Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Orkney Culture

Interested in coming to Orkney on our Rural Track and Grampian 4 Year Programs?  Enjoy your music and culture?  Fionn McArthur, one of Radio Orkney's presenters, has kindly written this article on some of the cultural opportunities on Orkney.

 ‘Orkney’s culture…. is perhaps most important….. in opening up imaginations, building shared memories, raising aspirations, giving hope and delight –simply making Orkney a place where people want to live.’

The above quote comes from cultural commentator Francois Matarasso. He was commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 2011 to come up with a report looking at why Orkney’s cultural life is so vibrant, and what lessons other parts of the country might want to learn.

It came as no surprise to any Orcadian – either native or ‘adopted’ – that the islands were chosen to be the basis for such a study. Arts and culture are an integral part of life here, ranging from informal music-making in homes and village halls, to performances by some of the world’s finest classical musicians. The islands are a haven for artists, with the Pier Arts Centre playing host to some of the most gifted contemporary practitioners. Community drama is a mainstay of the winter months here, with highly polished productions from across the islands competing in an annual festival each February. The craft sector is a major local employer, with jewellery designers drawing inspiration from Orkney’s artists of the past who - thousands of years ago - left their mark in our native stone.

Today Orkney is blessed with a host of festivals, ranging from folk to jazz, classical to blues, literature, food and beer.

The two largest events of the year are the Orkney Folk Festival (held in May), and the St Magnus International Festival (taking place in June).

The four-day Folk Festival brings top traditional musicians from across the world to the islands. There’s often a strong input from Scandinavia, USA, Canada and Ireland – as well as closer to home with Scotland and England well represented. Orkney’s own home-grown musicians have increasingly been making their mark on the folk music scene globally, with an embarrassing number of awards heading to the isles on an annual basis. Much of this success is attributable to the tremendous work of the Orkney Islands Council’s Schools Instrumental Service, which provides free tuition to pupils throughout local schools. The festival is centred in Orkney’s second largest town of Stromness, but events take place throughout the islands, and make use of the network of well-maintained community centres. Visitors are often delighted to see some of the biggest names in traditional music playing in such intimate venues. Informal music making in local pubs is also a large part of the festival’s charm.

The St Magnus Festival is one of the most highly regarded events in Scotland’s cultural calendar. It was established by Orcadian poet George MacKay Brown, and composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. For around a week, spanning the midsummer solstice, many of the finest ensembles and virtuosos can be heard performing into the late half-light. The focus is on classical music with orchestras such as the BBC Symphony taking centre stage in the Pickaqouy Centre, while the incomparable surroundings of our Norse cathedral of St Magnus make the perfect venue for enjoying smaller chamber orchestras, duets and soloists. The festival spreads its net much wider though, with theatrical works, cabaret, puppetry and film just some of the areas touched on, and there’s always a poet of national renown on hand for good measure.

Despite its line-up of international stars, the St Magnus International Festival is firmly grounded in the local community. From the hundreds of volunteers working behind the scenes to its large scale community productions (the 2013 festival involved an epic setting of the story of Orkney’s Arctic explorer John Rae. Staged in the vast space of the local indoor riding centre, a cast of 50 local actors performed among the icebergs in an extremely professional production - written, produced and performed entirely from within the local community). Star musicians are encouraged to rehearse and perform alongside local talent, and the vast majority of visiting performers stay with host families – there’s very little room for artistic egos here.

That ethos of blurring the lines between performers and audiences, professionals and amateurs, is central to both the Folk and St Magnus Festivals, and it also gives you a strong clue about one of Orkney’s other great strengths – a marked absence of social boundaries (you’ll find more fishermen and builders than medical professionals at the local golf club). It has been suggested that this is at least partly connected to the high percentage of participation in cultural activities and events - amateur dramatics for example can be a terrific leveller.

It’s not just about the festivals. Throughout the year you’ll find cultural events to suit all tastes - and if you’re up for it, opportunities to be involved at all levels. Just don’t be surprised if after enjoying a night of top-class opera in the local community centre, you get asked to help put away the chairs. It’s just that sort of place.

Some handy cultural links

St Magnus International Festival:

Orkney Folk Festival:

Orkney Blues Festival:

Pier Arts Centre, Stromness:

Orkney’s Reader in Residence:

Francois Matarasso’s report:

Gable End Theatre, Hoy:

West Side Cinema, Stromness:

Details of many more local groups and events can be found here….

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