Orkney: 3 Magic Ways to Explore Online

Orkney: this group of islands off Scotland’s north coast has been drawing people to visit and to live for 10,000 years.

orkney seascape with boat

That’s right: ten thousand years. There’s much evidence of the early inhabitants to explore, as well as changes, cultures, and traditions down the years to experience, along with rocky cliffs and green landscapes which continue to frame vibrant and welcoming people.

Perhaps exploring Orkney is in the plans for you as travel restrictions begin to ease; perhaps you’ve great memories of past explorations; maybe Orkney is a magic place of your travel dreams.

Wherever you are in that range, there are three fine ways to explore and get to know aspects of Orkney life online. Two of the islands’ best festivals and two of the islands’ best musicians have created ways for you to do just that.

First up is The Orkney Folk Festival. Events will take place online from 27 through 30 May. The festival, which held it first event in 1983, has become a favorite on the calendars of visitors, performers, and residents alike.

From its base in Stromness, the festival would usually host around 35 ticked concerts along with pub sessions and other informal gatherings in varied locations. Festival organizers make a point to have a good balance between artists with ties to the islands and international musicians.

That is the case for what’s planned in the online version too. For ticketing and other information, the Orkney Folk Festival website is the place to visit.

Several highlights:

Singer Helene Blum and fiddle player Harald Haugaard are known for their original music which stands well alongside their mastery of Danish traditional pieces. Their presence gives a nod to the Nordic connections in Orkney as well.

Nordic and cross cultural connections are part of the work of Neil Pearlman and Kevin Henderson, too. New England, Cape Breton, and Latin jazz flavor Pearlman’s keyboard playing; Henderson is a fiddle player from Shetland now resident in Sweden who is also a member of the group Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. Neil’s innovative keyboard and mandolin and Kevin’s precise fiddle make for fresh explorations of both their traditions as well as creation of original pieces.

Blazin Fiddles at ccfest/orkney folk fest

Award-winning piper Brìghde Chaimbeul from Skye comes to the Orkney festival for the first time. Blazin’ Fiddles, whose line up includes Jenna Reid from Shetland, Kristan Harvey from Orkney, and Anna Massie from the Black Isle, make a return appearance, as does top Scots singer and songwriter Siobhan Miller.

Orkney has its own vibrant music scene and has sent many artists out to international touring as well. Among those keeping Orcadian spirits bright this time out are local favourites Saltfishforty, The Wrigley Sisters, The Chair, Gnoss, and Fara.

Here’s a brief look back at what the in person folk festival was like in 2019

The Saint Magnus Festival, which is based in Kirkwall, brings in a range of music, arts, and literary strands. From 18 to 23 June there will be both ticketed events and those for which there will be no charge available online.

orkney kirkwall town view

A strong through line of the Saint Magnus Festival this year is remembering Orcadian writer, poet, and playwright George Mackay Brown at the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The festival has commissioned six Orkney fiddlers to write tunes inspired by the six verses of Brown’s poem Fiddlers at the Harvest Home, verses called  Quarry, Corn, Sheep, Fish, Dance, and Wheels.   

Douglas Montgomery, Jeana Leslie, Kristan Harvey, Eric Linklater, Jennifer Wrigley, and Graham Rorie have all filmed their tunes and you will be able to see the results online. Douglas Montgomery has written a tune based on the poem’s title for all six fiddlers to perform together; they have filmed their playing of this in isolation and it is brought together as a virtual session. 

That is just one thing to anticipate. There will also be daily readings of poems by George Mackay Brown with readers filmed in landscapes across Orkney appropriate to the poetry — which, among other things, helps illuminate Brown’s inspiration for poems including The Elemental Stone, Lobster, and The Green Gate. There will be a performance of Brown’s play The Storm Watchers, with the actors and director having had to create rehearsals and performance under lockdown conditions. There will be virtual visual and writing events too.

Of course, there’s music. Land, Sea and Sky mixes music with Mackay Brown and other poets’ work into concert performances and visuals of historic sites, seascapes, and landscapes.

orkney standing stone distance autumn

There will also be six concerts which include music from across the centuries and a world premiere, performed by a range of artists in varied styles, filmed in medieval Saint Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

It’s possible that there may be a few in person performances in Orkney, depending on travel and health situations. The Saint Magnus Festival website is the place to keep up with those plans, and to look for links and ticket information for online events as well.

You will have noticed the names of Kristan Harvey and Jeana Leslie above.

k harvey j leslie ccfest/orkney

The two are one half of the quartet Fara, as well as top class award winning fiddle players with other projects on the go. They are also native Orcadians.

Having come back to the islands to spend time with their families as touring with their music was not possible, they got to talking — and the result of of that is The Orkney Series.

Each short episode finds the two visiting a different place in the islands, telling a bit of its history, and perhaps meeting up with a new or old friend who adds to the information. Jeana and Kristan then play a tune or two related to where they have been.

Here’s one:

Landscape, humour, history, and great music: what more could you want? Dogs, boats, sheep, a tractor, varieties of Orkney weather, and Saint Magnus Cathedral are among those who make guest appearances…

The stories and music make great ways to learn about Orkney. You will find these short films on Fara’s YouTube Channel and at their Facebook page.

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