Winter days

I’ve been very good at going out whatever the weather and I might manage a stroll yet, but so far I’m resisting the lure of wind and rain(!)  and I’m researching some readings for our concert in Merstham, Surrey.

Here’s a beautiful poem in the Shetland dialect by Jack Renwick which perfectly describes the waters between the islands of Unst and Yell when I travelled to Sumburgh to pick Lillie. You can read this and find out more about Shetland’s distinctive dialect here.


Winter Comes In – Jack Renwick. The onset of winter at Bluemull Sound.

Winter Comes In

Winter Comes InGrey dawn brakkin ower troubled watters,
Da Soond laek a burn wi da rip o da tide;
Da Mull, black an grim, ida first o da daylicht
Wi da sea brakkin white on his nortmast side.

Yowes kruggin closs ida lee o a daek-end,
Creepin frae a chill at bites ta da bon;
Solan an scarf aa wirkin inshore,
A sign at da best o da wadder is don.

Hail sheetin doon wi a Nort wind ahint it,
Blottin oot laand an sea frae da scene,
An iron coortin closin ower aa thing:
Winter has come ta da islands ageen.

Workshops in Lerwick

I’m in my last week in Shetland now and on my own again. It’s been a busy few days, though. First of all I shifted base to Gulberwick. It might be just 3 miles from town, but dragging all that luggage and a viola over the hill that separates the two bays on a bike was far from easy!


My afternoons have been spent at Anderson High School in Lerwick with some of Margaret Robertson’s fiddle pupils. My aim was to introduce them to a range of music from the North Atlantic and to put pieces together in a range of ways. We learned 3 Icelandic Folk Tunes in a duet version. We then looked at the St Kilda tune “Soay”. We started with just treble and bass parts and the students worked out their own accompanying parts.

Our most ambitious task was improvising on a Faroese children’s song. This was a new way of working for many, so we took a quick recording that we could discuss and work from on day 2. I think everyone (including me!) was amazed at what a beautiful, haunting sound we managed to create – reminiscent of the mistiness that can envelop both Torshavn and Lerwick!

On day 3 we polished up all the pieces and recorded them. Here’s our improvisation on the Faroese tune, which I think is just gorgeous.

I have to say, it was an absolute delight to work with the staff of what is obviously a thriving music department and Margaret, your pupils are a credit to you!

Back to Lerwick

It’s funny how reassuring that concert touring routine can be: travel in the morning, find digs, grab lunch, rehearse, grab tea, concert, beer.

View from our concert hall!

This wasn’t your average touring day, though. The journey involved having our way barred by a herd of Shetland ponies, two ferries and the Shetland weather on it’s absolute best behaviour. Our digs are a luxury designer flat looking over the rooftops to the harbour. The concert venue was the inspiring Boat Hall in Shetland museum alongside the old sixareen, with Hay’s Dock and the sea behind us. Playing there offered a constant reminder of the Nordic culture behind our programme.

We played a varied programme including Lillie Harris new piece AND, depicting the worst of Shetland’s weather. (We’re almost feeling bad about that now as the weather has been so kind to us!). A more traditional take on Shetland came from Tom Anderson. People always love the humour in Kristian Blak’s “…tad heilur gongur av lagi.” Iceland was represented by my own reminiscences of Tvisongur, folk songs and Kentish’s variations on “Kvinnan Froma”. Gretel Ehrlich’s book “This Cold Heaven” sets the scene perfectly for a taste of Inuit music as does the “estremo lontano” movement of Ruders’ “Autumn Collection.”

Today is Lillie’s last day. Not only is her new piece fabulous, but she’s been a great accompanist and schools’ workshop partner.

Wonderful Week in Unst!

Friday night and our week in Unst is almost over. Lillie and I are both feeling a little sad to leave. This is really a special island. Before I even start talking about how beautiful it is, I have to say what a fantastic community it is. We didn’t feel like visitors, we felt like part of Baltasound, albeit for just one week. Everyone pulled together to make our concert special and everyone had time to talk to us. We learned a lot about island life and people passed on links to other friends, pieces of music I might be interested in and many other things.

It was also good to see that other composers I have met and been in contact with, such as Kristian Blak and Adrian Vernon Fish are affectionately known here.

Lots of people at home asked me whether it wouldn’t just be dark here. There may only be 7 hours of daylight, but the quality of light needs to be seen to be believed. It is incredibly special.

Every morning had me mesmerised as I watched the pale sun colour the hills and fields in pastel shades of purple, light blue and pale green.

The big skies have the most amazing towering cloud formations as the moon sets

and the occasional rainbow lights the sky.


Sometimes the low angle of the sun seems to highlight every blade of grass in 3D.

Of course the sea is ever present, whether it’s pounding dramatic cliffs or gently washing on the picturesque beaches and I love watching the seabirds and ravens playing in the wind currents. I still haven’t seen a whale though!


We ended our week with a school workshop and concert. Baltasound Junior High School had prepared a Bjork song for us. We then worked on an improvisation with them. It was wonderful to see how they created music in such an uninhibited way. Once they were in the flow of it, we didn’t need to issue any instructions beyond the scale we’d picked. They were so inventive, finding some amazing timbres on their instruments and listening and interacting with their colleagues. They were a delight to work with and a very welcome addition to our concert programme.


