Earlier this month Shetland lost one of its most committed, valued and indeed loved traditional fiddle players and tutors when Bernadette Porter sadly passed away at the age of 75.
So, what made her special in so many people’s eyes – over and above her undoubted musical skills and many personal traits – especially given that Shetland has been lucky enough to have so many good fiddle players and excellent fiddle tutors over the years?
To understand this fully we initially need to turn the clock back 70 or so years to when Shetland’s internationally acclaimed fiddle player and composer, Dr Tom Anderson, set out on his now fabled mission to ‘save’ Shetland’s – sadly at that time – fading fiddle music tradition through initially recording, documenting and thus preserving what little remained of it at that time.
That, together with his subsequent aim of not only preserving it for future generations through archiving, but with a wider ambition of once again making it a ‘living tradition’ in the isles through various initiatives, including the formation of the legendary Forty Fiddlers group and, subsequently, the hugely important Shetland Fiddlers Society – which Bernadette was ultimately part of too.
But perhaps Tom’s greatest achievement in this respect, was his unwavering – some would say dogged – determination, in fact insistence, that the then Zetland County Council – today known as the Shetland Islands Council (SIC) – introduce a structured programme of traditional fiddle tuition in Shetland schools. Through this Tom hoped to re-energise, develop and, thus, protect the tradition for the future, raising awareness of it – together with active involvement in it – to new, younger generations in the isles, this eventually being a crucial stepping-stone towards the international recognition and acclaim it enjoys today.
Bernadette Porter was set to form an important and intrinsic part of this plan, when she joined a small group of skilled traditional fiddle tutors in Shetland schools, at that time made up of Tom himself, Trevor Hunter – again recognised as one of Shetland’s finest fiddle players – and Margaret Robertson – now of Hjaltibonhoga and Edinburgh’s Royal Military Tattoo fame.
Bernadette was somewhat unique in this respect however, given she wasn’t a Shetlander – by birth at least – and had, unlike the others, not grown up with the tradition. However, a ringing endorsement from Tom himself told everyone all they needed to know with regard to her playing and tutoring abilities – she having previously attended at least one of his famed ‘summer schools’ in Stirling, where they formed a lasting friendship.
As a result, and as legend would have it a few years after she’d moved to Shetland, Tom ‘marched’ her into the offices of Robin Barnes – at that time the Director of Education in Shetland – demanding in no uncertain terms that he should “give this wife a job, I want her to teach fiddle in schools”.
Loathe to incur Tom’s famous wrath Barnes agreed, resulting in Bernadette gaining her first teaching position in Urafirth Primary School, Northmavine in 1983. It was an endorsement that Bernadette herself was apparently incredibly proud of. But more of this later…
Bernadette herself had been born into a working-class neighbourhood in post-war Manchester in 1948, growing up in a multi-cultural household of Irish and Greek parentage, together with her younger sister Joanne. There she attended convent school where, as her son Andrew terms it, “her musical ‘journey’ actually began” through learning violin, piano and singing with the school choir.
After high school she married her first husband David Porter – literally the boy across the street – who she’d known since she was twelve years old, with them welcoming their first child, daughter Penni, when Bernadette was just nineteen years old.
Times could be tough, so, alongside her parenting duties, Bernadette took on a range of part time jobs to help make ends meet, including working in a bank, a travel agent, a chip shop and a clothing boutique.
But, when time allowed, music and the arts in general remained close to Bernadette’s heart and very much in her blood, with her taking an active part in the Manchester Choral Society, the city’s Youth Orchestra and its local amateur dramatics society.
Two more children – David and Andrew – followed, before David Snr and Bernadette elected, together with their family and dog Chunky, to move to Shetland in 1978, initially settling in Brae, where son Paul was born, before moving to Assater in Hillswick in 1980.
For a music loving person, the move to Shetland – with its rich community and culture of music, together with its unique fiddle tradition and heritage – could not have been more inspiring for someone like Bernadette. She set about immersing herself in this, as family time allowed, and it was through this she first met Dr Tom Anderson and other musicians, including the likes of guitarist ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson, who were literally the kingpins of that tradition in the isles.
