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Features / Gulf states & China beckon for Hjaltibonhoga

The Shetland fiddlers performing beneath the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at this year's tattoo. Photo: Martin Scott Powell / The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

AS THEIR third four-week stint in Edinburgh for the Royal Military Tattoo comes to a conclusion this week, life for the Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers continues to sprout wings.

In addition to having their first album in the can and set for release shortly, the fiddle collective – spearheaded by Margaret Robertson – are set to pen a contract tying them to the Edinburgh tattoo for the next decade, with trips to the Gulf in 2018 and China in 2020 set to follow.

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By the time tomorrow’s double header show is over and done with, a total of 68 fiddlers will have taken part in the large-scale jamboree. They will have performed to well over 200,000 people beneath the shadow of Edinburgh Castle since the show first previewed on 4 August.

A rotating cast sees 44 players on the field each night, joining a 600-strong brass band and over 200 pipes and drums.

“We’ve had an absolute ball,” Margaret told Shetland News. “It’s been a busy, busy month, but in so many positive ways.”

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VIDEO COURTESY OF BBC RADIO SHETLAND.

When the fiddlers were over in Melbourne and Wellington this past February, they were asked to commit to being part of the Edinburgh tattoo for the next ten years.

“We’re just almost at the stage of singing the contract to tie us in,” Margaret continued. “Visiting the Gulf states in 2018, and to be touring to China in 2020. After that, the brigadier is seeking to put on a tattoo every six months – Edinburgh in August, then in February each year going somewhere international.

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Margaret Robertson, who put together the Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers, is continuing to see global opportunities arise for the group. Photo: BBC Radio Shetland

“And there’s the possibility of invites to Germany and other things on the go – there’s really no telling where this is going to end!

“I have to pinch myself that it’s a job I’m doing. It’s like a full-time job on top of a full-time job [as a music tutor], so on a personal level things might have to change to accommodate the timing and brain space needed to keep this floating and going.

“The reward is when we step out on the esplanade every night, and when we were able to take it across the world. Every night, I literally shiver with goosebumps that we’ve achieved another show and entertained another 9,000 folk live – and who knows how many on social media.”

She was thrilled when the musical director of the Royal Jordanian Army Band asked for a copy of the score to the music because they enjoyed it so much that they want to learn it.

This year Hjaltibonhoga has performed four tunes Margaret put together that she feels represent “Shetland itself, the spirit of the folk, and the fact we’re surrounded by the sea”.

Of the tunes they are playing – ‘Hillswick’, ‘Arthur Anderson’s Reel’, ‘The Spirit of Whisky’ and ‘Out n In Da Harbour’ – the latter holds a particularly special place in Margaret’s heart as it has been played in her family for generations, and she is “really proud” to be part of performing it to a global audience.

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This year a few international players have been brought in as guests alongside more than 50 isles fiddlers – a trio from New Zealand, three from Orkney, five from Banchory and one from Australia.

Margaret said it was a major commitment to get so many people from a tiny community to give up a month, or even a fortnight, to take part. It involves using up holidays or time in lieu and “there’s a limit to how much of that you can expect”.

A total of 68 fiddlers, the overwhelming majority from Shetland, have participated this year. Photo courtesy of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

“We know through our group we can offer fiddle players internationally the chance to come and play,” she said. “We are being branded as a tattoo group [but] Brigadier David Allfrey is adamant that the name stays, and we’ll always be billed as the Shetland fiddlers.”

Next up for Hjaltibonhoga is a tuition weekend in the very capable hands of one of Scotland’s finest fiddlers, Gordon Gunn, in the middle of next month. They will also perform a joint concert at Mareel on Saturday 17 September.

Margaret said the tuition would compensate for having to miss Fiddle Frenzy in order to participate in the Edinburgh tattoo.

We’re always looking to see what we can next develop. We have a training band, a second raft of youngsters waiting in the wings getting ready to visit Edinburgh.”

You can buy tickets to see Hjaltibonhoga in concert with Gordon Gunn at Mareel on Saturday 17 September here.

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