Hungover bear tale adapted into Shetland opera

The bear was captured after gorging on butter laced with whisky, according to legend. Picture: Getty/Fuse
The bear was captured after gorging on butter laced with whisky, according to legend. Picture: Getty/Fuse
Have your say

A CENTURIES-old tale of the powerful islander whose life was spared by the King of Norway for killing a tax collector after he managed to tame a dangerous bear has entertained people in Shetland for generations.

Now the exploits of Jan Tait, whose bravery won him a pardon, the bear he took home with him and the uninhabited island where it was abandoned is to be turned into an opera.

A ten-strong group of islanders will take the show on the road around Shetland’s village halls next year after a one-off concert performance in July – around a century after its last opera company was wound up.

It is hoped its international dimension will lead to the show, in development for five years, eventually travelling overseas.

The opera has been written by a Canadian composer, Emily Doolittle, and will be performed by an ensemble set up by a Hong Kong-born musician, Meilo So.

They met while Ms Doolittle was visiting Shetland with friends and heard of the story from Ms So, who lives on Yell.

According to the tale, set in the 12th century when Shetland was under Norse rule and islanders had to pay tax with local produce, he was accused of trying to under-weigh his butter.

In protest, he struck the king’s tax collector over the head with his “bismar” weighing beam. Tait was taken to Norway as a prisoner and brought before the king to explain himself.

Impressed by his strength, the king offered to spare him if he could catch and bring under control a dangerous bear. Tait succeeded after leaving a barrel of butter laced with whisky out for the bear near one of its lairs and tying the animal up after it had dropped off to sleep.

The king told Tait he could keep the bear as a reward and offering him safe passage back to the isle of Fetlar. But the animal had to be tethered on neighbouring Linga, where it was left to starve to death. Local legend has it that ringed marks on the ground show the exact spot where it prowled around.

Andy Ross, one of two singers who will perform in the show, said: “We started rehearsals about a year ago once Emily finished the opera, but not too many people know about it.

“We’ve deliberately kept it pretty quiet so far, but I think it’ll be pretty extraordinary. The music is very accessible and engaging because it is based on folk tales and folk rhythms. It’s also a compelling local story that has quite a lot of drama in it. It’s also very funny and witty.

Ms Doolittle said: “I first met Meilo when I was in Shetland for ten days back in 2010 with some friends doing research into killer whales. I really enjoy folklore and was drawn to the story of Jan Tait because of the mix of history and mythology in it.

“You can’t really tell what’s real and what’s just a story. Probably not all of it happened, but it’s all plausible. Some of the things which seem unreal, like having to pay tax in butter, are actually true.”