When I look at my little white box and its green light, I remember the giant of Shetland fiddle music, Dr Tammy Anderson OBE, who as a young man learnt how to build wirelesses by correspondence course and in 1929 began selling them to islanders.

The wireless brought the world to Shetland, enabling Tammy and his guitarist partner, the legendary Peerie Willie Johnson, to construct accompaniments for traditional Shetland fiddle styles based on the jazz styles of Eddie Lang, beamed in from Schenectady, New York state, on the American Armed Forces Network. In turn, those techniques permeated the world of folk music, so that now you can tune into American guitarists who sound just like Peerie Willie.

In 1979 both Peerie Willie and Tammy found themselves, incredibly, on the very soundstage in Schenectady that had been used for those Eddie Lang/Joe Venuti broadcast concerts. They were touring with the Boys of the Lough, the folk supergroup co-founded by their young island protege, Aly Bain. From a remote, sea-girt corner of northern Europe they had followed the radio waves to their source.

But Tammy always had mixed feelings about radio. As well as the gifts it had brought, the wireless took away some of the traditional Shetland tunes and forms. As Tammy himself put it in Shetland dialect, it did a lot of harm as well as good, because "the auld men at heard dis, dey packed up da fiddle. They felt they couldna play like dis, du sees."

I have this dream: one Sunday night we'll broadcast live from my house a wee get-together of musicians, maybe with Peerie Willie among them. And through the wee box with its green light, the sounds and meshed, deftly mixed traditions, old and new, Shetlandic and foreign, of this Atlantic crossroads will shimmer out across the country, proud and casual, crisp and clear, local and international.

And maybe the ghosts of the old men - it was, in the old days, mostly men - who hung up their fiddles because they couldn't play like the ones they heard on the radio will catch the melodies in the ether. And quietly join in.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?