The Music of
the Shetland and
Orkney Islands

(Scottish flag)




Updated: November 13, 2002

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Shetland and Orkney are two groups of islands off the northeast coast of Scotland. Orkney consists of 70 islands, the nearest of which is located only 10 miles from John O' Groats, the northeast tip of Scotland. The Shetland Isles, a group of 6 large island and 100 small ones stretching over 70 miles, are considerably more remote, located 93 miles northeast of John O' Groats. There are about 21,000 people on each of the island groups. Orkney is a prime agricultural area that gets quite a lot of tourist traffic. In contrast, in Shetland, they raise a lot of sheep, but grow few plants and there is a heavier emphasis on fishing (and recently servicing the North Sea oil platforms).

Both Shetland and Orkney have been part of Scotland only since 1469. Prior to that time, they both belonged to Norway. Both islands are extremely rich in archeological ruins, having been continuously inhabited for over 5,000 years. Skara Brae on Orkney, a group of 5,000 houses in excellent repair, is the oldest such find in northern Europe. For the Vikings, the Shetlands and Orkneys were not so much a remote outpost as both home and a main junction in their voyages throughout the northeastern Atlantic. This sense that these islands are not at "the end of the earth", but rather at the center of it can still be felt today.

Indeed, nearly all the place names in both islands are Norwegian rather than Scottish. The Gaelic language never came into common use on these islands. There still is a strong connection to Norway. Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, is closer to Bergen, Norway than it is to Edinburgh. The Orcadian accent in particular is strikingly different than other Scottish accents.

Thus, the music from Shetland and Orkney contains more Norwegian influence and less Gaelic influence than that found elsewhere in Scotland; the difference is particularly noticable compared to the music of the western highlands and Outer Hebrides.

The isolation of Shetland and Orkney have led to a a strong self-reliance and independence. This can be seen in the naming of the largest islands in both groups "Mainland". The people are Shetlanders or Orcadians first and Scots second. Both this independence and pride are happily reflected in their music.

Like much other traditional music, the music of Orkney and Shetland was in apparent danger of dying out recently. However, at the critical hour, key volunteers came forward to increase efforts to teach the music. And on my visit, I found a renewed pride in and enthusiasm for this music with lots of young people playing extremely well. There are big folk festivals in Orkney and Shetland in the spring which draw international musicians and crowds.


(The Day Dawning album cover)

Aly Bain, a great fiddler, has been very active in supporting and promoting traditional music in Scotland. His music can be heard on many albums. You may be most familiar with it from the playing of The Boys of the Lough. He also has put together the two excellent eclectic albums, The Transatlantic Sessions 2 (Lismor Iona, 1998). Bain also has a duet career with Phil Cunningham resulting in a couple of albums on the Green Linnet label, The Ruby and The Pearl.

(opus blue cover)


Catriona Macdonald and Ian Lowthian -- opus blue (Acoustic Radio 1993). Though quite young, Catriona is an exceptional fiddler and has taught at Alasdair Fraser's Valley of the Moon camp. Ian accompanies on piano "free bass accordian" and wrote several of the tunes. This all instrumental album demonstrates the cosmopolitan nature or Shetland music with lots of Shetland tunes mixed with Swedish tunes and music from the Hebrides. Catriona has terrific command of the fiddle and the ornamentation on these tunes is marvelous. If you like Alsadair Fraser's playing when he is at his most traditional, you should like this album very much. Highly recommended.

bold (peerie angel productions, 2000) A second album from this fine young fiddler, a former BBC Young Tradition award winner. This effort shows her fine fiddling, particularly on the slow airs. Throughout, she has a lovely lilt, beautiful tone, and mastery of the complex tunes. The tunes on this CD are mainly contemporary traditional pieces, including three by Catriona herself. The cosmopolitan nature of Shetland music is apparent with its Norwegian, Irish, and Scottish influences, and accompaniment ranging from double bass to church organs. Recommended if you want to see how contemporary tune-writers and a fine fiddler are extending the tradition.
(Leaving Lerwick Harbour) Willie Hunter and Violet Tulloch-- Leaving Lerwick Harbour (Greentrax 1995) This album by fiddler Hunter and pianist Tulloch, recorded shortly before Willie Hunter's death captures the finest in the traditional Shetland fiddling style which barely survived tough times beffore the recent revival, a revival championed and instructed by keepers of the tradition, particularly these two musicisians. As Scotty Fitzgerald is to the Cape Bretoners, Willie Hunter is to the Shetlanders.
(cover of Shetland Dialect) Various -- Shetland Dialect -- Language of the Fiddle (Veesik Records 1996) This is a compilation album of an amazing array of young musicians. Featured on the album include Fiddlers' Bid, Filska, Maurice Henderson (a fine young fiddler), Jeanna Johnston (another fine fiddler), Rack & Ruin. E-mail: veesik.records@zetnet.co.uk
(Harvest Home album cover)

(Time and Tide)
Filska -- Harvest Home (Attic Records (Orkney), 1995) Filska consists of three young lady fiddlers -- Bethany and Jenna Reid and Gemma Wilson with Joyce Reid (the mom) on piano. This is a lovely album of very nice playing, 17 tracks of traditional Shetland material. Only when preparing this review did I realize that the musicians were 11, 14, 12 and ">20" years old! To matters worse, two of the tunes were written by 14 year old Andrew Gifford! Its one thing for the younger generation to pick up the tradition, another thing for them to threaten to outshine their elders before they reach 15! An excellent collection of Shetland tunes very well played by anyone's standard.

