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The Shetland Diary: February 2018

by Alastair Hamilton -

If variety is the spice of life, then Shetland is the place to be this February, for the month is marked by a remarkable range of events. Some are familiar but others are entirely original and we’re very fortunate to be one of the few places in the UK with access to these.

Let’s start with the familiar: in this case, that smell of paraffin smoke that means we’re in the heart of fire festival season. After Lerwick Up Helly Aa, we can look forward to no fewer than another seven fire festivals during February. They all follow broadly the same pattern as Lerwick’s, with some daytime visits, for example to schools or care homes, followed by a torchlit procession, the spectacular burning of the galley and parties that go on in local halls well into the wee small hours.

However, there are differences, too; these rural festivals vary in scale, but all are smaller than the Lerwick one. In all of them, the galley is afloat as it burns, making a spectacular sight. The rural festivals also differ from Lerwick’s in that the guizers making up the squads include women as well as men.

The Nesting and Girlsta event is on 9th February; it’s followed on the 16th by Uyeasound, in Unst, and Northmavine, in the north-west of the mainland. A week later, on the 23rd, it’s the turn of Bressay, the island that adjoins Lerwick, and Cullivoe in Yell. The February series comes to an end with Norwick in Unst, on the 24th.

And that’s not the last of 2018; two of the largest festivals take place in March. The South Mainland Up Helly Aa procession takes place this year in Sandwick, on the 9th; and you can see photos of their galley being built on their Facebook page. The last fire festival of the year is in Delting, in the north mainland, on the 16th. If catching a fire festival is something you’d like to do, either of these larger ones is well worth seeing. Meanwhile, Da Gadderie at the Shetland Museum has an exhibition of Up Helly Aa memorabilia, running until 11 February.

What else is on? Well, lots.

If catching a fire festival is something you’d like to do, either of these larger ones is well worth seeing.

Shetland Arts has something very unusual lined up. From 3 February until 9 March, Mareel will be hosting The Colony, a film installation by Vietnamese-born artist and filmmaker Dinh Q. Lê. It’s a fascinating piece that looks at bird populations, land use and exploitation in the Cincha Islands, off Peru. Jane Matthews, Exhibition Manager explains:

“I thought it would be of particular interest here, relevant in the context of our own ecology and bird populations and the fact we are an island with an interesting history of land use. And, apart from anything else, it has amazing footage and a beguiling story to tell. The work has been shown previously in London, Sheffield, Birmingham and Rotterdam, and will be shown in Lima, Peru after it's shown here in Shetland. It is excellent to be a part of the story of this artwork as well."

The powerful three-screen installation immerses the viewer in panoramic scenes of the timeless and desolate Chincha Islands and gradually reveals a sublime landscape with a complex history, which includes the exploitation of guano by the British and a war over that resource – which was used as fertiliser – fought by Spanish, Peruvian and American forces. The islands are no longer permanently inhabited, but some guano is still harvested.

Dinh Q. Lê was born in Hà Tiên, in what was then South Vietnam, in 1968. In the late 1970s, his family escaped by boat before eventually settling in the US where he completed his education. He now spends time in both Vietnam and Los Angeles producing his work, which includes installation, video, sculpture, and urban intervention. He has exhibited extensively in many international group shows and was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His film, shot from a boat approaching the islands, cameras on the ground and drones circling above, is accompanied by Daniel Wohl’s elegiac soundtrack. Lê captures a bleak landscape haunted by its brutal past.

At the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale, an exhibition, We’re Here Because We’re Here is the culmination of the project movingly marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War. On 1 July 2016, around 1,400 volunteers dressed in First World War uniform appeared unexpectedly in a variety of locations around the UK, including Shetland. They were taking part in a modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller and produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, in collaboration with 26 organisations across the UK, including the National Theatre of Scotland. The exhibition features photographs and films documenting the impact of what was a very moving piece of public art. It runs until 18 March.

Another unusual project arrives in Shetland on 10 February, direct from Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival. Northern Flyway is a newly created performance by Inge Thomson and recently arrived Shetland resident Jenny Sturgeon, exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds and birdsong.

Drawing on such sources as the extensive field-recordings of musician/composer and birdsong expert Magnus Robb, the duo have worked with singer/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow) and the renowned vocal sculptor Jason Singh.

Jenny’s background as a biologist and Inge’s home island of Fair Isle have contributed to an evocative piece, combining vocal and instrumental composition with sonic experimentation and lush visuals.

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an evocative piece

Now, that's a familiar face! If you're a fan of BBC1's Shetland murder mystery series, there's good news. It returns on Tuesday 13 February with a new six-parter. Perez (Douglas Henshall) has to deal with murders from the past and present that have unsettling similarities. The case involves the overturning of the conviction of one Thomas Malone, who has spent 23 years in jail, and the consequent re-opening of the investigation. It proves pretty challenging.

Home grown drama also flourishes in the islands. Later in the month, from the 17th, Da Gadderie hosts an exhibition showing the work of the long-established Islesburgh Drama Group, which has put on many memorable productions. Amateur drama is really popular in Shetland and many groups are involved; if you’re minded to move to the islands and to tread the boards, they’re always on the lookout for new talent.

Shetland has established a presence on the comedy circuit over recent years and the next show features a second visit to the islands by Rich Hall, whose deadpan American wit can be expected to delight the audience on 21 February, just as it did on his first, sell-out visit two years ago.

There’s more music towards the end of the month. On the 25th, Ragged Wood presents Lindsay Lou and band at Mareel, with support from local group, Vair. Lindsay Lou hails from Michigan and this is also a return visit, as she’s previously appeared at the 2015 Shetland Folk Festival. She and her band have had rave reviews: after their 2017 Celtic Connections show, Tim Chipping wrote in Roots magazine: “I’m convinced I have seen the most affectingly expressive singer since Amy Winehouse, backed by the new Punch Brothers.”

On the 28th, opera-lovers are in for a treat, with an appearance by a group of Scottish Opera’s young stars. There’s something for everyone, from opera first timers to seasoned fans, and it seems they’ll be packing a very large suitcase with all the appropriate costumes. The programme includes favourites from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Bernstein’s Candide alongside some lesser known treasures.

Add to all this a range of local events around the islands, not to mention a full film programme at Mareel, and there’s no question that February’s diary is one of the most adventurous we’ve seen in a while.

February’s diary is one of the most adventurous we’ve seen in a while

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