Australian musician bringing old John Anderson fiddle ‘home’ for frenzy
The seventh Fiddle Frenzy festival begins on Sunday, and among the 50-odd students coming from all over the word to take part is someone with an interesting Shetland connection.
Angus Downing, 28, is from Melbourne, Australia, and has played violin since the age of five. He began learning Scottish fiddle after meeting Judy Turner, founder of the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club (MSFC), at a summer school around 14 years ago.
He is now one of the MSFC’s leading fiddlers and has been sent as a representative of the club to Fiddle Frenzy to learn tunes.
However Mr Downing is also bringing with him a piece of musical heritage in the form of a fiddle made by a former Shetlander.
John Anderson was born in Ulsta, Yell, in 1882, and emigrated to Australia in 1912 where he settled with his wife, Mary Sinclair, from Sandness, who had travelled out shortly before John to begin work.
A keen craftsman, his passion was fiddles and their music. He made his first fiddle in 1917 and the last in 1960, which is numbered “43”.
As it was his practice to give each of his grandchildren a fiddle on their 21st birthday, his family and descendants have several of the instruments, many of which are very old.
One of these fiddles has been brought from Australia by Mr Downing, and he will be playing it at the festival. But there is also believed to be at least one like it in Shetland. While here Mr Downing has been given the mission of trying to track it down.
His trip to Shetland is being sponsored by Mr Anderson’s grandson, Bill Sides.
Mr Downing said he first got interested in Shetland fiddle music after seeing Fiddlers’ Bid in Melbourne. He has never been to Shetland before but “can’t wait”.
He said: “I am very excited about coming and meeting the local and visiting musicians, improving on my fiddle technique making friends and exploring the island.
“I hope to learn a stack of tunes to take back to Australia and share with the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club.”
The group hopes to create links with Shetland musicians for an exchange scheme which would see Shetland musicians visiting Australia to teach and take part in the festivals there each year.
Mr Downing said: “While I’m in Shetland, I would like to speak with local musicians about the possibility of them coming to Melbourne as a return participant in the Travelling Fiddlership.
“It is a two-way exchange; musicians from Shetland will be sponsored to come to Melbourne, and members of the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club will visit Shetland in alternating years.
“For those who are interested, I’ve also got a few tunes to teach – such as the tunes from the ‘Original Set’ – an award-winning set of tunes on our newest album, all composed by members of the MSFC.
“Finally, as it is currently winter in Australia, I hope to make my friends jealous and come home with a tan … though I’ve been told not to hold my breath about that!”
Da Road to Shetland, a video featuring Angus Downing playing music, and interviews with Bill Sides, John Anderson’s grandson, and Judy Turner of the MSFC, talking about the Travelling Fiddlership, can be viewed online at www.youtube.com/melbscotfiddlers
Meanwhile, with more creative workshops planned, this year’s festival is set to be one to remember with fiddle tuition and concerts from some of the best musicians the isles has to offer, as well as art, creative writing and textile workshops for the huge group of students and attendees coming from all over the world.
After a huge success last year, creative writing workshops will again feature, and TS Eliot prize winner Jen Hadfield will be on hand to offer support and ideas.
For the first time this year there will be also be art workshops from Bluesky Studio artists Amy Fisher and Eve Eunson. The talented duo will allow students to experience flexible teaching while taking in Shetland’s landscapes and being a part of the wider festival.
Among those offering music tuition at the workshops this year are Jenna and Bethany Reid, Ross Couper, Bryan Gear and Margaret Scollay, to name a few. There will also be guitar tuition from Ryan Couper.
Throughout the week there will also be cultural excursions, and storytelling from Elma Johnson and Davy Cooper, who will regale tales of Shetland characters and folklore at locations around the isles.
There is an impressive line up of concerts, with music from Catriona MacDonald, Bryan Gear and Violet Tulloch, Kollifirbolli, the Heritage Fiddlers, Freda Leask, May Gair and Brian Nicholson, Birls Aloud and the Shetland Fiddlers.
On Sunday the first of the week’s concerts takes place, with a family dance at Isleburgh to the Jim Halcrow Dance Band. Shetland dance instructor Maria Leask will be on hand to show visitors, or those unfamiliar with Shetland dancing, the ropes.
Among the musical highlights of the week will be Harris Playfair’s Big Band Project. Featuring around 25 young musicians, including Young Fiddler of the Year Liza Fullerton and jazz saxophonist Norman Willmore, the as-yet unnamed band will focus on material which spans jazz and traditional Shetland music with “big band” style arrangements.
Another must see, or hear, is music from sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid who will play their composition The Shetland Bus at the Garrison on Thursday.
Featuring flute, double bass, pipes and percussion as well as fiddle, The Shetland Bus is a commemorative suite inspired by the story of Jan Baalsrud.
A Norwegian instrument maker, Baalsrud was the sole survivor of the Shetland based boat the Braatholm. At only 26, the Norwegian managed to survive for over two months in the frozen Arctic wastelands of northern Norway on the run after the vessel’s location was betrayed to the Nazis.
The Shetland Bus has played to critical acclaim in mainland Scotland and is not to be missed. Tickets are priced at £12 from the Garrison Theatre.
The girls will also be playing alongside Gemma Wilson and Andrew Tulloch as Filska in another of the week’s special events.
The band last played in Shetland in 2008 at that year’s Fiddle Frenzy, and with each of them busy with various other projects and full time work, they have had a fairly quiet time since, save a number of small tours including a set of concerts in the north of England, and in Italy, where they went down a storm.
The band will be playing new original material which has never been aired before.