The rocking oilman

Adam Priest

The Revellers aren’t exactly your average kids’ band. They call themselves the ‘Renegades of Folk’, and sound a little like Metallica with banjos and fiddles—or maybe the Levellers, their original inspiration, after a few too many Red Bulls.

Yet here they are, on a Saturday afternoon in May, rocking out the Whiteness and Weisdale Public Hall to a crowd of mostly primary school age children, who are bouncing around on their parents’ shoulders and forming a friendly mosh pit. Between just every song, there’s a shout-out from one of the seven band members to one of the kids: a birthday message, a little story or just a friendly hello. None of it feels mawkish or forced. And as is often the case in Shetland, the gig is for charity, raising money for Shetland-based mental health charity Mind Your Head. Later, they’ll play an adult gig, which will draw a few hundred of Shetland’s youngish folk for a sweaty, bouncy singalong.

To the left of the stage, Adam Priest, the bearded, bequiffed bassist, is doing his thing: providing the groove, whilst not hogging too much of the limelight. This, it seems, is Adam’s way—he’s the quiet facilitator, the guy who makes things happen and just gets on with it. Away from the stage, he’s a mechanical engineer at Sullom Voe, Shetland’s oil terminal, as well as a girls’ football coach and occasional Viking.

We first meet at Sullom Voe, in a little Portokabin on the edge of the terminal, where Adam’s main responsibility is the overhaul and upkeep of the huge tanks that hold half a million barrels of the black stuff. Oil has been an important part of Shetland ever since crude was first discovered in the North Sea in 1969. The oil started flowing through Sullom Voe in 1978, and more than eight billion barrels—around a fifth of all UK oil in the years since has passed through the terminal—have been processed at the terminal since.

It’s also been an important driver of the Shetland economy, not just in providing plentiful projects for prominent local engineering firms like Malakoff and Ocean Kinetics. The Shetland Charitable Trust, set up with oil money in 1978, has invested GBP300 million over the years into charities, arts programmes, galleries, care homes, cultural festivals and the Shetland Museum. It’s a big part of the reason that Shetland has decent roads, plentiful ferries and more gyms and swimming pools than seems fair for a place with barely 23,000 residents. There are eight shiny leisure centres across the islands—all funded primarily by the Shetland Charitable Trust—including at Baltasound, the small community on Unst where Adam grew up.

Adam was two months old when the first oil hit Sullom Voe, and he was six months old when his mother brought him onto the site. “It’s always been part of my life somehow,” says Adam, who would always see the Sullom Voe flame on trips from Unst, Shetland’s northernmost island, to the Shetland Mainland. “You’d drive past and you’d wonder: What’s that over there? What’s that all about?”

After school, he had a four-year stint in the merchant navy, before studying engineering at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, where one of his summer placements in 2001 was at Sullom Voe. By 2005, he was working here full-time, and his main job now is the upkeep and overhaul of the huge tanks here that hold half a million barrels of oil each.

Oil production here may have passed its peak—but Adam’s team have been busily future-proofing the terminal. “We’re dealing with a plant that’s 40 years old,” he says. “It’s about merging old and new technology, so that this place can keep providing for Shetland for years to come.”

Over the years, Adam has seen a lot of oil workers come to work in Shetland from elsewhere. “It can be a Marmite experience,” he admits. “Some folk really don’t like it and they’re gone quickly, other folk come here with the intention of doing a couple of years and are still here twenty years later. It just has that effect—if you love it, you fall in love with it. Speaking for myself, I’ve always been in love with it, but it’s great for me to see people come and find Shetland a life-changing experience.”

There’s a Shetland dialect phrase of ‘I’ll no see de stuck’, literally I’ll not see you stuck. Everybody’s busy, but they’ll never see anyone at a disadvantage if they can help out.

For Adam, like many Shetlanders, a big part of the appeal is bound up with family—not just his wife, Emma, and three daughters, aged nine, six and two, but easily accessible aunts, cousins and grandparents. “For me, that proximity to family is important,” he says. “The wider family is a real part of the culture here. But, even for incomers, you get that element of freedom, the abundance of wide open spaces, and being part of a community where people really look out for you. It’s a great environment to have a family.”

