Obituary: A tribute to Lell, fine man and extraordinary fiddler

Born Laurence Andrew Robertson in the Herra, Yell, on July 4th 1927, he was known all his life simply as Lell.

For the biggest slice of his working life he was to be found behind the wheel of buses when he was employed by Hugh Sinclair & Co of Westsandwick. He drove public service vehicles, school child­­­ren and tourists all with characteristic care and courtesy.

Before that he was an insurance agent but he began, after leaving school, by working for the county, the old Zetland County Council. He had a talent and a great liking for woodworking and after he retired he turned out masses of beautiful work that enhanced many a craft fair in the North Isles.

No matter what else he did, Lell will be best remembered as a fiddle player and his death is a huge loss. He was one of the best of his generation and became extremely well known, not only as a musician but as a source of tunes, some of which were played with unorthodox tuning. He had a thirst and an enthusiasm for music from start to finish.

Lell’s ability was recognised at an early age. When he was 19 he won a talent competition and he was always in demand at concerts and gatherings. Sixty years ago the renowned collector and composer Pat Shuldham Shaw recorded Lell and his father and, indeed, Shaw composed a tune for Lell.

Lell had learned from his father, that fine fiddle player Laurie Davie, but during his lifetime he was influenced by such greats as J. Scott Skinner, Hector McAndrew and Irish maestro Sean McGuire. He added many difficult tunes to his repertoire.

Many visiting fiddle players found their way to the Herra to be met with friendship and generous hospitality from Lell and his wife Ann. Two of those were Dermot McLaughlin and Tom Trainor. Those two never saw a visit to Shetland as complete without seeing Lell.

Lell’s friends in the world of music and beyond are too numerous to mention but he had many a tune with Tom Anderson, Willie Hunter, the Cullivoe fiddlers, Vincent Griffin and a host more. He was a lifelong friend of legendary guitar player Peerie Willie Johnson; indeed they were born about half a mile apart.

Away from work or music Lell Robertson was a true gentleman and he lived his life by the principals and values that he was brought up with. Total honesty, truth, Sunday observance, consideration for others and the avoidance of bad language and criticism of others. If this sounds like he was dull and archaic then he was far from that.

In the company of family and friends laughter and fun was never far away and if he was ever on the wrong end of a joke he had the priceless ability of being able to laugh at himself. Once Irish fiddle maker Rab Cherry, who is a family friend, handed Lell a viola and told him that the EU had decreed that, in future, all fiddles had to be that size!

What followed was a truly unforgettable moment but it was no time until Lell was whirling out Shetland reels on it. Another family friend, the Rev Charlie Greig, conducted the funeral service in a packed Mid Yell kirk. He observed how Lell had passed on his musical talent to his daughter Margaret and through her to grandchildren Ross, Mariann and Ryan. His son David has inherited his father’s skill with his hands.

Tributes have poured in from near and far. Henry Henderson from Lerwick is a relation but could not be at the funeral because he was at the hospital. He recalled the wonderfully happy times when he, as a boy, visited the Herra. Margaret Tulloch says that the very first holiday that she ever had was beside Ann and Lell.

Mary McNamara and her family from Tulla could not be at the funeral but they extend sincere sympathy to Ann and all the family. She sent flowers on behalf of themselves and the East Clare musicians. I leave the last word to Rab Cherry. On hearing the news in his home in Dublin he said “although it is one of nature’s nasty inevitabilities it’s sad when some of the good guys go”.

Lawrence Tulloch


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