Shetland Fiddle & Accordion Festival
This past October 10 to 14, 2019, marked the 32nd annual Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival (SAFF) held in the Shetland Islands. In my last post I told you how to get to Shetland from America. The next two posts are all about our experience at the festival. For a quick overview refer to the festival program HERE. More information is available at the festival website https://www.shetlandaccordionandfiddle.com/.
Getting Around in Shetland
We landed in Lerwick Harbour on the morning of Thursday, October 10th and disembarked from the MV HRossey (operated by Northlink Ferries (https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/ ).
Bundle up before you exit the terminal because you’re out in the North Sea and even in mid-October is can be a bit nippy, rainy and always windy. Be sure to let your accomodations folks know you’re arriving early and would like to drop off your bags because your musical adventure begins this AM!
To get into the main part of town from the terminal you’ll want to either hire a car or take a taxi – a little too far to walk in the rain with luggage I think. Note that Lerwick is a city of only 8000 people (there are just 22,000 souls in all of Shetland), but it is a bit spread out. There should be some cabs waiting at the ferry terminal when you arrive. We chose to hire a car from Bolts Car Hire https://www.boltscarhire.co.uk/ . We had arranged the car hire and paid in advance. Bolt is a franchisee of Avis, by the way. There was an agent of the car hire waiting for us in the terminal and we filled out the necessary paperwork and got our keys.
Now remember you’re in the UK and they drive on the left. You’ve just left the ferry, possibly with a hangover from the session in the bar and possibly a bit dopey from Dramamine. You’re in no condition to drive I’d reckon – particularly since everything is backwards! I harken back to my adventure with the crew from Allegheny Echoes in 2001 when a bunch of us went to Ireland on a music and Guinness-consuming tour. Each morning there was a new driver of the van and each and every morning as soon as we pulled out onto the road everyone would yell, “You’re on the wrong $%&@#!! side of the road!!”
Our short trip from the terminal to the Fort Charlotte Guest House https://www.fortcharlotte.co.uk/ where we were staying did not go well. Other drivers were very nice, however, and even stopped traffic in both directions while Patt tried to execute a right turn. I had downloaded the local maps from Google Maps on to my phone in advance and so the GPS worked fairly well. Nonetheless we managed to drive through a very narrow opening in a stone wall and actually into Fort Charlotte! When we finally got out of that jam we parked a block or so away and walked to the guest house and immediately called the Bolts and asked if we could return the car. They were very happy to help, doubtless having been to this movie before. Jim at the guest house even helped us out by driving the car back for us. By the way, we absolutely loved this guest house and the hosts were incredibly helpful. They even turned us on to the famous sassermaet sandwich.
The only reason I had rented a car in the first place was to get to the far-flung venues in Shetland that were hosting the various concerts/dances outside Lerwick. It turned out it was possible to ride the musicians’ buses for a nominal charge and everything else we wanted to do in Lerwick was easy walking or taxi distance. You really don’t need a car unless you plan to do some island sightseeing before or after the SAFF. So do yourself and the locals a favor and don’t get behind the wheel.
The Festival Club
The festival organization is easy to understand. The center of activity is the ”Festival Club” located in the Islesburgh Community Center, a beautifully refurbished school house in Lerwick. It is a few blocks and an easy walk from the main shopping area. This is where you do your registration at the festival office and you’ll find a cafeteria, the Festival Shop, a bar, ballroom, lounging areas and session rooms. There is also an instrument/cloak room.
The Festival opened at 11:00 AM on Thursday so no time to put our feet up. We headed over the Festival Club to complete registration. A word about payment is in order. Refer to the festival program. There is an order blank and you should have taken care of this bit at least a month previous. Payment was a little tricky outside the UK as the festival didn’t accept PayPal and preferred a wire transfer. This would have proven pretty expensive given with the foreign exchange and wire transfer fees so we arranged to pay in cash with Pounds Sterling upon arrival. Be sure to mention the “concession” price if you’re a seasoned citizen.
The opening festivities included a sample performance from several of the invited acts. Charlie Kirkpatrick from Glasgow, a retired police officer from Glasgow, served as the impressario extraordinaire. The man is an excellent public speaker, has inside knowledge of all the performers and is hilarious! As you can see from the festival program there was a ton a talent present. Easily there were more musicians than spectators – my kind of festival. After these opening concerts a ceilidh dance ensued through the afternoon. There will be more about the dancing later in a subsequent post.
Dance and concert space at the Islesburgh Center
Evening Concerts & Dances
Thursday and Friday night events were held at various venues outside Lerwick around the islands. You can’t do them all so you’ll have to pick one for each evening and indicate this on the order form when you send in your advance registration. We picked ours based on our desire to see two particular acts. At Quarff on Thursday night was Gemma Donald and Alan Small, fiddle and accordion duet. On Friday night at Vidlin was the famous Cullivoe Ceilidh Band with Ivor Scollay and Bryan Gear.
As I mentioned above, you can ride the musicians’ bus to the venue, space permitting. You get these tickets daily at the Festival Shop for £4. We had no trouble getting a seat, but I’d buy them early in the day because once there gone that’s it.
The program indicates “concert supper dance “at the venues. The supper is really more of a snack with tea and it is offered well into the evening. We didn’t eat the first night before going to Quarff so my stomach was rumbling a bit by the end of the evening. By the time we got back to the guest house we were pretty hungry and so plowed through the crisps and shortbreads in the room. I may have lost a finger to Patt during that frenzy. On the other hand, anyone who knows me would agree that I could stand to shed a few pounds. The next night we had a proper meal before leaving for the venue.
