I have found myself having to steal a quick half hour here and there during a busy schedule to get on with writing this article. On Friday I played snare drum in a samba band on the back of a World Cup float in a carnival. On Saturday I not only hosted a concert but played bass for a vocal group performing there, not to mention singing Corries’ songs with a male voice choir. On Sunday I assisted my wife on her silverware stall after delivering some of her work to an art exhibition. All I have to do now is recite a bit of Shakespeare at the kirk and sing at a musical open mic night before the week is out.
“So,” says the cynical Shetlander, “in typical Soothmoother-style, young Nelson has lasted two years in our archipelago, discovered he can’t handle the country life and shot off back to the city from whence he staggered for a frantic fast paced existence.”
Well, actually, what I am describing is the isle of Unst in the throws of UnstFest, the UK’s most northerly arts festival. (But then again everything in Unst is the UK’s most northerly something.) Two regattas, seven concerts, a magical mystery tour, a literary lecture, countless craft and cookery workshops including feltwork, pottery and bannocks, mixed up with gladiators, dance mats, Swedish massage and farmers’ markets, all squeezed into a week and a half in the middle of July. And that’s only half of what’s on.
This year’s festival sees a couple of firsts. One is the opening of the new art gallery, Blue Frog Studio, at Hermaness Shore Station. The inaugural exhibition at the gallery, curated by artist Tony Humbleyard, is entitled “Made In Unst” and will feature painting, sculpture, glassware, silverware and textiles all made, as it happens, in Unst. Hence the title. The gallery will continue on after the festival and be open to the public intermittently.
The other exciting new addition to the festival is The Summer Carnival. In typical Shetland style it rained through the night and all day that day. Right up until 15 minutes before the procession kicked off the clouds kept wringing themselves out over Unst and no-one from the committee would ding the cancellation bell. (After all the hard work the 190 islanders involved had put in would YOU be the spoil sport?) Then, with five minutes to go, the clouds parted and the sun came shining through. Gus and the samba band (from here on known as Sambaltasound) struck up and we were off on the two mile shimmy to the beer tent, er, I mean, the marina. Big summer fun was had by all.
Since I moved to Unst exactly two years ago I have had to head off to the central belt or Englandshire on an all too regular basis to work, whether for a few days or a few weeks. As beautiful as Unst is it doesn’t offer the professional actor/writer/stand-up comic many career development opportunities. For that reason I have not been able to get a good run at proper island life and learn all the process and etiquette of the co-operative island spirit. A commission to write a new play has meant I am able to stay in Unst for the entire summer (well, June to August, whether it’s summer or not.) So right smack dab in the middle of that comes UnstFest, to give me a crash course in such a spirit.
And all of this has been organised by the people of Unst. Well, I say organised, but it would be more appropriate to say “sculpted” or “grown”. I know how pretentious that sounds but let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, John the pianist and Andy the singer had the idea that maybe sometime they should put on a classical concert in Unst. They mentioned it in passing to Gordon and he said “Great, you can do it at Unstfest,” and into the programme they went. A few days later I bumped into John and said “I’m coming to your classical concert.” Approximately 45 seconds later I was booked to sing Brindisi from Verdi’s La Traviata along with a bit of Richard III to the soundtrack of an Elizabethan madrigal. Jennifer stepped off a plane from Spain, turned up to sing at the regatta concert and immediately after her performance she and John were discussing which arias she would deliver. That is what I mean by grown – it starts with a seed then the wind brings what the flower needs until a perfectly formed work of art blooms.
UnstFest is a beautiful festival, which brings the island together and offers great hospitality to the tourists.
Now, imagine what we could do if we had any funding.