22nd April 2018
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Past Life: Shetland fiddling: new life for old tradition

, by , in Shetland Life

From Shetland Life, July 1983, No. 33

Shetland Fiddling: New life for old tradition

by Hugh Nolan


Far be it for me to decry the giant advances made by science on society’s behalf during the past 60 years; but although our lives have been enriched in numberless ways, in one or two notable areas we are poorer than was our grandparents’ generation.

The American poet, Richard Brautigan, writes of a time not so very long ago “before television crippled the imagination … and turned people indoors and away from living out their own fantasies with dignity. In those days people made their own imagination, like homecooking. Now our dreams are just any street in America lined with franchise restaurants. I sometimes think that even our digestion is a sound track recorded in Hollywood by the television networks.”

Before the first broadcasts from a yet-to-be-formed British Broadcasting Corporation in the early 1920s people had to invent their own entertainment and if they wanted music, why, they had to make it themselves, apart from those city-dwellers who could afford to go to and be entertained at concerts and music-halls.

This was nowhere more true than in the remote communities of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and in Shetland it meant that the art of Shetland fiddling was not considered, as it is today, as a hidebound “tradition” – not at all, it was a vital and continuing part of the life of the islands, as necessary in its own way as were the sheep and the fishing.

Thus the formation last September of the Northmavine Fiddle & Accordion Club is more than just an attempt to revive old traditions. Tom Anderson, probably one of the most famous of all Shetland fiddlers, was so excited when he heard about it – after all, it’s not so very long since the 1930s when he was part of a similar club which enjoyed great success and held many a never-to-be-forgotten dance in the Eshaness Hall (itself now defunct). One day a tune popped, unbidden into his head when he was doing the washing-up. He promptly sent the tune as his blessing to the new club. Named “The Northmavine March”, it is now the club’s signature tune, with which they begin and end all their performances.

The club’s secretary, Bernadette Porter of Assatter, Hillswick, explains how Shetland fiddling developed its own unmistakably individual style: “Say Grandad or uncle played – the little boy would have sat and listened to him and gradually picked it up but when it came to be his turn to play he would play it in his own style. All we’re doing is trying to encourage a heritage which got lost for a while.

“The essence of the club,” she emphasises, is: “We’re there for the sake of playing music – just to enjoy ourselves. We need an audience and of course we like the money we get for playing. But it’s not a job: we have to be allowed to do it for our own sake. We’d like to go from hall to hall in Northmavine playing, as long as it’s on the understanding that it’s for our benefit, and not as a cabaret for the hall. Each meeting is just a get-together; it’s not designed to be a performance.”

Last September’s launch was, it must be admitted, not due to a sudden flash of inspiration occurring to musicians all over Northmavine simultaneously. In fact the idea after being first mooted was kicked around for about three years, with some folk having to be persuaded to give it a try.

But at least when it did start, it got off with a bang. The first meeting boasted a turnout of five fiddlers, four guitarists, an accordionist and a pianist. Not to mention one member who turned up carrying a little leather bag, which he eventually and reluctantly opened to reveal a tin whistle and a great pile of music; the same man also turned out to be experienced on the double bass, so the club can now boast at least one bassist in its ranks.

More people are flocking to join and play all the time, too. Every meeting it’s the same small core who turn up, but different people seem to appear every time, including musicians from further afield than just Northmavine itself. They have had folk from Lerwick, Vidlin, Gott and even Yell – all of which has proved another unique fact about Shetland fiddling: just like the Shetland accent, the same tune can vary enormously from one pat of the islands to another.

On the other hand, another equally well-known Shetland characteristic has been at times something of a drawback. Bernadette explains: “We’ve had to learn not to draw attention to anyone – shyness can be quite a stumbling-block during performances. It’s the reticence typical of Shetlanders, which often just means that they don’t recognise how good they are. There are a lot of musicians who don’t value themselves enough as musicians: I even met one old crofter who had taught himself to read music.”

In the interval at the club’s performances a hearty traditional supper is served, of tattie soup and bannocks and sandwiches and tea, which with the amount of small children running around always imparts a fine family flavour to their get-togethers. As far as alcohol is concerned, the band’s performances are “dry”. But the club would like to point out that they don’t mind if someone wants to bring a red can or a half-bottle for their own consumption. “We don’t want them to feel that they can’t come if they can’t get a dram,” Bernadette explains. Then she adds thoughtfully, “Of course, the trouble is some folk can’t play without a dram!”

Bernadette herself is rare among the club members – indeed, among Shetland fiddlers in general – in that she is a violinist as well as a fiddler. Yes, I know we’re talking about one and the same instrument, but the way that it is played can produce two totally dissimilar forms of music. “With violin music you play and you play it the way the conductor of the orchestra wants you to play it. Whereas with fiddle-music you have to put your own personality into the song – and that’s the magic of it.”

Due to her classical training on the violin Bernadette also works part-time as violin and fiddle teacher at Urafirth school; that is to say, she is teaching far more fiddle than violin “but having been trained as a violinist, it’s hard not to teach the violin.”

Which led her to one mistake early in her teaching career, when she was teaching one boy whom she now recognises as “a natural fiddler” and was so impressed by his talent that she taught him how to read music and how to play the violin, to the detriment of his natural fiddling prowess. Having realised her mistake, she put the lad back on fiddle lessons and he’s now making up for lost time. “The ability to read music,” says Bernadette firmly, “is absolutely nothing to do with what we’re doing in the club at all.”

It is with the younger folk that Bernadette sees the Fiddle and Accordion Club’s future must lie. The mere fact of the club’s existence has given local children more confidence in what they’re learning on the fiddle, and when they accompany their parents to a performance they experience what can only be described as a “family” atmosphere, with everyone tapping their feet and getting up for a dance, from the grannies and their men to the seven-year-old girls in their first party dresses. “We want it to be like how it was in the old days, when it was a simple matter of going round family’s and friends’ houses and having a bit of a get-together with some music, and not at all like being up on a stage and performing.”

Bernadette hopes in the future to see some of those children to whom she is teaching the rudiments of fiddle at school sitting down among the other members of the club and just picking up what they’re doing, maybe being taught the basics of an unfamiliar tune and playing along with everyone else.

Another hugely encouraging thing about it is that the Northmavine club is no isolated phenomenon: a similar club has just started up in Yell, and the Northmavine club hopes to get together with the Yell folk at some future date and have a session or two together – there’s even talk of chartering a ferry for the occasion to make it all possible.

In accordance with tradition, though, and at the same time bowing to the inevitable, the Northmavine club has abandoned its activities for the summer with the intention of starting up again in September. Which is more or less where we came in – after all colour TV and videos and Volvo Estates notwithstanding, the long days of the Simmer Dim are short enough for the myriad jobs that need doing. Come the long dark days of winter the Shetlander can afford to relax, pile the peat up on the fire and look out his fiddle to get it and his unaccustomed fingers in tune for the parties and dances and get-togethers that lie ahead. And the Northmavine fiddlers and accordionists will be up there with the best of them – on the understanding that, as Bernadette Porter puts it: “there are no stars, no special performers – we’re just folk who like to get together and give a tune or two.”