Leaving Lerwick Harbour
Greentrax CDTRAX 105
There are few newspapers in Britain where one would expect to find a reader's letter criticising Aly Bain's playing of The New Rigged Ship; but the Shetland Times carried exactly that a few years ago. To the wider world, Aly is the best known Shetland fiddler, thanks to media exposure and his membership of Boys of the Lough, and when I moved here in 1992, his and Tom Anderson's were the names I was able to quote in an effort to establish my credibility. At that time Tom Anderson was not long dead, and I was usually told, politely but firmly, that Willie Hunter was the man to hear. I took immediate steps to acquire his only CD then available, Willie Hunter 1982 (Celtic Music CD 010).
Sadly, Willie too is now dead, having passed away in 1994, while still only in his early sixties; when he knew that he had not long to live, he decided that it was time to preserve his repertoire on record, and spent long hours in Billy Kay's Lerwick studio, laying down the material from which this CD is drawn. It would be preferable if he were still with us and playing, but we are nevertheless indebted to him for making what must have been a heroic effort to hold these sessions.
His playing gives no hint that we are hearing a dying man; it shines with what Gordon Yeaman in his notes describes as his "unrivalled vitality and lyricism." Gordon also describes Willie's fiddle teaching in Shetland schools as "energetic, purposeful, cheerful, reliable and encouraging," and all these adjectives could equally describe his playing. I can't speak in detail about the technical aspects, not being a fiddler, but it's obvious that Hunter was a musician with a formidable technical arsenal. Listening to 1982, I have sometimes felt that there was a little too much display music, and not enough emotional involvement; it is symptomatic that 1982 contains a good many more tunes than the present CD by James Scott Skinner, "the strathspey king," and god of Scottish fiddle music, whose fondness for sub-Paganinian showing off can go too far at times.
It's understandable that Scott Skinner should be so admired by fiddle players, and inevitably there are several of his compositions featured on Leaving Lerwick Harbour, including his best known strathspey, The Laird o' Drumblair, and the schottische The Miller o' Hirn; but his compositions do not dominate the CD. Flashy playing, rather than being indulged in for its own sake, is the spice that gives the collection savour, as on the humoresque-style playing of the set Clarence Tough/The Newcastle Hornpipe/Pat's Reel . The disc is a well programmed collection of march, strathspey and reel sets, Scottish and Irish jigs, Shetland reels (of course), and slow airs. It's on these latter, perhaps, that Willie Hunter is heard at his most moving and impressive, and above all on the title track. He is the star of the show, but would be remiss not to point out that the artist credit is to "Willie Hunter and Violet Tulloch;" her piano accompaniment is, as always, impeccable, unobtrusive, and supportive, ideally matched to the moods and styles of the fiddle tunes.
The release of this CD was delayed for some time because of legal problems involving CM Distribution, and there was some fear at one point that it might have to be withdrawn. Partly as a result of that, there were long queues in the record shops of Lerwick when it first came out. Thankfully, this worry appears to have been unfounded, and it should be possible to acquire Leaving Lerwick Harbour without difficulty. The other reason for the long queues was that would-be purchasers knew they were going to hear Shetland fiddle playing at its best.
Chris Smith - 21.3.97
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