I wasn’t sure whether to bring my instrument to the out-of-Lerwick venues. In fact, there is no session at these events, only concerts and dances. There are late-night sessions at the Festival Club after the evening show/dance and so we left the fiddle at our guesthouse and picked up it when we got back into town.
Quarff is a hamlet located 5 miles or so southwest of Lerwick. I’d reckon the population of sheep in Quarff well exceeds the number of humans. The ride there is beautiful and we got our first real view of the beautiful windswept countryside with small farms, rolling hills and well-tended livestock and fields. The community hall is the most prominent feature in the village.
From the outside Quarff hall is a simple, well-maintained structure, but once inside you find a remodeled and comfortable performance space and dance floor and a bar, of course. It was gaily lit with small twinkle lights. There was a high quality sound system properly manned, too, so the sound quality for both the concert and dance were excellent. As I mentioned previously we wanted to see Gemma Donald and Alan Small. I first became aware of Gemma through a friend and great fiddler in Quebec, Jacklyn Guerrette. I first found a few YouTube videos and then ordered a CD from MusicScotland. We were blown away by the performance that evening. They played their reels and jigs at breakneck speed with unbelievable synchronicity and precision. Here’s a sample from one of their YouTube videos.
There were other excellent groups on the concert program that night including: Craig McFadyen Scottish Dance Band, Robin Waitt Trio, Arran Philip & Friends, Ian Robertson & Angela Berry, Michael Philip & Friends, and Emma Leask. I must say that throughout the festival the level of musicianship of the hired acts and all the local players we heard at the sessions was incredibly high.
After the concert and a wee bite the chairs and table were cleared away to make room for the ceilidh. I’d seen some Scottish country dancing prior to this, but really didn’t know what to expect from a ceilidh. As in Irish dancing, ceilidh is the more informal type of dancing, much of which you can pick up on the fly, unlike Irish set dancing or Scottish country, which require formal instruction for most.
Folks were really friendly and welcomed the uninitiated Yankee newcomers. A lot of the dances consisted of couples or groups of three doing formations CCW around the room. Thanks to Andy Kain, the master of ceremonies for the evening (and a fine musician in his own right), for encouraging us to jump in. We tried our hand at the Boston Two-Step, Gay Gordons, Canadian Barn, etc. We enjoyed watching Postie’s Jig, which was a bit like a short line contra dance, but I’d need considerable “shoving through” to get it figured out. Patt, on the other hand, is an actual dancer so she got pulled into quite a few. I managed to make a few short videos with my phone so we can practice between now and next year.
By the time we got back to Lerwick we were pretty well “knackered” and so headed off to bed after only an hour or so of sessions at the Festival Club.
On Friday night we chose to go to Vidlin Hall. I was planning to pun “Fiddlin’ in Vidlin”, but not surprisingly the folks there had already figured that one out. As with the previous night were able to secure a seat on the musicians’ bus. These aren’t funky old school buses, by the way, but very nice coaches operated by John Leask and Son who also operate the public bus service in Shetland.
Vidlin is a little farther to the north of Lerwick – 22 miles or so from the city center. The ride to Vidlin offered views of the sea, “voes”, which are sea inlets to coastal lochs (think fjords without cliffs), and still more lush pasture land.
Vidlin is at a crossroads where there are a few small businesses and homes. The most prominent structure is Vidlin Hall, construction dated 1910. As at Quarff, the exterior of the building belies the facilities housed inside. The interior is remodeled and very well appointed, with modern lighting, state of the art sound and a bar. It is a really, really nice hall.
On a more somber note, you should pause a moment at the Great War obelisk located a few steps from the hall. Lots of Americans fought in WWI, including Patt’s grandfather Carl from Illinois, but America came late to the conflict. The monument in Vidlin cites ten lost in that conflict. Ten lost from such a small, tight-knit community – it must have been devastating at the time here and in towns and villages throughout Britain.
As I mentioned previously, we went to Vidlin with the intention of hearing the Cullivoe Band and meeting Ivor Scollay. We knew of the Cullivoe Band because this was the band that featured the legendary Willie Hunter for many years. Since Willie’s passing another local musician, Bryan Gear, has taken over at fiddle. Bryan is an unbelievable player. He has incredible technical chops and is extremely expressive, especially on the beautiful airs and waltzes.
We first heard of Ivor from our Canadian friend Calvin Vollrath, who wrote a lovely tune Ivor Scollay’s Jig, which we have incorporated into our own repertoire. We thoroughly enjoyed hearing the Cullivoe Band and meeting Ivor and Bryan. Ivor’s son, Matthew, who plays lead accordion, is an award winning Scottish musician. Also, it’s hard to say enough about the musicianship of Martin Henderson, who was sitting in on piano for Cullivoe and their drummer Graeme Garrick. All in all a powerful combination!
We heard many other fine groups that night at Vidlin including: Nicky McMichan Scottish Dance Band, Heritage Fiddlers, Robin Waitt Trio, Liza Henderson, Stella Wilkie & Joan Blue, and Charlie Kirkpatrick. As at Quarff, after the concert and supper the tables were cleared for a dance.
The next podcast and post will tell you all about the Festival Club sessions, the Grand Dance at the Clickimin Center and the Garrison Theatre Concerts.
If after reading all this and listening to the podcasts you’d like to attend the 2020 Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival your first step is to mark your calendar for October 8 to 12, 2020. You can get updates at www.shetlandaccordionandfiddle.com. It also happens that there is another festival in Orkney, which starts on the Tuesday after the Shetland fest called The Reel Orkney Trad Fest, which will run from October 12 to 17, 2020. So you could get a two-fer, which is what we intend to do. I’ll post info for that fest at a later time as more becomes available.