What could send me trawling the waves of the frigid and desolate North Sea?
After all, it takes more than a passing fancy to journey to Britain’s northernmost islands. Shetland. Cast like stones halfway to the Arctic circle from the hand of some primordial giant, today it’s known for little more than ponies and wool. It’s an austere, treeless place where the sounds of human industry are rarely heard over the din of the wild and unchecked wind.
Except, that is, during the Shetland Folk Festival. For the last 31 years, the end of April and beginning of May have born witness to four nights (more like six) of folk musicians taking back the night. And day. And wee hours of the morning. I quickly found the endurance of Shetlanders to be legend.
Long ago I had decided to attend the Shetland Folk Festival. It was as good a reason as any to visit Shetland, and it’s why I was only home for four weeks after my trip to Edinburgh in March. I hadn’t a clue who was playing at the festival, but I didn’t think it’d matter. It would probably be a bunch of local Scottish folk musicians jamming together in pubs. Or something. Little did I know.
When I received the membership materials for the festival, what I found was a diverse array of folk musicians from around the world with styles ranging from Swamp Pop to Mexican Celtic Discotheque to Riverboat Soul. I think I made a face as I read the booklet, something akin to a trepidatious duck, but tickets and membership were bought and paid for so this thing was happening. I was ready to be wowed.
The Gypsy Ship
The night before the festival kicks off in Shetland, many of the visiting artists take the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick. It’s a twelve and a half hour ply through the North Sea on a surprisingly luxurious boat. This is the true beginning of the festival. The MV Hjaltland carried us into the dark while musicians milled about with their instruments, striking up impromptu sessions in the bars and restaurant.
I’d foregone a cabin in favor of a sleeper seat, which was little more than a recliner in a galley of about 50 such seats. Needless to say, sleep was not a priority. It was enjoyable to cruise the ship’s deck pint in hand and listen to the 100-odd visiting musicians, most of which I didn’t recognize yet, but I quickly got the sense that this was a musicians’ gathering. Not being one myself, I felt a little awkward, intrusive even, shooting photos and video, but I was probably just being over sensitive. I retired to my sleeper seat around midnight to do some work, but the advertised WiFi was totally non-functional. Based on the drunken singing coming from the bar throughout the night, I’m pretty sure some folks didn’t get any sleep.
We pulled into Lerwick harbor just after 7am the next morning. The ferry’s main deck looked like a floating recycling plant with all of the empty beer bottles lying around. People slept on benches and beneath tables – whatever was comfortable and near at hand. Most everyone shuffled around the deck bleary-eyed and pounded down a large Scottish breakfast, myself included.
Day One: My Descent Into Sleep Deprivation
After arriving at my guesthouse and processing the night before, I started to understand what was in store. This was going to be one hell of an extended party. I was one of maybe 500 visitors to Shetland for the folk festival, which accounts for only 20% of the festival’s total attendees. Mhari Pottinger, my contact and veteran of all 31 festivals, explained that the festival is heavily geared to locals, from chosen bands to locations. I should point out that this isn’t the “Lerwick” Folk Festival – shows happen throughout the islands, from Unst to Fair Isle and all over the mainland.
I caught a couple hours of fitful shuteye and then headed into town. A stroke of genius is the presence of the Festival Club, a community center cum festival headquarters that buzzes with activity all day and well into the night. Becoming a member of the festival provides entry to the Festival Club and access to all its riches: a real ale hall, impromptu sessions in the various rooms, and the constant feel of a massive house party.
The festival kicked off with each visiting band getting a 10-minute set in the Festival Club. The place was crowded and the ale flowed swiftly. It was something to whet the appetite and I was extremely impressed with Breabach‘s modern take on traditional Scottish folk music. I was still a bit zombified, but I quaffed my share of Valhalla Brewery’s tasty Simmer Dim anyway.
Later that night, I hoofed it to The Shetland Hotel for the Scottish Islands and Highlands showcase. I thought buses ran from the festival club to the venues in town, and this miscalculation cost me two miles on foot. The seating of attendees lent a formal air to the proceedings, and despite the often rousing tunes from the Shetland Fiddlers’ Society, the Eilidh Mackenzie Band (Western Isles), Ryan Couper and Tim Edey (Shetland), and Wrigley and the Reel (Orkney) I didn’t see a soul dancing. It was more like the appreciation of fine art at a museum.
Nevertheless, the built-in bar did a brisk business. I myself disappeared far too many pints, and after the concert I wondered how I’d find my way back across the island.
On foot. In the dark. Totally folked up.