A vision for culture

Cathy Feeny looks at Shetland’s new cultural strategy

On a glorious midsummer night, a troop of Spanish flamenco dancers were so excited by the beautiful light that they spilled out onto the streets and danced in a blaze of movement and colour.

No, we aren’t talking Andalucia. This happened in Lerwick, and if it doesn’t strike you as having much to do with Shetland culture, think again. “As a tourist, you may be coming up here to have a nice walk, or to see the puffins and buy a bit of Fair Isle knitwear,” says SIC Creative Links Officer, Noelle Henderson. “You probably wouldn’t expect to see flamenco dancers dancing in the street. But to me that was Shetland culture. It’s the possibility that anything can happen.”

And it’s with a view to making anything and everything happen that a broad range of groups – comprising all those across Shetland who have an interest in culture and the arts – has formed a cultural partnership. This partnership has put together a document entitled “On the Cusp”, which outlines its vision for the future of the arts in Shetland from now until 2012, and issues general guidelines for anyone who’d like to get involved.

The partnership’s aim is to be as inclusive as possible, so whether you are into food, dance, music, song, theatre, film, prose, poetry, the visual arts or natural heritage, there’s something here for you.

“It’s a case,” says Noelle, “of trying to let people know what’s going on and how they can buy into it. We want to signal that we are aware of everybody’s entitlement to culture, and of our obligation to give them access to it.”

The scope of the events envisaged is, accordingly, extremely wide.

Just because Shetlanders live on a group of islands, the partnership sees no reason why we shouldn’t have access to The National Theatre of Scotland or Scottish Ballet, so at one end of the scale are prestigious productions by major companies. Several big cultural projects are also in the offing, including Mareel and the restoration of the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head. Important forthcoming events include The Year of Architecture, which will run from 2009 to 2010; the 2010 Hamefarin’; and the Tall Ships Races in 2011.

At the other end of the scale – and arguably even more significant – are the one-off or regular home-grown events that form the bedrock of the Shetland arts scene. The vastly popular belly dancing and salsa classes, for example; the Chinese New Year celebrations; the Folk Festival; Wordplay.

Many of these depend for their success on the work and dedication of keen volunteers, and when it comes to arts provision it is undoubtedly the case that Shetland’s unique location and far-flung population present challenges.

On the other hand these very challenges frequently prove the inspiration for creative thinking, and the cultural partnership is eager to offer folk the benefit of its experience in making sure that their efforts do not go to waste. A theatre group playing at The Garrison, for instance, might also be employed to do workshops in schools and at youth clubs. Audience numbers can be maximized by scheduling the end of a performance so that it dovetails with ferry times.

The most crucial thing, though, according to Noelle Henderson, is to give communities confidence in their own abilities. “Shetland is not like an urban culture, where you have the choice of going to the opera every night, or going to films – where you have bought-in entertainment laid on for you. The nature of culture up here is, if you want anything to happen, you have to try and make it happen yourself.”

And once people do have the self-belief to act on their own initiative, it is amazing to witness what can be achieved, even by a single individual. Noelle cites, with immense excitement, a dance project that now reaches not just schools, but the over-sixties and pre-schoolers as well: “One person moving here, with a certain set of skills, can have a real ripple effect. You kind of wish you could go down to the Northlink boat and interview people as they get off the ferry – to ask them if they have any artistic skills that they’d like to share.”

It is the case, too, that the Shetland public is particularly responsive to cultural offerings. In the partnership’s experience, those who live here are more inclined to give something new a whirl than they would be if they lived in a city; to try things that they wouldn’t normally try. This can, perhaps, be put down to an understanding of the pains that go into providing Shetland with its entertainment, and a sense of obligation to acknowledge that effort. The very difficulties involved in sharing it mean that Shetland’s culture is particularly valued.

So, in practical terms, how do you launch your African drumming sessions or your bannock-making masterclass? Free copies of the cultural partnership’s “On the Cusp”, which will get you headed in the right direction, are going to be available from the library. Shetland Arts is another good starting point. Or you can simply organise an event off your own bat. In that case, the Islesburgh Centre and Clickimin are particularly good locations to choose, as they are well-placed to promote what you’ve got to offer. The community halls, which abound throughout the isles, are also excellent venues, and local shops are usually happy to put up publicity posters.

Bear in mind, too, that the cultural partnership is always on the lookout for those who can fill any perceived cultural gaps, so if you reckon you have something to contribute, be sure to make your presence known.

Oh, and should you disembark in Lerwick harbour and spot a group of brightly-clad individuals cavorting in the streets, or find yourself collared by a very enthusiastic lady who wants to know if you can teach batik, do not be alarmed. That is Shetland culture!


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.