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Community / An awe-inspiring maritime spectacle with a carnival-style atmosphere

‘Location manager’ Davie Gardner reflects on the first day of the Tall Ships Races visit to Lerwick, and finds it difficult to decide which of the live stages to go to

THE SIGHT of even one tall ship entering or leaving a harbour – especially a relatively compact port like Lerwick – can, in itself, be quite a spectacle as we already know, fortunate as we are to have our own one Swan, with us also receiving regular visits from others such as the Staatsraad Lemkuhl and Christian Radich from Norway. The impact of seeing these never fails to impress.

So, to witness almost 40 such vessels of varying ages, sizes and design arriving and moored up in the harbour for a few days as part of the annual Tall Ships Races – is little short of awe inspiring and a unique maritime marvel.

Shetland is also lucky enough to have now hosted the event on three occasions, initially back in 1999 and then again in 2011. Sadly, on that occasion, the unseasonal, bone-chillingly cold and wet weather was as much a talking point and abiding memory of the event than its nautical and entertainment related elements.

So, perhaps the most common phrase bandied about since it was announced that the Tall Ships Races would be returning to Lerwick again in 2023 was ‘Let’s hope the wadder is better than the last time aroond.’

The Flying Seagull Circus bringing love, light and laughter wherever they go. Photo: Dave Gardner

However, it should also be remembered that poor though the weather was in 2011 it did little to dampen the legendary Shetland spirit, with folk simply opting to don hard weather gear to enjoy themselves in preference to missing out.

So, in the immediate lead up to the ‘lang lippened’ (dialect for greatly anticipated) four-day extravaganza – it having been four years in the planning – virtually all eyes had been trained as much on the weather forecast than the list of impressive vessels due to participate in the race, along with its planned and packed programme of associated events.

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The ‘buzz’ and almost carnival style atmosphere that invariably accompanies a Tall Ships event had started as early as Monday morning with the arrival of the Indonesian navy sail training vessel the Bimi Suci, complete with a large, boisterous, primarily percussive, band playing from the decks of the vessel as she arrived in port – with them also performing on the quayside at Holmsgarth where the vessel was berthed later that same evening.

Codona’s funfair was one of the magnets on Wednesday. Photo Davie Gardner

However, the crew’s musical commitment was deemed to be possibly a bit too enthusiastic at times – namely when the band struck up again at 7am on both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, delivering a somewhat early and rowdy musical ‘wake up’ call – most notably for anyone perhaps planning a blissfully extended, peaceful ‘lie-in’. Mind you, it was 1pm back home in Indonesia I suppose – so that possibly explained the early start.

Tuesday kindled yet more memories of the 2011 event – sadly for all the wrong reasons though – as, once again, an unseasonal, bitingly cold, northerly wind tested the hypothermic resistance of visitors and locals alike.

Thankfully it stayed largely dry though, and the somewhat challenging conditions certainly did nothing to deter huge crowds from attending the Scalloway Summer Fire Festival parade and galley burning later that evening – although a range of winter wear was much in evidence among one of the largest crowds the village had experienced in a very long time.

Wednesday again opened grey and drizzly, but thankfully things improved (slightly) as the day went on, with that ‘buzz’ mentioned earlier literally exploding atmospherically by the time the events centrepiece – the colourful and noisy crew parade – kicked off at 4pm.

Prior to that though the entertainment programme got underway too with young traditional fiddle band Kirmirren being handed the honour of opening the large stage at Holmsgarth to a relatively small but very appreciative crowd, while the long-established Shetland Fiddlers Society opened the stage on an already busy Victoria Pier – with lots more music of all varieties to look forward to over the next few days.

Shetland’s Fiddlers’ Bid performing at Victoria Pier on Wednesday night. Photo: Davie Gardner

Music programmer Tim Matthew said his strategy for programming the event was one of ‘looking both inwards and outwards.’

“I feel the Tall Ships Lerwick music festival is a kind of Janus-like event,” he said. “On one hand we want to showcase Shetland’s incredible musical talent to the many visitors coming here; one the other, it’s a chance to bring up bands from outside Shetland that locals wouldn’t otherwise be able to see here such as the Peatbog Fairies, Tidelines, Peat and Diesel and Queen II”.

But outside of the music the event burst into life proper with the crew parade – featuring many hundreds of colourful, fun-filled, rowdily enthusiastic, costume-wearing, super-charged crew members of uncountable different nationalities – with thousands of locals and visitors thronging the streets to greet them as they wound their way from Lerwick’s Esplanade to Holmsgarth for the opening ceremony.

The brass band played, Vikings hollered, the Indonesians drummed, played, performed and, dressed diversly and immaculately, basically stole the show.

“It’s like Up-Helly-Aa on steroids,” observed one local, while a young couple, Alan and Elizabeth Phillips, who had travelled all the way from Auckland, New Zealand especially for the event, remarked “This was worth coming all this way for itself, let alone the incredible sight of so many wonderful ships tied up among it all. Oh, and then there’s your music too by the way. Smashing!!!”

The official opening and prize-giving – which followed the crew parade – was equally fun-filled, followed by a specially commissioned musical performance, composed especially for the opening ceremony by fiddler Margaret Robertson.

It featured Shetland’s internationally renowned fiddlers, Hjaltibonhoga (of Edinburgh Military Tattoo fame) plus many other well-known local musical faces – a piece which celebrated not only Shetland’s famed fiddle tradition, but all the other musical genres that go to make up the community’s rich musical heritage too.

Evening-wise, the only downside was having to decide which of the two live stages to go to – at the cost of missing something equally good on the other.

“It’s like Up-Helly-Aa on steroids,” observed one local.

Having settled for Orkney’s Saltfishforty and our very own Fiddlers’ Bid (complete with dancing skeklers) in a crammed and lively marquee on Victoria Pier – a glorious musical double-header that would grace any national festival – but at the cost of missing the Revellers and Peatbog Fairies (among others) at Holmsgarth – I found myself wishing that we had a digital TV style option of watching the goings on on one stage, while recording the action on the other to watch later. Ah well, you can’t have everything so let’s not be greedy.

OK, let’s just be slightly greedy and ask for just a bit more sun for the rest of the week. The signs would appear to be good in that respect. Perhaps the weather ghosts of 2011 will be exorcised this time around after all. Fingers crossed!

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