LEADING Shetland fiddle exponent Maurice Henderson has published a new book documenting his travels to Greenland to trace the roots of one of the most popular isles reels.
Copies of In Search of Willafjord arrived on Tuesday, just in time for Christmas, much to Maurice’s delight. He describes the glossy, illustrated paperback – being published by The Shetland Times – as a mixture of detective work, social history and travelogue.
Willafjord is one of Shetland’s most popular and enduring tunes: “one of the first ones that you learn” and one of several Greenland or whaling tunes brought back from the Arctic whaling days.
Maurice hadn’t intended to make it the subject of the book, instead thinking “there’d maybe be an article in it”, but after conducting research and visiting Greenland for over a fortnight in September 2015 decided it was “worth putting together a story on it”.
“When you ask around and try to find out where Willafjord is, nobody knows except it’s somewhere in the Arctic, could be in Greenland, and it just kinda intrigued me – you must be able to find somewhere a bit closer,” he told Shetland News.
“Whilst researching some other old stories I came across a few clues and decided to follow it up. I went there with no concept really what the place was like or what the settlements were like, or the way of life there or anything.”
To find out exactly where he went and what he discovered, you’ll have to read the book for yourself – suffice to say that Maurice found it to be a “truly spectacular place”.
A particular highlight of last year’s Greenland visit was an impromptu night of tunes outside a local’s home.
“I discovered that they could dance to the Shetland tunes – they knew how to dance to them, so I think that one night there with the dancing probably made the trip in a sense. There was a familiarity as soon as you struck up the notes.”
His research also took him to folk music archives in Copenhagen and Shetland’s own archives.
In addition to some spectacular photos of scenery, landscape and people taken on his travels, Maurice has unearthed some great archive images including interwar footage of Greenlanders playing the fiddle.
The instrument was introduced to the area by whalers working on boats in the Arctic, with fiddles regularly played on board to keep spirits up, and Maurice likens it to the many decades of Dutch traders frequenting Shetland and taking stories home with them.
Just as those days came to a halt, the historical whaling connection with Greenland is “now beyond living memory, but remembered in the tunes”.
As anyone who knows Maurice well can testify, he has a real thirst for knowledge about the storytelling side of his musical craft.
He explains that the social history relating to traditional tunes is something to which he constantly returns: “It always kind of intrigues me, simple little tunes – sometimes the stories behind them could be more memorable [than the tunes themselves] in some ways.”
Maurice thinks there are many more connections to be drawn and links to be made, so while In Search of Willafjord may be his first foray into publishing, it’s unlikely to be his last.
In the more immediate future, he is looking forward to his group Fiddlers’ Bid curating a night of Hogmanay entertainment at Mareel.
The band – celebrating 25 years together – are putting together an early evening concert followed by a night of dancing, music, food and drink including a 1920s-themed café-bar.
“Now the boys are arriving home – Kevin [Henderson] and Chris [Stout] are home, and I’ve just been ins speaking to folk at Mareel – they’re pulling out the stops and rigging the stage and the building for the big night.
“It’s gonna be an exciting night. We’ve done a few Hogmanay nights with Fiddlers’ Bid away from Shetland, including in Edinburgh and out in Donegal, and we had such real memorable party nights that we thought it’d be great to do something back in Shetland.”
- Maurice Henderson will be signing copies of In Search of Willafjord at The Shetland Times Bookshop between 6.30-8.30pm on Thursday (22 December) and you can also buy the book online here.
- Tickets are still available for Hogmanay With Fiddlers’ Bid, priced £35-£50.
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