Inge Thomson’s music is steeped in nautical influences, which for a Fair Islander, will come as no surprise. Fair Isle lies between mainland Shetland and the Orkney islands, a remote island that measures just 3 by 1.5 miles. A wild and beautiful landscape whose rugged inlets and coves have been carved out by the sea and wind. It’s this land and an old tradition that form the focus of her latest project ‘Da Fishing Hands’.
Fair Islanders have a strong cultural tie to the sea and fishing has played an important part in their history. Until the early 1900’s they were almost totally dependent upon fish for their livelihood. Over time the dramatic decline in fish stocks around the Isle and over-fishing by larger boats means they now only fish for home consumption using traditional clinker built yoals.
I recently caught up with Inge to talk about the project which she began with Fair Isle singer-songwriter, musician and poet Lise Sinclair.
“The initial idea for the project was conceived while looking at the maps of fishing grounds (known as ‘fishing hands’) around Fair Isle, which were compiled as a resource for FIMETI (Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative). The maps themselves are things of beauty with lines denoting triangulation points connecting visible landmarks and sea stacks and the contour lines of the ocean topography. This then got me thinking about the cultural significance of this information which had previously been passed down in the oral tradition, and how the changes in our marine environment are affecting all aspects of island life. After receiving funding from Creative Scotland, FIMETI commissioned us to write a body of work which highlights the more personal effects of the degeneration of our marine resources and hopefully to give a less political voice to their cause, which is to raise awareness of the island’s plight, their bid to be granted marine protected status and ultimately re-instate a 5km commercial fishing limit.”
Whilst it’s easy to view ‘fishing hands’ in isolation their significance is also tied to the lives of those that live there…past and present. Heading out to sea to fish was part of everyday life but even as a young child Inge recalls the declining catch. “Almost all crofters on the isle had access to a boat, either self owned or had shares in one, so we grew up going fishing regularly. All the regular seafarers held knowledge of the fishing hands, this made the difference between a good catch or no catch at all. By the time I was of the age of awareness of the fishing hands there weren’t all that many plentiful hands left.”
Inge has a very holistic view of the Fair Isle, one which balances sustainability with the needs of the Islanders…she made it very clear how everything is inter-linked. “Fair Isle has an amazing unique community. It is a very isolated island, with very challenging weather! Tourism generates much of the income on the isle, the birds, especially the sea birds and rare migrants, bring people from all over the world this in turn supports the fine traditional crafts etc. enabling the isle to survive. FIMETI was initially set up in response to the drastic decline of a number of seabird populations (especially kittiwakes, guillemots, terns, puffins) due to overfishing. From a cultural point of view the sea has always been a life giver to the island, it is so important we look after our marine resources for future generations.”
A heavy blow was dealt to many last year with the untimely death of Lise Sinclair following a short illness. Lise was an intrinsic part of the project and was also Inge’s cousin.
“…last year dealt us a very heavy blow. My cousin Lise was an amazing woman, beautiful, passionate and very generous with her creativity. I grew up with her and had the great fortune to accompany her on many musical journeys. She was a irreplaceable spirit on the Isle, survived by her four amazing children who are testament to her great parenting and her husband Ian who’s strength is an inspiration.
“I went home (Fair Isle) again in September to spend time with our family and talk about the project with no idea if it could proceed, or how? I was met with such overwhelming encouragement, indeed insistence for it to go ahead, as the cause had not changed, despite everything around it changing shape. Lise had written her last work for this project, so I am proceeding with a renewed sense of purpose, and an emotional element that is driving it.”
I have nothing but admiration for Inge’s perseverance in wanting to see the project through and after she explained to me the line-up she has I think this is going to very special and also a great tribute to Lise.
“With support from Shetland Arts, Da Fishing Hands will be performed three times up in Shetland at the end of May. The musicians include Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow) – flute/vocals; Fraser Fifield – sax/kaval/whistles/pipes; Steven Polwart – guitar/vocals; Graeme Smillie (Olympic Swimmers) – bass. I will also play/loop/sing and employ other electronic ting-plonkery. We plan to release a live album later in the year.”
Since talking to Inge I’ve read several articles written about Lise which I’ve provided links to below, there have been some beautiful tributes which I encourage you to read. I also wanted to share this lovely recording of a lullaby called ‘fasten d compass here’ featuring Lise collaborating with Duncan Swindells (clarinet) and musicians Jane Reid (violin) and Rosina Alter (bassoon) from the RSNO and baritone/Uncle Neil Thomson…live recording, by Michael Stout in the Fair Isle Hall while the storm raged on the outside…