Family Fun at the Shetland Folk Festival

by Louise Thomason -

There’s palpable excitement in the air as April comes to an end in Shetland. For music fans, it means one thing: Folk Festival time.

I’ve been going to the Folk Festival in one way or another since I was a child, taken along to concerts and workshops by my parents. I’m now doing the same thing – taking my son to see and hear music. He’s a bit shy of 3, so I’ve no idea if the acts and artists he sees will stay with him as long as my early Folk Festival experiences have with me, but I hope he enjoys it, at the very least.

A traditional Bolivian band, fun and silliness from the Old Rope String Band, beats from Edward II and countless other melodies and moments all left an impression on me and led to an absolute love of seeing live music.

It’s not just the music that makes the festival. Opening this year’s festival, Shetland actor Steven Robertson described the festival as Shetland’s “cultural exchange”, and he’s right. There’s something about the arrival of new people bringing their music to the place you are, and getting to experience sounds and voices and stories you might never have ordinarily which is really special.

Folk music is inherently inclusive (at least, I’ve always understood it to be). In Shetland it is played and listened to by all ages, and I love seeing young and old at packed out community halls dancing and socialising together. In an age of increasing community breakdown, it’s important to have these moments of coming together.

While the festival is famed for its lack of sleep and sessions that go on into the night (and morning), for most people with young children the daytime concerts are more suitable. Children are welcome at all concerts, but there are events put on just for families, too.

This year we went along to the Peerie Spang, held at Mareel on Sunday afternoon, to hear a concert from Welsh act Calan; singer-songwriter-ukulele-cello duo James Hill and Anne Janella and long time friends of the festival, Shooglenifty.

Parents and children of all ages took over the auditorium, the festooned lights adding to the feeling of excitement.

The fact that it and the café bar were closed to the public was great: I’m not of the opinion that there should be separate spaces for children and adults – kids are people too! – but knowing they could roam around and not be in danger of annoying anyone or spoil other people’s appreciation of the music made for a more relaxing time for everyone.

First up were Calan, a young Welsh folk band who bring a contemporary twist to their country’s traditional folk tunes. Their lively set had the bairns stomping along, especially when singer and accordionist Bethan Williams-Jones came down off the stage to give an impromptu Welsh dancing lesson. Getting to be part of making all the noise is most children’s dream, so this was a great addition to the gig.

Canadian duo James Hill and Anne Janella slowed things down a little, with enchanting tunes and songs on the ukulele and cello - and even an AC/DC tribute - before Shooglenifty took to the stage.

The Scottish band have recently regrouped, and their unique and infectious blend of traditional Celtic music fused with contemporary grooves and beats seem made for a big crowd of excitable bairns to wiggle about to. I have to admit we didn’t see all of the Shooglenifty set, though, as my own little shoogler was starting to wane, but that’s life with a toddler.

That the festival makes an effort to include children and families is no small thing. There is the Thursday morning nursery school session, open for all Shetland nurseries and partner providers and targeted at 3-5 years olds (and eligible two year olds); a private Additional Support Needs concert, and various youth workshops and sessions. Including the community and inspiring the next generation of musicians is incredibly important if the tradition of music is to be kept alive, so it’s only fitting there should be access to gigs, too.

Other highlights of this year’s festival included a sunny Saturday afternoon session onboard the beautiful tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl, with Norwegian food and music from visiting and local acts. The sail training ship, which dates from 1914, is incredible and a must see for young and old alike. Her inclusion in the Folk Festival is a brilliant move.

The Shetland Folk Festival is over for this year but check out their website for updates on getting tickets next year.

Posted in: Creative Scene