As someone who has been a supporter of Mareel for many years, firstly as a local musician then as Shetland Arts’ Music Development Officer, I’ve seen the project being blamed for all manner of local ills. School closures, cutbacks in road gritting, music tuition charges - you name it, Mareel is a convenient scapegoat. A low point for me was a boozed up young chap literally frothing at the mouth as he issued me with a string of insults about how he and his girlfriend couldn’t get a council house - all down to Mareel, apparently.
The latest blame layer was the Lerwick Legion, a spokesman for whom accused Mareel on Radio Shetland of pinching local bands and customers, apparently the root cause of the Legion’s troubles.
Several other Lerwegian publicans have expressed similar concerns over a number of years, stretching back long before Mareel opened, but let’s give it some historical context.
When I started playing in bands as a teenager some 20 years ago there were gigs a-plenty. Most weekends I was out playing or organising events in pubs, hotels and country halls all over Shetland and I was lucky enough to learn the ropes from some of Shetland’s finest musicians. Venues were well versed in hosting bands of all genres and if I wasn’t playing that weekend then I was spoilt for choice as a punter.
Lets take a look at ‘the scene’ now. Country dances are few and far between, largely as a result of a change in attitude to underage drinking and volunteer fatigue caused by ever increasing red tape tying up committees. Changes in licensing laws no longer mean that pubs have to put on ‘entertainment’ to get a late license. But in my experience the closure, or change of use, of so many local venues has had the most damaging impact on the music scene. No more Crofters’ Arms, Voe Tavern or Fisherman’s Arms, to name but a few.
As an example, lets have a look at the toon. In the past decade or so we’ve gone from having over 10 to just a handful of venues who regularly put on music. Working south from Gremista; the Norscot Angling Club (one of my favourite venues) recently closed due to lack of passing custom; The Lerwick Sound Factory (nee Jubilee) is now Shetland Times / Litho HQ; The Ferry Inn, which held gigs every weekend, is now a cafe bar with big screen sports that in my experience doesn’t even have background music; The Country Club (later Somewhaur Else) is now a greetings card shop; The Excelsior (which later shot itself in the foot through reinvention as Mooney’s Wake) and The North Star (woefully underinvested in but one of the best music venues in the north of Scotland) closed their doors years ago and both have recently been demolished.
Now lets look at some of the ‘city centre’ pubs; The Wheel Bar does still put on the odd gig (good for them), Baroc is now a restaurant with the occasional DJ night; Flint’s still puts on semi-regular gigs, but not as often as before.
The only places left who put on regular live music are The Lounge, The Boating Club, The Noost and The Legion - great venues but the foremost three are too small to put on what I would consider to be a ‘gig’. For years The Legion, with its 200+ capacity, had almost a monopoly on regular gigs in Lerwick until Mareel opened 6 months ago. But did The Legion capitalise on this, and can Mareel be held responsible for venues closing years before it opened? Hmm...
Article for Shetland Life magazine - March 2013