Boarding the MV Hamnavoe for a trip to Orkney, the island generally situated in a box at the top of a map of the UK, you get the feeling something is afoot. There are various groups of people sitting around the ship wielding a profusion of musical instruments, mainly fiddles and guitars but a surprising number of mandolins. There are also a number of “weel kent” faces familiar from the professional folk-music ranks so yes we must be on the right boat for the Orkney Folk Festival.
The sailing to Orkney via Hoy (famed for the old man) takes about an hour and a half: it is calm, the scenery is awesome and when you head into Stromness absolutely beautiful. You get the feeling of another time which is emphasised by the narrow flagstone streets of Stromness where cars drive sedately (mostly) about their business avoiding the pedestrians strung out like sausages along the way.
Rewinding slightly, as we disembarked we set the satnav for our hotel. It sneered at us slightly and we looked up to find the “Ferry Inn” 100m from the ferry terminal with fiddles and guitars already in evidence. There are three hotels in Stromness, all within a few minutes walking and all with sessions going strong throughout the festival.
First formal gig of the weekend for us was a concert in Stennes. Orkney believe in taking the festival out and around the villages and this was in a community hall seating about 200 with lovely acoustics and a very warm Orkney welcome. If you don’t recognise an Orkney accent then google it. It’s charming, mischievous and very attractive… depends who’s talking! No bar, you don’t need one as the night is young and the hotels of Stromness are priming their pumps in anticipation. Some lovely Orkney ladies lay out water in case of an excess of ecstasy, more likely in the traditional sense as the demographic is fairly old but none the less appreciative for that.
Take 17 school pupils from Stromness Academy and their very talented teacher; give them some fiddles, a mandolin, a couple of flutes and an accordion and they will give you a half hour of delightful music beautifully arranged and played. The programme showcased the talents of the musicians on box, fiddle and flute but everyone was heard including the solitary mandolin which you might have thought drowned out by the 14 fiddles. “Belt Hid Oot” will never last as a band, at least not this version; many of the youngsters will disappear into the wider world to pursue their careers but I would be very surprised if a few don’t make that career in music.
Follow that with 5 well seasoned folk musicians; give them a home crowd and you get a great set. “Hullion” gave us banjo tunes, fiddle, songs and best of all banter. The highlight for me was the exceptional singing of Billy Jolly. Orkney festival is heavily weighted in favour of instrumental music so when a song comes along it’s very well appreciated.
Highlighters were the mighty Rura who just get better and better. Rura without Adam Holmes are exceptional. Rura with Adam Holmes are stratospheric! The rhythm section of Adam Brown (guitar) and David Foley (bodhran) is astonishing. The tunes on fiddle, flute and bagpipes are driven by Adam’s percussive guitar style which build to a crescendo leaving you desperate for more. So what next? On comes Adam Holmes, the music changes to a subtle contemporary sound and it works brilliantly. Adam Holmes’s solo work (with The Embers) is very different from Rura (read the FRUK ‘Artist of the Month’ review for their latest offering) but his knowledge of traditional music allows his songs to integrate seamlessly into the Rura sound adding an irresistible new dimension. I also caught Adam Brown in a different combination where he transpired to be an amazing singer. He plays and makes bodhrans: is there anything he doesn’t do? But Jack Smedley on fiddle and Steven Blake, pipes and whistle, are no less important to the Rura sound. Captivating.
Left wanting more, we headed for the Stromness Hotel where a session was underway which lasted, reputedly, until 5am. Orkney has about 3 hours of darkness at this time of year so by the time we got home dawn was breaking.
That was Thursday. Then we had Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We saw, in no particular order: Session A9, The Unthanks, Frigg, Julie Fowlis, The Paddy Callaghan Trio, many more and lots of excellent local bands. Orkney put on big concerts with bands playing for about 30 minutes, but playing two or three times over the weekend. One exception was The Unthanks who played a 60 minute set in St Ninians church.
This is an absolutely delightful festival: the organisation is excellent. The varied locations make for interesting drives to the various venues and the local community groups in each area host these events. The audiences are relatively small, maybe 300? and the sound was very good to faultless. Because of the nature of the concerts, at least four acts, there has to be quick re-setting of the stage and these were managed expertly and quickly. The Community Ceilidhs which are concerts followed by dancing were a triumph with sandwiches and home baking provided at the end of the concert section to gird the loins for the dancing.
The final concert we attended, Orkney have two farewell concerts helpfully entitled “Farewell Concert 1” and “Farewell Concert 2” was again a masterclass of organisation. Rura were our final act bookending a superb weekend of music…except, everyone back on stage including Kris Drever who had flown up from Edinburgh to accompany Julie Fowlis on 2 songs, for a rousing finale.
It’s a long way to come but now we have 4 days exploring the history of one of the most beautiful and Iconic parts of the UK. It’s a hard gig but someone has to do it. I’m glad it’s me.