“More and more, we’re being contacted by storytellers who say they’d like to be part of our festival,” reveals Fran Flett Hollinrake. “There’s a huge amount of interest now.”
A member of the Orkney Storytelling Festival’s organising committee, Fran is modest about the event’s success, and touched by its growing popularity with storytellers, but says there are no immediate plans to expand what is a highlight of the islands’ autumnal calendar.
“We tend to work on personal recommendations and invite storytellers we feel will fit in well with our festival,” she says. “We’re a very small but dedicated group of people, and we’re very friendly as well, so it’s a big social event for us. We’re kind of like a big gang so we have to feel visiting storytellers are going to fit in with that."
It’s not just a performance gig where they turn up, tell the story and then go away. We really want them to involve themselves in the whole thing.
It’s an approach that’s seemed to have worked well over the relatively short lifespan of the festival – 2019 will be its tenth consecutive staging – with audiences and storytellers alike appreciating the event’s warmth and inclusivity.
Indeed, it’s been dubbed ‘the little festival with the big heart’, thanks to a focus on small, intimate venues and a line-up that sees acclaimed international and professional storytellers share the bill with local performers. This year’s programme repeats the winning formula.
“For 2019’s event, we have Scottish Kenyan storyteller, Mara Menzies,” says Fran. “She visited Orkney a few years ago for Black History Month and did some work in our schools, but she also teamed up with us and we did a storytelling event together at that time. She’s just phenomenal – really sparky, captivating and dynamic – and it’ll be great to have her back in Orkney.”
Joining Mara on the programme will be storyteller and children’s entertainer, Gordon MacLellan – professional name, Creeping Toad – and First Nations storyteller, Robert Seven-Crows Bourdon, who comes to Orkney as part of an outreach initiative from the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.
“We’ve also got a growing cadre of local storytellers who’ll be joining that fantastic mix of visiting performers, along with a host of festival regulars,” adds Fran. “It’s a great line-up.”
Although conscious of the need to maintain the festival’s unique atmosphere, Fran says the organisers do like to “mix it up a bit”, adding in new events or venues to complement some of the regular fixtures and traditional storytelling sessions in the calendar.
“We decided it would a fine idea to get a coach and drive people around the West Mainland, doing readings from works by contemporary local writers, and visiting places associated with their stories or poems,” says Fran. “We’re calling it the Magical Literary Tour and, whilst it’s a total departure for us, we think it’ll be good fun. So far we’ve identified around 40 writers whose work we’d like to feature.
“We’re also having a Dungeons and Dragons session run by Frances Sinclair, the librarian at Stromness Academy, who’s devising a scenario based on Orkney folklore!”
Returning this year will be Fran’s guided cemetery walk where she takes festival goers around a featured graveyard, unearthing some of the stories behind the people laid to rest there.
“The 2019 cemetery is Finstown and there are a few notable people in there, including artist Stanley Cursiter and politician Jo Grimond – but I also like to draw out the stories of the less well-known characters,” explains Fran.
Equally popular is the festival’s traditional island trip, where the event travels beyond the Orkney mainland. This year, it’s the turn of Shapinsay.
“Over the years, we’ve tried to get around as many communities as possible,” says Fran. “The people in the island get to enjoy an event, but it’s also a fabulous opportunity and experience for our visiting storytellers. We have that away day feel and it’s always an awful lot of fun.”
Another first for the 2019 event will be online ticketing, through the official festival website.
“We’ve never done online ticketing before, but are getting contacted by more and more people outwith Orkney,” says Fran. “It should make it easier for anyone south who wants to attend a festival event, but who can’t pick up a ticket locally. It’s an experiment to an extent, and online numbers will probably be quite limited as our venues are generally small, but we’ll see how well it works.”
Fran added: “Growing the festival is something we’ve wrestled with over the years. We do sell out the smaller venues and, while we sometimes use the bigger venues in Orkney, we’re keen to keep the festival small and intimate. It’s a difficult balance.
“In 2022, the Scottish Government is having its Year of Scotland’s Stories, so we’re thinking we might do something more ambitious then. What that’ll be, we don’t know yet!”
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.