Here is our newsletter from November 2009. To receive our monthly newsletters by email, please sign-up using the form in the left column.
Following the tsunami that devastated many areas around the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004, people in Shetland have been working to help communities in Tamil Nadu, India, recover from the catastrophe. Shetland Islands Council immediately agreed to offer financial assistance and a local voluntary group was established to raise further funds and organise skills exchanges between Tamil Nadu and Shetland.
Since then a great deal has been achieved. Teachers from Shetland have worked in Tamil Nadu and vice versa. Experts from Shetland have undertaken specialist tasks in Tamil Nadu, for example to assess the scope for developing the region's heritage as an economic asset. The Shetland voluntary group has raised more than £12,000 through a variety of activities, such as supermarket bag-packing and Sunday teas, and recently provided £10,000 for the purchase of a school bus.
However, the project that has probably had most impact is a micro-finance scheme, which offers small loans to support people with new business ideas. In the two years in which it has been operating, 840 people have used loans to establish or expand businesses, freeing them from the crippling interest rates charged by money-lenders.
Chandra Sekaran of the Hope Foundation, which administers the scheme, says that effect of micro-finance has been "astounding". He explains that people who were virtually serfs have been able to buy the equipment they need to set themselves up in business, including vehicles and boats. As their income has increased, they have also been able to send their children to school, college or skills training. Mr Sekaran believes that the opportunity to be gainfully employed is probably among the reasons for a decrease in alcohol and tobacco consumption. Many lessons have been learned and the principles are now being applied by the Hope Foundation in other areas.
One of the obstacles to expanding the micro-finance scheme has been the difficulty of administering it. Until now, staff have had to walk or use bicycles to travel around the sixteen villages in the Tharangambadi district. However, the Shetland Tamil Nadu Association has paid for three mopeds, which will allow much easier contact with clients and increase productivity. In a letter to the people of Shetland, Mr Sekaran praises the exchange between Shetland and India, emphasising the sense of friendship and belonging that has been created. He expresses the "deepest gratitude" of all those involved in the project in Tamil Nadu for the help that Shetland people have provided in realising "a dream".
Meanwhile, another of Shetland's overseas aid projects has seen a shift in emphasis and a change in its committee. Edwin Moar, who has been a stalwart of the Shetland Aid Trust, has decided to retire after 17 years" involvement. The Aid Trust has sent huge quantities of aid to Albania and, more recently, other countries in the region. For many years, lorries and a converted bus have made the long journey from Shetland, right across Europe, but arrangements have now been made with another charity, Blythswood Care, for delivery of goods by their vehicles.
As part of the long-running Viking Unst project, which is investigating a series of Viking sites on the island of Unst, the Shetland Amenity Trust proposes to construct a Viking longhouse. They've just sought planning permission for the project and a drawing of the longhouse can be found here. It should be an impressive sight, particularly as a full-sized Viking longship will be on display nearby.
Shetland's ancient capital, the village of Scalloway, has many tales to tell. One of the most compelling is that of the Shetland Bus, which was the name given to the clandestine operation to ferry resistance workers and refugees between Shetland and western Norway during the Second World War. Until now, the history of the village has had to be crammed into a tiny museum on the main street; however, thanks to investment of around £3m, there is to be a new museum, housed in an adapted knitwear factory adjacent to the historic Scalloway Castle. There will be much more space to do justice to the remarkable Shetland Bus story and much else besides.
We've mentioned Shetland's appeal as a base for whale-watching in previous editions of this newsletter but October brought a new treat for enthusiasts. Viewers of the BBC2 series, Autumnwatch, have seen some extraordinary footage of killer whales shot by renowned wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan. He went to sea with the crew of the Shetland pelagic trawler, Charisma, as they hunted mackerel in the seas around the islands. It seems that killer whales have realised that such fishing activities offer the chance of a good feed, as some mackerel escape the nets. The whales have taken to following the boat and, as Autumnwatch revealed, they do so in large numbers, with forty to fifty animals being present on some occasions.
Meanwhile, autumn has also brought a wide range of unusual birds to Shetland. This year's highlights have included two Red-flanked bluetails, an olive-backed pipit, a Pallas" grasshopper warbler and a black-throated thrush, all of which are British rarities. All of them normally live thousands of miles to the east, in Siberia, China or India. However, there was also a sighting of a Surf Scoter, which is usually to be found in Canada.
