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Features / Fetlar & Foula adventures inspire new EP tunes

Some shady characters feature in Maurice Henderson's striking artwork for Haltadans' debut EP.

HALTADANS, a fresh-sounding traditional music collective named after an ancient stone circle in Fetlar, have unleashed their self-titled debut EP just in time for the last-minute Christmas rush.

The group boasts some of Shetland’s very finest fiddling talents – Maurice Henderson, Lois Nicol and Ewen Thomson – anchored by the guitar work of Grant Nicol and bass player John Clark.

Formed in 2012 after Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag – the popular high-octane musical collective they play with – decided to take a breather due to other commitments, the five-piece will officially launch the freshly minted CD at Lerwick Boating Club at 2pm on Sunday afternoon.

Haltadans offered an outlet for Maurice, of Fiddlers’ Bid renown, to bring to life some “really old, obscure traditional tunes that he dug out of the archive”, Lois explains.

In summer 2013 they were invited to Foula to record music as part of the Back From Beyond project, and the fruits of their visit appearing as ‘Foula Transit’ (see video below) on the EP’s third track.

Maurice wrote the melody, with the band “really bringing that fully to life with harmonies”, and before long found himself composing more tunes. They represent his first original material to graduate into recorded form.

He credits Margaret Scollay for prompting him to start “scribbling down some ideas” after they were involved in an orchestral project together. “I did another one within a few days – something in that week rehearsing with Margaret must’ve rubbed off on me.”

The EP kicks off with three Shetland reels learned from archive recordings of Thomas Robertson from Collafirth. “He had a real drive in his playing, foot-stomping, brilliant stories behind them as well,” Maurice says. “They are just perfect for Shetland reels, so we have a set of his on there.

“It’s quite rare now to find a new repertoire in Shetland traditional tunes, and I met a lot of fiddlers that hadn’t heard them before.”

Maurice is full of praise for a classy waltz, ‘Wyndales’, composed by John when he was recording an album with Rock Salt & Nails. “He’s quite a quiet fellow, never one for pushing himself forward.” On a recent trip to Norway they performed the waltz and had the natives all up dancing. Henderson looked over and saw John smiling: “I think it’s just kind of how he pictured it.”

‘Wyndales’ is an undoubted highlight, as is the stylish polka ‘Eklunda Polska No. 3’, a popular Swedish melody learned from Aly Bain.

Maurice is effusive, too, about the abilities of Lois and Ewen. The former won young fiddler of the year in 2001 and went on to complete a music degree in Newcastle: “I went to her performance at the Sage in Gateshead and it was pretty spectacular”, while Ewen is “as modest as you get, but gee whizz: the speed of the fingers and the natural harmony, off the cuff”.

Maurice’s longstanding interest in trowie folklore surfaces on the closing set ‘Crossing da Flodens’. The subject is the stone circle in Fetlar from which the band took its name, and where the troll-like creatures are “known to gather”.

The title refers to the bog he and 50 fiddlers had to negotiate to reach the Haltadans during a Fiddle Frenzy trip to Fetlar, during which he shared trowie tales and tunes with the visitors. He then returned to the stone circle alone on a moonlit night to play his tunes.

“I went back up there the second time, at night, to see if I hadn’t upset the trows too much,” Maurice says. “You could hear the snipe and all those birds, the wings of the bird coming down – it is gluffin’ standing out in the middle of the hill. I saw a few red eyes – do sheep get red eyes in the dark? I’d have liked to get the whole band up there, but I think they were kinda faird! We’ll maybe try that yet…”

Lois says the two days of recording at Mareel in late September, with the able assistance of sound engineer Jonathan Ritch, were a pleasure.

“Grant was sitting in the upstairs studio, and the fiddles were down on the stage. It was really good, actually, quite relaxed. Jonathan’s just amazing at what he does, he’s got such a good ear, and it didn’t take half as long as we expected.

“We spent a lot of time working on the arrangements, but we were mindful not to lose a lot of the energy,” Lois continues. “We like playing quite fired-up music, but one of the reasons for the recording was to put a focus on sorting out the arrangements. We’re quite happy with what’s come out, multiple layers and harmony work.”

Lois adds that it’s a “nice time” to be doing some shows: “The EPs arrived last week, and there’s a good feeling about it – there’s a load of local musicians that live south who’ll be home for Christmas who are going to come along, and we’ll hopefully have a bit of a session afterwards.”

  • Haltadans’ debut EP is available, priced £8, from Mareel, High Level Music and most country shops. 
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