Duncan McLean on the Thomas Fraser Festival

Sure there are folk who might think that Thomas Fraser must be ‘turning in his grave’.  The Burra Isle fisherman was a uniquely talented musician who, incredibly shy, kept his talent hidden from all but a few close friends and family members.  Now, ironically, the festival held in his name celebrates his talent loud and long. His skills as a singer, guitarist and re-imaginer of songs are discussed, dissected and praised to the heavens.  And somewhere up in those heavens poor Thomas looks over the edge of a cloud, blushing at all the attention.


If I hadn’t had uncles in the Merchant Navy…if they hadn’t crossed the Atlantic…if they hadn’t brought back those first 78s by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow… If my brother hadn’t given me a fiddle, and then an old guitar…  Most of all, if electricity had never arrived in Burra to power up that reel-to-reel tape recorder…  Well, if none of that had happened, then thousands of folk across Shetland, and Scotland, and Europe and even – crazy, this – Nashville Tennessee would never have heard of me.  And they certainly wouldn’t have descended on Hamnavoe on a cold, blustery November day to fill the hall.  And they wouldn’t be singing the songs I sang, and playing guitars, and mandolins, steels and fiddles and more, their voices coming together in country harmony and bluesy growls…


Too late, Thomas.  ‘The news is out, all over town…’ as Hank put it.  In fact, it’s out all over the world.  The combination of your story, and those precious recordings, and the weekend of good company and great music, draws folk to Burra year after year: a few who knew you intimately, some who were acquainted with you, but who never suspected that secret talent, and many from further afield who never met you – but wish they had.


Thomas Fraser’s talent was unique, and so is the festival that proudly bears his name.  Times have changed: tastes have caught up with where Thomas was fifty years ago.  In Hamnavoe, Burra hundreds gather to celebrate his legacy – and to create new memories, memories which will be treasured for many years to come, just as the songs Thomas performed will be sung again, from the heart, into the distant future. So we can assure you, he’s not turning in his grave: he’s dancing. Thomas: You Win Again. Duncan McLean