Dementia Friendly Sea Shanties on Shetland – by Jan Brown

Bergen July 2019, the historic Bryggen quay is lined with Tall Ships from every nation and I am singing along to the amazing Storm Weather Shanty Choir. I’m in Norway on a mission to Tell Tales on Ten Tall Ships and moored 3 deep and dwarfed by the other ships there is a Fifie, a small traditional fishing boat from Shetland. Try as I might I am unable to get aboard. I do complete my storytelling mission but The Swan was ‘the one that got away’.

Weathering the Pandemic as a storyteller or as a musician was certainly not plain sailing. When I ran out of savings I went to work in a Care Home – a place where I could continue to tell stories and sing (quite a challenge whilst wearing full PPE). I started singing sea shanties and found that the familiar tunes, the traditional call and response and the salty lyrics proved a big hit with the residents and an ideal ‘vessel’ for people living with dementia. After months of having been confined to their rooms for two weeks at a time both staff and residents had had enough and so wrapped in blankets we sang sea shanties in the garden. When the Morningside neighbours shouted “Shut Up!” our mutinous crew simply sang louder, then the shanty wave hit Tik Tok and we were bang on trend!

With the hours and the demands of the Care Sector I came close to burn out and, like many a creative, felt blown off course by Covid. Back in 2019 singing shanties and telling stories in Bergen I had no idea that 2 years later I would wash up on the shores of Shetland with a new part time job as Dementia Advisor for Alzheimer Scotland.

With start-up funding from Luminate’s Dementia Friendly Singing Initiative I started The Shalder Shanty Crew at Scalloway Youth & Community Centre. Shalder is the Shetland ‘wird’ for Oyster Catcher and we can see these beautiful birds from the windows of our venue and in the winter months The Swan is moored up in Scalloway…the ship that got away – but with Covid restrictions still in place she is certainly near and yet still so far!

What does being ‘Dementia Friendly’ mean? Every week we start with the same two shanties so if folk come in late they can easily pick up and join in. We print our lyrics in a large font and number the verses for ease of navigation. Most importantly we slow down, take it easy and keep things ‘lightsome’ and after 30 minutes of shanties we share a nautical story over tea and cake. We don’t ask who is living with a diagnosis, we ask only that for an hour folk have fun singing and sharing stories. Six months on we are still ‘sailing’ or should that be ‘flying’? Our 20 strong intergenerational and inclusive shanty crew now have a house band consisting of a concertina, a banjo and a sometimes a ukulele. It has been a privilege to see folk of all abilities socialising, singing sea shanties and smiling. 

Shetland May 2022, Lerwick I am singing sea shanties as we sail into Victoria Dock for the much loved and greatly missed 40th Shetland Folk Festival. I’ve been sharing shanties and stories and playing sessions in community halls in The Outer Skerries and in Cullivoe, Yell with local musician Barry Nisbet and his crew as part of his twice delayed inaugural Shetland ‘Sessions and Sail’ voyage. I am, at last sharing stories and singing shanties on The Swan! What a journey the past 3 years have been!

Terry Atkinson on concertina and Derek Titheradge on banjo