Diary: Lerwick

After a night on board the ferry, we shake ourselves into a state resembling awake, and make our way south to Hoswick, which will be our Shetland home. As we go in and out of internet range, we try to ascertain the current whereabouts of a certain Mr David Cameron, the first UK prime minister to visit Shetland in more than thirty years… Did he arrive yesterday? This morning? Is he here? Now?

We just miss him, as he has apparently just hopped on a plane by the time we track down some firm information. We meet Mel, a supporter who has kindly sorted us out some beds for the night, then get some photographs standing around the blue Yestival banner for the Shetland Times. “Nobody stand on Shetland!” ” Aye, you can stand on Orkney, that’s fine!” In the end, we stand on nobody, pointing to Shetland and grinning, Euan playing the pipes. After, Jamie and Declan stand by the roadside, playing guitars and singing.

We settle down into Hoswick Community Centre, grateful for coffee and wifi, and get down to catching up on the time consuming business of running the festival. The Community Centre combines a cafe, a shop selling local arts and crafts, and exhibitions – an amazing range of wirelesses collected by a local man, weaving and knitting, and the story of the Hoswick Whale Case of 1888. Above the counter, a picture shows a fluffy mountain of a sheep, declaring the wool goods sold here to be ‘straight from ewe to you!’

Between the intricate wool designs of Shetland – I learn from the Hoswick exhibition that the tradition of colourful Fair Isle knitting is said to come from dyeing traditions brought by survivors of the wreck of the Spanish El Gran Grifon – and Nick’s labour of love farmhouse yesterday, it’s clear that for many, creating, making and building, is just what you do, part of normal life.

Our name is up in lights when we arrive back in Lerwick for the evening event! Mareel, the most northerly cinema and arts centre in the UK, is down by the sea, next to the equally impressive museum and archives. It’s a tall, dramatic, asymmetric building, lots of big windows, space, and Scandinavian-style wood panelling. Inside, it smells like the best popcorn in the universe. The auditorium has the biggest stage we’ve had so far on this tour, and it’s a big room too. We hope we’ll have enough people that it doesn’t feel empty. We get set up – unusually quickly, since we’re not used to having people on hand to help, thank you team Mareel! – and open up the Airstream for a slightly different from usual art exhibition featuring Ross Aitchison’s atmospheric photos of Shetland, all mist and hill, sky and water, threaded through with twisting roads.

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It turns out we needn’t have worried. Not long after the doors open, we’re putting out extra chairs. (Ross takes the opportunity to tweet a juxtaposition of the busy Mareel and David Cameron’s half-empty Glasgow lecture earlier.) Our local talent tonight includes Chloe Robertson, already well known to Shetland folk, who’ll be playing here herself on Friday. There are poems from Shetland too – Bruce Eunson reads verse in Shetlandic, including one by the wonderful socialist poet JJ Haldane Burgess, who was instrumental in the early days of the Up Helly Aa festival, which compares the landowning class to the docken in the skroo (weeds in the hay bales.) I think my favourite poem of Burgess’ is his Jubilee Ode to Queen Victoria (which you can read on Shetland ForWirds). I discovered it on a visit to Shetland at the time of the last Jubilee, when it seemed just as appropriate.

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We get an enthusiastic crowd outside of the Airstream for a group photo, and settle back after the break to a film by the band Bongshang, slow-moving perspectives on time and Shetland space. Then more poetry from Jen Hadfield, by Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and herself. We are at a junction, she says, holding a wishbone. But holding isn’t all you do with a wishbone.

Rós’ MC-ing has been holding the events together with great humour for the past few nights, making the audience feel as much part of the event as we are – which is of course exactly the case. (I’ve never held with the advice often given to starting-out storytellers that you should practice in front of a mirror.) Today, she says it won’t be any one event or campaign that gets us a Yes – it’ll be the individual conversations we have with one another over the next – how long have we got now – eight weeks and a day?! Cheesy peeps!

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Declan’s written a new song for the Northern Isles, with his usual lyrical, observational humour, about how he can’t write a song about them, because he doesn’t have the words to write songs of praise and beauty. ‘I’ll leave it to the romantics,’ he sings. The otherworldliness of these islands has been mentioned a few times, and it makes me wonder if, perhaps, they seem unreal to us because they are so real – with nothing to hide the elements of land and stone and sea and sky that make up this world. I’m aware that I’m maybe not the one to talk about this, from my tablet computer, with my Central Belt upbringing, but I feel it’s important to have a connection to the physicality of the world, and our ways of making and doing.

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We finish the event on a high, hearing from some of the audience that they’ve learned there’s a Yes-thinking network in Shetland they didn’t know about, and they might do more events between now and September. We meander into town, with some of the local people who helped us organise tonight, and a visiting journalist, to hear the tunes and drink Tartan Special at the legendary Lounge Bar. We’ve been very kindly lent the keys to a youth centre to sleep in, and the combination of sofas and a roof (and a pool table!) is a welcome luxury. Shetland audiences – sort of like Orcadians, if they don’t mind me saying so – may not be the type to be overly romantic about things either, and don’t often cheer and make a fuss at events – but they’ve made us fully and wholeheartedly welcome, and we’re much the better for our visit.

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 Erin Catriona Farley

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