The extraordinary story of Thomas Fraser, a Shetland fisherman and musician, has been turned into a play by the National Theatre of Scotland. At his home in Burra Isle, Fraser became a follower of American blues and country music, which he was able to hear on short-wave radio. He went on to develop his own unique singing and playing style and recorded thousands of country and blues songs on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. After his death in 1978, the tapes lay untouched for almost 25 years. When his grandson found them, he realised their importance and in 2002 a CD was issued, with several more to follow. At the same time, the first of a series of annual festivals celebrating his life was held in his home community. The interest that this generated exceeded all expectations. In 2006, the Observer's music magazine published a four-page article about him; later, the BBC made a television documentary about his life. Critics regard his story as one of the most remarkable in recording history.
The National Theatre of Scotland realised that his life would make a fascinating piece of theatre. Orkney-based musician and author Duncan McLean was commissioned to write it and the production features the Lone Star Swing Band, in which he plays. The play, Long Gone Lonesome, has been touring Scotland over recent weeks and it has attracted warm praise. Joyce McMillan, writing in the Scotsman, said that it reflected the need to "honour and protect the kind of unsung grassroots creativity that Thomas Fraser represented" and was the "polar opposite" of today's conceptual work that may grab headlines but does not involve craft or skill". The Guardian's Mark Fisher said that "with its understated championing of art for art's sake, it is both a defiant riposte to the cult of celebrity and a yodelling hoedown in its own right". The play's tour comes to an appropriate conclusion in Burra Isle in the first week in November, when it will be performed as part of the 8th Thomas Fraser Memorial Festival.
Several of the musicians attending the festival come from as far afield as Nashville. One of them is Chris Scruggs, grandson of legendary bluegrass singer Earl Scruggs. There's more about Thomas Fraser and the festival here.
A sixteen year old Shetland table tennis player, Lynda Flaws, has won a singles final at the recent Aarhus Open in Denmark. Despite losing the first set 7-11, she wasn't discouraged and went on the win the next three sets, and the Ladies" Class Two Final, by convincing margins. She was also runner-up in the Under 21 Elite Singles and the Ladies" Class One Singles. Lynda has been playing the game since she was five and was a finalist in the British Primary Schools Championship. More recently, at the end of last year, she became Scottish under-18 champion.
In the 1980s, a number of Shetland's historic buildings faced an uncertain future. At the same time, there was a clear need to expand the amount of accommodation available for visitors, especially the backpacking community, for whom choice was limited. The solution was the conversion of several vulnerable buildings into low-cost, well-equipped, basic visitor accommodation, essentially in the form of "stone tents" that in Shetland are known as Camping Böds. Among the buildings to be rescued in this way are the Shetland home of Scots poet Hugh McDiarmid, a house associated with a Shetland pioneer of smallpox inoculation and the former knitwear factory in which the woollen jumpers for Hillary's Everest expedition were knitted. One of these Böds, a tiny building on a shingle spit at Whiteness, was the subject of the winning tip in a special, ghostly edition of the Guardian's travel supplement on Halloween. The contributor, kerryr, wrote that "the candle-lit Böd was the perfect place to encounter a ghost. It felt like a kindly soul and, obligingly, stopped its noisy business when we asked it to. In the morning, we came across the visitors" book and discovered that we were by no means the first to have a haunted stay". All the readers" tips on Shetland can be found here and the Camping Böds website is here.
Recognition for another kind of holiday accommodation has come to the island of Bressay, where a recently-established guest house and spa has picked up a Gold Star award from VisitScotland. The award is intended to recognise outstanding quality and the Northern Lights Holistic Spa is one of just 40 establishments in Scotland chosen to receive the award. The spa offers a range of treatments and has a sauna, a flotation tank and a Turkish steam room. The guest house has four well-equipped double rooms and offers good, locally-sourced food.
The largest fire festival in Europe, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, has a brand new website. The festival, which takes place every year on the last Tuesday in January, marks the return of lighter days and features more than 800 torchbearers in a march around Lerwick, followed by the solemn burning of a magnificent Viking galley. The parties which follow, in a dozen halls around the town, last until eight o'clock the following morning, which – not surprisingly – is a public holiday. Up Helly Aa has always been very much a community event but, over recent years, more and more visitors have made the trip north to see, hear and smell this extraordinary spectacle.
