It is said that great oaks from little acorns grow. This is surely true of Shetland fiddle group Hjaltibonhoga.
Margaret Robertson was asked to assemble a group of forty Shetland fiddlers to be part of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo for 2014. They were required to play every night for four weeks. This was clearly a big ask but Margaret saw it as a ‘one off’, a wonderful opportunity to showcase Shetland fiddlers and Shetland music in general.
This is the third year of being in Edinburgh performing for a crowd of 8,000 people each night and the commitment is to appear at the tattoo for the next ten years. Between times a smaller group has been to Australia and New Zealand. Brigadier David Allfrey, the man in charge of the tattoo, is suggesting that the size of the group could be increased to up one hundred musicians.
Margaret supported by house parents, members of the public and the fiddlers themselves have worked incredibly hard making costumes and raising money to meet expenses.
The fiddlers, in addition to all that, are required to learn new, difficult, music playing on different keys to blend with pipers.
The Tattoo, in common with Up Helly Aa, is never postponed for bad weather so it is necessary to have ‘expendable’ instruments available. A soaking from heavy rain could easily ruin an expensive fiddle.
The concert in Mareel on Saturday night, part of the ‘Hairst Helly’, was a game of two halves. The first half featured Hjaltibongoga and the second featured the great Caithness fiddler Gordon Gunn.
On the night the fiddlers were 30 strong out of a total of 190 on the e-mailing list. They opened with a set of American reels learned from the New England fiddler Rodney Miller. A slow air followed, one written by a Fiddle Frenzy attendee, entitled Young Willie Hunter.
Hjaltibonhoga might not want to be described as a fiddle orchestra but they are really tight together and the bowing is beautifully synchronised. This speaks volumes for the hours of playing together not only in Edinburgh but practicing all year round. It is truly a tidy, pleasing sound.
The music they play comes fae aa da airts, from America, Ireland, Australia, Scotland as well as the native Shetland tunes. Some of it is traditional and some contemporary showing that nothing is static, the music progresses and evolves.
And so it is with the musicians, as some older ones go from the top there are many young ones ready to step in. One such lass is Yelena Anderson. She will travel with the fiddlers to Edinburgh next year but in the meantime she does not know all the tunes so, on the night, she was on and off stage doing what she could to be part of this super group.
The thyme for the 2016 Tattoo was ‘Tunes of Glory’. This gave Margaret food for thought but it did not take her too long to decide that the most glorious thing she knew was her native Shetland and the plentiful music that she loves so much. She has written many tunes and one piece is a slow air donated to the Children in Need Appeal entitled Rosie Ann.
Hjaltibonhoga never sound better than when they play traditional Shetland reels. A highlight of their performance was their rendering of the three reels that are known collectively as the Greenland tunes. Second only to this is the popular Irish reels.
They finished with three of their favourites, The Silver Spire, Cooley’s, and Toss the Feathers. All are traditional but the middle one is associated with the great accordion player of yesteryear, Joe Cooley.
After a twenty minute interval Gordon Gunn took to the stage. He was ably supported by Margaret Robertson on piano and Ryan Couper on guitar. Gordon Gunn has long been acclaimed as a great musician and like all great fiddlers his bowing is outstanding. He showed a bewildering array of shivers and slurs in a wide mixture of material.
He played many of his own tunes and tunes from his native Caithness by composers such as the legendary Addie Harper who was leader of the Wick Scottish Dance Band. He also has a liking for the music of French Canada.
Gordon Gunn had spent his day conducting a workshop for around twenty Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers and they appeared on stage to play the fruits of the day’s doings.
No disrespect to Mr Gunn but the highlight of the second half came when Ryan played a guitar solo. He played the tune that he composed for his baby daughter, Jessi. She is now one year old and she was present on the night. Whither she heard this lovely tune, named for her, is a mote point because she only wakened up when the music stopped!
All in all a super show and, Hjaltibonhoga, more power to you, you make us all proud.
by Lawrence Tulloch