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Folk Festival Baby, or Undoing Elvis Costello's Hard Work

Author: Hannah Nicholson

The Shetland Folk Festival began in 1981, and grew from humble beginnings to become quite an iconic and prestigious event in the music world. Through the years it has hosted some notable artists, including names such as Dougie Maclean and Ralph McTell among others, bringing them to an audience that otherwise might not get to experience them. In 1988, they scored a coup when they managed to get Elvis Costello as a visiting act, and that year, he would end up saving the whole thing.

One of the more famous parts of the experience for visiting artistes is the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, which will usually result in a huge jam session occurring in the bar, something of a bonding experience for them all. However, a nationwide strike by the National Union of Seamen was set to put a spanner in the works, as it effectively meant that the visiting acts potentially couldn’t travel north for the festival.

Elvis Costello came to the rescue, though – he negotiated with the union and the dockers and promised them that he would play a benefit concert at the Aberdeen Music Hall to raise awareness of the strike and the risks being taken by the workers on the picket line. Satisfied with this, the workers on the North Isles ferry agreed to sail in time to bring the visiting acts and their equipment up for the festival, and the day – or more accurately the weekend – was saved.

The dates for the 1988 Folk Festival were Thursday 28th April to Sunday 1st May – every year it was scheduled to coincide with the May Day weekend. All the visiting acts were scheduled to perform an evening concert at a different venue each night, and on the Thursday night, Elvis Costello would play a concert at the Whiteness and Weisdale Hall in the west mainland of Shetland. The band who were scheduled to directly precede him on that night were a local band by the name of Scrape the Barrel.

Scrape the Barrel were a six piece folk rock outfit whose line up varied a couple of times throughout their lifespan, but two of the consistent members were a young married couple named Brian and Lynn Nicholson – my parents. My dad was the lead guitarist and Mam the lead singer, and at the time they had been married for two years and had a son, my older brother Arthur, due to celebrate his third birthday later that year. They also had a second child on the way, namely me, with a predicted due date of 26th April – but this hadn’t deterred them from booking Folk Festival concerts with their band.

That Thursday night, legendary folk singer Danny Kyle was on compere duty. He was another much loved stalwart of the festival, visiting several times between its inception and his death in 1998. During the process of the soundcheck, he was approached by Norma Farmer, the other singer in Scrape the Barrel.

'Sorry to be a nuisance, Danny,' she asked, 'but would you be able to change the running order so that we could go on first?'
'Why do you want to go on first?' asked an exasperated Danny.
'Well,' Norma replied, 'our lead singer’s just gone into labour … '

While Scrape the Barrel had been sound checking, Mam’s waters had broken. Little happened after this, however, so the band decided they would go ahead with their set all the same. Their request to open the show was granted, and after their set, there was still little happening, so Mam was all set to get as comfy as she could in the circumstances and watch Elvis Costello’s set – he was a real favourite of hers. Dad was having none of it, however, and so they got in their car and drove off to the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick.

I was born at 7:23am the following morning, weighing 7lbs 15oz. Being a small community it took little time for word to get around, although at times over the years it has been incorrectly reported that I was born on stage. Danny Kyle certainly was hugely amused at the situation and told the story often at his concerts for many years after. He also had quite the soft spot for my siblings and I, and he always brought us little treats whenever he came up for future festivals. It seems fitting then that my brother would end up being one of the winners of the Danny Kyle Award at Celtic Connections in 2014, an award created in Danny’s memory to promote and nurture new musical talent in the Scottish trad scene.

I would end up being gifted a life membership to the festival, and the story itself has gone down in festival lore. It will be an honour, then, to be back in the isles for the belated 40th anniversary celebration, the first in two years after it was previously thwarted by the pandemic.