Our January 2019 Diary
by Alastair Hamilton -
The days lengthen quickly at this latitude, from 6 hours between sunrise and sunset at the beginning of January to almost 8 hours at the end. The coming of these longer days has historically been celebrated in northern regions; but nowhere with more energy and spectacle than in Shetland. In January, we have the first two in a season of fire festivals that stretches through to mid-March.
The first is in the village of Scalloway, Shetland’s ancient capital, and it takes place this year on Friday 11 January. Several hundred guizers, grouped into squads, march along the village main street, hauling their Viking galley to a slipway close to the Boating Club. There, they release the longship into the sea and throw their burning torches into it, thus ensuring its fiery end. Afterwards, the squads circulate among several public halls, entertaining guests well into the small hours.
Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa, the largest of them all, is always held on the last Tuesday in January; as the programme always asserts, ‘there will be no postponement for weather’. More than 800 torch-bearers take part in the procession and they’re joined by a brass band and a pipe band. Several thousand spectators look on and the parties in the halls following the procession cater for well over 2,000; so, it’s a huge event. In Lerwick, unlike all the other fire festivals, the galley is burned in a public park, which allows excellent views for the crowds assembled around three sides.
The main event is preceded by a Junior Up Helly Aa involving students from the Anderson High School and, in the afternoon, there’s the Fiery Sessions concert of music by Shetland performers.
The fire festivals loom large in Shetland social life and tend to absorb a great deal of time and effort. Nevertheless, there’s plenty more to keep us occupied during the month. There’s more music, of course. As well as various more or less informal music nights around the islands, we have a treat in store towards the end of January when we can look forward to three concerts by Glasgow-based Rose Room.
This won’t be the band’s first visit; unusually, in response to public demand, they played at two successive Shetland Folk Festivals. You can sample one of those performances here. They’re now one of Scotland’s leading jazz ensembles, delighting audiences with their take on gypsy jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. As well as playing 1930s ‘Hot Club’ standards, they offer their own highly-accomplished material.
The quartet is fronted by award-winning violinist and singer Seonaid Aitken. She was voted Scottish Jazz Awards ‘Best Vocalist’ in 2017 & 2018 and Rose Room emerged as ‘Best Band’. She also plays with the orchestra of Scottish Opera and the Tim Kliphuis Sextet and is a familiar voice on BBC Radio Scotland, where she presents ‘Jazz Nights’. She’s joined on double bass by guitar maker, Jimmy Moon of ‘Moon Guitars’, and Celtic Connections award-winners Tam Gallagher and Tom Watson on rhythm and solo guitars respectively.
Together, they’ll once again transport their Shetland audiences to the cafés of Paris, in appearances at the String Café Bar in Lerwick, in Brae and again in Lerwick at Mareel.
Meanwhile, Mareel’s two excellent cinemas present the best of the new film releases, blended with independent movies and golden oldies. There’s also a special presentation direct from the London Palladium.
The mainstream offerings include Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; Holmes and Watson; and Robert Redford in his swansong, The Old Man & The Gun. Among the revivals are Jaws (1975), E.T The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). More unusual features include Three Identical Strangers; Faces Places (a charming, creative French road trip); and, as part of the ScreenPride strand, Disobedience.
The show from the London Palladium is that gem among musicals, The King and I, which Rodgers and Hammerstein set in 1860s Bangkok. Although staged in London, this is the award-winning, critically-acclaimed production from New York’s Lincoln Centre Theater, with a wonderful score that includes Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance?
There’s lots more on offer in the islands in January, with community events of various kinds all around Shetland; but many of us will be taking advantage of those lengthening afternoons to spend a bit more time enjoying the outdoors.
It helps that nowhere in Shetland is more than three miles from the sea and most people live much closer to it than that. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in simply exploring the coastline, indulging in some beachcombing or foraging and perhaps making the acquaintance of seals or (with a bit of luck) an otter. Whales, including orcas, have also been putting in occasional appearances over the past few months.
The low winter light and, probably, the occasional storm will provide inspiration for photographers and painters.
Truly, we’re never short of things to do.
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