Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley of Orkney, Scotland, have been performing together throughout Europe -- at dozens of festivals, folk clubs, and radio broadcasts -- for over ten years. And since Jennifer won the prestigious BBC Young Tradition Award in 1997, the twins have been attracting attention and praise from an even larger audience. This interview took place before a concert in California, in February, 1997, one stop on a tour that included Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. With Jennifer's expressive fiddling and Hazel's jazzy guitar, and plenty of amusing stories about the tunes and their homeland, they put on quite a show. In addition to performing as a duo, both play with the six-piece band Seelyhoo, with Jennifer on fiddle and Hazel on guitar and piano. In order to be closer to most of their gigs ("like California!"), they're now living on the mainland of Scotland, in Edinburgh, where they're enjoying the thriving music scene. As Jennifer says, "You could probably go to a session every night of the week, and they'd all be really good."
Have you always performed together?
Jennifer: Pretty much. Initially it started with me and my big sister Emma. We played together for a long time. We started getting asked to do things at local concerts, that kind of thing. And then Hazel started playing, too, so we've always played I probably went on the stage first when I was about ten or something like that. I think that was the Orkney Folk Festival. I got asked to play at it because at the Orkney Folk Festival they have local concerts in some of the areas, and Deerness that's where we're from in Orkney they had one of these local concerts that year in the folk festival, and the sort of star fiddler they were going to have was our brother's best friend, and he fell over on the beach -- he had his hands in his pockets and he broke his arm, so he couldn't play. So they said, "Oh, we'll have to get somebody else!" And we did it. That was me and my sister Emma. But when she went off to music college in Aberdeen, which is quite far away, then Hazel started playing a lot more; she got more interested in it, and we started playing together. Emma never really came back from Aberdeen. It was a long time, anyway, that she'd studied four or five years or something like that. And by that time [Hazel and I] were well established as doing something together.
What is the music scene like in the Orkney Islands are there a lot of musicians there?
Jennifer: There are a lot of musicians in Orkney. It has a very strong, rich tradition of playing But [after awhile] I'd really had enough of the lessons at school, and trying to teach myself. I was going to give up. I wasn't getting anywhere. So we decided to try a private teacher, and she was really, I would say, a classical teacher. But she was really interested in traditional stuff, so she told me and my big sister Emma to go to the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society, which is a group of fiddlers and accordion players who get together every Thursday night in the town hall, and play tunes. So we went, and from that, we met people that played tunes, mostly old men who had brilliant characters, and that was their only night out, Thursday night, for the Strathspey and Reel, and we all did concerts and had great fun, and loads of tunes were played.
Hazel: There were all sorts of different people there builders who were fiddle players, and joiners, and carpet layers and you'd just meet loads of people. And each person had slightly different interests. You might meet a fiddle player who went to the Strathspey and Reel, but who really liked jazz, and therefore you met all the jazz musicians in Orkney if you knew him. So it just kind of opened the whole scene up, because it was all ages and all walks of life. There are eighteen thousand people there, so you have to know where to look. There's no specific place to go, just to meet the musicians or to hear them.
Jennifer: The Strathspey and Reel used to get invited to do concerts and things -- that's how you would get out and about, and get used to playing at concerts, and from that maybe you would go to some of the outer islands. There are seventy-odd islands in Orkney, so you'd visit some outer islands with the Strathspey and Reel, at a concert, or a ceilidh. Then you would meet so many more people from that trip, and you'd just go on and on like that.
Hazel: And of course we used to listen to the radio. For the last fifty or sixty odd years people would listen to the radio for inspiration, so they were getting American fiddle styles, and Scandinavian fiddle styles, and Scottish. Not so much Irish because it wasn't so easy to pick up. There's so many things on that wavelength. There's not a big scene up there for that type of music on television, fiddle music, but there were some really healthy radio programs going. You'd just tune in and listen to some tunes.
Jennifer: We used to listen to the shortwave radio from America. Hazel plays guitar in a very jazzy swing type style, which she got from a guy from Shetland called Peerie Willie Johnson. He's a really well-known guitar player. He recorded for years with Aly Bain and Violet Tulloch. He's about seventy-six now, but back in the '40s, when he was learning guitar, he used to listen to the shortwave radio from America, and the kind of thing they were playing was like the Hot Club of France, Django Reinhardt, that kind of thing. So he used that sound and started applying it to traditional tunes. And I think, because of that American, Texan type of thing that he was getting, he started learning ragtime tunes, and things that were a bit jazzy.
If you're talking about the difference between Orkney and Shetland, you would need to know about the historical background of Orkney and Shetland. We were originally Scandinavian, until I think five or six hundred years ago. We were given away as a wedding present to the king of Norway. A dowry. He didn't have any money and he needed to give a present, because I think it was his son that was getting married to the king of Scotland's daughter or something like that.
Hazel: The two parties had to match an amount of money as a gift, and Scotland gave a huge amount of money. Norway didn't have that much money to give back to Scotland.
Jennifer: So he said, "Here you are, just have Orkney and Shetland." He was given a certain amount of time to pay a certain amount of money back, and if he did, then they would go back to Norway, but he never raised it, so Orkney and Shetland stayed with Scotland. They never spoke Gaelic up there, because that was something they had from the Celts, the west coast of Scotland. We would have originally, in Orkney anyway, spoken Old Norman, which was a dialect. Now we have a strong dialect in Orkney which is like that. And all the historical and archeological sites are very Scandinavian/Norwegian type things. But the music side of it, we would have been looking at the Hardanger fiddle originally Shetland and Orkney. But because of Tom Anderson, who was eighty-something when he died, when he was really young, he went around with a reel-to-reel and recorded all the old men, and actually managed to get the styles and the bowing and things like that, because they were still there. He did do some recordings in Orkney as well. But you would find really that Shetland managed to hold onto its tradition for a lot longer, because it's more remote, I would say. It's right out in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, and you would really need to have a good reason to go up there. But with Orkney, it takes about two hours to get there on the ferry. And if it was a nice day, and you went on your little boat, you could probably get there in forty minutes. Somebody in the north point of Scotland could easily get on their boat and nip across. They couldn't really do that to Shetland! So Orkney, I think, suffered in its tradition anyway, from being overcome by the Scottish music.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as the tune "Miss Sarah MacFayden" as played by Jennifer and Hazel, purchase the Summer 1998 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]