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Lasses Trust in Providence: Love the Lasses

by Claire White -

Shetland fiddler and singer-songwriter, Claire White, profiles extraordinary northern women

With Burns Night and Valentine’s Day just past, and International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day around the corner, this is a great time of year to celebrate womankind. As a songwriter who’s drawn to stories of extraordinary females, I enjoy doing this by looking at the lives of Shetland lasses who have inspired musical tributes.

First up is Jeanette Nowak, or Peanuts as she’s better known. In her garden shed on the island of Yell Peanuts creates jewellery from sea glass and pottery, and baskets from local plants. Jeanette’s work influenced a leading Scottish fashion brand’s spring/summer 2018 collection, and a dress based on her deconstructed basket graced catwalks in London, Paris and Milan. I visited Jeanette’s shed for the first time in September 2017 and was deeply moved by the positivity and creativity Jeanette shows whilst living with cancer. Her light shines brightly.

Peanuts’ Shed

In wir shed o dreams it’s

Foo bricht we shine wir licht

Mair life I’m niver seen

Athin ee peerie place

As in dy shed dis hairst

An in dy sonsie face

“Jeanette Nowak shö bides

In Nort-a-Voe” dey’d tell

On axin fir Peanuts

Whan stravaigin trowe Yell

Sun ida window

An in dy glansin een

A coose o creations

Da rarest I hed seen

Beetroot laeves lay dryin

Firnenst sea gless an lem

Hingin bowes an baskets

Skoitin neest a ring

Dy seaborne proil sat prunk

In reason an in rhyme

Frida Kahlo chaise longue

A place for tinkin time

Fashion lasses fun dee

Here in dy lichtsome state

Reddin up afore dem

Aboot ta change dy gaet

A basket clippit up

Balled doon apo da flör

Dichted an laid up noo

Wis art, no bruck, no more

Wid du tak a hunder?

Dy babe wis no for sale

So dey med a froak for

Der London fashion rail

A blink o city life

Wis dine for joost a start

But hame wis shön pooin

At treeds aboot dy heart

For du kens mair as maist

Whit is really wirt wir might

In wir shed o dreams it’s

Foo bricht we shine wir licht

In wir shed o dreams it’s

Foo bricht we shine wir licht

From Jeanette’s contemporary luminescence we step back in time to the late nineteenth century and meet Jean Pole (1880-1965), a female Shetland fiddler at a time when this was unusual. Jean learned repertoire from her father in Waas and, in turn, passed traditional tunes onto local cultural aficionado, Dr Tom Anderson. Tom taught me Jean’s ‘Boanie Polka’ when I was a child, explaining that Jean played this tune seated, dancing steps with her feet in time to the music. This striking image inspired me to find out more about Jean’s life from Shetlandic writer, Christine De Luca. Christine explained that Jean played for local weddings and dances from the age of eighteen until her early thirties. Family responsibilities then took precedence as Jean lost her father and two siblings within a period of two years. With her mother and older sister to care for, Jean knitted and ‘carried the post’ to make ends meet, but her fiddling days weren’t altogether over. She continued playing for neighbours domestically and, at the age of 82, was interviewed for BBC radio about her music knowledge. Christine De Luca describes Jean as a ‘quiet expert’ and I hope that by recording her life story in song, Jean’s achievements will sound just a little louder.

Sang for Jean Pole

Aged nine in Stove in Waas

A fiddle first I played

Soldier’s Joy an Hen’s Mairch

Da early tunes I med

Clementina’s fiddle

Wis cut fae board an treed

Seaman Faider’s playing

Wis aa da help we’d need

So on turning eighteen

In eighteen ninety eight

Tunes for wedding dances

Made music dan my fate

In Lerwick Faider bocht

My gaer ta tak in tow

Paying eighteen shillings

For fiddle, case an bow

Hadd oot a langer dances

Fae four o’clock to ten

Seventeen oors o playin

Fir me an twartree men

Bow apo me foreairm

An rockin too for aese

Fingers skynned bi tyoch strings

An ringin lugs fir days

Atween me spells o playing

Cam polkas, Shetland reels

Schottisches too I danced

An keekit up me heels

Mair as a decade passed dan

In lichtsome spree an foy

Whan I cam by thirty

Da fiddle wis laid by

Losin Dad an Tammie

An Clementine göd too

Left Leebie, me an Mam

Ta mak wir hom anew

Days taen up wi makkin

As postie an da lik

Foo life’s path is trodden

It passes in a blink

Trowe it aa my fiddle

Wis never far fae sicht

Fir neebor fock I’d play

Whan in aboot da nicht

Tammy took an interest

In aa da tunes I kent

Dan cam Erchie P Lee

My mindins fir ta hent

Noo I’m auld an happit

At eighty-five I’m don

But aye I sammas wissed

‘At my tunes dey wid live on

Though blate I telt my tale

In hoop someen wid mind

Aa at’s geen afore wis

Da mett o love an vynd

Now we move to a celebration of Shetland’s community life, and in particular a group of Lerwick and Scalloway women known collectively as ‘Da Hennie’. For almost sixty years these friends have met weekly in each other’s houses on Thursdays evenings between eight and eleven o’clock. Together, they enjoy a catch-up, homebakes and drinks, and over several decades they’ve seen each other through life’s significant events including births, marriages and deaths. Gatherings began in 1960 when members were in their late twenties or early thirties and they knitted whilst chatting to supplement family incomes. Now, they meet purely for pleasure and it was a privilege to attend their 28th September 2017 gathering to experience the space they create for each other in life.

Da Hennie

Thursday nights ir diamonds

A jewel atae wir weeks

A dram, an supper too

A time ta gaff an sheeks

For sixty years wir met

Wis six, an idders tö

Eight o clock’s da keek aff

O tree oors o “whit’s new?”

If we need, we shout

If we need, we shout

We pit wir heids tagedder

An we work it out

Da Hennie’s foo wir kent

We gadder turn aboot

Birthdays an Christmas

Is whan we aa geng oot

In 1960

Fae bairns we took wir aese

Wir makkin it cam too

Fir dan wis leaner days

Wir faced life tagedder

Weddings, births an grief

Spaekin aathing trowe bar

Politics an belief

Work at da phone exchange

In offices forby

In taxis an textiles

Wis foo we med wir wye

Lerwick life his altered

Fae early hennie days

Oil wealth brocht changes

New rods, new maet, new claes

Helly buses

Geed fae da Market Cross

But taxis shön took owre

An memories wis wir loss

Sixty years o freendship

Whit is dat really wirt?

Yis, it’s disagreements

But n’er an ackwart wird

An wir bairns noo

Haes a hennie tö

Da acht o wir meetins

Biggin lives anew

Loyalty, creativity, and skill, just some Shetland women’s qualities worth celebrating in song. Wherever you are in the world this Valentine’s weekend, love the lasses!

Signed 'Lasses Trust In Providence’ CDs are available from

Posted in: Creative Scene

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