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One of Shetland's most appealing traditions is observed on Sundays during the summer. There are dozens of community halls across the islands and, on any given Sunday, several of them will be open for afternoon tea. These events are held either to help raise money for the upkeep of the hall, or for a range of charities. They're extremely popular, necessitating many hours of baking and sandwich making. On the day, the volunteers involved are kept very busy replenishing plates of sandwiches, cakes and biscuits and filling up bottomless cups of tea.
Needless to say, these are very sociable occasions; it's a time to catch up with friends and neighbours and many of Shetland's summer visitors also go along to enjoy some wonderful home baking. BBC Radio 4 listeners across the country were able to join them on Sunday, 6 September, when The Food Programme explored the world of the Shetland Sunday tea. If you'd like to listen to it, you can find it on the BBC i-player and there's more about the programme here.
While we're on the subject of Shetland summer traditions, it would be remiss not to mention the agricultural shows that are such an important part of the islands" annual calendar. These are also community-run, and very sociable, events and they feature a wide range of exhibits. There are, of course, tractors, sheep, cattle and poultry on display, but there are also keenly-contested competitions in all sorts of other classes, ranging from Victoria sponges to photography, rhubarb to fine lace stoles and jam to flowers. The show season starts in mid-August, with three major events on the Shetland mainland, and concludes during September with shows on the islands of Yell and Unst.
One of the things that people associate most closely with Shetland is, of course, the Shetland pony. A firm children's favourite nowadays, the breed has a fascinating history which includes a period when they were specially bred to replace the labour of women and children in Britain's coal-mines. In the late nineteenth century, studs were established in Shetland for that purpose and, at one of these on the island of Noss, the story is engagingly told. One of the broad rules governing the breeding programme was that ponies should have "as much weight as possible, and as near the ground as it can be got"; it's been said that the breed was influenced by that guidance for long after the studs fell out of use.
Surprisingly, the Shetland Pony Study Book Society had never held its annual gathering in Shetland; however, that omission was rectified in August 2009. Just over 400 ponies were brought to the showground at Clickimin in Lerwick, almost a third of them coming from outside the islands. Some of them competed in a thrilling Shetland Grand National. Visitors came from far and wide too, with some from New Zealand and Australia. Shetland breeders were delighted that the Supreme Champion at this year's show was a local pony, Merkisayre Dion, from Burra Isle. More information about the show can be found here.
One of Shetland's many local charities is Mind Your Head, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to mental ill-health and help to fill gaps in provision for those suffering from a mental illness. Each year since 2006, it has staged a Fun Run around Spiggie Loch and this year's event on 9 August attracted 563 participants, a new record. Sponsorship money is still coming in, but it's expected that their efforts will have raised in the region of £5,000. Find out more about Mind Your Head.
Meanwhile, fundraising for a range of other charities continues. Two Shetland men have cycled from Land's End to Shetland and a woman is to have her hair cut on Hermaness on the island of Unst, adding another "most northerly" accolade to that island's impressively long list.
Shetland's annual book festival, Wordplay, took place over the first weekend in September and proved to be as stimulating and entertaining as ever. Probably the best-known author appearing this year was Louis de Bernières, whose novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Novel. It's less widely known that Mr de Bernières actually plays mandolin, not to mention flute, clarinet and guitar. Other guests included Mairi Hedderwick, creator of the popular Katie Morag stories. Crime novelists were also well represented, with appearances by Stuart MacBride, Allan Guthrie and Ann Cleeves, whose quartet of novels is set in Shetland. She talked with Mark Grieg, whose work has included Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars, The Bill and Taggart. There were also poetry readings, some of which were given by Shetland-based Jen Hadfield, winner of the 2008 TS Eliot prize, and a puppet play, The Man Who Planted Trees.
Also taking place over the same weekend was Screenplay, Shetland's annual film festival, which this year featured a wide range of work from the classic East of Eden to new films by young Shetland film-makers. It was also notable for the screening of a film in Britain's most northerly cinema, in fact a bus shelter on the island of Unst, which was attended by film critic Mark Kermode and his mother. There's more about this event on the BBC News website and there's more about the rather remarkable bus shelter on a BBC blog.
Many artists have found inspiration in the Shetland landscape and one of the best-known is Nicholas Barnham, who first came to the islands half a century ago to teach art and design. The Shetland Museum and Archives is currently hosting "A Celebration of Shetland", an exhibition of his drawings, lino cuts and watercolours. Mr Barnham said: "To me, Shetland was love at first sight; I was drawn to the dramatic, uncompromising, landscape - very much like Donegal where my grandmother originated." Nowadays, he divides his time between Shetland and Norfolk. Nicholas Barnham's work is distinguished by clarity of colour and tone, with a palette that emphasizes blues, greens and greys. All of his work is founded on careful, often very detailed, drawing.
Someone else who has been unable to resist Shetland's appeal is well-known naturalist and television presenter, Simon King. Two years ago, he presented part of the BBC Springwatch series from the islands and he and his family have since spent much of their time in Shetland. Now, he's working on a new series, provisionally entitled Shetland Diaries, which is expected to be screened on BBC2 early in 2010. Speaking to The Scotsman recently, he said:
"Shetland gets into your soul. It's not simply the wildlife; there's also this wild, rugged topography. It's virtually treeless, so it reminds me of some of the most remote parts of the world. Then, equally important, it's the people. They have an identity and a sense of community and a proud culture which is not exclusive. That's really rare, in my experience, in the British Isles. They're so delighted with their home they say, “Isn't it marvellous! Join in, come to the party”".
