The Big Orkney Song Project

26 Jan 2011 in Music, Orkney, Showcase

St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow,  23 January 2011

ORKNEY came to Glasgow with a flourish in this warm-hearted, life-affirming show that had all the finest hallmarks of a community project deeply rooted in its northern archipelago. For more than two years Orkney song enthusiasts have been collecting, cataloguing and recording up to 1000 songs of the islands, many of them unknown until now, some barely kept alive by the oral tradition, and others brand new.

In the course of the first year-long series of SongShare concerts and workshops throughout the islands they encouraged folk to bring along and share their songs which, together with those unearthed in dusty archives, are now available for future generations of singers in the Big Orkney Song Collection in the Orkney Library and Archive. School workshops and contributions to the Orkney Folk and St Magnus Festivals were a major part of the second year of this Heritage Lottery funded Project which has revitalised singing in many of the islands.

Saltfishforty's Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty

Saltfishforty's Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty

At the heart of the Project and this showcase concert were Aimee Leonard, Sarah Jane Gibbon and Emily Turtin who, as the Song Shop Trio, kicked off the night in splendid fashion with a clutch of songs whose titles alone – ‘The Greenland Whale Fishery’, ‘Worn, Wounded and Weary’, and ‘The Dreadful End of Marianna for Sorcery’ by Karine Polwart – let it be known that life on the islands was not quite as idyllic as some folk think.  Their harmonies were as well-honed and rich as the song seam they’d been mining for over two years, and they popped up in various roles throughout the night.

A key feature of the Project, and a real highlight of the show, however, was the encouragement it gave to contemporary song-writing, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the outstanding set by Frank Keenan and his group Login’s Well. His five self-penned numbers ranged from a modern take on time, the wind and the whaling (The Wind Blows Cold) to a love song for his daughters full of sound advice and hope (The Road), a tribute to Flora MacDonald (Steel on Steel), ‘The Cotter’s Lament’, about the lairds who profiteered from those who laboured collecting the kelp, to ‘The Curlew Song,’ that beautifully called the traveller back home to Orkney.

Steve Miller on flute and the aptly named Mark Shiner on clarsach and mandolin were the perfect foil for Keenan’s fine tenor voice and the whole band shone like the gold leaf that adorned the stucco on the ceiling of this beautifully restored old church.

Thora Linklater also sang a couple of her own songs, ‘Orkney Magic’, and ‘The Isles of Orkney’, a song about the Millennium which had some good lines in it: ‘what better place to be, winter dark always seems night, but spring will soon be coming in a new century’.

Brian Cromarty of Saltfishforty was similarily inspired by the Project to write a tune for the poem ‘The Cock o’ Byam’ and the song ‘A Ring on her Hand’ about the sad fate of the Maid of Norway. Along with Douglas Montgomery on an at times almost hoedown fiddle they had the crowd whooping and cheering with an instrumental ‘song without any words for which Douglas wrote the lyrics’. Accompanied by Aimee Leonard on bodhran and lovely harmonies, they even managed to turn the Ethel Findlater tale of murder, suicide and loss, ‘The Hamars o’ Syradale’, into an upbeat celebration of life. Theirs was a highly professional performance.

Life and love was epitomised for me, however, in  a trio of songs by the women’s choir Loomashun, accompanied on guitar by Alex Leonard: a jaunty version of ‘The Nobleman’s Wedding’, the bittersweet ‘Hoy’s Dark and Lofty Isle’, and another Findlater song, ‘Oh Dear Oh’, of cheerful longing for ‘a sailor with his tarry trousers on’.  There was a passion and joy about their delivery that is seldom found on stage – here was the real thing, the simple pleasure of throwing yourself into the singing of songs – it made for a very moving experience.

When the whole company assembled at the end for ‘The New Year’s Song’, the oldest preserved song in the Orkney Collection from the twelfth century AD, and sang ‘We Are All Queen Mary’s Men’ wishing all our yowes would lamb and our hens would lay, we felt blest indeed. An Orkney Cradle Song provided a fitting encore, with its mix of 19th century lyrics by Robert Menzies Fergusson, a tune by Brian Cromarty and harmonies arranged by Aimee Leonard.

It was only left for the irrepressible (equally well named) Billy Jolly, who had cheered us all night with his pawky tales and ditties, whilst mikes and stands were reset behind him, to send us off into the night with the songs of Orkney ringing in our ears.

The funding for the Project may have run out but I’ve no doubt that a CD will be forthcoming and the work of collecting and singing the songs of Orkney will go on. On this showing it certainly deserves to, and we will be all the richer for it.

© Norman Bissell, 2011


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