Shetland Folk Festival: Late Nights, Legends and Magic

4 Apr 2010 in Festival, Music, Shetland, Showcase

SUE WILSON looks back on the first 30 years of a festival with a unique atmosphere

AMIDST today’s embarrassment of riches, it’s hard to recall just how small and straitened the folk scene was back in 1981. Two years into the first Thatcher government, folk song at least still rang out defiantly from the redoubts of trade unionism and the peace movement, while the folk club network was also staunchly dug in.

Chris Stout (Photo by Louis De Carlo)

Chris Stout (Photo by Louis De Carlo)

In terms of mainstream profile, though, pretty much the whole folk category was in retreat, condemned by association with the 1960s and early 70s, while punk, post-punk, synth-pop and New Romanticism vied for popular supremacy.

Shetland, however, has been its own redoubt of traditional music across centuries of shifting cultural fortunes. And never more so than over the past three decades, for it was in 1981 – when the likes of Adam and the Ants, the Human League, Soft Cell, the Specials and the Police were topping the charts – that the islands first hosted their now world-renowned folk festival.

It’s not often that Davie Henderson – for whom this year’s 30th Shetland festival will be his 15th as programmer – is lost for words, but asked to name his all-time favourite highlights, he struggles vainly at first to sift through the memories: “That’s really, really difficult. There have just been so many great moments, so many amazing musicians, it’s very hard to pick ones that stand out beyond all the rest – plus there’s quite a few probably not fit for publication.”

Perhaps the ultimate festival legend, though, he eventually recalls, dates from 1988, when no less ultra-cool an eminence than Elvis Costello topped the bill.

“He and his wife had come off a cruise liner in Lerwick the year before,” Henderson explains. “Someone from the committee recognised him in a pub by the harbour, got chatting, and we ended up inviting him back to play the festival. He was brilliant, too, no superstar stuff whatsoever: he stayed in somebody’s house and played all the country halls just like everyone else.

“But before that, setting off to come up from Aberdeen, the ferry wasn’t going to sail because of a seamen’s strike. Everyone was already on board, all the festival musicians, so after various discussions Elvis and a few folk went ashore and spoke to the picket line, and eventually agreed that he’d play a benefit for the union on his way back, if they’d let the boat sail – so that’s what happened. I went back down for the gig myself: it was at the Music Hall, and most the other acts who’d been in Shetland played too, like a mini-festival in itself – all organised in the space of a week.”

As this suggests, the (in)famous Shetland Folk Festival spirit and atmosphere, which inspire such unique affection among those who’ve experienced them, were already well established by this point. In fact, most key elements of the festival’s distinctive template were in place right from the outset.

Not least among them is the formidable party stamina of its host community, which prompted the then 32-year-old Dick Gaughan – who headlined the inaugural event along with the late Sean Maguire, expat Scots song doyenne Jean Redpath and a 14-year-old Kathryn Tickell – to declare; “This festival requires a government health warning – nobody sleeps.”

Transporting four nights’ worth of visiting musicians all the way to Lerwick (this year from as far afield as India, the US and Slovenia, plus Germany, France, Sweden, Ireland, England and Scotland) might seem challenge enough in itself, but perhaps the most crucial factor in creating the festival’s character and securing its success was its founders’ determination not to stop there.

Then as now, around half the concerts most nights take place in small rural halls, which over the years have literally spanned the islands’ length and breadth, from Unst to Fair Isle, Hillswick to Out Skerries.

Alison Brown

Alison Brown

Not only does this make the event as accessible and inclusive as possible for the whole Shetland population – currently around 22,000, two-thirds of them outside Lerwick – but it gives the artists both a bigger and closer picture of the place; a taste of life well beyond the usual touring or tourist track.

It was at the Baltasound Hall in Unst, for instance – very nearly as far north as you can go on UK soil – that the Grammy-winning banjo player Alison Brown made her Shetland debut, rounding off the 1995 festival’s opening night, for a capacity audience of about 120.

After an outward journey that had begun with flights from Nashville to London, then London to Aberdeen, continued with the 14-hour crossing to Lerwick, and concluded with three hours more on a coach, via two inter-island ferries, her opening observation – “I think we’ve taken just about every mode of transport there is to get here” – was a model of graceful understatement. (She’s since been back twice for more.) Fellow Americana star Tim O’Brien is also a recurrent visitor, while other acts have made the trip from China, Australia, Russia, Quebec and Zimbabwe.

