the gentlewoman

The Reader

Fed up of feeling homesick, Shetlander Helen Nisbet decided to bring her beloved native Isles to her new hometown of London when she moved down south ten years ago. She’s the founder of Shetland Night in the UK capital, an annual event celebrating the food, culture and comradeship of the remote subarctic archipelago located at Scotland’s most northerly tip. Haling from Shetland’s second-largest island of Yell (population: 966), Helen, 32, is an art curator and consultant who manages public commissions and curatorial events at the Contemporary Art Society in east London (population: 2,000,000). Fellow Scottish expat Frankie Mathieson spoke with Helen on the phone from London where she also now lives, 600 miles from their motherland.

Helen Nisbet

Frankie: Where are you right now?

Helen: I’m waiting on a plane in Aberdeen – I’m flying to Orkney to do a talk at the Pier Arts Centre about the importance and meaning of collecting contemporary art, especially in non-urban regions and far-flung islands.

F: Given Orkney’s close proximity to Shetland, you must be the local expert. How do you find the time to organise Shetland Night in London on top of your job at the Contemporary Art Society and all that travelling?

H: They only seem to happen once a year, when I get a burst of energy. It takes a bit of time to line everyone up and get us all enthused for the next one.

F: Is everyone involved from Shetland?

H: Pretty much. Two of my best friends from there, Jenna and Bethany Reid, are spectacular fiddlers, as is my brother Barry, so involving them is essential. None of my chefs have been to Shetland yet, but that will happen soon. We just talk to them a lot about the place and I’ve made them research local things like bannocks and sassermaet; for them, I guess the closest equivalents are scones and sausagemeat. Most of the food we serve comes from a wealth of incredible stuff produced on the island – one standout example is from my next-door neighbour there, Christopher Thomason. He grows the best mussels in the UK.

F: What’s a typical Shetland Night like, then?

H: It’s designed to feel like being in a village hall in Shetland so that means food, music and dancing. And whisky! It’s really important to me that everyone gets a dram as they come in. As I’m homesick around 98 per cent of the time, living in London, I decided I had to do something about it. The initial idea was to get some Shetland mutton sent down – I could never find good, salty mutton in London – to make dinner for a big group of friends. Then I asked my friend Joe Trivelli from the River Café if he’d consider cooking for the event and my brother if he’d consider fiddling and it kind of grew from there. I love the camaraderie of a night out in Shetland. I miss the opportunity to sit next to someone I might not have met before and for that not to be a boundary to an amazing night.

F: I find people in London are sometimes scared to speak to “strangers”. That’s really not the case in Scotland!

H: Down there, I mainly socialise with people who range within twenty years of my age. In Shetland I mix with folk who are eight and folk who are eighty in a pretty similar way and I miss that egalitarian approach.

F: So what keeps you in London then?

H: There’s this great book called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and in it he describes the main character’s turmoil around her two identities:  there’s “Chris of the Land”, who loves the place where she’s from, and there’s “English Chris”, who desires a culture outside of her rural life. I think it’s like that for me. My family are all still on Shetland and I go home as much as I can, but I love London. My pals are there and it would be hard, though not impossible, to be involved in the contemporary art scene if I was based on Shetland. The events have made the homesickness easier, I must say. I get to talk to people about the home and being able to throw a party with such a strong flavour of Shetland makes me feel more connected to it. I’m also happy to do my bit to promote the island.

F: Your parties have received a tremendous reaction down here – I believe there’s a waiting list?

H: Amazingly so. At the first night, in November 2012, there were 40 people and at the last one there were almost 100: foodies, music lovers, people who like booze, folk who are interested in the culture and history of the place, people who love Scottish dancing. I’ve found word of mouth and social media to be my biggest allies in that respect, especially Twitter. I love the way a network develops through friends and friends of friends; how everyone ends up knowing each other. That’s happened every time and it’s probably my favourite part. I’ve also unearthed a few wayward Shetlanders who’ve enjoyed the opportunity to introduce their southern friends to what it’s like up there.

F: Are there many displaced Shetlanders in London?

H: I thought I was a lone wolf, but apparently not. There are quite a few of us, often folk doing really interesting things: fashion designers, recording studio engineers, artists…

F: There’s no tartan or heather in sight on the night, correct?

H: Not if I can help it. Traditionally, Shetland has a stronger emotional tie to Scandinavia than the kilted masses of mainland Scotland. I mean, we only became part of Scotland as recently as 1472! I do think there’s been a recent shift towards a more explicit Scottish identity, though. And to reflect that, we had beautiful little pots of heather by the set decorator Tamsin Clarke on the tables of the last Shetland Night, at Netil House near London Fields in Hackney.

F: I gather Shetland was one of the few places in Scotland that didn’t vote in an SNP candidate in the general election and that independents dominate in the council elections. Is it fair to say that Shetlanders don’t follow the herd?

H: Shetland feels quite separate to the rest of Scotland in many ways. The country’s central belt can seem a million miles away from up there and so the left wing spirit that’s ingrained in the bigger cities like Dundee and Glasgow is less apparent in Shetland and Orkney, though not invisible. Jo Grimond, who was leader of the Liberal party in the ’50s and ’60s and the local MP for about 30 years, was adored by the islanders – I think it’s his legacy that continues to secure the Liberal vote. I’m pretty awful at coping with change and I think that might be a personality trait of a lot of Shetlanders.

F: Are there any plans to host Shetland Nights in other cities?

H: Yes! I was lucky enough to spend three months in New York last year, working with Creative Time, the non-profit arts organisation based in Brooklyn, on their exhibition Funk, God, Jazz, Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. So we might do something there. And I’m also looking to bring some of the chefs I’ve worked with to Shetland to do a Shetland Night in…Shetland.

F: That’s a novel idea! For people interested in experiencing the real thing, what would you recommend doing while in Shetland?

H: Since I’m from Yell, I’d insist on a trip there, especially a visit to Breckon beach – it’s great for a freezing-cold swim with the seals, if you’re hardy. Going up for the folk festival at the end of April is a pretty good idea, but you can get a similar feel from an evening in the Lounge Bar in Lerwick, which is Shetland’s main port. Or on New Year’s night in the clubroom of the hall in Cullivoe. I’m a sucker for simmer dim, the lingering twilight that happens around the summer solstice. The skies barely turn dark at night and everything’s illuminated by a pinky orange glow, which turns walking home at 4am into something close to magic.

Interview by Frankie Mathieson. Photograph courtesy of Helen Nisbet. Fancy kicking your heels up Shetland style? Please direct your attention here to do so. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!