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Tributes / Lise Sinclair (1971-2013): ‘She enhanced our lives’

Lise Sinclair performing at the Flavour of Shetland festival on Victoria Pier in 2010 – Photo: Davie Gardner

The funeral of Lise Sinclair was held in Fair Isle. The sun streamed in the windows of the small Methodist Chapel where Lise had often played the organ.

Family and friends gathered to pay their last respects to a radiant personality who’ll be remembered far beyond her native isle, and whose loss is felt keenly not just by those who were close to her but by people who only knew her through her poetry and music-making. Birdsong accompanied her committal to the earth where her forebears already lie in the kirkyard overlooking the sea at the South end of the isle.

Lise’s roots were firmly in her island home, where she grew up and where she lived with her husband, Ian Best, bringing up their four bairns Tom, Hannah, Alice and Lowri.

She was Anne and Barry Sinclair’s first child when she was born in 1971, and her brother Steven followed two years later. The family lived in Lerwick till Lise was two and half, when they went to Anne’s native Fair Isle and ran the island shop until they got the opportunity to take the tenancy of the Busta croft.

Lise grew up in a family and a community that valued their musical traditions, of songs and hymns as well as dance music and airs. The powerful singing at her funeral was testament to that.  She was barely four years old when she started to play the piano and first picked up the fiddle when she was around eight years old.

Lise became one of those folk who can turn a tune on any instrument.  Along with her cousins, Eileen and Ewen Thomson, she later became part of the family groups, Burrian and Frideray, that included her mam and two uncles Neil and Stewart. She was on stage with Frideray at the Folk Festival’s Shetland Dialect concert in May, which she compered. Her last public performance was in her grand father’s native island of Unst.

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Lise went to primary school on the island then on to the Anderson High School in Lerwick but her secondary education was disrupted by spells of ill-health which kept her away from school. At home, fighting to recover from her debilitating illness, she concentrated on keeping as active as she could, playing the piano, baking cakes and studying as much as she was able, getting her Higher English for her efforts. However, despite her absences she forged enduring friendships in the hostel and at school.

I’ve come to think that these years, missing the structure of classroom learning fostered her ability to think independently. She always worked things out for herself and formed her own opinions. 

Her further education included a year at a sixth form college in Swindon and a spell at Glasgow College of Art. She came back to the isle and married Ian in the voar of 1991. They’d been courting for several years though Lise was only nineteen on their wedding day.

She and Ian first lived in the Old Haa but they got the chance to build a new home on a ruined croft house site at Kenaby.  The house grew as their family grew and the ground they cultivated increased. Their own produce from the croft was a matter of pride and achievement, whether flesh or vegetable.  Their plot and cold frames weren’t entirely devoted to food and fodder – there was room for flowers to bloom too.

Lise was a talented craft worker.  She could and did knit but only for the family. She became keen on felting, using wool from Shetland sheep. For a time, she and another islander, Linda Grieve, made classy felted waistcoats. When that business venture ended, Lise continued to felt smaller items. Many a friend has one of the beautiful little felted birds, which seemed to come to life in her hands. Ours come out every Christmas to hang on our tree.

Lise and Ian shared the tough experience of all Fair Isle parents who have to see their children leave home for their secondary education, with only occasional weekend visits home, subject to the vagaries of the weather. Her concern for the welfare of all the youngsters who have to live away from home in residential accommodation led Lise to join the school board for the Anderson High School and later the parent council to ensure their interests weren’t ignored.

Lise made an immeasurable contribution to island life in many different ways. She was full of energy, generating ideas and also clear-minded in how projects might be developed. It was her idea to make the Fair Isle keps that promoted the island’s involvement in the last Tall Ships Race by reminding folk of an older maritime tradition of barter with vessels passing by.

Lise was one of the team that produce the Fair Isle Times weekly during the school term. She was a peerie lass when head teacher Rod Thorn started it in 1978 with a front page of home news written by the school children. Over the years it evolved into a community newspaper and Lise could hardly have imagined that one day it would be her bairns writing for it and she’d be the editor, chivvying folk along to get articles written in time.

Another long-term commitment has been her dedication to the island choir where she challenged and stretched the singers that came under her baton, enabling them to perform exciting works for Easter and for Christmas. One of the most demanding was Given Days where she enthusiastically responded to new work composed by a young man with a Fair Isle connection, Alastair Stout, and a libretto by Jonathan Lennie. Members of the Lerwick Choral joined the Fair Isle Choir for performances in Fair Isle and Lerwick in 2002.

As well as her choral work in the local community, Lise was able to teach music in the school, an experience both she and the pupils enjoyed immensely.

Many of Lise’s significant musical achievements were collaborations which culminated in performance and recording. Her first really ambitious project was Ivver Entrancin Wis, where she set a series of Shetland poems to music for cello, harp, viola and voice. For the recording, she drew together a group of local and Scottish musicians, including Catriona McKay, Chris Stout and Wendy Weatherby. From hameaboot came Frideray, Deirdre Hayward’s Capella choir and Abby Hayward. The suite was first performed in 2004.

At the same time that Lise was interpreting the poetry of other writers in music, she was maturing as a poet herself. Her first solo collection came out the following year, 2005, with the simple title here.  2005 was a crucial year in Lise’s creative life since it brought the opportunity of an international platform for her writing.

