Back from Beyond: a creative journey around Shetland

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So, what is Back from Beyond? It's a creative project. It's a musical and poetic journey, illustrated by some cracking photography. It's a successful attempt to find inspiration for tunes and words in some of Shetland's most beautiful landscapes and seascapes.

Emma explains that she had become interested in developing "positive" projects and had exchanged ideas with her friend Alice Mullay, a music therapist, player and composer. Alice was running a musical composition course on the theme of 'mareel', the phenomenon after which Shetland's new arts centre was named. In Shetland 'mareel' means bioluminescence, the naturally-glowing particles that are seen in, say, the wake of boats.

In due course, the project led to a concert – in, of course, Mareel. Emma thought that “the performance was stunning. I was just inspired by that and I thought I'd quite like to work with Alice on something.”

A seed is planted

The women, who'd known each other for many years, became aware of potential funding from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which was promoting the "Year of Natural Scotland". With that in mind, they developed the idea of encouraging artists to get out and about and find inspiration in the natural environment. They would focus on the National Scenic Areas and National Nature Reserves within Shetland, offering eight potential locations.

we were trying to approach people that we thought were very much grounded in the community, had strong roots in Shetland and were very passionate about Shetland in the first place.

They then began to identify people who might participate in the project on what was clearly going to be a tight timescale. They should be people of different ages working in different genres of music and poetry. Alice explains: “we were trying to approach people that we thought were very much grounded in the community, had strong roots in Shetland and were very passionate about Shetland in the first place.” Because community involvement was so important to them, Alice and Emma quite deliberately relied on word of mouth to build momentum.

The response was positive. “We were really fortunate”, says Alice. “Everyone that we approached agreed to take part. A lot of voluntary effort went into it. Thankfully, they embraced the spirit of what we were trying to do. We were always looking ahead to the idea that what we wanted to create was something that would inspire other people to do the same thing. That's why we were keen to document some of the process. A lot of the musicians are quite open about saying "I went to this place, but I had no idea what I was going to do" and then an idea came. And I think that can help other people to feel confident about trying their own ideas. As a music therapist, one of the main things I'm trying to promote is that everybody is creative and everybody has the opportunity to do something.”

Concept to reality

Numerous musicians, poets and photographers spent part of the summer of 2013 visiting the eight selected areas. Alice and Emma travelled to the locations and Alice created videos of the trips and performances, or made videos to accompany the music.

Among the poets involved was Laureen Johnson, who went to the magnificent cliffs of Eshaness. In one of the project's videos, Laureen recalls the visit.

“The thing I mind best about it was that it was a most beautiful day, an awful suitable day for Eshaness, because it was sunny, it was dry, the ground as usual was lovely to walk on – that's a really good thing about Eshaness. And also, there was a bit of wind, enough wind to make waves, rolling and spray lashing around. And really, the sea, I think we saw it at its best. I canna mind, myself, being at Eshaness on a better day. And another thing is, you're just right on the edge, you really feel that this is the edge of the world, almost, and out beyond you is nothing but sea for hundreds of miles.”

One of the bands inspired by their journey was The Revellers, who spent a weekend walking and performing in the northernmost island of Unst. The group, originally formed out of admiration for The Levellers, has gone on to become one of Shetland's longest-established and most popular bands and the "rock with fiddles" sound has gone down very well. Their concerts invariably sell out. Band member Lewie Peterson and his colleagues found the experience really valuable.

“At the time, we said yes just because it sounded like a really novel idea. You don't know when you're going to get that kind of chance. It did sound a bit mad, actually, something really different to what we'd done before. The walk was really nice, the whole band was together for the whole time, and we got a really nice sense of the place and the people. As we did the project, and after we came back from Unst, everything made sense as to why we have Back from Beyond.

“We were all buzzing afterwards and feeling inspired, and really proud of what we were doing. Usually, when we write songs as a band, somebody comes with an idea and people maybe develop it together afterwards, whereas because we all went to Hermaness and we all heard the same things and saw the same things, we were all coming at it at the same time. It's become the most collaborative piece of work that we've done.”

Another of the bands, Haltadans, went to Foula, and their adventures are also recorded in another of Alice Mullay's videos, Foula Transit. She says:

“For the band, the idea of going to Foula and having the time to create new material has been really good for them, because they're saying, "Oh, I think we want to make an album", and they're quite a new band. So, for them, it's like a turning point. I think the Foula folk really appreciated the dance in the hall, and there's a few folk in Foula who are musicians and I think it was genuinely a very special thing for them, because if people are visiting, they're often quite separate.”

It did sound a bit mad, actually, something really different to what we'd done before

New directions

What of the future for Back from Beyond? For the moment, Alice says, they are continuing to focus on the eight areas, which she says are “very special”. However, she adds, “we're completely open to the idea of maybe introducing other areas. Already, we've had a few people making submissions outside the original areas. You don't want to discourage folk!”

There have been many additions to the website, including several "biodoodles", images using natural or found items, often on beaches. Some people sent these in from Australia. New material will continue to accumulate.

Emma and Alice like the idea that Back from Beyond can grow as a resource, a way of people in each place having a bank of material. The main aim, though, is to encourage people to be creative. They hope to promote a different theme each month, which could range from fiddle tunes or haiku poems to recipes or tapestries.

Alice also thinks that the project has potential health benefits.

“I've spoken to quite a lot of people through my work, and colleagues, who've found that walking and walking groups can be a really useful thing for people, especially folk with low-level mental health issues. I'd quite like to see that with a creative slant. I would hope, in a modest way, that we could offer something that existing mental health professionals could use as a tool.”

There's been interest from farther afield, too. Emma has had an approach from people in Wales who would like to do something in the same vein. A connection has been made with the Glasgow Film Festival, featuring a film about the Shetland poet, Robert Alan Jamieson and other material from the collection.

The other thread that has run through the project is the value of Mareel, the arts centre. Alice says: “In Shetland, I had always hoped that Mareel would help to bring people together artistically, and I think it has. I meet people; it is a hub.” Lewie agrees: “It's a nice building to work in anyway, but I think you'll find that there's a lot more collaborative stuff going on and a lot more sharing of ideas.”

Summing up, Emma Perring says:

“What's been quite rewarding is that everybody that we asked to do it has actually enjoyed it so much. Every time you say 'thank you' to anybody, they say “no, thank you!”. It's good when things like that happen.”

Visit the Back from Beyond website

You can read the Shetland Times" review of the Back from Beyond show at Mareel, Lerwick.