“One of the great things about the festival is that it’s never just been about folk music in any narrow sense,” points out Shetland journalist and broadcaster Mary Blance, a member of the original organising committee, who hasn’t missed a year in attendance since. “It’s always been about bringing in good music from all over. But alongside that, right from the start, it was also about giving a platform to our local musicians, so that visitors can see the strength of the scene we have here.”

As well as helping to spread the event’s reputation far and wide around the globe, these twin programming policies have seen a welter of fresh ideas and inspiration annually mainlined into that already fertile home-grown scene.

After each night’s main concerts – all featuring two or three Shetland acts among the line-up – another founding custom, still devoutly observed, is for everyone who’s able to congregate in the Festival Club, where musicians of whatever nationality or generation swap tunes and techniques until dawn, often making up a few new ones along the way.

“I vividly remember our first ever gig at the festival,” says Chris Stout of Fiddlers’ Bid – nowadays Shetland music’s leading contemporary champions – who has also played with Salsa Celtica, as well as leading his own jazz/folk quintet.

“I think it was 1992: I was about fifteen, and we played the Hamnavoe Hall in Burra. The band had got together at school, and cut our teeth playing coffee mornings and suchlike, but that was the first concert where we just got this amazing response from an audience, and it totally gave us the appetite for more. It was the first time we’d seen the after-hours side, too, at the club – getting to sit and have tunes with all these fantastic musicians, from all round the world, after watching them onstage: it was our first proper rock’n’roll experience.”

Even for a Fair Isle native, this might sound an unlikely teenage view of such a remotely situated, proudly homespun hootenanny, but anyone who’s been there will attest to a united insatiability for making music and making merry that leaves your average rock’n’roll spree equally far in the dust.

Hence the cornucopia of only-in-Shetland stories that has accrued since 1981. The year of the spontaneous street party starting at 6am, when whoever said “all back to mine” after the Festival Club proved to have far too small a house, but thankfully it was a beautiful morning, and one of that year’s acts had a mobile piano. . . (A police car stopped for a look after maybe a couple of hours, then cruised on by.)

Or the time that a certain guitarist, stumbling homeward to the southern edge of Lerwick, detoured to sit on the beach and watch the sunrise, only to be awoken some time later by a seal licking the drool from his mouth. . . Or when a certain stalwart after-party host received a fresh ostrich egg as a thank-you present on the last night/morning – from which several rounds of breakfast omelettes were promptly cooked, with a little help from a Black & Decker drill. . .

Yet another defining ingredient of Shetland’s festival recipe is that the vast majority of visiting artists are billeted in local homes rather than staying in hotels or B&Bs – this being just one element in the intricate, all-volunteer human framework that supports the event.

Besides the budgetary advantages, which translate into some of the best value ticket prices you’ll find anywhere, this too helps replace the customary barriers between performers and public, professional and unpaid participants, with a singularly conducive social Superglue. It’s also been the inception of numerous long-term friendships, which over the course of 29 festivals have facilitated hundreds of return visits from Shetland to far-flung former guests.

Figuring out the optimal compatibility between lists of musicians and volunteer hosts is just one small part of the fearsome logistical jigsaw that Henderson and his nine fellow festival committee members somehow piece together each year. His particular programming remit includes running-orders for 22 main concerts, plus workshops, schools visits and community performances, factoring in not only all transport, sound-check and catering requirements, but his own long-seasoned understanding of what works where.

“I’ve been involved in every festival – helping with stuff like stewarding and driving to begin with,” he says. “Then on the committee from 1990, and I started booking the artists five years after that. I’ve got a pretty good feel by now for how Shetland audiences work; which ones tend to like a more relaxed or a livelier night.”



The whole committee is also assembled to listen to every artist’s recordings that arrive for consideration, before Henderson replies individually to them all. Yet another instance of the festival’s many old-fashioned virtues – yet when assessing the multiple objectives involved in devising the bill each year, he’s crystal-clear as to his first priority.

“We have to keep the young people interested. The festival has to keep on being fresh and exciting for them, otherwise we’ll lose it: if it doesn’t move on, it dies.” With a line-up that includes three-times Radio 2 Folk Award-winners Lau, legendary Swedish trio Väsen, Orkney supergroup The Chair, Brooklyn neo-vintage starlets The Wiyos, and all-conquering kiddie superstars The Singing Kettle, Shetland’s 30th shindig looks every inch like a festival hitting its prime.

The 30th Shetland Folk Festival runs from 29 April to 2 May 2010.

© Sue Wilson, 2010