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Features / Frenzy gives students ‘a wider feel for the place’

Fiddle Frenzy's Melbourne contingent: Louise, Claire, Declan and Judy. Photo: Davie Gardner

FIDDLE FRENZY, Shetland Arts’ flagship fiddle school and festival, is currently celebrating its 11th birthday and a whole plethora of folk have once again gathered for the occasion. Davie Gardner went along to find out more for Shetland News.

This flagship includes a cargo of fantastic concerts, a wide variety of musical and arts/craft-related workshops, sightseeing tours, daily excursions, club nights, lectures and informal sessions – plus a whole load of social delights.

Its illustrious and very musical crew – willingly pressganged by the flagship’s captain Lynda Anderson (festival director) – includes sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid acting as first mates (well, festival curators actually), plus Catriona Macdonald, Ross Couper, Jenny Keldie, Claire White, Maggie Adamson, Lois Nicol, Cathy Geldard, Brian Nicholson, Brian Cromarty, Tom and Michelle Deyell and Amy Fisher (all tutors, performers or tour guides).

The full below-deck crew (the students) impressively number over 100 this year, with around 80 of those from outside Shetland. Some have travelled from as far afield as Australia and the USA, others from closer to home – all winding their way north to celebrate all that’s great about Shetland’s unique fiddle tradition on board the good ship Fiddle Frenzy.

Some are undertaking their first voyage, while others like Peter Day and his wife Liz from Buckinghamshire are old hands – present for an impressive 10 out of the 11 years to date.

Curators Jenna and Bethany Reid performing. Photo: Davie Gardner

“My father was up here during the war and as a result I always wanted to visit Shetland,” Day tells me as we relax and soak up the sun outside Mareel. “So we eventually came here for a holiday, found out that Fiddle Frenzy was happening at the same time, got involved, got hooked and we’ve been coming back ever since.

“It’s great fun, but equally we’ve both learned so much about the place, the music and the culture and met so many good people and made so many friends because of it – and it’s done wonders for my fiddle playing too”, he adds – almost as an afterthought.

Once the festival is over the couple – along with several others – stay on for an additional week’s holiday, or “recovery” as he puts it.

Regularly setting sail from its home port of Mareel, Fiddle Frenzy is set to land its creative cargo in Vidlin, Sandwick, Sandness, Eshaness, Westerwick and Mousa.

Ross Couper, one of several of the isles' top fiddlers taking part in this year's frenzy. Photo: Davie Gardner

Setting these maritime analogies aside before we all turn seasick, I catch up with the festival’s vibrant and extremely hardworking director Anderson, who tells me she’s absolutely delighted with the response this year.

“I think it’s our biggest take-up yet,” she says. “It’s amazing to be hosting folk form as far away as Australia and the USA, and I’m especially delighted there are so many local young folk involved this time around. They have certainly brought a lot of life and fun to the whole thing.”

One of the successes of this year’s event has been having the tutors perform during the concerts in addition to teaching during the day. “I think the students have really enjoyed the experience of being taught tunes and styles by some great Shetland musicians and then, in the evenings, experiencing them performing in their own right.”

For the Reid sisters – now two years into a three-year stint as dual curators – two things make the event a success. Firstly, students have access to top quality tutors and musicians, and secondly they are effectively and inclusively integrated into the local community during the event.

“This year we set out to celebrate our local musicians a wee bit more,” Jenna tells me straight after coming off stage performing with her group Rant. “So we’ve got the likes of more reocgnised musicians such as Catriona Macdonald, Kevin Henderson, Maggie Adamson and Ross Couper performing alongside more locally based musicians such as Lois Nicol, the Cullivoe Fiddlers, the Northmavine Fiddle and Accordion Club and current young fiddler of the year Sophie Moar – to name but a few.”

“Getting out and about in the wider community and not just basing ourselves in Lerwick is also an important factor,” adds Bethany. “Our trip to Vidlin this week was a particular highlight in that respect. To see 60 or more students in the living room of Lunna House being served tea and home bakes by the owners Tony and Helen Erwood was fantastic.

“Things like that add to the musical experience, giving students a wider feel for the place. I believe that’s something that plays a huge part in many of them wanting to come back here on a regular basis. The friendliness of the local community plays a significant role in the overall success of the event.”

Kevin Henderson, now residing in Norway, made the trip home to teach. Photo: Davie Gardner

Jenna nods in agreement: “Yes, it all goes hand in hand.”

Tour guide Tom Deyell of ‘Unseen Shetland’ agrees. “The students seem to really enjoy getting out and about and seeing Shetland in a relaxed and informal manner. Dat and da great music too, of course”, he adds with a laugh.

Two of Shetland’s internationally acclaimed fiddle players agree that it’s the place itself, the people and the music that makes Fiddle Frenzy fairly unique.

Henderson cites access to top quality musicians and the distinctive characteristics of Shetland’s “happy music” as important elements, while Macdonald “preaches” to those she meets outside the isles that you have to go to Shetland to fully understand what it and the music are all about.

Louise Godwin, a member of the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club, which now has regular musical exchanges with Shetland, has travelled well over 10,000 miles with three of her club colleagues to be here.

Every second year at least one club member makes the trip to Shetland and for the alternate year they take a Shetland fiddler or duo out to Melbourne.

“So far we’ve had Chris Stout and then Ross Couper visit us and now this year it’s our turn to visit you,” Louise says. “We are having a truly wonderful time and experience. The islands have such an amazing fiddle tradition.”

An arts and crafts workshop was one of several extracurricular activities laid on for the students. Photo: Davie Gardner

I round off my enlightening visit to the event by taking in Mareel’s evening concert – also streamed live to the world online courtesy of Promote Shetland and Shetland Arts – featuring young fiddler of the year Sophie Moar, Jenna and Bethany’s fiddle group Rant, plus an absolutely blistering display of musical dexterity from Ross Couper and Tom Oakes.

The place is packed to the veritable gunnels and the audience are totally up for it – and there are still three and a half days of this year’s event to go, for heaven’s sake!

The Fiddle Frenzy voyage is certainly not for the lily-livered, that’s for sure. I wish them continued social fortitude to see this year’s event through to the end and quietly slip off into the now rain-lashed night.

Given all that I’ve witnessed and heard during my day at the event it’s clear that the good ship Fiddle Frenzy continues to sail a very steady and successful course indeed. So let’s break open the ship’s “bond” and drink to many more voyages with her in the future.

Davie Gardner