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Features / A lovely Shetland legacy at Lorient

James Paton follows local band Vair performing at the Inter-Celtic Festival, held in Brittany earlier this month

Vair playing at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient earlier this month. Photo: Pierre Sallier

AFTER two days soaking up the amazing atmosphere and cultural diversity and similarities across the many Celtic ‘nations’, the one day I had particularly come here for had arrived. Vair were in town thanks to an honoured invitation to play the Festival Interceltique de Lorient.

As an uncle to one of the band, and having had an historic link to them through a very old friend of Vair’s ‘inventor’, influencer and guide Davy Henderson – with whom I worked at Sullom Voe Oil Terminal for six years in the 1980s and enjoyed his company at many a folk festival and after party at Ackrigarth – it was a very special place to be at a special time.

I also knew Hom Bru back in the day, the heady early days in Edinburgh in the late 70s/early 80s and then great Shetland appearances throughout the 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s.

Hom Bru played in Lorient in the 90s. Mandolin and banjo player Gary Peterson took his family on holiday then. They have a lovely photo of their two boys Erik and Lewie who now as banjo and mandolin players and singers, as members of Vair, returned to play. A lovely and incredible Shetland legacy in Lorient.

As a friend of Bongshang, I went to see them play in Lorient in August 96. I was unaware, until this visit, 23 years later, that there is a long tradition of Shetland musicians having played at this incredible festival, which reaches its 50th year next year.

And finally, after four flights and a two hour car drive Vair arrived at 1.30pm on Thursday 8 August. Some immediate kip, while Uncle (Ton Ton) James was dancing himself silly in the Gallician tent, we met for breakfast in the centre of town.

We then walked through the Celtic village, including Astoria, Acadia, Isle of Man, Cornwall, Adelaide Pipe Band, and the usual suspects Eire, Scotland and Wales. (Perhaps Shetland could participate as a unique Celtic influenced ‘country’ a la Isle of Man?) Celtic weather was much in evidence, wind and rain, but nothing could dampen Celtic bonne hommie.

Astoria music, with clarinet, washed down with their wonderful beer and cider. A spot of Cornish and Isle of Man culture, then Galicia with some Spanish ale. A quick look at Wales and Eire our neighbouring second cousins and then a visit to the first cousins of in the Scottish tent, where Vair were up dancing at the lunchtime dance workshop session. Brave boys!

With a hearty appetite built up, we repaired for dejeuner at the Bar de Huitres for a lunch of oysters and langoustines, salmon pate and scrummy fresh bread lathered in Breton butter. A wee glass of orange juice – seriously –  to wash it all down as sound check was beckoning at 4.30.

I was honoured to accompany these grand Shetland ambassadors and felt very rock ‘n’ roll sitting in the Green Room with my backstage pass, eating local sweeties – nougat and caramels with a great cup of coffee.

I wandered around the theatre during the sound check, keeping myself discretely (?) separate – quite a task for those that know me – very much enjoying the back row of the balcony watching these young men interact with a fantastically professional sound and light team, then be treated to a few tunes in advance of the evening. The volunteer festival compare for the evening was sublime, interesting, interested and engaging as he took notes for his presentation later that evening.

All sorted, we toddled off to explore more of the extraordinary Celtic cornucopia on display including the local Lorient navy pipe-band who were a magnificent sight and sound.

By now I presented myself as a punter, having left my backstage pass in my apartment. One of the volunteers recognised me from earlier that afternoon and asked for my ticket.  Row 10 right in the middle. He came back with a new ticket. Front row right in the middle – above and beyond and completely unnecessary, but being so family friendly they thought it was great I’d come to support the band and my nephew.

This concert was Vair followed by two renowned French Celtic guitarists. No support act status, they were introduced and treated like the consummate professionals, which they ably and delightfully demonstrated on stage.

The music and its unique presentation speaks for itself, but their rapport between tunes – slight over-awed humbleness – was very, very moving.

As a self- imposed Shetland exile Atween Da Wadders with its Is du comin’ hom’ refrain had me in tears. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner to end had the audience enraptured.

To sum up, Vair’ s first international performance was sublimely beautiful and exquisitely delivered. They were not quite prepared for the deluge at the CD sales table at the interval and again at the end of the evening, with them selling out their CDs. A fitting tribute from an inter-Celtic international audience  – the biggest they’ve played to. Thank you Vair, an amazing presence, you’re now well and truly on the international stage and so well deserved.

It would be great to see Vair back for the very special 50th anniversary next year, as part of a Shetland contingent, including Bongshang (reunion), Fiddler’s Bid, Young Heritage etc, so many more and of course Hom Bru. Perhaps Aly could head up the delegation.

C’mon Shetland, do for your musical tradition and contemporary culture what you do for your athletes in the inter-island games. If you need a hand with translation, I’m free and ready to help. It’ll be a pleasure.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021