In June I was lucky enough to be invited to experience the St Magnus International Festival, Orkney's midsummer celebration of the arts which was celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. This was my first time attending the festival and my first visit to Orkney, needless to say I had a very busy but amazing time, managing to fit in four very different performances during my trip. I have written this little guide with some tips for those planning their own first visit to The St Magnus Festival.
Where does the St Magnus Festival take place?
The festival takes place at various venues across Orkney although the majority of the events take place in the town of Kirkwall on Mainland, so this is a good place to base yourself if you plan to take in a few shows. This year performances were held in an eclectic mix of venues from the stunning St Magnus Cathedral to the unusual backdrop of the Mess Hall at Ness Battery.
When does it takes place?
It takes place in midsummer, which is a very magical time to visit Orkney as it never gets truly dark, a period known as simmer dim. It is normally held is normally held over 6 days but his year the festival ran with an extended programme of events from the 16th until 26th of June to celebrate its 40th year.
Who is this festival suitable for?
An eclectic mix of performances ensure most visitors will find something to their taste and will be made to feel very welcome.
Why should I visit?
This is a great chance to mix with the community and experience life as a local for a while as the events are very popular with Orcadians who are known for their love of music and arts.
The festival has grown to become highly regarded as one of the UK's leading arts festivals featuring top class performances which mainly revolve around music although you will also find drama, dance, literature and visual arts. You are just as likely to find talented local acts as you are esteemed international performers and the range of interesting venues used as backdrops means that you get to see a different side to Orkney.
Traditional music is strongly featured and every year a full scale orchestra is also brought to the festival, add to that new talent, specially commissioned pieces and world premieres and you will understand why the festival has grown to be a big feature on the Orkney events calendar.
What type of performances can I see?
Music features strongly on the programme, particularly traditional and classical. Each year Magfest adds a 'Fringe' element to the lie-up with drama, circus and cabaret acts. This year it included a life-sized puppet circus style show!
To give you an idea of the variety on offer, these are the four very different shows I attended this year.
The Biggest Marionette Circus in the World - Certainly a show with a difference complete with a life-sized elephant, giraffe and lion. I think I was a little old to appreciate this show but the children there seemed to enjoy it!
The Orkney Traditional Music Project - The project was founded in 1998 to revive the teaching of traditional music in Orkney and I found it very inspirational to watch the next generation of Orkney fiddlers and accordionists showing off their skills.
Saltfishforty - The highlight show for me was by local act Saltfishforty who were joined by several guest musicians, both established and up and coming. Their performance of traditional and original tunes from Orkney had everyone tapping their toes in the stunning venue of St Magnus Cathedral. The video below will give you a little taster of their fantastic show.
Meditations by Orkney Camerata - My final show of the festival was a night of mystical and spiritual music, again within the beautiful backdrop of St Magnus Cathedral. Orkney is a magical place and this seemed a fitting finale for my final night on the island.
Anyone who knows me, knows that Orkney has been on my travel bucket-list for a very long time. Its fascination for me has much to do with the tapestry of archaeology, layers of preserved heritage and complex relationship history that have helped Orkney achieve an almost mythical status. Salty sea tales, mysterious folklore and ancestral tradition just add to the magic.
Orkney is an archipelago made up of approximately 70 islands and its position off the far north of Scotland on the same latitude as Oslo and Stockholm means that depending on what part of Scotland you live in, visiting generally requires a bit of planning as it can be more expensive and difficult to reach than some European countries. After an almost 6 hour non-stop drive from Glasgow to reach the ferry terminal at Scrabster I can testify to this! However, none of this should be a reason to put off your visit as there are also options to fly or catch a ferry from Aberdeen, it's just a case of planning the journey in a way that works best for you.
With a mere 36 hours to explore and 20 or so inhabited islands to choose from, I had to plan my visit wisely and decided to focus most of my time on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney islands. I managed to squeeze A LOT into my stay although there is also A LOT that I didn't manage to do, but I did have an absolutely amazing time so I thought I would share my 3 day Orkney travel itinerary to help you with planning your own trip.
3 Day Orkney Travel Itinerary - Day 1
I started my day on the 8:45 Northlink ferry from Scrabster to Stromness and the 90 minute journey across the Pentland Firth. I spent much of my time out on the windy deck, watching the seabirds bob and weave alongside us and kept my eyes peeled for some of the marine life that frequents the area, although sadly this time I wasn't rewarded for my perseverance. Even though the day was fairly calm, the boat rose and dipped as it traversed the swell of the waves and I can imagine that these exposed waters could provide a pretty bumpy ride if the weather was not on your side.
Before reaching Stromness, the ferry skirts around the fringes of Hoy, the second largest island in Orkney and most famous for its iconic sea stack affectionately named the Old Man of Hoy which inevitably convinces every virgin visitor to grab their cameras, rush out on deck and brave the exposed conditions to capture a few shaky snaps as the ferry lurches by. For me, an even bigger bonus was the towering cliffs of Hoy, rising dramatically into the clouds like a setting from Middle-earth, while the ferry Captain managed to sail surprisingly close to the tallest vertical cliff face in Britain at St John's Head, a maneuver no doubt perfected to wow the gawking passengers!
After my endurance drive the previous day, I was relieved to finally step ashore at Stromness, ditch the car and let someone else take the wheel for a while. I had booked a day tour with Wildabout Orkney and was very relieved to sit back and relax in the comfort of their executive touring vehicle while I soaked up the expert commentary from our guide Clive.
Their tours are ideal for day trippers to Orkney who want to maximise their visit by being personally guided around some of the most famous attractions and dropped off again in time for their return ferry. The tours vary slightly depending on the day of the week and I enjoyed their 'Treasures of Orkney' tour with the following itinerary.
The Italian Chapel
Our first stop was the beautiful Italian Chapel on the little island of Lamb Holm which is reached by a causeway originally designed to block access to Scapa Flow during WW2. The chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war brought to Orkney to assist with the construction of the concrete block barriers. It is hard not to feel emotional reflecting on the devotion and skill needed to produce this stunning sanctuary given the basic materials they had. A very special place that should be on every Orkney itinerary.
Next up was the highly impressive Skara Brae, a 5000 year old village uncovered by a storm in 1850 and now considered the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. Walking around you can peer in to the ancient homes complete with stone furniture and fittings, that's if you can take your eyes off the huge sweep of white sand and turquoise water of the neighbouring beach! The mounds around the site were actually created by rubbish thrown away by the inhabitants and if you look closely you will see little trenches that reveal piles of discarded shells. Older than the pyramids, the details of this site are simply mind blowing and its location is spectacular, this was by far my favourite archaeological attraction out of those I visited and again a must for any Orkney travel itinerary.
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