Ocean Kinetics - The Engineering Experts

Karen Emslie on day four of the Shetland Folk Festival

Shetland is a note, a chord and a jig or so quieter as the 30th Shetland Folk Festival draws to a close and visiting musicians board the boat to travel back to various parts of the world.

Sunday night saw the culmination of four days and nights of music across the islands. The festival foys in the Clickimin, the British Legion and the Shetland Hotel provided an opportunity for festival goers to see the visiting acts one last time.

From Foghorn Stringband and The Unwanted to Väsen and Lau it was an epic tour of all that had been heard from Bigton to Burravoe over the preceding nights.  There was up tempo experimental folk and honky tonk, old time tunes and playful improvisations. It was a bursting bag of musical delights, folk festival style.

Or so I’m told. Unfortunately I was under a blanket fighting a particularly unpleasant, Shetland-style shiver, snuffle and sneeze bug. But in a bid to bring some final festival tales, I topped up with tissues and did a midnight run to Lerwick to catch the last tunes and find out what the verdict was on this year’s event.

Arriving at the Festival Club I found that the formalities of day one had now been completely abandoned. Visiting musicians were running loose from their bands and mingling with each other, locals and visitors alike in a jolly mash up of music makers and festival folkies.

All were lapping up hearty platefuls of Shetland musical fare. The Rumshack Blues Band was on fire as Rory Gillies, on marvellous harmonica-filled-mouth form, snake-charmed the boogying crowd.

Sheila Henderson was to be heard playing her guitar and singing on a stairway landing, angelically tuneful and unassuming. “There’s a party in the lift,” one enthused festival goer shouted over to me. A fiddler was apparently going up and down merrily playing to whoever else was squeezed in there.

There were tunes upstairs and down and dancing everywhere. A finely kilted gentleman gave it his best on the dance floor with a sea of groovy and grooving chicks. Jamieson’s Big Pockets belted out some hearty numbers whilst a sofa-lined and crowd-less chill out bar next door was a refuge from the squirm up the stairs.

The night, indeed the festival itself, officially ended with Whalsay fisherman and bard Michael Williamson delivering self-penned lyrics on a bed of folk rock in the form of local band, North Country Fair. Despite the 2am slot the group was on the ball and in good form. The dance floor was shimmying and shaking.

But in the end it was the fiddles that had the final say, playing the last notes of the night, or rather morning. A gaggle of players perched on and between chairs under the atrium in Islesburgh and a four or five thick ring of people surrounded them.  They spun a musical web that neatly wrapped up and round the end of the festival

With folk tanks brimming full, the players and punters then trickled out into the dawn. Navy clouds were silhouetted against a titanium blue sky over the Town Hall and the birds, aptly, were singing.

A festival that had been threatened by flight disruption and volcanic ash had come to an end. Ironically, it was blighted more by hiccups of land and sea than air. There was a late sailing from Aberdeen, a collapsed ferry ramp and a broken down bus. But in spite of all that, it was all right on the night(s).

“The festival has gone so smoothly and feedback has been immense,” said folk festival’s Mhairi Pottinger, who must have had some nervous moments but was clearly delighted with how things had gone.

We’ve heard much from the strings, keys and vocal chords of the visitors, but what do they make of Shetland and its folk festival? Nadine Landy of Foghorn Stringband was not looking forward to leaving. “It’s the best no sleep I’ve ever had. Going back to reality is gonna be hard!” she said.

Michael Farkas of The Wiyos didn’t hold back on the enthusiasm. “I think the Shetland Folk Festival was a most stupendous, unhorrendous, splendiferous, spectaculous shindig.”

And of course there are those who have returned to the islands to play, such as concertina virtuoso Simon Thoumire. “There can’t be many better experiences than playing to a Shetland audience. Their warmth and understanding of the music is amazing. I love how you’re so welcomed in Shetland, even when you’ve not been back for 12 years, you still see so many people you know and love to talk to.”

Where do the committee find these gems? Whilst there is no set plan to follow the committee try to create a balanced programme each year, Mhairi explained: “We chose a mixture of visiting and local acts, those who have appeared before, friends of the festival and fresh, new music”

The popularity of the festival ensures that hundreds of acts submit examples of their music to the committee. During the year they have ‘listening nights’ and from these make their selections.

Occasionally they come across bands that they invite directly. This year The Wiyos, for example, had been heard at Celtic Connections. They proved to be one of the big hits of the festival.

The committee already have a big box (and a half) of submissions from groups interested in playing next year. Several film crews, including the BBC, have been making programmes this year and this will no doubt bolster the festival’s popularity.

Visitor numbers from outside Shetland were well into the hundreds and will surely only grow. However this does have a knock-on effect in terms of availability of tickets and many concerts sold out super-fast leading, it has to be said, to understandable upset.

The festival foys will always be extremely popular and the logistics of moving all the bands around three venues means any expansion of the final night would be tricky. If you want tickets to a foy then get them early, early on. But could the festival be longer, feature more concerts or more venues?

According to Mhairi any growth of the festival in terms of new venues, extra concerts or length is a delicate balance of costs, number of bands, ticket sales and logistics. The committee has to be sure that any expansion is based on a solid “business model”.

It is worth noting that it is the central philosophy of a volunteer-run event grounded in local hospitality that means a festival of this size and scope is feasible at all. It is a testament to the hard work of that original, dedicated group who believed, 30 years ago, that Shetland ‘could and would’ have a folk festival.

These are all things that the committee will have to mull over and discuss when they take stock and look back over this, the 30th Shetland Folk Festival. But for now they can be proud of having delivered another stonking festival and probably just need a darn good sleep.

Well, that’s all, folkies. Apart from a final word from one of the big hits of this year who took the time to pen his own account of the last few days:

A Musicians Tale by Michael Farkas from The Wiyos

There was first the ferry ride with the fiesta of fiddles, the galumphing of guitars, and the rosary of voices as of yet unweary. Arrival came early to the mist and inevitable fog.

There were foghorn strings and bands from islands near and far. There was the hotels and the isle of Yell with a broken port and the Clickimin mist that was fog like.

There was Lau and a sister band from Sweden.  A mash of strings at all hours, unstoppable and unrelenting. A mad tune from the Isle of Mull and stories of the selkie from a London lass.

And have I mentioned the bus rides with oblong cases and the spontaneous tunes in the moment and some unsteady feet and hands at bleary five in the
morning? Did I mention the ostrich omelettes?  One egg feeds 12 disciples of swing at eight in the morning.

Tunes from a jersey cowboy with sideburns and slack jawed from singing in the alley like some feral cat. Slovenians toasting to the moon and lessons in geometry.

And did I mention the tunes? Did I mention all the glorious tunes?

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021