By Toby SkinnerSeptember 30th 2020

Shetland is a musical place, with a long history of folk but also a thriving and surprisingly diverse modern scene. We explore what makes the music happen.

Singer-songwriter Adam Guest remembers the moment he realised he was going to be just fine in Shetland. It was six in the morning, barely a week after he’d arrived from Barnsley in 2013 to work as a journalist at The Shetland Times. He’d gone to review a concert at Mareel, Lerwick’s arts centre, taking a guitar along to play a tune afterwards. He eventually ended up on a battered sofa in a Lerwick grass-cutting shed, drunk and singing Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon songs with some of the islands’ best fiddle players, guitarists and folk singers.

“There were all these really good quality musicians, but no egos, and everyone was so welcoming and encouraging,” says Adam, in his gentle Yorkshire burr. “There was just a warmth to people, and so much laughter. I remember stumbling home on this cold evening, feeling inspired and thinking: I think I'll be alright here.”

I remember stumbling home on this cold evening, feeling inspired and thinking: I think I'll be alright here.

Today, Adam’s evocative, story-driven folk songs – which deal with everything from the Shetland elements to Yorkshire mining disasters – are part of the soundscape of the islands. Shetland’s music is more diverse than many outsiders might imagine, encompassing everything from groove metal to jazz, classical, rockabilly, funk, prog-rock and even Balkan klezmer. Anyone who’s spent any time here will likely have experienced a gathering in a pub, living room or village hall swiftly morphing into an impromptu gig. During the Shetland Folk Festival, the highlight of the musical calendar in late spring, ferry rides often double as raucous concerts. Visiting musicians are frequently amazed at how many locals can pick up an instrument and jam.

A lot of this musicality stems from a long oral history of folk music, when fiddles would replicate wild seas on whaling voyages, or the shock of happening upon a trow, the islands’ answer to elves. It’s a tradition that was codified by Dr Tom Anderson in the early 20th-century, an insurance salesman who got to know old Shetland tunes by driving to clients across the islands, bringing his own fiddle to gently tease local fishermen and crofters out of what was often a natural reticence. At the end of World War II, he made it his mission to record as many of these hitherto undocumented tunes as he could. After founding the Shetland Fiddle Society, he campaigned to have fiddle taught as part of the curriculum in Shetland schools. One of his very first pupils in 1970 was Aly Bain, a Lerwick boy who would go on to become one of the world’s most famous fiddlers, with an MBE just like his first teacher.

Long before all that, back in 1936, Anderson had invited Yell guitarist Peerie Willie Johnson to join his Islesburgh Dance Band. Peerie Willie had been a sickly and diminutive child (‘peerie’ means small in local dialect), who’d learned the guitar after becoming fascinated by a picture of a cowboy playing a ukulele in The News Of The World. More gregarious and wild than the upright Dr Tom, he would go on to become a local legend for his ‘dum chuck’ playing style, which fused traditional Shetland music with American Western swing and the new jazz of Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt. Some said it sounded like a bass and a guitar at the same time – slinky and wild, but so technical that guitarists would come from all over the world to watch Peerie Willie play at The Lounge, the Lerwick pub that was his spiritual home, often with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

This history is constantly being refined and re-invented by new generations, many of whom learn instruments directly from their families, or from the stock of great teachers in Shetland. There are shades of Peerie Willie in the intricate, rapid-fire guitars and banjos of Vair, a young four-piece; and the old Shetland sound can be traced in bands like the seven-piece Revellers, whose raucous gigs sound like Metallica meeting The Levellers (they began as a tribute band) with fiddles and banjos.

The traditional influence is often subtle, as with Herkja, a young all-female four-piece which formed in 2018. Their modern folk sound is defined by rich four-part harmonies – as showcased by their beautiful slow cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ – but with strains of Shetland in the form of fiddles, an accordion and lyrics that nod to Shetland dialect (one, ‘Paper Bons’, was inspired by a poem by Shetlander Roseanna Watt).

While professional singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon is originally from Aberdeenshire, but discovered Shetland via a stint at the Fair Isle bird observatory, the other three band members are Shetlanders with family music connections. Fiddlers Martha Thomson and Lyn Anderson both first learned at home: Lyn’s grandfather, Alan Leask, made the instruments by hand, and her mother, uncles and aunts can all play; Martha’s father, Ewen Thomson, also handcrafts violins, and is a member of Haltadans, one of Shetland’s best-known traditional folk groups. Martha’s aunt, Inge Thomson, makes atmospheric music from her native Fair Isle, and runs the Modern Fairies artists’ collective.

Learning the fiddle was about learning stories as much as the music.

Martha recalls going to sessions at The Lounge when she was nine years old, and says her fiddle teachers at Anderson High School told her the stories of Dr Tom and Willie Hunter, another local fiddle legend. “Learning the fiddle was about learning stories as much as the music,” she says. “It was the story of these tunes, which have been passed through generations, and the story of the people who’ve played them down the years. It’s a tradition that’s more alive than ever, with loads of young people in Shetland learning.”

