12 October 2014

Willie Hunter – SFO Pays Tribute 20 Years On From His Untimely Death

The SFO’s concert programme for 2014 includes a tribute to Shetland fiddler, Willie Hunter, who died in 1994 at the age of 60.

Yla Steven plays probably Willie’s best-known composition – the Slow Air “Leaving Lerwick Harbour” – in an arrangement by the SFO’s late Musical Director, John Mason.

Leaving Lerwick Harbour

The tune was written after the return of his aunt Babsie to New Zealand following a holiday in her native Shetland. Willie always recalled her departure on the ferry and it inspired him to compose this beautiful melody. It is thought to have been Willie’s favourite among all his compositions.

Recordings and Compositions

Willie was a fantastic fiddler who also received classical violin training.

We are fortunate that the internet preserves enough of his performances for you to be able to appreciate his abilities for yourself.

Here, in a recording probably from the early 1980’s, accompanied by Violet Tulloch on piano, he plays arguably his most popular reel, “The Cape Breton Visit to Shetland”, followed by his tune for Shetland guitar legend Peerie Willie Johnson.

From an SFO perspective, it’s interesting that the first LP version of “The Cape Breton Visit to Shetland” is on a record called “A Salute to Scotland” (1984). It’s the first tune in a selection of 4 reels played by The Cape Breton Symphony Fiddle (there entitled “The Cape Breton Symphony’s Visit to the Shetlands”). The final reel in the set – “The Awl Man” – is a John Mason composition.

Willie Hunter featured in Aly Bain’s TV series from the mid-1980s “Aly Bain and Friends” (the first tune here is The Love o’ the Isles, another of Willie’s compositions) and the “Shetland Sessions”, recorded at the 1991 Shetland Folk Festival (here are the traditional Shetland reels Faroe Rum, Aandowin at da Bow and Da Forefit o’ da Ship).

The video here features a “Fiddle Workshop” hosted by Willie in the Islesburgh Community Centre in Lerwick at the 1991 Folk Festival. It’s an interesting exploration of how particular tunes feature in just about every fiddle tradition on Earth – in slightly different versions – and features Peerie Willie Johnson and Canadian fiddle maestro Graham Townsend, among others.  He gives an explanation of his understanding of the Workshop format of the event from about one minute into the video onwards.

Willie’s Legacy

His influence lives on not only through his 30 or so compositions (see Shetland’s representatives, Hjaltibonhoga, play The Love o’ the Isles here at a rehearsal for their performance the 2014 Edinburgh Tattoo) but also through his many pupils.

Willie taught fiddle in Shetland schools during the last few years of his life and he produced an amazing crop of talented players who still count him as a major influence. This includes musicians such as Jenna Reid of Blazin’ Fiddles and the lads of the Fiddlers’ Bid front line.

Willie’s masterful posture, tone and attack are (rightly) said to live on most obviously in the playing of his pupil, Bryan Gear.

A book of Willie’s tunes – “The Music of Willie Hunter” – was first published in 1998 and it has recently been expanded and updated to include compositions by his father, Willie Hunter Snr., another important figure in the resurgence of Shetland Fiddle Music since the 1950s.

There are also several CDs by Willie Hunter or featuring him and it is our good fortune that, during the final months of his life, when he knew his time was running out, he was able to record such a lot of additional material for our lasting benefit and enjoyment.