The audio recordings featured in this website were made by ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke
peter Cookecropped
during the period 1969-1984 when he was researching the music of the Shetland Isles from his base in the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

They are supplemented by:-
+ biographical notes and images featuring  the contributors,
+ information on their songs      and
+  text transcriptions.

The 120+ recordings of ballads, songs, rhymes and riddles comprise a rich sample of oral tradition and are preserved as a vivid example of the power of song to give expression to the hopes, fears and joys of this small community.  Some of the songs were recorded from more than one person and as expected their  versions often differ.

This is a joint project, for numerous islanders have collaborated with Peter Cooke to provide information on the singers (often their own parents and grand-parents) and have helped by checking texts, commenting on the songs and providing photographs.  Their cooperation has been readily given and highly appreciated for it has added hugely to the interest and value of this site.

Not surprisingly many of the songs and ballads presented here relate tales of adventure and tragedy at sea –  a musical flotsam that travelled by word of mouth around the world’s oceans. Others are dance songs, lullabies, bothy ballads (probably learned from Scots), broadsheet ballads,  fishing songs and comic music-hall songs dating from the early years of the last century.  To complete this rich store of orature some rhymes and riddles are also included and some of pages featuring dance songs also contain fiddle versions of the tunes..

Some of the islanders were avid collectors themselves making up their own manuscript collections from printed sources such as newspapers and from broadsheets published by printers such as Sanderson of Edinburgh.  His firm   was still marketing Favourite Songs for Country Districts on penny song-sheets as late as the 1940s.   Other islanders made their own recordings on tape and cassette machines.

Whereas many of our recordings were made at private sessions in the homes of the performers,  the songs were performed at island functions such as wedding dances and regatta concerts and other entertainments as well as when friends met up in each others’ houses.  There was also a lively tradition of end of fishing season ‘foys’ when the men who made up the crews of Whalsay fishing boats visited their homes and those of relatives,  carousing and singing into the small hours.

Another notable context was ‘The Cooks’ House’ where on wedding days older men gathered together to attend to the cooking of the mutton for the feast and to chat and to sing, instead of going to the wedding dance.


By the time the work was done a goodly number would have met up in the Cooks’ House and the plentiful supply of drinks could lead to some rousing singing (see for instance The Anchor’s Weigh’d). They were customarily visited by the bridal couple to thank them for their efforts. In this picture below Laurina (nee) Williamson and Harry Sandison (son of Harriet, one of our singers) are seen outside the Cooks’ House on the occasion of their wedding in 1974.  The house was the home of Harry’s grandfather, John Irvine (‘Old Glibey’),  one of Whalsay’s finest fiddle players and his house was frequently used by  ‘the Cooks’ partly because of its situation close to the community hall where wedding receptions are usually held.

A visit by the bridal couple to the Cooks.

A visit by the bridal couple to the Cooks.

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Thanks to all the Whalsay folk who provided photos, especially John Dally and Ivan Reid for some splendid scenes of the island.

Roud Index nos. refer to Steve Roud’s comprehensive and most useful on-line song index.