You can read the whole interview on The Scotsman's website.
One of Shetland's liveliest and farthest-travelled bands, Fiddlers' Bid, has just launched a new CD, "All Dressed in Yellow". Fiddlers'Bid is a band that can move seamlessly from energetic dance music to reflective, intricate melodies and they have built a reputation around the world. The new album, which was launched at Shetland's "Fiddle Frenzy" during August, is a persuasive demonstration of the band's musicianship and it also underlines their ability to draw on both traditional and modern strands. The album is available from www.fiddlersbid.com.
A young Shetlander has clearly been working hard. Michael Heubeck (18), a student at the Anderson High School in Lerwick, has been congratulated on gaining no fewer than five Advanced Highers at A grade, in one sitting. He picked up these exceptional results in maths, applied maths, physics, chemistry and music. Michael is due to take up a place at St Andrews University to study physics. Anderson High School students have a good record in exams, consistently performing above the Scottish average, and the same is true of other Shetland schools.
This year's Shetland Guitar Festival, which runs over the weekend of 18 to 20 September, will evoke memories of the great Django Reinhardt. His music inspired legendary Shetland guitarist, the late "Peerie" Willie Johnson, to whose memory the festival is dedicated. Django Reinhardt's grand nephew, Lulo Reinhardt, will be appearing and is expected to receive a very warm welcome from the many local guitar enthusiasts. Also on the bill will be a jazz quintet, Havana Swing. The festival takes place in a number of venues across the islands.
This year's annual memorial lecture, to be given in the Shetland Museum and Archives on 9th October, will explore the work of the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who lived on the island of Whalsay from 1933 until 1942. MacDiarmid was the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve (1892 – 1978), arguably the most significant Scottish poet of the 20th century; almost half his life's work was written in Whalsay. The house where he lived is now a camping böd offering low-cost visitor accommodation; admirers of his work from around the world are drawn to Shetland and to Whalsay. The lecture will be given by Michael Schmidt, professor of poetry at Glasgow University.
Each year the lecture also celebrates the achievements of past Shetland scholars and this year's will be held in honour of the late John J. Graham. As well as being a lifelong student and teacher of literature, John Graham wrote two novels and a history of Shetland education. He also compiled the Shetland Dictionary and, with his brother Lollie, edited the local literary magazine, the New Shetlander, for more than forty years.
Samples of delicious Shetland produce were on offer to visitors at Foodies at the Festival, one of the events on this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The menu of canapés featured Shetland salmon with pepper and lime; peppered fillet of lamb with a heather honey and lime jus; hot smoked salmon with a honey and sesame glaze; rare Shetland beef; and a seared Shetland scallop with pea puree on a hand-rolled oatcake. The Shetland stand was under virtual siege around lunch-time, when the food was on offer. Several visitors commented that it was the best available at the event. Shetland beers were also on display on the stand and many visitors took the chance to try these. The event was intended to promote the Shetland Food Directory and the 2009 Shetland Food Festival, which runs from 2 until 11 October and will feature master chefs, demonstrations and talks.
Optimism may still be scarce in some sectors of the UK economy, but those who operate Shetland's fishing fleet continue to demonstrate confidence in the future. The latest addition to the fleet is the sixth vessel to bear the name Serene since the first one was launched in 1954. The 71.6 metre hull was constructed in Turkey but fitted out in Norway. Vessels such as this represent a huge financial commitment, running to well over £15m, but fishing communities in Shetland, and particularly on the island of Whalsay, have long shown a willingness to make such investments. The tradition in the islands is not one of boat ownership by large companies. Instead, a number of fishermen come together to raise the necessary funds. Each boat is more advanced than the last; the new Serene boasts en-suite single cabins for every member of the crew and is said to be much more economical to operate than earlier generations of vessel.
A Shetland mother-of-two who travels by ferry every day to study for her degree course with the prospective University of the Highlands and Islands has been named the 2009 student of the year. Angela Irvine, 43, from the island of Whalsay is about to embark on her third year on the BA contemporary textiles course. She was the judges" choice for her exceptional achievements and determination to juggle her studies with family life and a twice-daily 30-minute ferry crossing to Shetland College UHI in Lerwick. She won the title from 11 other candidates across the UHI partnership of colleges, research and learning centres, and a total of £300 in prize money.
Angela, who previously worked as a hairdresser after training in Edinburgh, said: "I can't believe it. It was already a huge sense of achievement when the college named me as their candidate for the overall award, and this is even more thrilling for me and my family. The challenge of doing something different, in a subject I have always loved, has been a real buzz and given me a new lease of life."
Staff at Shetland College have praised her motivation and discipline. Angela Hunt said: "By making links to the traditional skills of Shetland, yet infusing this with up-to-date and international knowledge of contemporary textiles, she has created innovative coursework. She is an excellent example of a student working from a remote location gaining a high level of academic achievement."
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