ORKNEY FOLK FESTIVAL 2008 – The Orcadian 23rd May 2008
The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra helped Orkney Folk Festival pass a major milestone, when it per-formed to more than 1,000 people at the Pickaquoy Centre on Friday night.
Not only was this the largest concert staged in Orkney since the 2006 Billy Connolly event, but it also attracted the largest Orkney Folk Festival crowd in its 26-year history, illustrating the immense pulling power of Orkney’s annual May extravaganza.
The acoustics were perfect and, apart from a misbehaving micro-phone in the first half, the event – with more than 100 musicians performing, including youngsters from the Orkney Traditional Music Project and a corps of the Kirkwall City Pipe Band – was a resounding success.
The proceedings began with the orchestra’s resident piper, Keith Easdale, who had flown from his home in Milan to perform, playing a rousing solo while strutting quickly from one end of the Picky arena to the other, and rejecting a whisky when he eventually reached the bar at the other end.
Loud applause then erupted around the hall, as the mass audience welcomed home the band’s Orcadian leader, John Mason, MBE.
He was clearly heartened by the response and, to a ripple of laughter, made to sit back on a chair on the stage as if in shock. But there was no time to rest and the orchestra – spread across the wide stage – with the first rise of their leader’s baton, broke into a Dashing White Sergeant medley which included John Mason’s own composition Stronsay Wedding.
Clapping quickly broke out from the sea of people across the hall (quite a sight in itself) with the only break in the hand movements being within the pool of sound operators, all heavily concentrating, in the centre of the hall.
A set of fine traditional tunes, under the theme Hamilton House, followed, then the audience erupted once again to the arrival of Beechgrove Garden legend Jim McColl, the show’s compere.
Now keenly sought after as a horticultural consultant, lecturer and after-dinner speaker, the veteran presenter proved to every-one what a fine communicator he is. Battling against a microphone which seemed to explode violently, he started by saying: “Wow! I thought I was being shot at!”
Then came examples of “a new race of politically incorrect poems” including:
Mary had a little lamb,
Her father shot it deed.
Now it goes to school with her,
Between twa loafs o ‘breed!
A few jokes afterwards (and the recollection of a taxi driver’s uttering on the way to Prince Charles’ opening of a building at the Botanic Gardens: “And will he have Camellia with him?”) and the broadcaster had the audience in the palm of his hands.
Next it was the turn of singer Colette Ruddy, from Dundee, an honours graduate from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, to charm the gathering, first with The Bluebell Polka and then Lonely Scapa Flow.
While most of the audience had heard Allie Windwick’s Lonely Scapa Flow on many occasions — most notably when sung by the late Angus Findlater — they had never heard it sung by a mezzo soprano, with a 52-strong fiddle orchestra.
This was a chilling experience and older members of the audience, who had wartime memories nudged by it, were truly moved.
The response to it was massive. The applause was so prolonged that the orchestra, eventually, decided to break in with a pacey seven-tune eightsome reel.
Jim McColl then returned to explain the next two compositions: the poignant Ronnie Aim tone poem, The Heroes of Longhope, written in memory of the Orkney lifeboat crew who died in the Pentland Firth in 1969; and a new two-step written by John Mason, entitled The Lord Lieutenant, which was dedicated to Dr Tony Trickett of Hoy.
The first moving piece was brilliantly arranged by John Mason with full effect made of drum rolls, while the fiddlers’ bows and elbows moved in a wave-like effect.
Dr Trickett, Orkney’s Lord Lieutenant — who was in the audience — tapped his feet and smiled throughout the lively performance of his tune and acknowledged his pride with a wave at the conclusion.
Next came young Ayrshire tenor Dennis Haggerty, who sang a rousing Robert Wilson song, Down in the Glen and then accompanied by the audience — which he classed as The Picky Centre Philharmonic Choir — Loch Lomond.
The orchestra then swirled into Highland Schottisches, speeding up to a crescendo of clapping hands which rose to load applause at the conclusion. Then the first half of the show ended with the pinnacle of the event, the inspirational John Mason tune The Old Man of Hoy (Homeward Bound) with the orchestra and the Corps of Kirkwall City Pipe Band, including Pipe Major Raymie Peace, Pipe Sergeant Andy Cant and Lead Tip Duncan Hill.
