Tattoo fiddlers shine in Edinburgh

Shetland fiddlers have been wowing audiences at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, performing in front thousands every night under the glow of Edinburgh Castle.

About 100 fiddlers from the isles will be taking part this month, with a changing group of 40 musicians performing at the show in the capital.

The group, known as Hjaltibonhoga, is the first fiddle group ever to be involved in the tattoo.

From teenagers to retired folk, the Shetland fiddlers have united to perform at the special event, with audiences of about 8,500 a night greeting them last weekend.

Performers from more than 46 countries have taken part in the tattoo, and about 30 per cent of the annual 220,000 audience is from overseas.

The show has been televised in more than 30 countries and an annual audience of 100 million watches the tattoo across the globe.

The first group of musicians returned on Sunday night, including Richard Wemyss.

“I think it’s certainly one of those things that everyone taking part will never, ever forget. It was a phenomenal experience,” he said.

Some folk are staying with the group for weeks, while others are making the trip south for a few days to perform, before returning to the isles.

The group has been performing a Shetland set of tunes, which Wemyss explained followed on from the “big Zulu drums” of the Zulu warriors before them.

But the Shetland musicians also play with brass and pipers, as well as performing with highland dancers and stepping into the limelight for the grand finale – which lasts about 25 minutes.

Maori haka dancers were also among the performers.

Wemyss said being in front of the crowd, with the pipe bands emerging from the darkness, was “one of those hair-stands up on the back of your neck” moments.

“The cheer from the audience was absolutely huge, and you think ‘we’ve performed to the complete population of Lerwick every night’,” he said.

“By the time I’d left, I’d performed to the complete population of Shetland.”

Performing at the tattoo is as big as Shetland’s representation at the Commonwealth Games, he said and everyone involved felt very proud to represent Shetland’s musical heritage.

The fiddlers have been rehearsing for months ahead of the big event, and down in Edinburgh were practising up to 15 hours a day.

The fiddlers also polished their steps at Redford Barracks. And despite some trepidation at the start, seeing the soldiers marching around, Hjaltibonhoga were given their own officer to give them guidance and encouragement.

Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers perform at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Photo: Alison Bain.
Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers perform at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Photo: Alison Bain.

A huge amount of fund-raising has taken place too – including a reelathon, busking in Tesco and a fund-raising concert to find the money. About £30,000 was raised from their efforts.

All the fiddlers had moved forward musically in learning pieces for the event, said Wemyss.

And performing on such a grand stage was an emotional experience.

“I would think that almost everyone at some point was holding back the tears,” he said.

A great deal of organisation had gone into the Hjaltibonhoga performance,with Margaret Scollay and Dana Stewart pulling things together, Wemyss explained.

The tattoo itself was ran “like a military operation”, he said, even down to the buses for the musicians being lined up in formation.

Wemyss said the musical arranger for the tattoo was very happy to have the fiddle players onboard – as it allowed him to include an “extra layer” to the show.

There were also strong hints that the fiddlers would be welcomed back, he said.

For more reaction and a review of the tattoo performance see Friday’s Shetland Times.


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