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Out Of The Strings Of A Fiddle, The Melodies Of Cold, Craggy Isles


It's Friday afternoon. The first day of August. Let's take a little island vacation.


SHAPIRO: As you might guess from the music, we are not on a tropical island with palm trees swaying. We are on a barren cluster of rocks in the middle of the North Sea - the Shetland Islands, far North of mainland Scotland. Every Wednesday night, Shetlanders in the town of Lerwick gather at the Lounge Bar to play some of the old island tunes. This is an unusual place. The small towns of Shetland are wealthy from offshore oil and gas, but people here are still deeply committed to ancient ways of life. They cut peat to heat their homes the way their ancestors did. They knit the same patterns as their great-great-grandparents. And they play the fiddle like nobody else.


SHAPIRO: I was in Shetland earlier this summer and wanted to learn what exactly makes their fiddling traditions unique. So I met up with the woman you're hearing right now, someone perfectly qualified to tell the story of Shetland fiddle music.

LINDA ANDERSON: I'm Linda Anderson. I grew up in the Shetland Islands.

SHAPIRO: She's 36 and just moved back to these islands after living in Nashville, Tennessee for several years. This is an old Shetland tune that she played on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.


SHAPIRO: Now to a novice like me, Shetland fiddling sounds a lot like Irish tunes or American bluegrass. But Linda Anderson says there are little flourishes that set it apart, like ringing strings.

ANDERSON: Ringing strings is a really common feature. So playing more than one note at the same time. And that was largely in Shetland because there were no other instruments playing for a dance. So it was one fiddler in a corner and a roomful of people dancing. So they had to make as much sound as they could and make that rhythm come out. But in terms of the differences, really just the notes and the way that the notes are placed together, little pieces of ornamentation. They add in certain notes in for decoration.

SHAPIRO: The Shetland music is more ornamented?

ANDERSON: Yeah, just ever so slightly.

SHAPIRO: Can you show me the ringing string that you mentioned? Just what that alone sounds like? Demonstrate that technique or that sound?

ANDERSON: Just the melody itself.


ANDERSON: And if I play that now with ringing strings.


SHAPIRO: That totally makes sense to me.

ANDERSON: So it's kind of like building in your own rhythm section just to give it that drive and build - body out the sound a little bit.

SHAPIRO: And that's because traditionally the fiddler would be the only one playing?

ANDERSON: Yeah, back in the old days in Shetland. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So Shetland is a pretty remote cluster of islands. And you were raised on a pretty remote island within that pretty remote cluster of islands, right?

ANDERSON: Yeah, that's right. I was raised in the island of Yell - population of around 1,000. But to us it felt anything but small. We were very much outdoors as kids. I started going off in a boat on my own when I was 10 years old. I sailed. My parents ran the shop - the grocery shop and post office on the islands so we knew absolutely everybody on the island. It didn't feel remote or small.

SHAPIRO: And on that island, would people play the fiddle for each other? Presumably, they were not concert halls where people were performing.

ANDERSON: If you go back in Shetland maybe 60 - oh, longer than that now - 80 years or so ago, people had dances in their houses. So they would clear the kitchen, and people would come in and dance.


ANDERSON: There would be small halls maybe could hold around 100 people. Actually, my parents told me - who married in 1969 - weddings were traditionally two or three days and would be back to back nights of dancing. But the second night of their wedding was the first time that a band had been brought in from outwith the island to perform for the dancers. Before that time, it would have just been whoever was there that night, like, OK, you come up with your accordion and play at your own right. We'll get Peter on his fiddle for a bit.

SHAPIRO: Does the rest of the world appreciate that Shetland has a distinctive fiddle tradition that's different from the other fiddle traditions?

ANDERSON: Yeah, I think they do. Something I was quite surprised in in the States was meeting people who - that when the Irish scene is obviously huge in the States and everybody tends to know a lot of Irish tunes. They're kind of familiar with the Scottish but not so much so. But they would always be at least aware of Shetland, if not know five or six tunes, which just blew my mind that people - I sat down with a friend of mine who's a bouzouki player from Winnie, Texas. She, to me one night, said oh, do you know this Shetland tune? Let's play this one. And she played it. And I said, I don't know what that is. And sure enough, she found a recording of Tom Anderson that she had - the guy from Shetland - and she knew all the tunes on the album, and I didn't even know the half of them.


SHAPIRO: So if you're in your kitchen right now maybe cooking dinner, take a second, push back the furniture, pretend you're in Shetland and call in the kids for a foot-stomping dance. Here comes a fiddle tune courtesy of Shetland native Linda Anderson.

(FIDDLE MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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