At BBC Radio Orkney’s base in the centre of Kirkwall, the shelves are stacked with old recordings from years of Orcadian history. This audio archive is alive with sounds from the past, documenting decades of island interviews, concerts, performances and more.
On closer inspection, one name begins to stand out on the yellowed spines of the old boxes. The Housegarth Band, made up of members of the legendary Linklater family with their fiddles and accordions, was a local dance band beyond compare. Named after their home of Housegarth, found nestled into Orkney’s west mainland, the band was famous for its distinctive driving style that kept dance floors full at local events throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Then, in 2014, Kristin Linklater came home to Housegarth. After half a century of voice coaching in the United States, during which time she had become a world-renowned practitioner, the call of Orkney had become irresistible.
“Kristin was regarded as one of the world’s top voice coaches, developing and teaching her own Linklater Voice Method,” says Kenny Manson, Business Manager at the Kristin Linklater Voice Centre.
The method includes practical exercises on relaxation, the awareness of breathing, and the experience of freeing your voice from tension to improve range and the pleasure of verbal communication. It’s focused on speaking voice work but can also benefit the singing voice too. Kristin worked with performers from stage and screen, but her method was accessible to anyone who simply wanted to develop and enhance their own voice.
“Kristin wanted people from around the world to be able to come to Orkney and experience the place,” continues Kenny. “She bought Upper Housegarth in the late 90s, and then opened the Centre here in 2014. The islands were so fundamental to her work and her teaching.”
In the early days, the Centre was a base for students, offering workshops and meals, before participants were transported back and forth to properties nearby for a bed for the night. But Kristin’s dream was to build a residential-style retreat where visitors could focus on their work in heart of the Orkney countryside, surrounded by nothing but fields and farms, with the sea visible on the nearby horizon.
Over the coming years, the Centre began to take shape, and now it stands testament to Kristin’s vision. The old home has been renovated, with a series of tasteful extensions next door adding a purpose-built studio, living room, kitchen and communal dining space. There are also 13 bedrooms and toilet and shower facilities.
“What she achieved here, to create this Centre, is just amazing and it was done with thought at every point – it hasn’t just been dropped into the landscape,” says Kenny. “It’s very much about community-based living for the teachers and students, both in the studio and around the kitchen table. That community aspect was always part of Kristin’s work.”
Then, as for much of the world, 2020 arrived and everything changed. For the Centre, it meant closed doors, a silent studio and only echoes of the Orkney breeze around the buildings. But, most traumatically of all, Kristin passed away that summer, aged 84.
“Essentially, the person that had created everything was no longer with us,” reflects Kenny. “That left a real question in terms of deciding about the future of the Centre and the legacy of Kristin’s work.”
Whilst everyone faced challenges regarding physical distancing and travel restrictions, those issues were amplified at the Centre. How does a Voice Centre work when people can’t gather indoors, or have to wear masks if they do? And the ever-changing regulations regarding international travel continued to cause havoc with bookings and potential participants.
During the pandemic, Centre Manager Rena Johnston kept an eye on the place and Kristin in her home next door. “I found it very hard driving up knowing people wouldn’t be here, I found it quite emotional really,” she remembers. “We all got our energy from the folk that visited and to see it so quiet was horrible.
“I popped up to check on the place and to speak to Kristin through her window. On the day she passed away I just knew something was wrong. From then it was a bit of a rollercoaster to be honest, in terms of trying to figure out what we should do next.”
One of the early steps was to launch a successful fundraising appeal to help the Centre navigate those first few months. The team also established the Kristin Linklater Voice Foundation, a not-for-profit charity aimed at sharing her legacy and broadening access to Kristin’s work, so people can learn her method and become Designated Linklater Teachers. There were outdoor events held too, with people welcomed to the Centre to enjoy performances in the amphitheatre.
But voice work remains at the heart of the Centre, and since restrictions eased workshops have been back, and the studio is busy once more. “Kristin had a community of teachers, all trained in her method, spread across the world. They now come and lead workshops for us, so there’s this international organisation based here in Quoyloo, and that’s quite exciting,” smiles Kenny.
Indeed, recent workshops have hosted teachers from Australia, Italy, and the United States, with students travelling from as far afield as Canada, Chile, Poland, and Taiwan. For Rena, it’s music to her ears. “Without the people, there’s no place,” she says. “They just make the Centre feel alive. To hear the sounds of the students in the studio again, it’s just lovely.”
Feedback often focuses on the location of the Centre, in this peaceful part of Orkney, with the gentle rhythms of island life allowing students to fully immerse themselves in their practice. “Being here really lets people embody Kristin’s work,” says Kenny. “You’re out of your day-to-day life and your habits and routines, and it’s that ‘slowing down’ and reflection that most folk find extremely beneficial.”
With a degree of normality back and the tough times of the last two years behind them, thoughts at Housegarth are beginning to turn to the future. There’s an increased focus on working with the local community and welcoming folk in, as well as encouraging residents to try a voice workshop or two.
There has also been interest from groups looking to book the Centre for walking and cycling holidays, creative retreats and other activity-based breaks. “We’re very much open to that kind of thing and we have so many facilities here,” says Kenny. “From the accommodation to the catering and studio space, we have everything we need to make this the perfect place to stay for visiting groups.”
And, from Rena’s point of view, the chance to meet more people is just the tonic after such a turbulent period. “I’ve met some amazing folk here, and I feel like I know them all so well. I used to cry when the students left, it was terrible,” she laughs. “Kristin called it a ‘residential retreat’ and she wanted it to be that. I like people to think of it as home, and they can come to us for anything.”
The team at the Voice Centre has met every challenge head on over the last two years, despite some dark times and a real threat to its future. But if one thing sustained them, and gave them fresh resolve to move forward, it was keeping Kristin’s legacy alive.
And it’s Housegarth’s legacy too. A place full of life and sound, of warmth and welcoming. Of the past, and of the future.
The most Orcadian of places.