Our July 2019 Diary

by Alastair Hamilton -

This month’s diary is as packed as ever but, in high summer, there’s even more reason to enjoy Shetland’s great outdoors; and many of the events this month reflect that.

Though there’s something for everyone, many folk get involved in the action afloat. Around the islands, competitive rowing has become very well established, using a modern version of the traditional six-oared fishing boat, or “sixareen’; there are boats and crews all around the islands, not to mention plenty of vocal support. In the north-west mainland, there’s a race from Brae to Aith on the 10th and, three days later, Aith has its rowing regatta. There are other rowing regattas in Yell and at the westside village of Skeld on the 20th and 26th.

Meanwhile, there’s another adventure in store for our own tall ship, the restored sail-fishing vessel Swan, which has recently returned from a trip that took in St Kilda, the Hebrides and Orkney. This time, she’s once again taking part in the Tall Ships Races and there are two opportunities to sail with her. The first, between the 13th and the 23rd, is the ‘cruise in company’ along the beautiful Norwegian coast from Fredrikstad to Bergen; after that, from the 24th to the 27th, Swan will take part in the traditional ‘Parade of Sail’ and then return to Lerwick. At the time of writing, places were still available on both the Fredrikstad-Bergen and Bergen-Lerwick legs.

Larger vessels will be much in evidence in Lerwick, which will welcome 27 visits by cruise liners during the month, including regular callers such as the Magellan (pictured above, on the 4th), Black Watch (on the 13th) and the Hebridean Princess (on the 23rd). The town will be particularly busy on days when two liners are in port, for example when the Queen Victoria and the Aidacara call on the 31st. If you’re visiting Shetland on any of these ships, there’s a page on our website to help you make the most of your time with us.

There’s lots for landlubbers to enjoy, too. It’s not too late to catch the latest ‘Shetland Made’ exhibition at Bonhoga, which runs until the 14th. There’s also an excellent show of Shetland wildlife photography, running until the 28th at the Weaving Shed Gallery in Hillswick, in the north mainland.

Shetland’s environment, in all its many facets, is the star of the Shetland Nature Festival & European Geoparks Week, which runs from the 6th to the 14th. Its patron is naturalist and television wildlife presenter, Simon King, whose Shetland Diaries brought the islands’ wildlife to BBC viewers several years ago: some clips are still available. As he puts it, "Shetland has a wild magic all of its own. This land of sea and sky is bubbling with natural promise and the chance of a surprise encounter around every bay and over every hill.”

Shetland has a wild magic all of its own

The full festival programme is available online. The opening event is the Noss Open Day, when the wardens on the island of Noss – a National Nature Reserve – will welcome hundreds of visitors to see one of Shetland’s finest seabird colonies. Noss is easily reached via a short car ferry run from Lerwick to Bressay and an even briefer ride on an inflatable across the narrow sound to Noss. The island is open throughout the summer and several operators also offer non-landing cruises from Lerwick that get visitors really close to the seabird cliffs.

The following day, Sunday 7th, the focus shifts to Sumburgh Head, the southern tip of the Shetland mainland and the setting for what is probably Britain’s most accessible puffin colony, with birds that are entirely unfazed by cameras just three or four metres away. It’s a reserve managed by the RSPB.

But there’s more to Sumburgh than seabirds; there will also be a whale watch and a range of activities for children, plus guided walks. Visitors can also tour the lighthouse buildings and absorb their story and that of the people who worked here. Also fascinating is the site’s role in the Second World War, when a very early deployment of radar prevented Orkney’s Scapa Flow becoming the British equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

As the programme reveals, there are more open days during the following week, including an introduction to Shetland’s marine biology at the North Atlantic Fisheries College in Scalloway on the 8th and a look at peatland, geology, wild flowers and minibeasts at the Shetland Croft House Museum on the 9th.