Bernadette became a skilled exponent of the fiddle in her own right, helping set up the inaugural – and still active to this day – Northmavine Fiddle and Accordion Club, together with being the driving force, alongside her fiddle playing partner and future second husband, Jim Leask, in local bands such as Trigbag and Square Da Mizzen, performing as far afield as the UK, Norway, and, needless to say, throughout Shetland. She and Jim were also ‘regulars’ at many a traditional music session – especially on Tuesday nights in the Douglas Arms (the Marlex) in Lerwick, playing for locals and visitors alike.
But it’s perhaps as a fiddle tutor in Shetland schools that Bernadette’s musical impact was the most significant and where her legacy is most likely to endure, with literally hundreds of young students passing through her patient, tutoring hands over the years.
She, alongside Trevor Hunter, formed what was recognised as a “powerful teaching force” – one result of which was the exciting young fiddle group NEW Tradition. The term NEW came about via the organic growth of the then Junior Northmavine Fiddle and Accordion Club, which expanded its membership to include members from the North, East and West. Hence NEW Tradition.
The group – which went on, over the years, to include hundreds of children at different times in its existence – remained together for 15 years in various forms, in demand throughout Shetland as well as undertaking trips to the UK mainland for performances and festivals, plus memorable trips to Norway and Colorado, USA.
For evidence of how much Bernadette was appreciated in terms of both her tutoring and organisational skills – by ex-students and parents alike – look no further than the many comments which appeared on social media when folk first learned of her passing. Words and phrases such as ‘lovely person,’ ‘an absolute gem’, ‘so patient,’ ‘kind and caring’ ‘enthusiastic,’ ‘energetic’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘inspirational,’ ‘appeared regularly in recent days as the accolades and memories poured in. One ex-student even went as far as to say “she was the most important figure in my growth and development after my parents.” Quite an accolade!!
But it was Bernadette’s style of, and inclusive approach to, teaching and performing that perhaps earned her as much respect as her actual playing or tutoring skills, with her seeking to include anyone and everyone who indicated they were remotely interested in getting involved, irrespective of their actual skill levels.
She was a ‘natural’, both in terms of her teaching methods and communication skills, especially when it came to young people – traits equally as important, if not more so, than actual musical skills, when it came down to effective tutoring. And she also cared, not only in a musical sense, but also about the individual and person (or group) in a personal sense too.
Ex-colleague, fiddle player and leader of Shetland’s globally renowned fiddle group Hjaltibonhoga, Margaret Robertson, sums this up well – quite probably on behalf of many – when she recalls: “When Bernadette entered a room so did laughter, bubbliness and joy. She was possibly one of the most enthusiastic tutors I have ever met, but more than that preached inclusivity in her work, something that inspired me to do the same. No matter the ability, Bernadette had a place for everyone in her fiddle groups. Her motherly style of tutoring saw lifelong friendships evolve through her genuine encouragement of all.”
Together with Margaret, Bernadette also became a founding member of Hjaltibonhoga – the large, now internationally acclaimed group of Shetland fiddlers charged with regular, high profile, nightly appearances during Edinburgh’s Royal Military Tattoo since they first got involved with the event in 2014. Their involvement with the Tattoo since then has helped bring the music of Shetland to hundreds of thousands of folk during the event’s annual month-long ‘run’ in Edinburgh Castle and, additionally, to literally many more millions via global television coverage. Quite an achievement for a small island group all in all – and Bernadette’s role in that cannot be underestimated.
So, it was very much ‘mission accomplished’ – and perhaps more besides – for Tom Anderson’s original aims, visions and objectives, and Bernadette Porter most certainly played her full part in that respect.
So, for that alone – but no doubt for much more besides too – Jim and her family should quite rightly be immensely proud, given that so many folk over so many years within the Shetland community, especially its younger members, have benefitted from Bernadette’s commitment to her art and how that was delivered by her.
Rest in peace Bernadette. Yours was a life well lived and a job well done – while our collective thoughts and sympathies are extended to Jim and the family.
Bernadette’s funeral will be held on Friday 25 August at 2pm in Lerwick Baptist Church, Quoys, Lerwick. Donations can be made towards the Shetland Befriending Scheme either at the service or online.
- Bernadette Porter, fiddle player and tutor, born 9 May 1948 in Manchester; died 12 August 2023