Leaving thoughts on Orkney Folk Festival

On the MV Hamnavoe, sailing back from Orkney to Scrabster, surrounded by performers and sessioneers, some unreasonably lively considering their sleepless night (yes you Jeana Leslie), others slumped and dozing (The Hot Seats). A most excellent send-off, with a pair of pipers on the dock, a blue sky over sunny Stromness, cheers and waves all around.

Orkney Folk Festival is an EVENT… something magical about the combination of deep-rooted Orkney musicians, a select few visiting performers who commit to the event for the whole long-weekend, and a welcoming local community. The sessions seem great; many – like our Glaswegian hostel-mates – don’t bother with ticketed events at all, just drink and play and wish (granted) for a chance to play a few tunes with Sharon Shannon on the pier outside the Ferry Inn. If I have one personal regret about this marvellous weekend, it’s that being a non musician puts one in a passive role. Far better to be in the gang of musicians.

Brown’s hostel is just steps from the Town Hall and the pub sessions, and having a nice comfy room and kitchen made for a lovely stay.

The Gathering at OFF 2014

(c) Sean Purser 2014

Personal highlight was The Gathering, an afternoon concert by a massed Orkney all-star band led by the admirable Douglas Montgomery of saltfishforty. Apart from the thrill of hearing twenty fiddles burning into some gorgeous Orcadian tunes, there’s the implicit bond between the generations, from the elders like ‘Moothie player’ Billy Jolly through the mature stalwarts of The Chair and saltfishforty, to the young generation who have upped and gone away to take advantage of the folk degree course in Glasgow, but return home for the festival and are welcomed back into the community.  In folk there’s a lot of talk about The Tradition but here the tunes and techniques are genuinely passed between generations. You might think that would lead to stagnation, but there is no apparent resistance to innovation in harmony and rhythm.

But maybe I’m romanticising. So thought the charming young barman at the Stromness Hotel, who gave me a that’s-what-you-think look when I expressed admiration for the Orkney community.

I could have done without big name visitor Seth Lakeman, but it was great to hear Sharon Shannon. Findlay Napier from Glasgow writes and sings great songs, very much in his own voice. And he took our snoozing at the first night song session in good humour. Fara, the Kirkwall Grammar girls gone to Glasgow, are bursting with energy and enthusiasm and skill in playing and arranging. The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc have some stunning settings of Shetland, Norwegian and Swedish tunes and original compositions.

As you can tell, we love spending time in Orkney and hope to return soon.


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