October was a month of music-making in Shetland; highlights included an excellent Accordion and Fiddle Festival, with concerts by many noted bands across the islands; a memorable appearance by celebrated Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita and his quintet; and a much-praised appearance by Turin Brakes. In November, the music continues. One of Shetland's best-known musical exports, outstanding fiddler Chris Stout, is playing two concerts in his home islands during November. Although known in Shetland mainly for his innovative approach to traditional music, Stout has been involved in all kinds of musical collaborations, for example with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With him will be the gifted, classically-trained, pianist and harpist Catriona McKay, whose sparkling musicianship has attracted a loyal and enthusiastic following and a number of awards. The two have played together for several years and both are also members of Shetland's best known band, Fiddler's Bid. Also appearing will be Shetland's Young Musician of the Year, singer Erin Sandison.
Innovation is also a hallmark of the work of The Curve Foundation Dance Company. They'll be presenting a work called O Caritas, focused on the loss of innocent life in war, together with the first UK performance of a work called Passomezzo by Ohad Naharin and a piece by a Spanish choreographer Fernando Hernando Magadan called Close-up. The company has been performing since 1997 and is well regarded both in Britain and abroad.
In the middle of the month, there will be a jazz weekend featuring a range of bands from Shetland and farther afield.
Mainstream films are routinely shown in Lerwick's Garrison Theatre but Shetland also has an active Film Club and, in mid-month, local film-goers will have a chance to see a selection of African films. The Africa in Motion Film Festival, which is based in Edinburgh, will go on tour around the Highlands and Islands, concluding with a two-day event in Shetland. It will feature documentaries, dramas, comedies and shorter animated films.
Meanwhile, schools in Shetland are once again participating in National Schools Film Week, which this year has the themes of creativity and diversity. The films being shown in Shetland are Kirikou and the Sorceress and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
A Shetland dance project has been short-listed to receive one of five funding awards of up to £50,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. A total of eight entries from across the north of Scotland will be competing for one of the awards. The winning projects will be decided by telephone voting after viewers have had a chance to see promotional films for each project; these will be shown during the week commencing 23 November. If the Shetland entry is successful, the award will be used to buy 24 electronic dance mats that are designed to make keeping fit as enjoyable as possible. Active Schools Co-ordinator Louise Jamieson says that, if the project succeeds, she envisages young and old, right across Shetland, dancing their way to health.
Several Shetland musicians have been nominated in this year's MG Alba Traditional Music Awards. The new album by Fiddler's Bid, All Dressed In Yellow, which we've previously reviewed in the Newsletter, is one of the nominations for album of the year. One member of Fiddler's Bid, fiddler Kevin Henderson, also plays in another nominated band, Session A9. In the category for "up and coming artist of the year", nominations include the 2008 Shetland Young Musician of the Year, talented fiddler Maggie Adamson and guitarist Brian Nicholson, with whom she has toured far and wide. Steven Spence, who hails from the island of Unst, has been nominated as composer of the year. Bands involving other Shetland musicians have also been nominated: Paul Jennings is in Treacherous Orchestra and Ross Couper plays in Bodega. The winners will be revealed on 29 November at an event in Dumfries.
Astronomers across Scotland have been using towns and cities to create a model of the solar system that makes it easier to appreciate the relative distances between the sun, the planets and asteroids. With the Glasgow Science Centre representing the sun and a park in East Kilbride representing Earth, Shetland was chosen to represent Neptune. The islands have a very active Astronomical Society, more details of which can be found on this website. A map showing which celestial bodies are represented by which places can be found here. There's more on the background to the solar system model here.
Werner Heubeck, who has died at the age of 85, came to Shetland – where his son Martin works as an ornithologist for Aberdeen University - late in a remarkable life. After war service which included the Luftwaffe, the Afrika Korps and a spell as a prisoner of war, he became a translator at the Nuremberg trials. Later, he moved with his wife to Britain, where he was honoured for his exploits as head of the Belfast bus company; during the troubles, he calmly removed scores of suspect devices from vehicles. The Guardian's obituary can be found here.
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