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Entertainment / ‘The most amazing musical experience of the year’ – 34th accordion and fiddle festival now underway

The Matthew Maclennan Scottish Dance Band was the opening act on Thursday. All photos: Dave Donaldson

“MUSIC is as alive as the islands”, declared Larry Sutherland while opening the 34th Shetland Accordion & Fiddle Festival on Thursday.

The afternoon saw bands playing traditional music such as polkas and jigs ahead of the evening concerts in held at Islesburgh, Bigton, Ness, Walls, South Nesting and Gulberwick.

Sutherland was invited to speak at the opening ceremony after being on the committee for the club for many years.

“Shetland has always had a strong musical tradition and many of our famous tunes were carried to all corners of the globe by Shetlanders who were working at sea or making a brave journey to new lands as they emigrated to places like North America, Australia, and New Zealand,” he said.

He added that it was ‘heart-warming’ to see people making the same journeys in reverse to come to Shetland and celebrate traditional music, saying: “Shetland has a long tradition of producing some of the worlds most renowned accordion and fiddle players, with the music as steeped in culture and tradition as the islands themselves.”

Despite not playing any musical instruments himself, Sutherland has a love for fiddle and accordion music and has had pieces written for him by the late Jim Halcrow who wrote Larry & Beth’s 50th Wedding Anniversary for Sutherland and his late wife Beth, who was also an accordion player.

Larry Sutherland (left), Festival chair Peter Leask and compere Nicol McLaren.

The main event of the four day festival will be on Saturday night with a Grand Dance held at the Clickimin with a variety of local bands and visiting artists, including The Cullivoe Band, and Da Fustra.

Attendees can put their dancing shoes on and take part in traditional dances from beginner level ones like the Boston Two Step, to more complicated numbers like the Lancers.

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Committee chair Peter Leask said work for the festival “never stops” with plans already underway for next year’s event. He said: “We start more than a year in advance, especially to book visiting artists and to get the ones we want we have to start early.”

The evening concerts held in local public halls across Shetland also host a supper so dancers can keep themselves fuelled.

Leask continued: “Shetland is held in high regard throughout Scotland and beyond because of the standard of accordion and fiddle music we have here. We get repeat visitors at the festival every year, and bands come back subject to availability, so that says everything.”

This year sees musical artists travelling from mainland Scotland, Ireland, Norway and Canada to play across the halls with a variety of Shetland musicians during the festival.

Nicol McLaren, chair of the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs, first attended the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival in 1992, and has been to the isles every year since.

He said: “It’s the most amazing musical experience of the year, there are festivals all over the place but for the atmosphere this is the best one of them all. Every year you think it can’t get better, but it does.”

An appreciative and well attended audience at Islesburgh.

Across his 31 years of attendance, McLaren has seen hundreds of musicians perform and remembered seeing Callum Nicolson’s first performance, saying: “Callum is a phenomenal musician, and has a phenomenal band now.

“I remember when he, Matthew Scollay and Joe Hunter did their first trio set and you thought – they’re just wee kids but the sound they produced was incredible.”

A particular favourite is the youth concert which plays on Saturday in the Festival Hub at Islesburgh at 10.30am showcasing young Shetland talent.

McLaren said: “The talent that you’re producing here in Shetland, I don’t think is produced anywhere else in the country. And it’s not a factory churn, everyone has their own individual sound and style. You’re generating another generation of fresh music.”

McLaren added that Shetland is the biggest influence of music for him and that he gave up his ticket for the Scotland v Ireland Rugby World Cup game in Paris this weekend to come north because he “wouldn’t miss this for anything”.

The festival hub is open every day throughout the weekend to pass holders who can enjoy informal music sessions during the day from 11am.

Running from 5 to 8 October, the festival will finish with two final concerts on Sunday at Islesburgh and the Garrison Theatre at 2pm, featuring music from the visiting artists at both events.

The full programme can be found online here.

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