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The Fiddle in the Shetland Isles
Peter Cooke
1997-09-01

The best way to visit the Shetland Isles is to sail there with the "north boat" -- the steamer that sets out from Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland at 5 p.m. three times a week and berths alongside the quay in Lerwick harbour, Shetland's centre of commerce, some 12 hours later. Rough though the passage may sometimes be -- for it's in these waters that the Atlantic swell meets up with the numerous tidal currents that swirl around Britain's northern shores and the weather is as often coarse as it is kindly -- it is a good way of easing oneself into the social life of these unique islands, for the sea dominates life in Shetland and one feels almost a part of Shetland as soon as one enters the ship's saloon. Most times when I took the north boat, the evening was enlivened by a fiddler or accordionist -- sometimes a sailor returning home on leave, at other times a student going back for the vacation -- and the piano in the ship's saloon is rarely free of someone vamping an accompaniment. And there are plenty of friendly Shetlanders prepared to chat with you and wish you a good visit.

The Shetland Isles are the most northerly outpost of the United Kingdom -- over 100 low-lying and virtually treeless islands clustered together almost equidistantly between Aberdeen on Scotland's east coast, the Faeroe Isles and Bergen on the west coast of Norway. It's not surprising then if the average Shetlander maintains that he or she is no more Scottish than Scandinavian and it's a fact that the Shetlands were ruled from Norway until 1469 and old affiliations die hard. A map of Shetland is strewn with place names that have a wonderful Norse ring about them, and as late as 1774 a visitor (George Low) remarked on the singing of "visicks" -- Norse ballads sung to accompany circle dances. Though the old Norn language itself eventually faded from use, some of the circle dances survived into the 20th century in the wedding context, and even as late as 1950 two songs in the Norn tongue (the "Unst Boat Song" and a fragment of the ballad "King Orfeo") were still in circulation and collected by Pat Shuldham-Shaw, though by then Shetlanders regarded both fragments as little more than curiosities.

Whatever the old repertory was like -- and we have a little evidence of the style in surviving fragments of old wedding reels (the "Auld Reels" or "Muckle Reels," as they were called) -- it is clear that it was gradually replaced by a considerable number of Scottish tunes brought in by Scottish farm workers sent up north by Scottish lairds, who had become the landowners in much of Shetland. Many Scots fishermen also sailed north each year in search of the rich herring harvest around Shetland's shores and they, too, brought tunes and ballads with them. The majority of tunes I found in circulation during the 1970s were of Scottish origin even if their names might have undergone a sea-change. For instance, that fine pipe march "The Marchioness of Tullibardine" became a reel called "The Burra Boys War Dance," and the well known reel "The High Road to Linton" acquired the name "Lassie get the Bed Made" in one island and "Cuddle in a Boasie" in another ("boasie" being the dialect term for bosom). One further example, the reel "Sail her ower da raft trees," the name given in Whalsay (though not elsewhere) to what was originally the Scottish strathspey "Lady Mary Ramsay," reminds one of the Shetlander's continuous association with seafaring. When the fishing around their own islands was poor, Shetland men went off in droves to serve in the merchant or Royal navy and travelled the world, sometimes buying up a fiddle during shore leave, and picking up a new tune somewhere else. The result is few homes without a fiddle -- often hanging on the wall in the parlour -- and a large and fascinating repertory of tunes which all have distinctive Shetland flavours (I use the plural here because it became plain to me that there was no single Shetland style, but many, as one might expect in a cluster of independent island communities).

Despite increasing Scottish influence on the Nordic culture of the Shetlands, the island fiddling has remained remarkably distinctive. Furthermore, even as late as the 1970s I was able to come across about 125 tunes that seemed to have no Scottish ancestry and which certainly had a distinctive Shetland feel about them. They were virtually all reels, for up until the early years of the present century reels were almost the only kind of dances performed and only began to be replaced by polkas, quadrilles and other Scottish country dances after World War I. Even then the reels survived in the repertory of fiddlers who continued to enjoy playing them as listening pieces.

Shetland's reputation for fiddling dates back at least two hundred years. The Statistical Account for Scotland c. 1794 mentions, "Music and dancing are favourite amusements especially in winter. Many of the common people play with skill upon the violin," while Arthur Edmonstone in his View of the Ancient and Present state of the Zetland Isles reported (1809), "Among the peasantry almost one in ten can play on the violin. Before violins were introduced, the musicians performed on an instrument called a gue, which appears to have had some similarity to the violin, but had only two strings of horse hair, and was played upon in the same manner as a violoncello." In 1978 fiddler Dannie Jamieson of Cullivoe made his own survey of music-making in his community. Of the seventy men in his district aged sixteen or over, twenty-one played or had once played the fiddle to various degrees of expertise, another five the melodeon or accordion; four others played guitar, while eight were known as "singers."

It was just such a reputation which took me north during the 1970s and I was privileged to get to know a large number of older island fiddlers, each fine representatives of their own distinctive island traditions. No introduction would be right without some hint as to their background and upbringing. Take, for instance, Andrew Poleson, of the tiny island of Whalsay off the east coast of Mainland Shetland: when I first met him he had retired from a lifetime of various tasks -- jobbing builder, storekeeper, crofter, etc. (for he was one of those few Shetlanders who could not work at sea). His strong arms and horny hands brought a bright and sturdy sound from his fiddle -- a sound which was matched with a wonderful rhythmic precision and vitality.

Unlike today, when one can find teaching of fiddling going on in most schools throughout the islands -- of which more later -- Andrew, like most Shetland fiddlers in their youth, received no formal instruction in fiddling -- not even how to tune his fiddle. He told me, "When I started first to play, I had the fiddle tuned to doh, me, soh doh, and it didn't correspond you see -- my ear told me that I was wrong." Using a borrowed fiddle, he learned tunes from his mother's singing and his playing style from friends living around his home:

"She used to sing, you see, and we used to dance, just young boys -- and I think I picked them up faster when I was younger than I probably do now, and I knew a lot of them and I never lost them. I would go up in the dark loft and sit and play in the darkness to myself so as I could annoy nobody. I knew a lot of tunes, just myself like, I could sing them, and I knew when I was wrong and when I was going on right." 

[This article is from the (out of print) Fall 1997 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]