Our November Diary

by Alastair Hamilton -

Winter may be on the way, but we’re not about to go into hibernation. Far from it: the November diary is as full as ever.

We begin the month with what promises to be a huge treat, particularly for photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, when multi-award winning wildlife cameraman Doug Allan tells us about the most challenging assignments of his 35 years filming wildlife in the remotest places on Earth.

Doug’s career began in the British Antarctic Survey as a Scientist, research diver and photographer. Since 1983, he’s become one of the world’s best known and respected cameramen, specialising in natural history, expeditions and science documentaries. He has worked on The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Human Planet, Frozen Planet, Ocean Giants, Operation Iceberg, Wild Cameramen at Work, and Brian Cox’s Forces of Nature.

As Sir David Attenborough put it, 'Wildlife cameramen don’t come much more special than Doug Allan’.

At the Shetland Museum and Archives, an impressively-staged exhibition chronicles the effects of King Magnus VI, the Lawmender’s, innovative new law of 1274. It applied throughout the Norwegian realm, including Shetland, and put in place Norway’s first organised system of justice. Those who committed crimes were to be judged by the king, not by the victim’s relatives. Everyone was given the rights to receive care and have something to eat.

Amateur drama is an important part of Shetland life and several groups are active. From the 7th to the 10th, Shetland County Drama will be entertaining us in the Garrison Theatre with their production of Fiddler on the Roof. Later, from the 28th until 8th December, Islesburgh Drama Group will, once more, have us rolling in the aisles as they bring us their annual pantomime, which this year is Puss in Boots.

WordPlay, Shetland’s book festival, runs from 8th to 11th November and the line-up is as appealing as ever, with appearances by writers from Shetland and around the UK. It kicks off on the Thursday evening with a celebration of Shetland writing and on the following night one of Shetland’s best known authors, Robert Alan Jamieson, leads a creative writing workshop. Also on the Friday evening, we have talks from Jo Swinson MP on Equal Power and Professor A C Grayling on Democracy and its Crisis.

Saturday’s programme features dialect writing from Ann Marie Anderson, who’ll begin by introducing her story of Da Fisherman’s Wife to a young audience then leading a talk for slightly older children on writing in dialect. There’s also a travel writing workshop and a talk from Malachy Tallack about his book, The Valley at the Centre of the World; Robert Alan Jamieson on his novel, mac Cloud Falls, a screening of the timeless Where the Wild Things Are; and an appearance by Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun.

On Sunday morning, The Guardian’s Patrick Barkham leads a nature-themed walk around Lerwick and members of Edinburgh University’s Writing the North project will explore the writing of Shetland women in the 19th century. After lunch, James and Tom Morton will be talking about Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World. In the cinema, there’s a showing of the 1969 classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Sunday evening’s options include a round-table discussion on nature writing; John Goodlad on The Cod Hunters, his exploration of Shetland’s cod fishery; and Patrick Barkham, who’ll take us around Britain in the company of his book, Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago. The festival draws to a close with a late-night open mic session featuring music, readings or even stand-up comedy.

Over the same weekend, there’s another of Shetland’s music festivals, this one a memorial to the extraordinary talent of Thomas Fraser, a shy fisherman and crofter from Burra Isle who recorded thousands of blues, country and jazz songs on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tapes were only discovered 25 years after his death in 1978 and, from them, his grandson compiled 6 CDs, which have enabled audiences around the world to hear his remarkable singing and guitar-playing. Meanwhile, a committee was formed to run regular Thomas Fraser Memorial Festivals, the first of which resulted in a feature in The Observer’s music monthly.

This year’s bill is headed up by Nashville-based J P Harris and the Tough Choices and other US artists appearing include Miss Tess and Steve Thomas. There will be performers from Shetland and Orkney, too. If you’re a fan of Americana, you’ll enjoy this BBC Radio Shetland preview, which also looks forward to the 2019 Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.

remarkable singing and guitar-playing

There’s more music on 14 November, when two young Shetland musicians who are well known outside the islands play together here for the first time. Neil Georgeson (piano) and Sophie Rocks (harp) will offer “Mirrie Dancers”, a programme inspired by the features of the night sky and by dance music. They will mark Claude Debussy's centenary with several works including his Danse sacrée et danse profane, set against more contemporary works like the Suite Galactique by French-Canadian composer Caroline Lizotte and the world premiere of a new work by British composer Patrick Nunn. The concert will also feature arrangements of traditional folk music alongside classics by Chopin, Stockhausen and Ravel. These concerts are hugely popular and this one is likely to sell out quickly.

The following weekend – from the 16th to the 18th – the main event is another annual favourite, the Craft Fair. Each year, it’s bigger and more wide-ranging in its scope, but the quality – overseen by the Shetland Arts and Crafts Association – is consistently high.

Many kinds of craftwork have long been practised in Shetland, but these days the range is quite remarkable. The association publishes an annual guide to makers and many of them can be visited on the islands’ Craft Trail. They work in all kinds of material: ceramics, glass, wood, silver, leather, clay or paper. Needless to say, wool and other textiles are particularly well represented and there are several photographers and painters, too.

Towards the end of the month, Shetland will be treated to a spectacle that’s already been seen by sell-out audiences in Copenhagen, Catoira, Dublin, Waterford and Stockholm. Described as “a stunning visual celebration of Viking heritage”, the show features a professional cast, accompanied by Shetland’s Hjaltibonhoga fiddlers (who perform at the Edinburgh Tattoo) and a troupe of local dancers. They’ll retell the story of a warrior poet, Egil Skallagrimsson. The performance is a roadshow that’s been developed as part of the European Union-funded Follow The Vikings project, which involves 15 international partners led by Shetland Amenity Trust. The aim is to expand knowledge and understanding of the Viking world and its legacy. After Shetland, the show will be seen in Reykjavik in February and, lastly, in York at the beginning of March.

That’s by no means all that’s happening in November. There will, of course, be fireworks and bonfires all over the islands on or around the 5th. The Armistice will be marked by a Festival of Remembrance on the 10th and wreath-laying at war memorials on the 11th.

Walks are as absorbing as ever and there’s always the chance to see some of our wildlife. Wandering recently, not far from where I live, I came upon seals hauled out on a beach. These were Atlantic grey seals and we might expect to see pups any day now. I also spotted an otter even closer to home, though I missed some memorable sightings of orcas off Sumburgh Head in the last week in October.

The sun is already quite low in the sky and, even at mid-day, the shadows are lengthening. By the beginning of December, that big orange ball will rise only 8 degrees above the horizon, offering photographers some interesting creative opportunities. We hope for some more displays of the northern lights, or aurora borealis, too.

If all of that still leaves space in our diaries, that is by no means all. The second series of the much-praised Island Medics starts on BBC1 on 12th November, chronicling the work of our emergency services. There are sales of work, quiz sessions and concerts all over the islands.

The nights may be longer, but we seem to find ever more ways of filling them.

Posted in: Community