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Features / Four decades of sessions, sprees and superb music: folk festival ‘truly something special’

The Shetland Folk Festival should have been hosting its 40th instalment this weekend, but the current pandemic has seen it pushed back to 2021. Neil Riddell looks at what makes the local festival with a global reach mean so much for so many.

Photo: Lieve Boussauw

YESTERDAY lunchtime should have seen a cosy throng of islanders and visitors congregating in Room 16 at Islesburgh for the traditional curtain-raiser of the 40th instalment of the internationally renowned and locally cherished Shetland Folk Festival.

With the Covid-19 outbreak depriving society of so many of life’s joys, the very notion of a four-day weekend of live music and merriment almost feels ostentatious.

But while venues across Shetland will remain silent and empty this weekend, folkies can console themselves by looking forward to the festival’s eventual return – and return it certainly will.

Organisers reluctantly bowed to the inevitable a few weeks ago and – while main festival booker Mhari Pottinger is swift to emphasise the “very serious broader context” – you cannot but feel huge sympathy for her and all the committee volunteers as this weekend floats into view.

The front cover of the 1981 festival programme. Image: Shetland Folk Festival

The esteem in which the festival is held is abundantly clear from the messages that have been flooding in from overseas.

A full three decades have elapsed since revered New England fiddler Rodney Miller – whose sets with Airplang in 1987 rank highly among many festival-goers’ highlights down the years – last appeared in 1990. This week he took the time to let Mhari know via email that “all his psychic energy is focused on making SFF happen next year!”

Amid a surge in live music online during the lockdown, perennial festival favourite J.P. Cormier – who had been due to play with Bill Elliott this year – offered up a special concert on 10 April, timed to light up TVs and laptop screens on Friday night primetime in Shetland.

Finnish fiddler Esko Jarvela – who was scheduled to perform with Frigg for what would have been his sixth Shetland experience – said he had been enjoying a slower pace of life and more family time. But missing out on “the coolest festival on planet earth makes me so sad and pissed off!”

Esko took to social media to broadcast a beautiful fiddle tune he has penned, Shetland Rose, describing it as “a melody glued together with love, Irn Bru and ibuprofen”.

“I’ve got to visit the event five times and I’m totally in love with the atmosphere and people up there,” he said. “The place and festival are truly something special!”

Also booked to play this year were Shetland’s own Hom Bru, who appeared at the first ever festival back in 1981.

Other acts that year included Kathryn Tickell and Dick Gaughan, whose prescient remark that “this festival requires a government health warning – nobody sleeps” has turned into an unofficial slogan.

Hom Bru’s Gary Peterson, all-round good guy and an integral part of the musical furniture at the festival club in Islesburgh every spring, recalled that the band were touring full-time based in Edinburgh and were invited home for the inaugural event.

It had originated in a conversation between the late Dr Tom Anderson and Charlie Simpson. The upshot was a formula whereby local musicians, including the late Willie Hunter, shared concert platforms with visiting acts at halls and venues throughout the isles.

The Shetland Folk Festival Society’s official programme of events beckoned simply: “Do must kum!”

While many aspects of the festival have remained constant over the subsequent 38 festivals, ever-talented mandolinist Gary reflected that in other senses “it was so different then”.

“We did a night in Yell and the following night in Unst with a concert party – or it might have been the other way round, and stayed up in the isles,” he said.

“Chapel House was the festival club in Mounthooly Street. The acts were more like the present accordion and fiddle festival, mostly Scottish or Scandinavian. Lots more variety now.

“To me it’s the best weekend of the year, so much musical talent arriving here for a feast of great music. It gives the local musicians a focus to practice for and loads of lifetime friendships are formed.”

Lerwick singer Sheila Henderson concurs. “I feel proud to be part of it as a local musician and over the years it has been a great opportunity to meet and get to have sessions [and] share the stage with some top names.

“I love being part of the Shetland musical community, so it’s also the chance to catch up with them, have tunes and laugh. Last year, I lost my voice before the festival, so was unable to perform or have sessions. It made for a very different festival so I was looking forward to this year all the more. Who would have thought Covid-19 would put an end to the 40th year?”

It’s not just the musicians and organisers feeling a little bereft. The folk festival has countless devotees, and Mhari said it was “so touching” that many who had bought advance memberships turned down a refund and told the committee to keep the money in the festival coffers.

Local businessman Andrew Simpson has been attending for over quarter of a century and said it would be a “massive miss” as it is “the event that starts the summer for me”.

“[It’s] a great weekend where I can go to concerts with like-minded folk who just enjoy the array of talent that’s put together from all around the world and locally by a bunch of hard-working volunteers.

“It’s a world-renowned event that Shetlanders can be proud of, it’s such a shame this has happened on the 40th anniversary.”

This year’s line-up was to have featured artists including Della Mae, Heidi Talbot, Julie Fowlis, Dougie MacLean, Habadekuk, Le Vent du Nord, The Poozies, Paper Wings and Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.

They were to have nestled alongside a wealth of talent from closer to home including The Chair/Saltfishforty and classy indigenous music from Herkja, Haltadans, Vair, Adam Guest, Isaac Webb Trio and many more.

Mhari Pottinger of the Shetland Folk Festival
Mhari Pottinger.

The Covid-19 virus is an unpredictable beast but, while no one knows what the future might hold, Mhari said most of the above artists have committed to perform in April 2021.

In a “big virtual hug” of an email to those slated to appear earlier this week, she wrote: “We were so chuffed with our 40th Shetland Folk Festival line-up and programme and were excited to see what collaborations and sessions might have happened in our club as a result… and what lasting musical friendships would be formed this time.”

The UK may well have seen the equivalent of the entire populations of Shetland and Orkney wiped out in two months, along with untold economic consequences. That background prompts Mhari to remark that it feels “silly” to be sad about the festival not going ahead.

But few would begrudge her such feelings. Committee members devote countless unseen hours year-round to ensuring every concert of every festival is a success.

In normal times, even the cancellation of a single band can have a domino effect triggering all sorts of logistical headaches, so it’s easy to imagine what a wrench scrubbing an entire festival must be in practical terms, let alone emotionally.

Mhari, who started volunteering aged 14, told Shetland News: “I think the whole of the folk festival committee is probably feeling a bit down on it this week, as things like Facebook are flooded with folk festival memories from the last ten years.

“It’s difficult not to dwell on the peerie things you’d have been doing as part of your regular folk festival routine. Every Thursday morning is that chaotic time in Islesburgh, trying to match up artists, PA folk, volunteers, accommodation, and there’s that buzz about the place.

“Folk are obviously realising there’s a much bigger picture, that everybody’s health and wellbeing is the most important thing. The festival absolutely will be back, and we’ll have lots of good times and great music to look forward to in the future.”

Having gone into labour prematurely in the middle of hosting the big Saturday night concert at Clickimin back in 2013, there is one upside in all of this for Mhari: her eldest son Hamish will have his mum’s full and undivided attention for his seventh birthday celebrations.

Sheila plans to have a digital catch-up with those she’d normally attend concerts with. “I hope to listen to music and do some singing, and I’ve joked with committee members online that I’m going to see if my family remove me from singing on the stairs earlier than they would at club closing time!”

Mhari said her predecessor, the late great Davie Henderson, would have been “braaly scunnered but would have done his very best to keep spirits high this weekend anyway”.

So perhaps the best medicine is to be thankful we still have our health, hunt out some great music and raise a glass to Mhari, Davie and all the other volunteers and musicians – content in the knowledge we’ll all be back together smiling and savouring world-class songs and tunes before we know it.

Neil Riddell