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Folk Festival 2013 / The isles gather at Mareel

The full Orkney/Shetland Isles Gathering takes the stage at Mareel. Photo Davie Gardner

Saturday night saw one of the highlights of the weekend take the stage at the North Ness, sending a packed house and our own correspondent Davie Gardner into raptures of delight.

After Friday night’s world-embracing musical experience at the Clickimin Centre, Saturday night’s concert in Mareel promised to be a very different beast altogether.

For its debut year in Shetland’s new venue, we were more ‘down-home’ as the festival unveiled its latest Shetland/Orkney collaboration – the Isles Gathering – another ‘inter-county’ extravaganza to follow what started a few years back via the Inter-Tunety and building on the increasing artistic co-operation between our two islands.

Lewie Peterson and Freda Leask's duet set the evening off. Lewie's newly unveiled vocal prowess was one of the surprise elements of the evening. Photo Davie Gardner

But whereas the Inter-Tunety was hugely ‘competitive’ (in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion) Saturday night was all about cultural commonality and was nothing short of a celebration of everything that’s musically great and culturally rich within our two communities. 

The line up was a virtual ‘who’s who’ of traditional and contemporary musicians drawn from both sides of Da Roost – a quite staggering array of home-grown talent. Indeed the Isles Gathering could be subtitled – The Best of Both Worlds.

Cultural inclusion comes further into play here too. Musicians of all ages, coupled to an equally impressive range of skills and talents, were brought together under the leadership of Shetland fiddler and tutor Margaret Scollay, with Douglas Montgomery (of The Chair, Saltfishforty and much more besides) managing the Orkney contingent.

Orkney fiddler Douglas Montgomery of The Chair and Saltfishforty, who brought together the Orkney contingent. Photo Davie Gardner

From Shetland we had the likes of accordionists Peter Woods and Loris MacDonald; singers Sheila Henderson and Freda Leask; guitarists Ryan Couper and Jonny Polson alongside more ‘senior’ campaigner Jack Robertson; Lewie Peterson on banjo, mandolin and vocals; and inevitably those from the Shetland’s fiddle world including Margaret Scollay herself of course, Lois Nicol, Ian Williamson and Liza Fullerton – together with a junior choir drawn from across Shetland’s schools, the Lerwick Brass Band and a guest appearance from local accordion maestro David Halcrow.

Orkney, for their part, also fielded a team of veritable big-hitters including accordionist Billy Peace; singer/song-writing supremo Kris Drever; fiddlers Andy Cant, Jeana Leslie, Kirsten Harvey, Fionn McCarthy and Douglas Montgomery; together with Brian Cromarty (banjo and mandolin), Gavin Firth (guitar) and Erik Laughton (drums) – to name but a few!

Then there’s those ‘turn-coats’ with an actual foot in both camps such as Jenny Keldie (Napier as was) who now lives in Kirkwall and Andrew Gifford of Fiddlers Bid who was actually born in Orkney.

It rested with the Shetland contingent to kick off the proceedings and they did so in style, not with a set of furious traditional reels as might have been predictable, but with the enchanting Shoormal song Angel Whispers, led by Freda Leask – an unexpected, but wonderful start to the evening.

From there on in Shetland’s musical ambassadors delivered an eclectic mix of reels, jigs, songs and more with the massed Orkney musicians joining (or “invading”, as Margaret Scollay put it) them on stage briefly before taking over proceedings to show us what they had up their musical sleeves.

It was fiddle queen Margaret Scollay who organised the Shetland side of the Gathering, here playing with Ian Williamson. Photo Davie Gardner

Highlights during both counties’ initial sets were far too many to individually mention given the vast array of musical skills on display here – but just a smattering of the terrific (and at times surprising) vocal moments to mention, over and above the profusion of instrumental wizardy, would be Freda, Jenny and Lewie’s fantastic rendition of Freda’s song The Bohus, the fun-filled (on this occasion at least) country standard A Fool Such as I with vocals from Jenny Keldie, Sheila Henderson and Freda again, Kris Drever’s fantastic, knock-em-dead rendition of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Jeana Leslie’s solo vocal with backing from Jenny Keldie.

Indeed it was often the inter-vocal jousting that stole the show here with so many great voices straddling both sides of the divide.

The second half of the show featured the inevitable and genuinely explosive coming-together and inter-play of both sets of artists – with almost 30 musicians not only packing the stage but also packing a musical punch that not only delighted the sell-out audience, but which must also have seriously vibrated a Richter Scale machine somewhere on the distant mainland.

An informally dressed Lerwick Brass Band make a guest appearance for the Willie Hunter slow-air Love o da Isles. Photo Davie Gardner

Again it would be far too space-consuming to mention the next round of great moments that continued to come our way, but surely one of the highlights for many would have been the poignant, and on this particular occasion, appropriate rendition of the Willie Hunter classic slow-air The Love of the Isles featuring the informally un-uniformed Lerwick Brass Band. A heart-string tugging interlude and no mistake!

As the evening charged to a close with Reconciliation you could not help but feel that if we could have harnessed the collective power being generated it would almost certainly be more than enough to meet the complete energy needs of Shetland and Orkney for the foreseeable future.

Local accordionist Peter Woods waits his turn. Can't you tell he's loving it? Photo Davie Gardner

“We dunna ken ony mair tunes,” quipped Jack Robertson in response to the audience’s frantic demands for “MORE!”. And indeed, given that so many had already been offered up during the evening, this was almost believable.

However ‘more’ they did indeed deliver, while the well-deserved standing ovation the musicians received at the end did its own bit to add to the genuine glory of the occasion.

It was not only a quite momentous, at times awe-inspiring and hugely enjoyable evening in every sense, but also a genuinely memorably one. And don’t just take my word for that, 300+ delighted punters will surely pay testament to exactly the same.

A turncoat? Shetland's own Jenny Keldie who now lives in Kirkwall - with Ryan Couper, Loris MacDonald and Peter Woods. Photo Davie Gardner

“Utterly fantastic. I’m delighted, the musicians are delighted and you saw the reaction of the audience,” said the folk festival’s stalwart committee member Davie Henderson after the show.

“I can’t believe that they’ve managed to pull all this together in less than six weeks – amazing!”

And so can we expect more collaborations of this kind in the future?

“We’ll have to wait and see. I’ll speak with the guys at the Orkney Festival when we do the whole show again down there with them at the end of the month and we’ll just take it from there – but I very much hope so.”

Rest assured so do we, Davie!!!

Follow all our folk festival coverage at http://www.shetnews.co.uk/features/folk-festival-2013/