Wednesday 10th sees an open day at the remarkable Iron Age archaeological site at Old Scatness; again, there are guided walks and the day also includes a three-hour workshop on natural dyes. The restored Quendale Mill – one of three such large mills that once existed in Shetland – has its open day on the 11th and there’s another open day, this time at the Shetland Museum and Archives, on the 12th, which will feature Shetland’s flora.

The rest of the week offers all sorts of things to do. There are several other guided walks, kayaking, coasteering and exhibitions, plus – ahead of the festival – an intriguing five-day musical project for children and adults that celebrates one small bird, the Red-Necked Phalarope that breeds in Shetland but winters in Peru. It concludes with a performance in Mareel on Friday 6 July.

If all this leaves you in need of some refreshment, the Lerwick Brewery is also running open days throughout the month, on the 7th, 13th, 21st and 27th, and offers tours at other times, too.

The third week of July, from the 13th to the 21st, sees another festival, this time in our northernmost island of Unst. The range of events that the community manages to arrange grows every year; UnstFest is quite simply amazing. Where else, I wonder, would you find, on one festival programme, glass-making, frisbee competitions, a half marathon, The Wizard of Oz, a Planetarium, a Gruffalo Walk, knitting and spinning, a trip on a Viking longboat, a fencing tournament and prize bingo, plus lots of music and lashings of good food? Glastonbury will clearly need to up its game.

Talking of music, it’s not neglected in the midst of all this activity. July sees Shetland Folk Frenzy, running from the 14th to the 19th. It’s a week of workshops, concerts, sessions and masterclasses curated by a renowned Shetland fiddler, Kevin Henderson. Formerly the Fiddle Frenzy, it’s been broadened in scope to include other aspects of folk music whilst still featuring the Shetland fiddle tradition at the core. New for 2019 is an ‘ensemble’ class, alongside the fiddle classes, to engage other musicians and instruments who wish to know more about arrangement and composition; it’ll be led by a special guest, Antti Järvela from Finland.

That’s not all. Shetland’s traditional music can also be heard at a number of other events, for example in Islesburgh Community Centre on the 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th; at the Asta Clubhouse on the 4th and 18th; in the Lounge Bar in Lerwick, with Fjanna, on the 5th and 19th; or in Aith Hall, on the westside, on the 6th.

All the festivals have plenty to keep younger folk entertained, but – with the arrival of the school holidays – there’s lots more. At Mareel, on the 20th, Scottish Ballet presents Wee Hansel and Gretel, described as “a wee version of a big ballet” in which we join the pair as they go on an adventure deep into the woods. Along the way, they meet a rather beguiling witch and her mysterious raven, before arriving in an enchanted gingerbread house filled with dancing sweet treats and toys that come to life. It’s a perfect introduction to the magic of ballet.

The cinema programme at Mareel also has a decidedly holiday feel, with the arrival of Toy Story 4, Peppa Pig – Festival of Fun, The Lion King, Paw Patrol: Mighty Pups and – also in canine vein – The Queen’s Corgi.

But there’s plenty for older audiences too, including Men in Black: International; Ma, starring Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer; and an atmospheric thriller, Brightburn.

Also at Mareel, Jack Dee is the latest in a long line of comedians to tread Shetland boards; he’ll be previewing new material for a forthcoming UK tour on the 13th. Like so many other such gigs, it sold out more or less instantly.

There is more: much more. Shetland poet, Roseanne Watt – winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize 2018 – will be launching her book, Moder Dy, at Mareel on the 4th. It’s been described as “a shimmering, unforgettable collection” by John Glenday and as “a celebration of language, place, and the mystery of being alive” by Janice Galloway. But what does ‘moder dy’ mean?

‘The old Shetland fishermen still speak with something like reverence of the forgotten art of steering by the moder dy (mother wave), the name given to an underswell which it is said always travels in the direction of home’.

Add in other events such as sheepdog trials (in Fetlar on the 6th) or a waistline-challenging programme of charity fundraising Sunday afternoon teas - at two or three venues every weekend - and we’ve yet another very full month ahead. Bon appetit!

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