Our special Shetland playlist features Herkja, Adam Guest, Vair, Arthur Nicholson, Adam Guest Trio, Big Time Quell, Bongshang, Jenny Sturgeon, Revellers, Kris Drever, Sheila Henderson, Jenna Reid, Claire White, Robbie Leask and 'Peerie' Willie Johnson. Click here to listen on Spotify.

Lana Elaine, who plays the accordion and piano in Herkja, also has links to traditional folk music. “There’s a lot of talent in Shetland that never gets seen,” she says. “My great granddad used to fix fiddles, which he’d store under the bath, but swore he couldn’t play. But one day, my granny remembers hearing this beautiful sound from the living room. When she walked in, he put the fiddle down and pretended he hadn’t been doing anything.”

Other Shetland bands have taken the traditional musicianship of the islands in even more unexpected directions: like Ten Tonne Dozer, who have won international awards for their monster-heavy groove metal; Odessa, who play foot-tapping Balkan gypsy klezmer; or Big Time Quell, with quirky prog-rock anthems about Chinese prostitutes (‘Bad Times at Suzy Wongs’) and Roy of the Rovers football (‘Back of the Net’).

Take the Isaac Webb Trio, a raw, down-dirty rockabilly group formed by bequiffed Lerwick barber Isaac Webb, who fell in love with 1950s rock while studying studio engineering and music production at Napier University in Edinburgh. He formed the band in 2017, not long after moving back, with their first gig supporting Cash, a London Johnny Cash tribute band, at Mareel. The trio has done well since, recently signing with Los Angeles-based Wild Records, one of the world’s top rockabilly labels, and currently working on an album.

“It’s definitely not classic Shetland music we play,” says Isaac, whose Tooth & Nail Barber Surgeons in Lerwick has been responsible for a few pompadours and even psychobilly flat-tops across the islands. “But it definitely helps to be surrounded by good musicians, who you get a lot of ideas from. And while we’re really proud to be a Shetland band, we’ve shown that you can be based here and reach a global market with your music. It’s great to go to festivals like the Rockabilly Rave, but then to come back to the peace of home.”

We’ve shown that you can be based here and reach a global market with your music.

Tim Matthew, the drummer in the Isaac Webb Trio, is one of the key cogs in the Shetland scene. He also plays with acts like bluesy jazz band Sauerkraut Seth and the Plantiecrubs, does sound engineering for incoming gigs and produces many of Shetland’s artists at Mareel’s state-of-the-art recording studio. Tim grew up on the Isle of Mull, but became obsessed with Shetland music aged 12, when Peerie Willie and Dr Tom came to play. “They were these exotic creatures from the far north, who played this wild, unique music and spoke this dialect I’d never heard before,” recalls Tim, who was learning the fiddle at the time. “But they were so warm and friendly.” Dr Tom invited the young Tim to a summer school at Stirling University, and a lifelong affair with Shetland music was born.

But while Tim still plays a mean fiddle, his musical interests run much wider. After leaving Mull, he managed a recording studio in Edinburgh, and toured with the likes of dirty blues band Mystery Juice and tartan-clad retro rockers Lord Rochester. It was after one of his regular Shetland gigs that he met his Shetland-born partner Floortje Robertson, at a Father Ted-themed afterparty. He moved up in 2014, and the couple now have two children and a croft, while she also works at Mareel as an events programmer.

“In Shetland, it’s really about the music and nothing else,” he says. “There’s a high percentage of extremely good musicians, who are technically great, but it’s not a competitive scene. People just see music as part of life, and they tend to be really supportive of each other. It feels pure, somehow, the way music ought to be.”

People here just see music as part of life, and they tend to be really supportive of each other.

Some bands play mostly sell-out shows to devoted local audiences – like The Revellers or the First Foot Soldiers, a tight covers band which features local singer-songwriter Arthur Nicholson. But others have left to make their careers ‘south’: not just world-renowned fiddlers such as Jenna Reid and Ross Couper, but contemporary songwriters like Kris Drever, who was born in Orkney but lived in Shetland before moving to Glasgow last year. “There is a churn,’ says Tim. “But what’s amazing is that there always seems to be young musicians coming through.”

There’s also a stream of world-class musicians who come from across the world to play at the folk festival and regular gigs. Local promoters like Neil Riddell, Davie Gardner and Alan McLeod regularly bring world-class acts to the islands. Everyone from The Smiths to Pulp, Elvis Costello, KT Tunstall and the Mongolian throat singers Hanggai have passed through over the years – and many smaller acts, especially folk and Americana artists, report playing bigger and more responsive crowds here than anywhere else in the UK. Gigs usually tend to have Shetland support artists, meaning that local musicians get experience of playing to big crowds with a world-class setup.

“So many musicians around the world talk about how amazing coming to play in Shetland is,” says Allison Russell, one half of Birds of Chicago, a folksy ‘secular gospel’ duo that played at Mareel in 2018. “We heard about it from our friends [folksy Americana trio] The Stray Birds, who just couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it is. A big part of that is that people here really know their music, and musicians always get a warm welcome. The promoters really care, and the facilities at Mareel are amazing. It’s a dream place for visiting musicians.”

Many also report after-parties that continue into the wee hours. “It’s just what happens here somehow,’ says Adam Guest. “The instruments just come out, and people start playing.”