No one ever sleeps

Karen Emslie on day one the Shetland Folk Festival.

Fog is somehow silent and there was something poetic about the NorthLink ferry as it arrived into a misty Lerwick on Thursday morning, for it carried with it an array of musicians from across the world. Together with local talent they will ensure that over the coming days hardly an hour will pass when music cannot be heard somewhere on these islands.


It is, of course, folk festival time. Volcanic ash had caused jitters and the late departure of the boat from Aberdeen threatened to delay the start of the festival. But, in spite of natural phenomenon, the show must go on and it did.

King Harald Street provided the first sign that the festival had begun. Unkent bodies, with instruments of various sizes in hands and strapped across backs, bustled around Islesburgh as folk festival HQ opened its doors.

By eleven in the morning hot folk flavours and cool jazzy licks could be heard in upstairs rooms as musicians warmed up for the opening concert at one. Chatter and exotic accents, ranging from sing-song Scandinavian to Utah drawl, melded with tunes.


There was anticipation in the air but also logistical hiccups to be overcome: the Yell ferry ramp had collapsed meaning the Burravoe concert could be a slightly tricky affair and a well-kent, local bass player had already lost his band, fortunately it was just his ‘wrist’ band.

As on-the-ball committee members whizzed around fixing and co-ordinating, Islesburgh started to buzz and fill up with festival goers. By noon there was not a seat to be had and by half past the there was space for no more in the concert room. The opening ceremony was eagerly awaited and the overflow of people gathered around doorways.


Mary Blance was one of the original, passionate and committed group of people who decided that Shetland “could and would” have a folk festival. Now some three decades later Mary took to the stage to formally open the thirtieth Shetland Folk Festival. It seemed fitting that she did so.

Changes have been many but the guiding principles of the festival remain the same, she told us. This is truly a Shetland festival. It takes place across the whole of the islands. This year there are concerts in halls in North Roe, Yell, Bigton, Aith and Whalsay to name but a few.

The role of local musicians is fundamental. The festival is both a platform for their talents and a celebration of Shetland’s musical traditions. Added to this is   the simple principle of hospitality whereby visiting acts are invited to stay with local people. This makes the festival a very special affair.

And finally, from its conception it has been the mind-bogglingly hard work of volunteers that make it all happen. They now manage what has become an internationally renowned musical event. This year hundreds of visitors have travelled to the islands to take part in what they have heard is a unique experience. They have come from Australia, Israel, France, Spain, South America, Switzerland and many other places besides.


Having warmly reflected on the past, considered the various changes and celebrated the success of those founding principles Mary declared the 30th Shetland Folk festival open.

There then followed two clockwork smooth hours of music from the visiting acts. This year they have gathered on Shetland from lands such as Ireland, Sweden, Slovenia, India, Germany and the USA to bring us the finest in all things folky. From traditional reels to up tempo innovation and high energy experimentation, the whirl wind aural tour gave a taste of things to come.

Concert over, buses were loaded up with musicians and kit to set off for the far reaches of the islands whilst jams and open sessions continued in Islesburgh.

And so to the night. The folk festival has an admirable breadth of vision and in the British Legion in Lerwick, Paradiso Jazz Quartet delighted with gypsy jazz classics by Django Reinhardt and Cole Porter. The double bass, guitars, sax and clarinet conjured up a sense of lazy, day-dream days, “It’s like sunshine”, a member of the audience neatly mused.

Then, an up tempo change in sound and style as Shetland’s Heritage Fiddlers packed the stage and belted out some hearty tunes. They perfectly demonstrated the traditional and talented local heart of the festival.

True festival favourites, The New Rope String Band and Baskery, a stomping Swedish threesome that had already blown away the opening concert audience, were yet to come.  But, in recognition of the ‘whole of Shetland’ spirit of the festival, I headed south.


St. Ninian’s Isle was silhouetted against a darkening and silent sky and it was a chilly night. Then, I opened the doors of the Bigton Hall. Whallop! I was met by a wall of heat and rapturous applause. The Alec Hutchison band had just left the stage. They were a fun-filled, resounding success by all accounts.

Sligo based The Unwanted were next up. This trio grown from Irish and American stock combine many music styles. Singer Cathy Jordan (resplendent in red and black Flamenco meets Wild West show girl ensemble) explained that the concept of the band was based on “drawing the fringes of the Atlantic together into one music”.

Their vocal and instrumental range was stunning. There was an Irish jig with a blues twist, enchanting ballads and even a tongue in cheek musical take on the era of climate change entitled,  “It’s Cool To be Green but I’m Blue”. Knock out slide guitar wove chords through twanging jaw harp, pounding bodhran and velvet rich harmonica. This act went down a storm, catch them if you can.

Session A9  were last on stage. They have been variously described as a “Scottish super group” and “Tighter than James Brown”.  I started to grapple for suitable, expressive adjectives to describe their reels, jigs and songs.

Fortunately Skyinbow’s Kenny Johnson was on hand to elegantly point out how extraordinary it was that, “In the midst of Charlie McKerron’s fine recital of the art of Strathspey, Gordon Gunn produced mandolin sounds akin to a grand piano”. Further, he enthusiastically drew my attention to the movement of fiddle player Kevin Henderson’s forearm, wrist and bow which was, he said,


“like ballet”. Indeed it was.

For connoisseurs, then, these gifted musicians provide fascination and delight and for simple punters their raucous energy and playful banter make for a fine and lively folk festival performance.

Across the isles the final acts were reaching their crescendos. The formalities of the concerts (loved by some, not by others but very much the established way of this festival) were about to give way to the jam-packed, informality of the festival club. And no doubt later, sessions and jams would continue in hospitable homes and play their part in creating a continuous musical outpouring that will last for days.

However, somewhere in my head full of fiddles, bodhrans, harmonicas and guitars Mary’s words from the opening ceremony rang out; “The Shetland Folk Festival should come with a health warning: No one ever sleeps”. With many more days and nights of music ahead, I decided that on this night (and with home but a few miles away) that I would.  I suspect that I was one of the few who did.