Obituary: Lise Sinclair, Fair Isle poet, singer-songwriter and musician

Born: 4 March, 1971, in Shetland. Died: 4 August, 2013, in Glasgow, aged 42.
Lise SinclairLise Sinclair
Lise Sinclair

THE remote and close-knit community of Fair Isle, as well as the wider Shetland cultural scene, has lost a key member with the untimely passing of Lise Sinclair.

Sinclair, just 42 when she succumbed to a brain tumour, was deeply involved in Fair Isle life – bringing up four children, crofting, teaching music in the local school, playing the organ at the Methodist chapel, running the island’s choir and helping produce the local newspaper, the Fair Isle Times.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, it was her music and poetry, the two often potently combined, that brought her name to audiences throughout Shetland and well beyond and made her a cultural ambassador for her island.

Her poetry and music were inseparable from the northern island landscape that surrounded her and from the similarly rugged Norse-influenced Shetland dialect to which she was deeply committed, and which she presented to local and international audiences through her writing, readings, concerts and recordings, appearing in island halls as well as festivals such as Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and others in Germany, Finland and Iceland.

Lise Sinclair grew up on her mother’s native Fair Isle – that three-mile long outcrop of sea-girt land midway between Shetland and Orkney. Her father was a Burra man. She attended the local primary school then, like many island children, had to leave to attend secondary school in Lerwick. After a long period of ill-health, however, she eventually attended a sixth form college in England, before becoming a student at Glasgow School of Art for a period.

In 1991, she married another Fair Islander, Ian Best, who had trained in Norway before re-introducing traditional boat building to the island. They crofted at Kenaby and raised four children.

It was as a singer and songwriter that Sinclair initially started making a reputation for herself. With her mother and two uncles, she was a member of the harmony group Frideray (an old Norse name for Fair Isle) which, unlike Shetland’s many fiddle-centric groups, homed in on Shetland’s song heritage.

She became increasingly interested in poetry – the Shetland poet Stella Sutherland being a major influence, as well as the Orcadian bard George Mackay Brown – and also committed to using Shetland dialect. Her collections include Here (2006), and White Below (2010), as well as contributions to anthologies, magazines and BBC Radio 3, and her poetry has been translated into various European languages. As poetry and music intertwined – one reviewer described her performances as “both earthy and ethereal” – she composed Ivver Entrancin Wis, a suite based on the work of various Shetland poets including Sutherland, Rhoda Bulter and Laurence Graham. It was performed by an impressive line-up of singers and musicians, including fiddler Chris Stout, also from Fair Isle, harpist Catriona McKay and cellist Wendy Weatherby, and released on CD in 2008.

In 2005, she participated in a poetry translation workshop run on Shetland by the Scottish Poetry Library in partnership with Literature Across Frontiers. The results were published in a collection, All Points North, but the workshop also established international friendships, including a lasting working partnership with the Icelandic poet and singer-songwriter Aðalsteinn Asberg Sigurdsson. Sinclair and Sigurdsson met up again, in the company of Icelandic musician Astvaldur Traustasson, Scottish poet and harmonica player Gerry Cambridge and Lithuanian poet and bass guitarist Gintarus Grajauskas, at another workshop, this time in Crear, Argyll, the results of which were so well-received that the group, who called themselves the ­berserkers, released a book and album, Under the Evening Sky, performing at Edinburgh Book Festival and in Reykjavik, Vilnius and Riga.

Writing on the website of the Scottish Poetry Library this week, Robyn Marsack, the library’s director, recalls: “The berserkers … rose to the challenge and exceeded all our expectations. Lise was key: her voice, her musicality, her collaborative temperament, her very high standards and her laughter.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In 2012, she turned to the work she so loved of the Orcadian poet and author Mackay Brown. A Time to Keep was based on his short story collection of that name, Sinclair writing that “I began to hear these songs on first reading the book, as if they were already there, singing out of George’s clear, lyrical prose.” Anxious to fuse the music and language of Shetland, Orkney and Iceland, she collaborated once again with Traustasson on the music, while Sigurdsson translated her lyrics into Icelandic, as well as playing along with island musicians such as Inge Thomson, Brian Cromarty and Ewen Thomson.

The resulting album enjoyed a memorable launch in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, in March of last year, after which the poets and musicians travelled by boat and plane – a not inconsiderable undertaking in March – to perform in Fair Isle, Lerwick and Reykjavik.

Marsack recalls of the St Magnus event: “The quality of sound in the cathedral was extraordinary. Lise was always a magnetic figure with her long hair and long legs, looking too young to be the mother of four children, absolutely absorbed in the music and while often a soloist, alert – it seemed to me – to everything her fellow musicians did as part of the whole ensemble.

“Her energies were prodigious: not only in poetry and music, but also as a mother, as a crofter, as a teacher, and it is very hard to think of those radiant energies being stilled.”

David Gardner of Atlantic Edge Music Services, a former music development officer with Shetland Arts Development Agency, regards Sinclair’s loss to Fair Isle and Shetland as a whole as “nothing short of inestimable. She was a hugely talented and inspirational artist and individual, and in her, Shetland has lost one of its most devoted and authentic cultural ambassadors.

“Lise was a huge and integral part of the success of Fair Isle as a community, involved in many facets of life on the island – economically, socially and culturally. She was of course best known in wider Shetland circles – and indeed nationally and internationally – for her music and poetry, which she combined to sometimes spell-binding effect.”

Sinclair was diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier this year, had surgery in June, and died in hospital in Glasgow on Sunday.

She is survived by her husband, Ian, their children Tom, Hannah, Alice and Lowri, her brother Steven, parents, Anne and Barry Sinclair, and her Fair Isle grandparents, Stewart and Annie Thomson.