The other thing that Adam loves is Shetland’s music. “There’s a real culture of session music here, and a tradition of people playing in their homes,” he says. “You’d have a fiddle hanging on the wall, and just about everyone could get a tune out of it.” Adam’s daughter, Lauren, gets fiddle lessons from Debbie Scott, one of many talented fiddle tutors who are recording artists in their own right. “I’ve said to Lauren it’s not about winning awards, it’s about keeping a tradition going. If it isn’t a living, breathing thing, it withers away.”

But the Revellers, which started in 2008 as a Levellers tribute band, are a good example of how Shetland music isn’t just about traditional folk tunes. There’s a healthy metal scene up here, too, and over time the Revellers have become heavier and less folksy. Adam even claims that lead singer and songwriter Magnus Bradley is influenced by Fleetwood Mac, though it’s difficult to discern when you see them live (Magnus is a big man with a Metallica armband, who doesn’t look much like Stevie Nicks).

Adam tells a story that illustrates how the Shetland community works. The Revellers recently played at the Shetland Folk Festival, which is largely funded by local businesses and run by volunteers, with visiting bands staying with local families.

“We played at Skeld, out on the west side, with KANSA, the other band I play in.” says Adam. “We got to the hall, which is run by community volunteers, who cooked us a lovely square meal and fed us with tea and fancies [biscuits and cakes]. Then we played to a packed hall and everybody had a great time. I was trying to think how much it would cost to do that if it wasn’t a community-led exercise. But up here people just do it for the good of the community.”

The community, he says, “runs through just about every activity up here. So much is put on for local charities or to support local projects. There’s a Shetland dialect phrase of ‘I’ll no see de stuck’, literally I’ll not see you stuck. Everybody’s busy, but they’ll never see anyone at a disadvantage if they can help out.”

Adam seems to embody this aspect of Shetland life. His nine-year-old daughter, Lauren, is also keen footballer who currently plays mixed football. “One day she asked me if she’d have to give up when she was twelve or thirteen, when the mixed football ends,” Adam recalls. “And I said: Well, there’s no good reason why you should.” So, he gathered a group of other dads who coach (volunteers, of course)—and, in 2017, the Shetland Junior Football Association had a girls’ football team.

So, a few days later, we find ourselves at one of the four full-sized football pitches at Lerwick’s Clickimin Leisure Centre on a sunny evening, watching Adam coach a team of Under-15 girls against a mixed Lerwick Thistle Under-13’s team. Every football pitch is being used by teams with sponsored shirts, and the whole thing feels more like a Premier League academy set-up than a public facility (there’s also a pool with a hydrotherapy spa, rugby pitches, an athletics track and more here).

Adam has swapped his Sullom Voe shirt and slacks for a shiny blue Shetland Girls Football tracksuit top, curiously acquiring the air of a Continental coach from the 1970s. He is a cool, calming presence on the touchline, offering words of encouragement to his players while his opposite number barks at his team to press. The girls in the blue kits don’t win, but they play hard and do themselves proud against a well-drilled team.

While we’re watching, local photographer Gordon Siegel shows us a picture on his phone—a black and white shot of Adam in full Viking gear as part of the jarl squad for the 2017 Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, the largest of Shetland’s annual fire festivals. Holding a wooden shield and with his axe raised ominously, he looks very much the part—if you were a Pict in ninth century Shetland, you’d almost certainly run.

Adam has to leave after his half-time team talk, and hands over to another coach. He’s got band practice, and it’s tempting to imagine that he’ll take off his tracksuit top to reveal an Iron Maiden t-shirt, ready to rock. Then, he’ll go home and be a dad.

He’s busy, but he’s doing his bit, being part of things: making sure that teenage girls can play football, and primary school kids get to rock out in a safe space. He’ll be one of the many people making sure that Shetland’s most important engine—that nebulous thing called community—keeps on running.

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The wider family is a real part of the culture here. But, even for incomers, you get that element of freedom, the abundance of wide open spaces, and being part of a community where people really look out for you. It’s a great environment to have a family.
Adam Priest

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