My programme has evolved a lot since the first Nordic Viola concert in Kinbuck. I’m now halfway through my sabbatical and places and situations that were only imagined before have become part of my experience and so very, very special to me. This concert also saw the premiere of Lillie Harris new piece “AND”. It’s the first time I’ve worked so closely with a composer. I loved being able to discuss and develop the work together. I won’t pretend it’s an easy thing to do. I felt a real responsibility to present the work well. It captures the feeling of being in a Shetland storm so perfectly and I want to transmit that. It’s a great piece with an enormous amount of atmosphere and energy and will most definitely be staying in my repertoire beyond Nordic Viola!

Tomorrow we’ll be crossing Bluemull Sound for the last time as we head south to Lerwick. And Unst? We’ll be back!

A Tale of Two Islands

A Tale of Two Islands…or rather, two groups of islands. I’ve spent most of my first week in Shetland finding out about the culture and music of these islands. One thing recurs again and again, whether it be through reading or in talking to people: closeness to the Faroes. This manifests itself in so many ways:

  • Musically – shared forms, e.g. the Shetland Veesek or Faroese Visur: ballads where a solo narrator sings the story in the middle of a circle whilst the others clap or stamp in accompaniment.
  • Linguistically – the old language Norn, used in Shetland and Orkney was a close relative to Faroese. Remnants of it can be seen in place names, with some road signs displaying the Norn name. Veeseks were Norn balads too.
  • A shared way of life – I’ve met people in the sheep farming and wool trades, as well as seafarers, who speak with affection of trips they’ve made visiting counterparts in the Faroes.
  • Bookshelves – whether in libraries or private homes place books from and about the islands alongside each other.

And yet there are no scheduled sailings or flights between Shetland and Faroe anymore, to everyone’s regret.


I’m in Unst now, practically close enough to wave to my friends in Torshavn and their music will form an important part of my programme here.

I went to church this morning and was welcomed warmly by this close community. It’s lovely to feel I have a team around me for this concert. It’s going to be a great week playing music in homes for the sheer joy of it, making music with the young people up at the school and learning about the Shetland musical tradition.

Between weathers, as they say here, I’m managing to explore the islands by bike. Usually that means 8mph one way and 25mph the other, thanks to the wind!!

On the road again -the Shetland Isles

I arrived in Lerwick Tuesday morning having taken the overnight ferry from Aberdeen. Tuesday was a day of orientation, finding accommodation and facilities, but also making connections with people I’ve been in touch with in the last couple of weeks. I had an interview with the Shetland Times in the afternoon at the Mareel Arts Centre. That was interesting in itself, as the last time the RSNO came, it was still under construction. I then popped into the museum to check that everything is in hand for my concert with Lillie on 19th. The Boat Hall is a lovely space and I think, set amongst all that nordic history, it’s an inspiring place to play. I look forward to looking round the museum properly, maybe tomorrow.

I’m only staying in Lerwick for a couple of days before I move on, so in the morning I took the opportunity to rifle through some traditional music books in the music shop and to visit the library. There is a huge reference section on Shetland’s history and culture and it’s interesting to see that books on the Faroes and Iceland are filed in this section, too. Norse and Nordic culture are a very important part of Shetland’s distinct identity.


Cycling past Flanders Moss in Stirlingshire the other day I stopped to watch around 200 geese land in the fields.


It was quite an emotional moment: these birds, which have always been a welcome portent of winter for me, became the defining sound of my stay in Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Cackling away on the grasslands around the Lagarfljót, they were preparing for exactly the same journey back south to Scotland as I was.


In many ways this epitomises my musical journey. Travelling makes you look at home with new eyes. In October, I went to hear Alastair Savage and friends play in the beautiful hall at Kinbuck where Nordic Viola started its journey. The tunes from St. Kilda, Lewis and Harris struck a particular chord with me, especially with the group’s fabulous sea effects. It was evocative of the sounds of the Faroes and reminded me of the ever-present sea and weather. That sent me back to the new CD The Lost Songs of St. Kilda. (If you’re going to the Shetland or London concerts, listen out for my arrangement of Soay).

The crossover between Faroese and Shetland culture is in my mind as I practise Lillie Harris’ new piece”AND”. It’s inspired by the poem “Blashey-wadder” from Jen Hadfield’s Nigh-No-Place collection. Lillie picks up on the poet’s repetition of the word “And”, depicting the relentlessness of a North-Atlantic storm. Having experienced a few of those in the Faroes and Iceland I can say that both poet and composer are spot on!


For me, there are two main elements in Lillie’s music – an energetic triplet figure which depicts the energy and power of the storm and double stops, predominantly in diminished 5ths high on the viola that sound like the wind howling.

It’s important to me that I play new repertoire as my journey evolves and having such a wonderful new piece written for me has given me such an amazing impetus. I can’t wait to take it home to Shetland, though I’m secretly hoping for some gentler weather!