What an outstanding tune this is, with its haunting melody and layer upon layer of orchestration being added right up to the rousing bagpipe ending. It could equal any of the great movie themes and deserves attention.
It certainly got it during the interval when CDs including that song quickly sold out. In fact all of the 100 CDs brought along on the night were sold out and DVD sales were also brisk.
The second half of the show was led by the 45 local youngsters in the Orkney Traditional Music Project (OTMP), led by director Jenny Keldie (the fiddle orchestra sponsors OTMP).
But before they began, Piper Keith Easdale again paraded in a fast and fairly exhausting march across the arena, but this time gave up when he got to the bar and, to wild laughter, accepted the whisky which was offered there.
The highlight of the OTMP’s performance was a new tune written by Diane Kelday called The Blue Door Jig and dedicated to Rita Jamieson, owner of the Blue Door Charity Shop in Kirkwall.
Diane said afterwards: “The Traditional Music Project really appreciated the use of the Blue Door and raised £9,000 from it. I wanted to give something back to Rita Jamieson for her kindness. Sadly, she could not be here tonight, but I hope some day we can record it.”
There was even jigging taking place on the balcony during the set, as the young Orkney musicians showed their potential and, as Jim McColl said afterwards: “We know Scottish music is in good heart when we hear these young folk play.”
He then related to the time he came to Orkney in the early 1970s as a worker with the Scottish Agricultural Society and his dealings with Donald “Sticky” Glue. Everyone in those days had nick-names, he said. He had been told one man was called “Head First” and when he asked why, he was told to go round the corner and there he saw the sign “R. Slater: Butchers”!
And so the humour continued until the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra was back in place. John Mason received a few whoops from the audience when he returned wearing a bright red jacket and bow tie.
The Glee Club — several members of the orchestra and Jim McColl — started by performing well-known Scottish and Irish songs including Roamin’ In The Gloamin’ and If You’re Irish Come Into The Parlour, after which the compere said: “There are threats of a CD!”
And so it went on, with the band playing a selection called Reel of the 51st Highland Division, Dennis Haggerty returning to belt out Farewell My Love, Dancing in Kyle and A Scottish Soldier and bravely offering to buy each of the 1,000 people in the audience a drink if he saw them on the streets of Kirkwall or Stromness the next day.
The orchestra then played Tapping Toes with a beat provided by tambourine before Jim McColl thanked sponsors Talisman Energy for their financial contribution to the event and the volunteers in Orkney Rugby Club for providing high teas.
He also said he had received a note from Margaret and Dennis Craigie, who celebrated their 40th Wedding anniversary this year, adding that John Mason played in the Stronsay Band at their wedding in Sanday.
Violin duettists Yla Steven and Stewart McCreath then played a simple yet overpoweringly moving slow air; the orchestra followed with Tribute to J. Scott Skinner and Colette Ruddy returned with Scotland Again, the comic Wha’ Was the Piper o’ Dundee and Will Ye No Come Back Again.
Then to round things off, the rousing finale involved more than 100 musicians and singers including the orchestra’s guest drummer Kenneth Harcus from Westray, whose skills on The Drummers almost reached Ginger Baker proportions as the orchestra swirled waves around him, and — once the prolonged applause for Kenneth had faded – Orkney Sunset Song (Afore The Grimleens) a new composition by John Mason about his homeland. Here the strings were interwoven with flutes and, eventually, the eruption of bagpipes and cymbals depicting the sound of the sea. It was wonderful.
Afterwards, Lord Lieutenant Tony Trickett told us: “It has been a wonderful night. I felt terribly proud and honoured and slightly embarrassed to hear the tune John wrote for me. It was great.
“He told me about it a few months ago and played it to me over the phone. Sadly I did not manage to hear it being premiered by the orchestra in Aberdeen. It was great to hear it tonight.”
John Mason – surrounded by droves of well-wishers and old friends, including Nigel Firth from Rousay whom he used to play alongside in the Edinburgh University Band, said he was delighted by the response.
“I was born and brought up in Orkney although I now live in Ayrshire. Folk think I’m from Stronsay because I played for a while in the Stronsay Band, but I was from Kirkwall.
“A lot of the music I write is inspired by Orkney and I am delighted that we have been able for the first time to bring the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra here. The response was fantastic.”
The concert itself was a phenomenal experience and one that traditional music enthusiasts and others who were lucky enough to attend will not forget in a long while.