Our February 2020 Diary

by Alastair Hamilton -

The Scalloway Fire Festival and Lerwick Up Helly A may be behind us but the sparks continue to fly throughout February. There are six more Up Helly A celebrations during the month, beginning with Nesting and Girlsta, in the north-east of the Shetland mainland, on the 7th. The following week, on the 14th, it’s the turn of Uyeasound in Unst, and on the 21st the folk in Northmavine will be celebrating.

The following weekend sees three more: Cullivoe, in the island of Yell, and Bressay, the island closest to Lerwick, light up the torches on the 28th. The following night, it’s the Norwick Up Helly A; it’s in the north of Unst, so is the northernmost in Shetland.

These aren’t among the largest of the fire festivals but all the same ingredients are there: the lighting of the torches, the procession, the burning of the galley and parties in local community halls that go on into the wee small hours; and of course there’s a strong community spirit behind all of them. March brings the season to a close, with two of the larger fire festivals due to take place in the South Mainland and in Delting, in the north mainland. If you’ve not made it to any of the others, either of these will leave a lasting impression, not least for their spectacular settings.

When we’re not carrying torches in February, we’re very likely to be listening to – or possibly playing – music, because there’s a wealth of it during the month, with around a dozen concerts or more informal sessions.

One of the highlights during the month is Shetland’s accomplished saxophonist, Norman Willmore and his quartet, underlining the diversity of Shetland’s musical talents. They appear on 7 February in the Muckle Roe Hall, in the north-west of the islands.

Norman impressed us all with his playing when he was still at school and he’s been playing with the other three band members for three years now. They share the performance, with no single player dominating, and their music, though it has no lack of momentum, manages also to be soft and inviting. It’s an eclectic mix: Scandinavian and Appalachian folk songs; old wartime tunes; hymns; and all of this leavened with free jazz. This concert is to be recorded and will form a new album.

Superb fiddle playing is guaranteed at Mareel, the arts centre, on the 10th. RANT is a band combining four of the finest fiddle players in the north of Scotland, two from Shetland and two from the Highlands.

Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie join forces to create a sound which is both rich and lush while retaining all the bite and spark synonymous with a Scottish fiddle player. Using just their fiddles, they weave a tapestry of melodies, textures, layers and sounds. Known for their work as soloists and with various bands, this is a celebration of the instrument for which they all have a passion.

Four days later, The Jellyman’s daughter appear at The String, an intimate venue above an excellent café-restaurant on Lerwick’s main street. This Edinburgh-based duo – Graham Kelly and Emily Coe – produce what BBC Radio 2’s Mark Radcliffe called “a really distinctive sound…very sweet harmonies”. They’ve toured extensively in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and North America, playing original songs and arrangements in genres that range across bluegrass, post-rock, folk and soul.

Next up, on the 19th, is a larger, five-piece band, the long established Breabach, who’ll be appearing at Mareel on their 15th anniversary European tour. Over those years, the band has gone from strength to strength and is very much part of the vibrant musical scene that has grown and developed over recent decades in Glasgow (where they’re based) and more widely in Scotland and indeed Shetland.

Last year, they picked up the Album of the Year award at the BBC Alba Scots Trad Music Awards for Frenzy of the Meeting. Uniting Megan Henderson (Fiddle, Vocals), James Lindsay (Double Bass, Vocals), Calum MacCrimmon (Bagpipes, Whistle, Bouzouki, Vocals), James Duncan Mackenzie (Bagpipes, Flute, Whistle) and Ewan Robertson (Guitar, Vocals, Cajon), the quintet respect the origins of both the music they play and the roots of the band.

If our musical appetite isn’t already satisfied, there’s no shortage of more informal concerts and music nights. For example, the Shetland Mandolin Band meets twice during the month, as does the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Club. There are music nights on the west side of Shetland, too, at Aith and Bixter, and at the Asta Golf Club, just north of the village of Scalloway.

Moving from music into dance, there’s something very special at Mareel on 27 February, when Scottish Dance Theatre will use their distinctive mixture of dance, theatre and storytelling to present Antigone, Interrupted - an intimate solo work, performed in the round, re-imagining the Greek tragedy of Antigone for contemporary audiences.

Exploring the strength and vulnerability of the body as a tool for resistance and civil disobedience, the piece follows the story of a young woman who disobeys the law and puts her body on the line to defend what she thinks is right. Created by choreographer Joan Clevillé and acclaimed performer Solène Weinachter, the work examines the value of dissent in contemporary democracy and how the body (and in particular the female body) can be the target of oppression but also a powerful tool for challenging social injustice.

On 7 February, there’s an evening with Mark Beaumont at Mareel that will clearly appeal to cycling enthusiasts. Cycling has become pretty popular in Shetland over recent years and the Shetland Wheelers’ members have competed in the UK, France, the Faroe Islands and at the various locations that have hosted the Natwest Island Games.

Mark Beaumont set out to make Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days a two-wheeled reality. Having smashed the circumnavigation cycling World Record twice in his career, he now holds this 18,000 mile title in a time of 78 days and 14 hours, averaging 240 miles a day.

Over the past decade, Mark’s epic documentaries have taken viewers to over 100 countries, into the Arctic, the high mountains and around the commonwealth, also surviving capsize in the mid-Atlantic. The evening will offer a fascinating insight into Mark’s career of adventure.

Also at Mareel, the cinemas – which have just been upgraded with the very latest projectors – will be showing the attractive blend of films old and new that draws in diverse audiences. Recent or imminent releases include Sam Mendes’ much-praised 1917; Armando Iannuci’s witty take on The Personal History of David Copperfield; Uncut Gems, which has been hailed as a career highlight for Adam Sandler; and the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, which features Anja Taylor-Joy and Bill Nighy, who, incidentally, was a guest at Shetland’s 2017 ScreenPlay film festival.

Classic films include Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Hollywood noir at its dazzling best, and Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. But these are just a few of the great films on offer: you can find the full programme here.

At the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale, the striking Ultima Thule exhibition continues through February and into March. It tells a timeless story spanning centuries, of migrants fleeing from war and persecution or seeking a better life for loved ones. We take a closer look at it here.

No doubt about it: there’s an extraordinary number of things to see and enjoy during February!

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