Bus suite a fitting tribute to exploits of wartime heroes who crossed North Sea

Many of the individual events at the current Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow have a Shetland flavour. JIM TAIT experien­ced two of them last week.

THE SHETLAND BUS: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Quarff sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid have already made a name for themselves in the music world, most notably as part of the suc-cessful band Filska, but their latest adventure is hopefully destined to bring them even greater acclaim.

Most isles folk know about the Shetland Bus, the perilous wartime operation which ferried supplies and reinforcements to the Nor-wegian resistance movement and brought refugees from the Nazi-occupied country back across the dangerous North Sea.

Few will be aware of the incredible story of Jan Baalsrud, the sole survivor when his boat the Braatsholm was sunk by a German warship in a northern Norwegian fjord in March 1943, having sailed from Scalloway six days earlier.

Baalsrud, who was then aged 26, managed to swim ashore and escape, while his 11 colleagues were all either shot or tortured to death. Despite having part of his big toe shot off in a gun battle he was able to kill two Germans and flee for his life.

Baalsrud was to spent 64 days on the run, dodging search parties and being forced to cut off his other toes for fear of gangrene. He survived an avalanche and spent three weeks in a snow hole, slipping in and out of consciousness on several oc-casions.

Having given up hope, he was about to end his own life but lacked the strength to pull the trigger of his revolver, and a couple of days later was rescued by a group of Swedish Laplanders. After recovery Baals-rud returned to Scotland to train other resistance fighters, and died in 1988 aged 70, a national hero.

The way this compelling story has been set to music by the Reid sisters is a fitting tribute to Baalsrud, and all the others who survived or perished during the Shetland Bus operation, not just on the Braatsholm but the many other vessels which were lost.

From the helter skelter opening when Baalsrud takes to the mountains, to the wonderful and poignant slow air when he is engulfed by the avalanche, and on to the rousing finale when he finally gains his freedom, the suite is close to perfection.

The aim, the Reid sisters say, is to reflect the dramatic peaks and troughs of the journey, from Baalsrud’s hallucinations of wolves and armies approaching him through the snowstorms, to the dark humour which stayed with him even in the most desperate of circumstances.

The musical parts are inter-spersed with a narration written by Martyn MacLaughlin and told by Phil Goodlad, while the sisters are ably backed by James Thomson on flute, James Lindsay on double bass and Iain Sandilands on percussion.

Jenna’s fiddle playing is faultless, while the effortless way Bethany switches between piano and fiddle is a testament to her overall class.

The suite is scheduled to be performed at the Fiddle Frenzy festival in Shetland later this year, but as many have already com-mented, it deserves to be heard by a wider audience.


Having achieved the none-too-easy task of impressing the audience in Thomas Fraser’s home island, the man behind the tribute to the now-legendary Burra singer would surely breathe a little easier as the show moved on to the Celtic Connections festival.

Duncan McLean, who was commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland to tell the story of the improbable rise to fame of the modest fisherman, came up with something which is a delight to behold.

With his Orkney-based The Lone Star Swing Band, singer-guitarist McLean captures perfectly the essence of Fraser, and creates a work which is both enlightening, funny and tear-jerking.

The band, also comprising Fiona Driver on fiddle, Dick Levens on lap steel/mandolin, Graham Simpson on drums and Ian Tait on bass guitar, are a homely bunch, and the Tron Theatre audience warmed to them immediately.

Fittingly, the show began and ended with an original reel-to-tape recording of Fraser himself, while in between the band provided an education of country music through the ages, from the great Jimmy Rodgers who so influenced Fraser to equally illustrious figures such as Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow and Johnny Cash.

McLean admits to having immersed himself in Fraser’s life and legacy, and that beomes obvious as he tells of his various battles with polio, shyness, the inability to express his feelings except through music, and finally the two accidents at sea which eventually led to his early death at the age of 50.

“Look after my tapes, I might be famous some day,” said Fraser as he entrusted his life’s work to his nephew Bobby. Little did he know …


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