Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading about my time at the 31st Shetland Folk Festival. It was a fantastic experience, and it’s an event lovers of folk music and natural splendor should consider when planning a trip to Scotland. To help make your Shetland Folk Festival experience the best it can possibly be, I happily endured countless hours of lost sleep and repeated abuse of my liver. The following tips will put you in pole position to enjoy an amazing 32nd Shetland Folk Festival.
When I say “plan ahead,” I mean start thinking about accommodation and transportation logistics 6-12 months before the festival. Not three months like me. The folk festival is a big event for Lerwick and all of Shetland so accommodation will be at a premium. I recommend staying centrally within Lerwick. This will put you within walking distance of many shows, the festival club, and restaurants. The last thing you want to have to do is drive home…there’s far too much ale to imbibe for that to be feasible. Though I didn’t stay there, I should mention that the Isleburgh House Hostel is considered Europe’s best hostel and the world’s second best hostel.
Regarding transportation, you should rent a car. Without your own vehicle many of the shows around the island will be off-limits to you. Public transportation and the timing of the shows just don’t mesh. Whether you ferry over a rental car from the mainland or rent a separate one in Shetland is up to you, but the price usually evens out. I rented a car on Shetland because I knew I’d be flying down to Aberdeen after the festival.
Bring Mates and Take the Ferry
I soldiered through the folk festival solo and enjoyed every minute of it, but music is just one of those things that gets better in the presence of friends. Consider enlisting a buddy or two or three. I think it would just ratchet up the fun factor.
Once you’ve got your buddies in tow, take the Northlink Ferry up to Shetland from Aberdeen the night before the festival. It’s roughly a 12-hour overnight journey, but it’s the de facto start of the folk festival as many of the visiting musicians are on board the ferry jamming out for much of the night. Book a cabin so you’ve got some place comfortable to crash for a couple hours of sleep. If you disdain sleep, skip the cabin and just claim a sleeper seat off the bar. It’s a hell of a way to kick off your folk festival experience.
Get a Membership and Book Ahead
The Shetland Folk Festival sells memberships that provide a number of benefits, including reduced ticket prices for shows, early booking of shows, and entry to the festival club. Members also have access to several free shows and workshops inside the festival club. This is non-negotiable, especially if you plan to see a lot of formal shows: buy a membership. Keep an eye on the Shetland Folk Festival site as it will indicate when memberships can be purchased and when early booking starts and ends.
I mentioned the folk festival is a popular event. I couldn’t start booking tickets for the shows I wanted to see until after I returned from my previous trip, which was late in the early booking period, and some of the shows were already sold out. Get in there early and book shows. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of many (or any) of the groups – many of them make their UK debuts at the Shetland Folk Festival and the people of Shetland have come to trust the organizers to bring in good musicians. They sure nailed it this time.
Where It’s At: The Festival Club
I’ll admit, I didn’t take full advantage of the festival club. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t realize how amazing it was until late in the festival. It’s the hub of all activity on the island during the festival: volunteers, visitors, and artists continuously come through the club at all hours of the day. If you’re short of funds for many of the formal shows you’ll still be able to get much of your folk music fix here at the club. This year (maybe every year?) it was set up in the Isleburgh Community Center which has a café and bar inside. The real ale hall upstairs was a nice touch.
At night, especially after the formal shows have ended, this place really starts to rock. All kinds of ad hoc and unpredictable sessions strike up throughout the building. Remember, members only.
Sleep? Forget About It
As I’ve noted throughout my posts about the festival, this is no time to be precious about sleep. God knows the artists and the rest of Shetland aren’t. The festival club is open until 3am most nights and it’s always busy – you don’t want to be getting Zs, do you? You might consider staying at self-catering to free yourself of obligations for breakfast and to enjoy the freedom of sleeping in and when you want. That or just make your days alternating stretches of coffee and alcohol like me.
Now you’ve got the story and the scoop. The 32nd Shetland Folk Festival is only 350 days away. Time to clear the calendar for May 3-6, 2012!