A website celebrating Whalsay song has been set up by one of the major figures in traditional music research who made many trips to Shetland between 1969 and 1984.
Peter Cooke, who was formerly senior lecturer and head of ethnomusicology at the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, welcomes input from anyone with information on any of the hundreds of songs and dozens of singers featured on Whalsay’s Heritage of Song.
The website, part of the Scottish Studies archives, features Whalsay’s heritage of songs, ballads, rhymes and riddles as part of its “long and diverse musical tradition”.
Mr Cooke, 85, was a familiar figure in Whalsay and the North Isles, making several trips to Shetland annually and usually spending a week or so in Whalsay on each trip. He described his experience of meeting people and recording tunes and songs as a “wonderful” and “lovely” time.
According to Mr Cooke, who originally focused his research on fiddle playing, publishing The Fiddle Tradition of the Shetland Isles in 1986, he found little tradition of singing in the isles with the exception of Whalsay.
Although there were many fine singers in Da Bonnie Isle, there was only one old song that Mr Cooke could definitely say was a Shetland original – Baabie Murray sung by Harriet Sandison; though the tune for this one was likely derived from the Scottish tune The Ewie with the Crooked Horn. This tune he collected from lighthouse keeper Bobby Irvine but he is keen to get more information on it.
There are newer Shetland songs that have been written within living memory such as the Lasses Lament sung by Joey Anderson and Nettie Arthur with Davy Arthur on guitar. This song is one of about 100 recordings on the website, but the lyrics and background details of many more songs are listed.
Mr Cooke said: “There are some rhymes and fiddle tunes related to little trunk songs and a wonderful assortment of sea songs, songs about the Napoleonic wars, the slave trade, whaling and piracy.
Mr Cooke attributes Whalsay’s singing tradition to so many men going to sea and learning songs in the fo’c’sles of big ships, where singing was often the only form of entertainment.
These songs, many of which date from the days of sail, were frequently sung at the end of the fishing season when entire crews would go around visiting each other’s houses for food, drams, singing and music.
Mr Cooke was also privy to the Whalsay tradition of boiling up the wedding mutton at “the Cook’s House”, the home of old John Irvine where many of the older men who did not feel up to dancing would congregate to pass the day and prepare the wedding feast. The bride and groom would pay a visit to the cooks as part of their wedding rounds.
Regatta concerts were another venue where, mostly younger women, often dressed as old-fashioned crofters, would sing comic songs.
Tammy Anderson was Mr Cooke’s first point of contact when he started fiddle recording, but he soon got to know many of the Whalsay folk and has especially fond memories of meeting Andrew Polson for the first time, who played fiddle and sang and told him that there were, in fact, words to most of the fiddle tunes.
Another highlight of his time in Whalsay was meeting John Hughson at Isbister, who was at first reluctant to sing into the tape recorder, but ended up giving him a dozen songs in spite of the wind outside being so strong it was lifting the lino in the butt end a foot off the floor.
Mr Cooke, a courteous and charming interviewer, seemed to have a talent for putting people at their ease. But he said this was partly because of his family background of farming and blacksmithing in the Wye Valley before moving to Weston-super-Mare on the Bristol Channel, which gave him a strong connection with the sea. He once sailed to Shetland with his family on a 26ft yacht and sailed round Flugga.
Mr Cooke, who has studied and published extensively on the music of Scotland and Africa and held many academic offices, has been delighted with the response he got from Whalsay.
“As soon as I got in touch with them, the grandchildren of the people I had been recording started writing to me and sending photographs,” he said. Many of them are on the website.
“I am hoping that if more and more Shetlanders find their way around this website they will get in contact.”
One of the most interesting features of the Whalsay songs is that many came from penny broadsheets that had been published to popularise stage performances in London and which were a way of disseminating news that dated back to the Napoleonic wars. Many of the songs were set to much older tunes and the often “dreadful” lyrics were frequently altered and improved by the time the songs reached Shetland.
Mr Cooke recalls that Andrew Polson was still ordering broadsheets from an Edinburgh publisher called Sanderson.
Recalling his whole time in Shetland as “a great experience for me” Mr Cooke is keen for people to be able to share in the contributions they or their parents and grandparents made.
The website, http://www.sssa.llc.ed.ac.uk/whalsay/, contains high quality MP3 files made from the original recordings using the “highest quality” sound equipment that was available at the time, with editing and handling of the material undertaken by the school’s BBC trained technician Fred Kent.
Mr Kent also helped film various fiddlers throughout the isles, the reels of which Mr Cooke believes are in the Shetland archives.