The Scottish Poetry Library initiative Literature Across Frontiers, which brings together poets from different countries to share and translate work, brought a group to Shetland. As a result of encouragement from Shetland’s literature development officer, Alex Cluness, Lise was added to the mix as a resident Shetland voice. It led to invitations to join other collaborations and to travel to poetry and music festivals in places that included Iceland, Estonia, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland.  She had a growing international reputation for her writing.

The friendships weren’t only literary. Lise and Rina Katajavuori found they had more than poetry in common and became close. She visited Rina and her family in the Finnish countryside, loving the experience of being among deep forest and rivers.

I became used to fleeting visits from her, with a heavy pack on her back plus a guitar and often a fiddle as well, heading off to events round Europe and Scandinavia. She always seemed to be in a hurry and she always strode out in a purposeful style. With poetry, songs and tunes to perform she had a full repertoire to bring to any stage. She spoke particularly fondly of a poetry festival she attended in rural Norway last year.

Lise didn’t just want to write poetry, it was one of the necessities of life, and a quality she shared with another Shetland poet she greatly respected, Stella Sutherland. I feel that her finest poems were always about the people she knew and loved.

Two ply is probably the best known, a lovely picture of her grandfather teaching her daughter to spin, while Far is Not Far for her son Tom, who’s a sailor, was selected by Serco NorthLink for an advertising campaign.  Stories told by her grandmothers are re-worked as strong poems in the White Below anthology of 2010, a collection of poems and stories by writers inspired by the history of Shetland’s fishing industry. Lise’s Fair Isle granny minded a day the Dutch herring fisherman came to church and she recalled her Burra granny telling the tale of how she bought a harmonium with her herring gutter’s wages. When White Below was launched Lise played the harmonium, adding a musical note to the celebration. She brought a sparkling presence to such events and always wore intriguing stage outfits.

In another co-operative venture Lise teamed up with artist Tommy Hyndman and they won a commission from SCFWG (Shetland Crofting Farming and Wildlife Group), which saw them research, paint and write about Shetland’s agricultural heritage. Kale and kye came under the spotlight and a series of poems, rich in dialect, were published in the New Shetlander magazine, which has often included Lise’s work. She was equally confident in English and dialect, moving between the two tongues as poems demanded.

Lise’s masterpiece though must be her rendering of George Mackay Brown’s short story collection A Time to Keep into song.  She explains in the sleeve notes that the songs were “already there, singing out of George’s clear lyrical prose.”  Her own prose in the introductory booklet is lyrical too as she explains her dream of bringing the Scottish and Norse cultures together as George Mackay Brown did in his writing. I recommend you read it – but take note of the sentence “I needed to find the support and funding required to cross the seas between”.

No one who was at the Lerwick Town Hall to hear the Shetland/Orcadian/Icelandic combination of music and voice on stage will ever forget the power of the live performance of A Time to Keep. Nor will the audiences in Scotland, Fair Isle, Orkney and Iceland who also experienced it. The band included her first cousins Inge and Ewen Thomson and singer Brian Cromarty from Orkney while Icelander Ástvaldur Traustasson played in the band as well as composing the music with her.  Aðalsteinn Asberg Sigurðsson translated the songs into Icelandic poems and read them during the performance. The CD is a good listen but the live event was enthralling. I wish I could have heard it in St Magnus Cathedral.

So – back to that earlier quote about “support and funding”. While Lise relished the process of writing, composing and working closely with other creative minds and talents, alongside that enjoyable experience ran the eternal struggle to find funding. There were frequent setbacks and difficulties with applications that required box-ticking, complicated form-filling and brain-numbing financial calculations, squeezing the time left for the songs to be written. Then there were the logistical difficulties of getting everyone from the four airts to one place to rehearse, record and put on a live show.  I always admired her dogged determination to keep on going, to follow her vision of the performance or recording she had in mind.

Because of that perseverance, we have Ivver Entrancin Wis and A Time to Keep. We can also hear Lise on cassette tapes and CDs of Frideray, for which we can be thankful.  However, there’s no solo CD or collection of her other songs.  There are a few snatches of songs and poetry on various websites and on Facebook.  It feels as if they’re all frozen in time now and it’s hard to believe that someone so vital, so inspirational, so generous, so full of warmth, joie de vivre, camaraderie, laughter and fun is just gone, so suddenly. No more sprees, no more long conversations before the fire or at the kitchen table, setting the world to rights.

For her husband Ian and their sons and daughters, for her parents, for her grand-parents and her extended family, for the Fair Isle community, for all her friends across the world, there will be hard times ahead, learning to live with a Lise-sized hole in their lives – a tangible absence.

She lived life to the full, never wasting a moment, always pushing herself to get things done. We can be blyde that her life was so energetic because without that drive she couldn’t have achieved what she did with the short time she had. We can try to follow her example. 

She enhanced our lives – and an elegy written by Sorley McLean reminds me of her. He writes of his beloved brother Calum defining his gift to others, which I believe applies to our Lise too…

“……….you gave them the zeal,
that was the fire beneath your kindness,
They sensed the vehemence
that was gentle in your ways,
They understood the heavy depths of your humanity
when your fun was at its lightest.”

Lise Sinclair, poet and singer/songwriter, born 4 March 1971; died 4 August 2013.

Mary Blance



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