Five hundred and fifty years in the past subsequent month, the king of Norway misplaced a deposit he had put right down to settle a debt: greater than 100 wild, treeless islands in the sub-arctic North Sea. The Scottish king, James III, had needed Rhenish florins, however he needed to accept Shetland as an alternative.
The archipelago ultimately grew to become half of the UK and has since developed a various, distinctive musical tradition. This weekend, at the annual Celtic Connections competition in Glasgow, the Shetland 550 concert events will rejoice it, bringing collectively experimental composers, jazz performers, poets and gamers of conventional tunes. The collection is co-curated by the award-winning fiddler Chris Stout, who was born in the three-mile-long Honest Isle (inhabitants: 68) earlier than transferring to the Mainland at eight (inhabitants: 18,765). “Though, even there, you’re nonetheless solely ever three miles from the sea,” he says.
The Scottish affect on Shetland “was a really sluggish factor to occur”, he says; the English language didn’t make an influence till the late 18th century. “And after I say English, a really, very Scots tongue would have been used then.” To come back from such a spot typically affords “a tremendous feeling. It’s so small; you already know your historical past so effectively as a result of, for a big half of it, no one moved on or out.” Its naked, craggy panorama can also be very lovely, with “mirrie dancers” (northern lights) by the winter and summer season skies that by no means go darkish. “But it surely’s not for the fainthearted,” he warns. “There’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to cover. Should you strive, you’ll in all probability fall off a cliff.”
The depth of being a Shetlander is an element, he believes, in its passionate music. This consists of the 340-tune Shetland fiddle repertoire, robust on shimmering resonance and layers of tones, like Norwegian fiddle music, however with danceable rhythms from Scottish pipe tunes. “It’s fairly a cacophony, but there’s an area in it that lets you lean into it and really feel your individual emotion. It says rather a lot about who we’re.”
The recognition of fiddle music additionally exhibits how the islands soak up and adore influences from abroad. The fiddle was not indigenous, however launched to islanders in the 18th century by Hanseatic sea-traders from northern Germany who performed tunes to move dreary hours on the waves. Via the centuries, Shetland has been a world commerce hub for whaling, fishing and extra lately oil, so concepts from different cultures have all the time travelled in. These days, the Nationwide Belief, renewable vitality, satellite-launch analysis (on Unst), tourism and on-line residence working convey employment and curious outsiders.
Born from that blend, music “has been half of on a regular basis life for Shetlanders for ever”, says Inge Thomson, who used to play accordion tunes every single day rising up on Honest Isle together with her lighthouse-keeper father. A seasoned collaborator with Karine Polwart and the folklore collective Modern Fairies, she loves “trowie tunes” – troll tunes – from the tiny island of Fetlar, evaluating their brief, repetitive passages to music from Scandinavia.
At Shetland 550, she’s going to premiere her piece Myrkabrod Mynta, a piece commissioned in 2019 by the KLF’s Invoice Drummond as half of a collection of compositions in the lifeless languages of Britain. It’s written in Norn, the language spoken in Shetland earlier than Scots and later English took maintain, which is derived from Old Norse and nonetheless peppers Shetland dialect – the title interprets as The Hill Mist Endeavours to Type Form.
Utilizing the previous language with music to attempt to describe the land has been fascinating, Thomson says. She commonly experiments with electronics to attempt to replicate the sounds of Shetland. “Rising up on Honest Isle, I like the sound of static, the whirl of windmills, the shimmery top-end sound of shingle, the sub-bass of a stormy sea. Residing in these islands, you’ll be able to’t not hear the components. They turn out to be musical, too.”
Different distinctive musicians have thrived on Shetland. They embrace the late “Peerie” (Little) Willie Johnson, a guitarist from the Yell who developed his personal type of folks and jazz fusion, influenced by western swing and Gypsy tunes that he first heard on the radio, then taught himself by ear. As we speak, the jazz saxophonist Norman Willmore improvises round Shetland tunes in cross-genre collaborations – even attempting to bend and form his breaths to echo totally different methods on string devices.
He was born on a kitchen flooring in Shetland and spent his childhood not liking Scottish folks tunes “in any respect”, leaving residence at 18 to review jazz. Tons of of miles away in Wales, he realised the uniqueness of his residence tradition; he would get into “large jams” after college “with individuals of all generations, which I do know now was uncommon”. The largest lesson he realized in early maturity was that “music brings a lot group to abnormal individuals” – one thing that can also be strengthened by individuals who depart the islands to collect concepts, Stout provides, earlier than they return.
There are different bands to shout about: the rockabilly group Isaac Webb Trio have signed to Wild Information in Los Angeles; the four-piece feminine close-harmony group Herkja recently reinvented Wicked Game as a spooky piece of delicate indie; and the beloved get together band the Revellers reduce up folks with the clamour of metallic and the tough edges of punk.
Stout credit their shared, dramatic birthplace as one thing that has helped all of them alongside. “If you already know the place you come from, you’ll be able to have a [musical] concept, look out into the world with safety, and it’s improbable. That’s what Shetland has given so many of us: a stable platform to leap off from.”
Celtic Connections competition begins 20 January in Glasgow. Shetland-focused concert events are Norn Voices, Glasgow Royal Live performance Corridor, 22 January; and A Peerie Foy, Old Fruitmarket, 23 January. Each are filmed for the competition digital programme, out there 26 January.