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Features / Fiddler Margaret lands MBE for services to traditional music

‘It’s been a pleasure to teach young people and adults alike and see people progress and get to new standards and new levels of playing and confidence’

Margaret Robertson. Photo: Martin Forry

“THE QUEEN’s birthday honours list happens every year and it’s something you see on the news…but it’s not something that I ever thought would happen to me.”

Shetland fiddler and tutor Margaret Robertson already has an enviable list of accolades under her belt – such a place in the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame and being the winner of the isles’ first young fiddler of the year contest – but now she can add MBE to her name.

The 53-year-old was given with the title in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours list for services to traditional Scottish music.

She has racked up nearly 40 years experience in teaching fiddle and piano to budding musicians in Shetland, and more recently she has led the traditional collective Hjaltibonhoga.

“I think I can honestly say that I’ve just been lucky enough to enjoy my career and enjoy doing what I’ve done,” she said as she reflected on the MBE.

“It’s never really felt like work, it’s just been a pleasure to teach young people and adults alike and see people progress and get to new standards and new levels of playing and confidence, and social skills.

“Music is not just music. When you work with groups of people and people coming together, there’s so many more skills that go along side the actual playing of music. It’s a pleasure and an honour to work with all these people over the years, both from pupils and professional musicians.”

Margaret grew up in a musical household in Yell, learning fiddle in primary school thanks to the tuition of the renowned Tom Anderson.

But it was her dad Lell, himself a fiddle player, who first instilled a love of music – ensuring that the subject was a regular conversation topic in the house.

“He was a huge influence and probably to this day probably the biggest enthusiastic for music that I’ve ever known,” Margaret said.

As she went through school she was then taken under the wing of fiddler Trevor Hunter.

As a 15-year-old she completed the rite of passage that is winning the Shetland Young Fiddler of the year competition, in its inaugural competition in 1982, before catapulting headfirst into a career as a tutor.

“I left school at age 16 and I actually had conditional place to go to Robert Gordon to study home economics,” Margaret said.

“And then I was offered a three day week teaching in Shetland schools. It was like a light came on and here was an opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which was teach young people, but actually teach young people my greatest passion, which was music.

“The two things together was alike a marriage made in heaven, and I turned down the place at university and stayed in Shetland and started teaching. I left school in May at 16 and started teaching in September.”

Margaret admits that “rather bizarrely” she was not encouraged to do music at school, something which she feels happens today.

“I was encouraged to get, quote unquote, a proper job,” she said.

“And funnily enough it’s music that I’ve done the whole of my life and I have absolutely no regrets at all.”

More recently, though, it has been through fiddle collective Hjaltibonhoga that has Margaret has caught the limelight.

She was tasked to form the group in 2014 to bring a taste of Shetland to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo event, with the group of nearly 100 fiddlers ultimately performing in front of thousands in the Scottish capital.

The group has given a number of amateur fiddlers the chance to show off their talents on an unprecedented stage – and at the same time promote Shetland to a worldwide audience.

Its core remains Shetland based players but as the group performs across the world – they played in China, Switzerland, Germany and Australia last year – it has welcomed in fiddlers from outside the isles.

“Its a fantastic opportunity for young people and adults alike that would possibly not be soloists or have their own band, but could perform in a very professional show,” Margaret said.

As long as she is the band leader then Hjaltibonhoga will be playing Shetland fiddle, she added.

While the group remains primarily Shetland based, Margaret herself is now living in Falkirk – “partly because of the tattoo, the travel for meetings and production and suchlike was getting to be silly”.

The Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers at the Edinburgh tattoo last summer.The Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers at the Edinburgh Tattoo in 2015.

Back in 2018 Margaret was also included inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, joining fellow Shetlanders like Peerie Willie Johnson and Aly Bain.

Margaret’s passion, meanwhile, has trickled down into her children Marianne, Ross and Ryan Couper, who all took up instruments and are noted musicians.

“We were very lucky that all three of the children play music,” she said.

“Ross and Ryan have literally just recorded an album that we hope will be out very shortly, and Marianne will also feature on that album.

“It’s a very proud mum moment when you see your children progress in such a way musically.”

Writing on Facebook about the MBE award, son Ross – who plays fiddle with Scottish fusion act Peatbog Faeries among other projects – said his mum took “many players from nothing to some of the best fiddle players Shetland has had” while tutoring at the Anderson and Sound Primary School.

“I’ve lost count of how many times people who’ve been involved in Hjalti have said the experience has changed their lives dramatically,” he added.

“Whether it’s through the buzz of performance, the community feel within the band or them discovering something they didn’t think they had in them or in many different sorts of ways besides.”

It is obvious, meanwhile, that passing on Shetland fiddle to future generations – just like her own teachers did many decades ago – holds an important place in Margaret’s heart.

“Traditional music in Shetland and in Scotland, it’s part of our identity,” she said.

“It’s who we are. Every country has their own culture and their own heritage, and part of our heritage and culture in Scotland is our music.

“It’s vitally important that that gets championed. It was such a delight to see these words on the Queen’s birthday honours list – traditional Scottish music.”