Cultural Change in Orkney

28 Jul 2011 in Orkney, Showcase

ORKNEY is internationally recognized for the quality of its cultural life. Here writer and researcher FRANÇOIS MATARASSO introduces the study which Highlands and Islands Enterprise has commissioned him to undertake into what has made Orkney such a centre of creative energy.

THERE was an evocative photographic exhibition by John Bulmer at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness recently. Taken in the 1960s and 1970s for the Sunday Times Magazine, the photographs document Orkney on the cusp of change – still rooted in its historic way of life but with hints of what might be coming.

John Bulmer's memorable image of a woman milking from the recent show at the Pier Arts Centre

John Bulmer's memorable image of a woman milking from the recent show at the Pier Arts Centre

Seen today, from a globalised, networked consumer society undergoing its own stress tests, the images of sheep in Kirkwall’s streets and milking by hand in the wind suggest how far we have travelled. And not much has changed more than Orkney’s cultural life in that time, both in itself and as a result of wider economic and social transformation.

Orkney’s culture is as ancient as any: thousands come each year to see Maeshowe and Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Dwarfie Stane. More recent monuments, from the Viking period to the Second World War, have endowed the county with a truly exceptional cultural heritage.

But it’s the way that cultural life has flourished in the 40 years since John Bulmer took his photographs that seems remarkable now. The Pier Arts Centre and the St Magnus Festival have become internationally recognised since their creation in the late 1970s.

Yet they are only parts of a cultural life that includes folk and science festivals, amateur drama and pipe bands, galleries, museums and craft shops, literature, jewellery and visual arts.

Each element, small or great, well known or not, has a distinctive place in Orkney’s cultural ecology. Together they make the islands today artistically vital and widely admired.

So what happened? Why has Orkney experienced such a strong growth in its cultural development since John Bulmer took his photographs?

Is this story different to what has happened in the other islands – Shetland, the Hebrides, or the isles closer to the mainland? Is it different from artistic growth across the Highlands, itself a remarkable aspect of Scotland’s recent past?

Stromness Pipe Band at the Orkney Folk Festival

Stromness Pipe Band at the Orkney Folk Festival

I’ve been commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to look at how Orkney’s culture has developed over the past generation and to what extent that experience may be replicable elsewhere. To that end, I’m looking back at records and data, such as they are, but more importantly listening to the people involved, whether as artists, activists, audience members or supporters.

The study is exploring questions such as:

§       What factors have made the arts and heritage of Orkney so rich?

§       How have things changed there over the past 30 years?

§       What has been gained – and perhaps lost as well?

§       What might people in other places learn from Orkney’s experience?

I’d also like to hear the views of people outside Orkney, and especially the users of this site, where so many different aspects of art and culture in the region are presented. How does Orkney and its cultural development look from where you are?

If you’d like to comment on these questions or you have other views about the arts in Orkney, please add a comment in the box below, or email me directly at; I’ll be glad to hear from you.

Article by François Matarasso, 2011