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Our March 2020 Diary

by Alastair Hamilton -

Music is never absent from the Shetland diary, and this month offers real variety; but March also sees drama, the last three fire festivals of the season and a typically eclectic film programme.

Early in the month, on the 4th, Scottish Opera will be here to perform a selection of highlights, including Delibes’ Flower Duet, Vaughan Williams’ Blue larkspur in a garden and many more from such composers as Mozart, Léhar and Scottish Opera’s Composer in Residence Samuel Bordoli, all performed by four singers and a pianist.

A couple of days later, on the 6th, Shetland Arts presents Elephant Sessions (pictured below) in Mareel. The band won the BBC Scots Trad Music Awards Album of The Year in 2017 and Live Act of The Year 2019. After appearing at last year’s Shetland Folk Festival 2019, the band toured around the world, and it’s great to welcome back this “furiously energetic five piece” (The Wee Review).

The String, in Lerwick, has concerts by Ben Ottewell (Gomez) on the 6th and 7th, and Vair on the 29th. The newest of Shetland's home-grown talent will be on display at the Shetland Schools Music Festival, which runs from the 16th to the 19th and, this year, features primary school pupils.

There’s lots of other music-making around the islands during the rest of the month, too, with traditional nights at the Asta Golf Club (5th and 19th); the Shetland Hotel (12th and 26th); Aith Hall (14th); Bixter Hall (21st); and Carnegie Hall, Sandwick (27th). The Shetland Mandolin Band meets weekly from the 2nd.

There’s lots of other music-making around the islands

A wealth of drama

The other prominent feature of the March diary is drama. Amateur drama has a big following in Shetland and the standard is high, as audiences will once again discover at the Shetland County Drama Festival. This year represents the event’s 70th anniversary and there are to be fifteen performances over four nights, beginning on the 9th.

All sorts of theatre are represented, involving local dramatic societies and schools, and the programme includes new works by local playwrights. The adjudications – always keenly anticipated – are by Mr Bruce Adams.

Later in the month, from the 26th until the 28th, there’s more drama from one of the longest-established local groups, when Islesburgh Drama Group presents The White Bird Passes, by Anne Downie, adapted from a novel by Jessie Kesson. Set in one of Lerwick’s lanes, in a very different age, it centres on the young life of Janie MacVean.

Despite the poor, crowded and dirty conditions prevailing in those days, it’s a place where Janie is happy. But when the Cruelty Man arrives, bringing with him the threat of the dreaded ‘home’ – the orphanage that is every child’s nightmare – her contented childhood may be coming to an end. It’s described a “a gritty and moving portrayal of a young girl facing hardship and deprivation” written with warmth, humour and insight.

Cinema Highlights

If on-screen drama appeals, there’s no shortage of it at Mareel’s two cinemas. You can find the full cinema programme here but some of the highlights include Steve Coogan’s satirical take on a high-street billionaire, Greed; the legendary 1951 adaptation by Elia Kazan of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, with Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter; and Parasite, the black comedy from renowned Korean director Bong Joon-ho that was the first foreign-language film to pick up this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

However, there’s another very special evening with a local theme, when nature guide Brydon Thomason and photographer Richard Shucksmith will present an enchanting documentary about a family of Shetland otters, followed by a Q&A session. Although Shetland is home to the highest density of otters in Europe, encounters with them depend either on the skill of a guide such as Brydon, or good luck. Brydon has been following otters for thirty years and the film is built on his wealth of experience and on Richard’s outstanding photography.

Last of the fire festivals

There’s drama of a very different sort during March, as the last three fire festivals of 2020 take place. The first, on the 6th, is the Walls Junior Up Helly Aa, in the west mainland.

It’s followed by two of the largest rural Up Helly A events. The first is in the South Mainland, on the 13th, when it’s the turn of Bigton to host the event. That means that the burning of the galley will take place on the magnificent sand tombolo of St Ninian’s Ayre.

The Delting Up Helly A is another of the larger ones. Again, all the communities in the parish are involved and the burning will take place at the Delting Boating Club in the village of Brae. The Delting folk will be keen to ensure that the season ends with a real spectacle.

‘Any Questions?’ pays a visit

The BBC Radio 4 discussion programme, Any Questions?, will be broadcast from Shetland on 13th March. The panel that evening will include two prominent Westminster MPs, Hilary Benn, who represents Leeds Central for Labour, and Joanna Cherry QC, who is the SNP’s Justice and Home Affairs spokesperson.

Also taking part will be Lord Lamont, the Conservative peer and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose full title is Baron Lamont of Lerwick; he was born in the town in 1942.

Down to the sea again

With spring days ahead, thoughts will begin to turn to the sea. Around the islands, many hundreds of small craft will be readied for sailing or fishing expeditions later in the season.

Larger vessels will be putting in appearances, too: it seems hard to believe, but the cruise liner season has already begun, with a visit in late February from a Norwegian ship, Fridtjof Nansen, the latest addition to the ‘Hurtigruten’ fleet. The next visits will be by Magellan (pictured above), which calls on the 13th, and Astoria, which will be in Lerwick on the 21st. The 2020 cruise calendar features over a hundred scheduled cruise liner visits.

Maybe you’re thinking of a visit to Shetland. Perhaps you’re contemplating a new life in the islands. Either way, as our diaries show, this is a community where every month brings something special.

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