Filska has a new (1999) album out, Time and Tide, (Highlander Music, 1998). Its hard to believe this is the 2d album from this group, who are all still in their teens. The original quartet of Jenna and Bethany Reid on fiddle, Gemma Wilson on fiddle, and Joyce Reid on piano has now been joined by Andy Brewer on flute and Andrew Tulloch on acoustic and bass guitar. In this album, the playing is more sophisticated and precise, however the arrangements muddle the sound. It seems orchestrated and too careful. OK if you are hungry for Shetland fiddling, I say get Filska's first album first.
(Fiddlers' Bid cover)


Fiddlers' Bid -- Around the World (1994, Fiddlers' Bid) Another group of extremely good young fiddlers and guitar players, this time boys, playing traditional music from Shetland and nearby areas. Given the skill, confidence, and maturity of their playing, its a shock to see how young they are.According to Aly Bain's notes, they "brought the house down" at the huge Celtic festival in Lorient, France. I can see why. Another very good album by any standard.
  The second CD - Hamnataing (Greentrax 1998). from this young group of six lads on 4 fiddles and 2 guitars, and Catriona McKay on harp and piano. There is a lot of talent represented here. The opening set of tunes has massed fiddles, which I found off-putting. However, the rest of the album includes a surprising amount of variation in the arrangements, many of the prettiest featuring some fine guitar work and solo fiddling. There are 12 sets of tunes (no songs) with a mix of traditional Shetland tunes, others composed by the band, and a few Irish tunes thrown in.

  Da Farder Ben Da Welcomer (Greentrax 2001). It's hard to believe that this group of youngsters has been a band for 10 years! They certainly have put the time to good use, and their music has grown in maturity and complexity. They do a masterful job of arranging the four fiddles and two guitars in complex and interesting ways that avoid the risk of the tunes sounding repetitious. As expected, the fiddling is stellar. There is also a truly lovely air, The Swan, written by the one female member of the group, harpist/pianist Catriona McKay. The tunes are largely traditional Shetland tunes, although there is a scattering of nice tunes written by the lads themselves.
(Rowing Foula Doon) Hom Bru -- Rowing Foula Doon (Lochshore/Klub Records 1990) The title track of this album, a local song, refers to the practice of the local fishermen to go out in their tiny boats so far that the remote island of Foula would sink almost below the horizon.

For more information about music in the Shetlands, check out;


(cover of Huldreland album)

(Mither o the Sea)

Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley- Huldreland (Greentrax Recordings 1997) The Wrigley sisters are young identical twins. They are a terrifically fun live act. (I've seen them twice.) Their Orcadian music is quite distinct reflecting not only their Scottish heritage but also the strong Norwegian ties of these islands. Jennifer is an extraordinary fiddler of many styles and is winner of the prestiguous 1996 BBC Young Tradition award. She wrote many of the tunes on this album. Hazel plays both guitar and piano providing terrific accompaniment with some jazzy influences tastefully worked in, and also writes some of the tunes. They can also be heard as part of a great young group Seelyhoo. (Highly recommended)

Their 1999 CD Mither 'o the sea (Greentrax). They keep getting better and better. Many of the tunes are "traditional" Orcadian tunes, but 8 are original compositions by Jennifer and 3 by Hazel, and beauties they are. Particularly striking is Jennifer's playing on the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle on "Compliments to the Orkney Norway Friendship Association" and the beautiful air "Mrs. Violet Eunson". (Highly recommended)
(Orkney Sessions) The Orkney Sessions from the Ayre Hotel (Attic Records, 1995) This is a very unpretentious album of traditional music apparently recorded at the Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall.There are 15 sets of tunes and two songs. On many of the tracks the noise of the crowd having fun can be heard. On others, the players obviously inspired some to get up and step dance. Unfortunately, the CD lists the tunes, but none of the musicians. The quality of the music is very high and includes suprisingly uillean pipes and tin whistles. Gives one a nice feel for a lively Saturday night in Orkney.Highly recommended
the Smoking Stone Band - Coming Through (Mariner Music 1995) The album cover (which is too detailed to display well here) shows a steam locomotive with an aggressive smile charging over one of the Churchill causeways in Orkney with the banjo player (Jim Hall), fiddler (Douglas Montgomery), bass player (John Adams) and electric mandolin player (Dick Levens) playing on the cow catcher. This is apt. This album comes charging down the track like a locomotive at full steam, and rides the musical tracks from Norwegian influenced tunes of Orkney to the bluegrass of Kentucky, to Appalachia, and back to Shetland, all done with enormous skill and fun. Like all good journeys, there are unexpected and marvelous things around each bend. This is one party train ride you do NOT want to miss. Highly recommended.

(The Orkney Fiddler cover) Fiona Driver -- The Orkney Fiddler (1997, Newton Hill Records). This is a nice album of fiddle music, played in a fairly traditional manner.
(Leave the Land Behind) Hullion - Leave the Land Behind (1994, Attic Records) This group of five musicians (fiddle, harmonica, and 3 guitars/mandoline/mandola are common sights at the Ayre Hotel, Kirkwall on Saturday nights. This collection of traditional and folk songs and instrumentals is not as strong as some of the other albums on this list, but it is probably as close a typical night on Orkney as you're likely to get on a CD.
(Just a Few Tunes) Kenny and Kenneth Ritch -- just a few tunes (Attic Records, 1997). Kenny Ritch is one of Orkney's better known musicians, playing accordion, piano, and bass. On this album he plays with his son Kenny, a very good fiddler on this colection of Orkney and Scottish music. This is simple, good music. No fancy arrangements, but sometimes a simple, good album is what you need.

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For more information, you may want to check with the local Scottish cultural groups.

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Please send me your comments or suggestions to Jim Scarff at: jim@sfcelticmusic.com