Archipelagos with Wee Ponies

You know about archipelagos, right? It means a group or chain of islands. In the USA we think the Aleutians, the State of Hawaii and the Florida keys. But this post is about a far flung archipelago known as the Shetland Islands. Part of the U.K. (Scotland properly) a lot of folks doubtless first heard about the Shetland in reference to the famous diminutive ponies and more recently a certain mystery series which has appeared on BBC, PBS and now Netflix.

TIP: You’re totally missing out if you don’t Google “Shetland ponies in sweaters”.

Shetland (never say “Shetlands” by the way) are a mystical and magical place by all accounts. Located out in the North Sea, they are closer to the Arctic Circle and than to London and nearer to Norway than to Britain. In fact, the Scots acquired Shetland from Norway in the 15th Century. It seems the King of Norway wanted to wed his daughter to James III of Scotland, but couldn’t come up with the cash for a proper dowry so he threw in the Shetland Islands to sweeten the deal.

The total population of the islands is around 28,000 and the largest city is Lerwick, which includes a third of the population, the airport and the largest harbor. There are several other islands, but the “mainland” holds most of the people, attractions and commerce. By the way, it appears on Google Maps there is a fish & chips shop not far from where we get off the ferry so I intend to make a bee-line to the Happy Halibut for a fishy breakfast.

Why would The Possum give a hoot about the Shetlands you might ask? Well, they have a great fiddling tradition there and Patt & I are headed over the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival this week to get a sample. We’ve been to Scotland three times previously, but never to this faraway island. It’s a twelve hour ferry ride to from Aberdeen to Lerwick. There will be more about the festival in a subsequent post and podcast. For the festival website click HERE.

To get to Shetland we’ll fly from Chicago O’Hare to Dublin and enter Europe there through Irish customs. From there it’s a domestic flight to Edinburgh and time to have whisky and crash from the jet-lag. The next day we’re off via ScotRail to Aberdeen in time to catch the overnight ferry to Lerwick. We’ve got our dramamine and scopalimine patches for the motion sickness. After all it’s the North Sea in October so it could be a little rough. By the way, the last time I heard anyone mention scoplamine was a German guy in the Guns of Navarone. That’s the old Nazi “truth serum” from the movies, ya know. No telling what crazy stuff I’ll divulge under its hypnotic influence!

I’ve attached a copy of the festival program HERE if you interested. The basic outline is that on Thursday and Friday evening there are six venues located around the islands, some requiring additional ferry rides! There are numerous acts at each of the six venues each night so you just have to pick one and go for it.

We have an interest especially in two artists. The first is a young fiddler named Gemma Donald. My friend Jacklyn Guerrette in Quebec first made me aware of her. Here she is playing an amazing set of reels.



I think she’s pretty freaking fantastic! She’ll be at Quarff Hall on Thursday night along with six other artists. Apparently Quarff Hall is located in a tiny village 5 miles outside Lerwick. The program indicates “Concert/Supper/Dance”.

The other group we’re interested in hearing for sure is the famous Cullivoe Band. This band once boasted the late, great Willie Hunter as their fiddler. Hunter’s fiddling was amazing. I’m certain you can find his music on any streaming service and of course on YouTube.

Our interest in Cullivoe extends beyond Mr. Hunter. We’ve really taken a liking to a jig composed by Calvin Vollrath named Ivor Scollay’s Jig. It happens Ivor Scollay is the accordionist for the Cullivoe Band. Se we’ve reserved our ticket on Friday night for the Vidlin venue. Vidlin is a small village north of Lerwick. We’re hoping to meet Mr. Scollay. Again the program calls for “Concert/Supper/Dance”. What’s not to like? Here’s Patti Kusturok playing the famous jig Ivor Scollay.



If you want the album containing Calvin’s Ivor Scollay jig just go to https://www.calvinvollrath.com/.

So the for festival wrap on Saturday and Sunday all activities are back in Lerwick – more concerts, dances and suppers. It going to take some stamina, but I think we’re up to it.

I don’t know a lot of Shetland music myself. I’ve already mentioned Gemma Donald and Willie Hunter. The most famous exponent of Shetland music is Aly Bain, a world-renowned traditional musician with dozens of albums to his credit and his famous transatlantic sessions television and DVD programs. For many folks the record that put Shetland music into the popular imagination was The Silver Bow featuring Tom Anderson with Aly Bain in a program of traditional Shetland and Scottish fiddle music. The tunes really give you a feel for the distinction between Shetland and straight Scots fiddling. There is a definite hint of the Norwegian tradition in the way the tunes are executed.

That’s all for now. Look for updates throughout our trip on this blog and on my YouTube channel, which is right HERE.

More on Shetland culture, food, music and travel can be found at https://www.shetland.org

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