Apologies about the length of this posting, but there again nobody is forcing you to read it :)
Once a year the islands host a Folk Festival and whilst there are various events all over the islands during the weekend it is fair to say that the bulk of the activity is held in Stromness. In the fifteen years of visiting Orkney on holiday we had never been here for the festival so we thought it would be a good thing to do this year and we were not disappointed.
Now I’m not a great folk music fan and my feelings on massed fiddles are not as keen as many on the island but I am getting to enjoy many of the local bands that I have heard so far. Jo Philby , the Chair and Saltfish Forty are particularly good. So when the program for the Festival appeared, Anna and I scanned down through the artists to see which we would like to book to see. We were confronted by a cornucopia of artists that we had never heard of and so we spent some time listening to the ones that we could find on Spotify to see if they were the sort of thing that we might like. There is actually a Spotify Playlist for the festival if you want to check it out.
The organisers limit the time allocated to local bands which might seem a little unfair, but there are plenty of opportunities to see these later and as the festival has grown in popularity over the years ( BBC Radio was here last year ) then the time slots are limited so as some of the bands have travelled from as far away as Canada and the USA they often get more time than the local bands apparently. We also took local advice on ‘must sees’ We were also told that tickets for the best gigs sell out very quickly when they go on line so get in quick. In the end as it was our first festival we finally decided on getting tickets for just one of the final performances of the show with several bands that we wanted to see and then to spend the rest of the time going around Stromness visiting the various locations which would be having impromptu music in their bars for free.
The festival started on Thursday evening but we decided to take a walk down on the Friday evening and combine it with a visit to my regular, the 'Flattie Bar’ which for this weekend was sporting a sign saying ‘Folk Free”! As we entered the crowded bar with the juke box playing its usual load eclectic mix of music, we were greeted by the barman who although off duty that night he broke away from his friends to serve us, it does make you feel very welcome. Later we were introduced to the owner as a ‘couple of regulars’ and we chatted with her for a while. We left after a little while and headed back home passing the growing numbers of parked up motorhomes in the car parks. We had thought about bringing our motorhome ‘Badger’ down for the weekend but I think we had missed the boat as most of the places were already taken. Still we had decided that this year we would just check things out and see how things work at such events as there is also the Jazz, Blues, Rock & St Magnus Festivals as regular events which we will also be checking out.
On Saturday we drove down and had to park some way from the action as the car parks were full. The sun was shining and although there was a forecast of a few showers these turned out to be very small and short. As we walked down to the centre of Stromness the music could be heard coming from the open doors of the various bars and Hotels. The British Legion Club was also open for music. As we walked past the Ferry Inn a large group of musicians were sitting outside talking animatedly as they met up with other musicians that they perhaps had only seen a year ago at the last festival. As with any gathering of folk musicians it was not long before a group of them started up with an impromptu reel or two. This set the scene for the rest of the weekend that town would be full of music. Anna was taking photos and engaging in conversations all over the place, I now know more about how to play a Bodhran ( a type of hand drum ) that is healthy for a non-musician like myself.
We carried on down to the area called “the pier head” and examined the stalls of Orkney produce set out there. These were interesting for new visitors to the island but not new to us, so we just said our hellos to the stall holders that we knew and as it was getting near lunch time we were drawn towards the Orkney Buffalo Burger van. Their meat comes from a heard of Buffalos on the island that was setup about a year ago and is proving very popular, mainly due to the very successful marketing by the owner and the creation of this Burger van that is normally parked in the middle of Kirkwall opposite Tesco. The Burgers were great, not nearly as fatty as some and full of flavour, we ate these sitting on the newly installed seating around the statue of John Rae which now makes a nice communal area whereas before it did look rather like just more parking spaces.
We then spent the rest of Saturday wandering in and out of the Hotels and bars listening to the music being played there. One of my aims of the weekend was to sample the special beer that was brewed by one of the local breweries for the festival. The ale is called ‘Session Ale’ and I can report that is a rather good bitter. Only a couple of the bar were serving this so it took a bit of finding, but who I to complain of a pub crawl!
Any musician was encouraged to join in and it was a joy to watch them play together simply by picking up a tune from the one who would start. There was no sign of any printed music anywhere, I am always in awe of anyone who can do this, and it really is as if it is another language that they are able to communicate in. One thing I will say for the majority of folk music that I heard over the weekend was that was all very cheerful and there was a lot of dancing going on. You really did get a great feeling of goodwill and happiness watching the musicians and the spectators enjoy themselves. A couple of videos I took in the bar of the Stromness Hotel: Video 1 Video 2 I would recommend a visit to such an event if you never have tried it before.
We left in the evening, mainly because we were getting quite tired, there was a lot of standing about, but we were ready to come down again the next day on Sunday.
Sunday was another great day, having got in the swing of things we spent quite a lot of time visiting between venues to sample different types of Folk music. One that I was very surprised to enjoy was The Raymond Churchuk Scottish Dance Band. The lead instrument was an accordion. I have never considered that the accordion was a necessary instrument, how wrong could I be? The accordion player was Raymond Churchuk a nice guy and extremely talented, watching his fingers move over the keyboard was mesmerising, so much so, that when I tried to video a particular number I forgot to hit start! When reading the program for the event I had misread their band title and I thought it was some church gospel band and so probably one to avoid! His easily misunderstood surname is from Ukraine where his family hails. Here is a video I took in the bar of the Ferry Inn I think a lot of Folk music, like most music, is better live and in the right ambience and listening to is later is never as satisfying but hopefully the videos give you a flavour.
After treating ourselves to an Orkney ice cream we then spent some time upstairs at the Stromness Hotel listening to a large and changing gathering of musicians jamming away, playing a variety of reels and jigs. All too soon did the time come for us to queue up at the Town Hall ( an old church ) for the final show that we had tickets for, in fact this was the only show that we had paid money to see, talk about value for money! This show featured several artists each doing three numbers and included the hilarious New Rope and String band who are on their final tour, which is a shame but I’m glad that we got to see this hilarious group. Here is a short video I found of part of their act making music with plastic tubes .
The final act was Ward Thomas , two young girls from Hampshire who last year were awarded the “ UK Album of the Year at the 2014 British Country Music Award.“ . I particularly wanted to see this group as I had heard great things. We were not disappointed although their music is more American Country than Scottish Folk, they ended their set by calling all the other artists from the evening and a few others onto the stage for a grand finale, topped by a couple of very young girls from the audience who had been Scottish dancing throughout the show. After a very lively jig which seemed to get faster and faster the show finished. Well not quite, as the audience called for an encore, this seemed to throw Ward Thomas a bit as they didn’t have one ready it seemed. The accordion player from the New Rope and String band stepped in with a 'Scottish folk' version of ‘Wild Thing’ by the Trogs but this time the played on the accordion! It was hilarious, particularly the young lad with a very loud voice from the audience who was selected to sing the main chorus. The Town hall erupted in cheers and clapping as this last number brought the festival to an ‘official’ end. The partying continued in the pubs for some time after.
We went home happy and both agreed that is was a really great weekend and will do it again next year. Anna has taken lots of photos, which she has uploaded to her flikr account and I have put a couple of links to the videos that I made from my phone. I hope that this has given you a flavour of the festival and that you enjoy the photos.