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.

Stromness: Journey’s End

Spectacular breakfast by Theresa at the Hawthorns B&B in Mey, then a quick roll down the hill to catch the ferry at Gill’s Bay. It’s an hour’s crossing to St Margaret Hope on South Ronaldsay, a southerly island among the Orkney archipelago. As forecast, it was a wet and windy ride to Kirkwall, where we had lunch at The Reel, Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley”s cafe / music school / recording studio.
Then another wind-beaten crawl westward to Stromness, Journey’s end. Stromness still as lovely as ever. The same “how do they keep a business like that going here?” shops. An African clothes shop in a remote Scottish island community, anyone? But big news: the Co-op has a gigantic shiny new store!

Mrs Brown of Brown’s Hostel showed us to room in cheerfully zany and hyperactive way. It’s a great one; en suite and spacious (hostels are a lottery).

Opening concert last night was terrific: Tim Edey, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (good humour from Sweden/Norway/Shetland) and finally Sharon Shannon.

This morning enjoying the pleasant change of a lie-in! Oh and rail strike cancelled on Monday… despite the obvious logistical nightmare of rescheduling sleepers and bike bookings, there was a small part of me that was longing to call in to work and say “sorry, can’t make it, stuck in the far north of Scotland.”

Bettyhill – Thurso – Dunnet Head – John O Groats – Mey

John O'GroatsGlorious sunny day, tailwind carrying us along, great views, boxes ticked.

Leaving the slightly posh Bettyhill hotel, there were some long hills to climb and then descend, among sheep farms in a still-rugged landscape. But from Reay (site of the Dounreay nuclear power plant) suddenly it was gently undulating, arable farms, more populated. After lunch in the giant metropolis of Thurso, C had had enough and pedaled the last 10 wind-assisted miles to our final mainland B&B in Mey.

Meanwhile I went off bagging landmarks on an increasingly brilliant sunny afternoon.

The sublime: Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, a beautiful and inspiring uphill ride to 360 degree viewpoint across Hoy and Orkney to the north, and the rest of Britain to the south. The ridiculous: John O’Groats, self-appointed end of the road, with no particular geographical claim; just a giant coach park surrounded by souvenir shops.

A Welsh cyclist took my photo under the JOG sign. At first I thought he said he was cycling the Holocaust; pretty weird I thought, but there are Commonwealth war graves nearby, I guess associated with Scapa Flow. But then I realised he was cycling “the whole coast”, clockwise from Pembrokeshire.

Tomorrow, 35 miles across Orkney to Stromness and the Folk Festival. Forecast more normal: heavy rain.

Bonar Bridge – Bettyhill

Crask Inn

Thawing out at The Crask Inn

Be careful what you wish for. After my slight disappointment that north of Inverness is quite civilised, we found our wilderness. As the road headed north from Lairg, all human life vanished. The biting westerly wind blew in all the way from America, slowing us to a crawl. Then the rain rolled in. We doubled up on raincoats and pressed on into the rain. Even the trees had given up the ghost; broken stumps, heather and tussocks all the way to the horizon. We had planned morning coffee at the legendary Crask Inn. For so long it was nowhere to be seen, then finally a small white building appeared on the horizon. The Inn *is* Crask. It’s the only habitation for 10 miles at least. (You can buy it if you want!). Morning coffee had become lunch, so Cheese and Pickle toasties and hot drinks revived us.

Despite the dreadful weather, the landscape was extraordinary. Awful and awesome, unearthly swathes of yellows, browns and oranges. We reached Altnaharra with some relief: I knew the name as the weather station here regularly records the most extreme conditions in the UK… including the record low temperature of -27.2 C in 1995.

But after Altnaharra it was still another 16 slow and difficult miles until we returned to civilisation at Tongue. We were excited to see on Strava that we had recorded the 4th fastest ride this year from Lairg to Tongue, until noticing that was 4th of 4, and more than 2 hours slower than the 3rd!

We sit here, warm and comfortable at the Bettyhill Hotel, on Britain’s northern shore, with just a simple Easterly (hence wind-assisted) ride to Mey ahead of us, then boat to Orkney on Thursday.

Inverness – Bonar Bridge

North KessockThe weather today was lovely, except for the hail storm. And the downpour in the final half hour. Really; the wind has dropped and for every glowering black cloud on the mountain, there is a sparkling, sunny valley.

North of Inverness I expected a deserted wilderness, but we passed through several decent sized towns and the countryside was dotted with pastoral farms. Dingwall, Cromarty, lunch in Alness, and rolling through the rather posh-looking Tain, which we guessed was built on money from golf, before noticing the Glenmorangie distillery at the back end of town. At last we reached the fringe of Dornoch Firth, a long stretch of water between striking multi-shaded hills, and at the end of it, Bonar Bridge, under its personal dark black cloudy downpour.

If you wonder how we pass 6 hours a day in the saddle, here’s a taste. Caroline’s painstakingly-prepared routes, and finely-chosen accommodation have come up trumps again. So I decided she should be granted a lifetime achievement award, for services to holiday planning. Initially I imagined a photo-montage running as she climbs the steps at the ceremony; scenes roll-by: California 2001, the Spanish road trip of 2008…. But then… why not a full biopic? But who to cast? C opened with Anna Maxwell-Martin (which I thought a good choice) and I Jonny Lee Miller, but then the budget was raised and C would settle for no less than double Oscar winner Emma Thompson (notwithstanding differences in stature). Which left me no alternative than to choose Greg Wise, for the veracity of the love scenes. As for supporting cast, for memorable holidays in Costa Brava, Greece, etc, Susan Sarandon will play Yvonne, and Brian Cox (the grizzled Scottish actor, not the professor) takes the part of Tony. The most challenging casting decisions have been Tom and Clara. Whether to restrict to child stars (Emma Watson?) or imagine junior versions of adults (Audrey Hepburn!). Tom has so far completely escaped; any ideas?

Newtonmore – Inverness

Innkeepers are empathising with the epic slowness of our cycling in the face of strong winds, but meanwhile engaging in a Four Yorkshiremen contest.

Innkeeper #1: “I was cycling into a 90 mile wind in Ireland in October, and going so slowly a bloke walked past me”

Innkeeper #2 (who actually was a Yorkshireman): “That’s nothing, I was going so slowly one day, that I was passed by a bloke reading a newspaper and smoking a pipe”

The forecast, and downpours around breakfast time in Newtonmore convinced us we’d have heavy showers all day, so we set off in full rain gear for the climb up Slochd. It only occurred to us around 4pm that it had been a lovely sunny day. Stripped off rain gear. Rained at 5.

A nice day’s riding, passing sights from our last trip to the Cairngorm area, and later, the battlefield at Culloden Moor. Trad folk band at the Hootenanny pub in Inverness.

A spot of wind: Birnam – Drumochter Pass – Newtonmore

Scottish wind is different from the English variety. There were no gusts, just an endless flat blowing like the egress of a hair dryer. We battled into the teeth of it and up the pass, light in gradient but heavy on gravelly, bumpy surface, and alternate sunshine and downpour. It must have been the slowest 15 miles we ever cycled.

By the way, it was beautiful at the top.

Last night we stayed in Birnam (of the Scottish play) at a guest house run by a charming naturalist. We bombed back to Perth by bus (reversing the last 2 hours of our ride) to see Lau play at the splendid Perth concert hall. Mesmerising as ever, and, to Caroline’s shock, they stood up! (Folk music is not used to such radical changes of direction).