It’s been called the little festival with the big heart - a celebration of oral tradition that has earned a worldwide reputation, thanks to its warmth, inclusivity and unique community atmosphere.
Since its resurrection in 2010, the Orkney Storytelling Festival has evolved to become one of the most keenly anticipated events in the islands’ calendar, showcasing the talents of local, national and international storytellers.
Orkney is, of course, rich in folklore, with our tales of mystical selkie folk, mischievous trows and malevolent stoor worms captivating – and occasionally terrifying – generations of islanders.
To hear an Orcadian folk tale, or indeed a legend from another land, delivered live by a gifted storyteller, is certainly an experience unlike any other and one definitely not to be missed.
“Storytelling has got to be one of the very oldest of art forms,” says Fran Flett Hollinrake, storyteller and member of the Orkney festival’s organising committee. “It’s so simple, but it can be used to convey so many things. You don’t need props, PowerPoint presentations, or costumes. You just need somebody who can tell a good story and somebody to listen.
“Stories were, and are, a way of learning about the world,” continues Fran, who will be performing in this year’s festival. “They give you alternative versions of reality and allow you to explore feelings and experience events, without having to go through them yourself. It’s the same as a good book, or a film with a happy ending. It’s just pared down to its most basic element and incredibly inclusive.”
Each Orkney Storytelling Festival has what Fran describes as a “loose” theme. With 2017 marking the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendsson, it’s no surprise to discover our canonised Viking earl features in this year’s programme.
“We never stick rigidly to our theme, but this is an important year because of the Magnus 900 commemorations, so we’ve gone a little bit with that,” says Fran, who also happens to be custodian of Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral. “For every festival we do what we call our island jaunt and this year we’re taking a storytelling session to Egilsay, where Magnus was, of course, murdered by his cousin Haakon.
“We always like to take an event off mainland Orkney because it gives visiting storytellers the experience of going to another island,” she explains. “It also gives folk on the isles, who perhaps can’t manage to get to an event in Mainland, the chance to get involved. In the past we’ve taken events to Papay, Rousay and Flotta and always get a very good turnout. We also take people out to the isles with us, so it benefits everyone and is lots of fun too.”
Continuing the saintly theme, festival organisers are bringing writer and broadcaster Nick Mayhew Smith, author of Britain’s Holiest Places, to Orkney to deliver a special lecture in St Magnus Cathedral.
“Nick’s a big fan of Orkney in general, but he’s also very interested in the saints and what they meant to people,” says Fran. “In Orkney, we tend to think of Magnus Erlendsson more as a historical figure than a religious figure, but Nick wants to talk about Magnus in his cult of saints guise. He explores what function the saints had in society and very much believes they were figures for ordinary people, who went to them for help in troubled times. St Magnus Cathedral is the only church in Scotland that still has the relics of its saint. In fact we’ve got two, so that makes us unique. That’s still a very important and valid thing to a lot of people in a religious context.”
Also on the festival invite list are acclaimed storytellers, Hjörleifur Stefánsson from Iceland, Edinburgh based Ruth Kirkpatrick, and Sweden’s Jerker Fahlström.
“A lot of what we know about Magnus comes from the Sagas and the Orkneyinga Saga in particular,” explains Fran. “It was written in Iceland, so having Hjörleifur with us in Orkney is our link to the Saga Lands.
“Meanwhile, Ruth Kirkpatrick is very involved with the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where she trains storytellers and does workshops for children. Ruth also has a lot of family and friends in Orkney, so the festival very much represents a homecoming for her.
“And lastly, but definitely not least, Jerker Fahlström is coming to us as part of an outreach from the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. A brilliant storyteller and a great character, he’s been to Orkney several times in the past. Once seen, never forgotten.”
Beyond the headline acts, the festival promises an engaging variety of story and folklore themed events. Fran herself will be delivering another of her popular graveyard history walks and there will also be open-mic sessions where anyone can stand up and tell a tale.
“We try to keep it very personal and intimate, which I think makes us unique,” reflects Fran. “All the stories told and the performances come from the heart and I think that really shows. The storytellers who come to Orkney love having the opportunity to be part of the community and they always feel very welcome here. The gigs finish, but the storytelling doesn’t stop. It’s just a nice, warm, supportive and friendly atmosphere.”
According to Fran, the Orkney landscape also play an important part in making the festival a memorable experience for all involved.
“Orkney always does its thing in late October,” she says.“It’s one of the reasons we picked that time of year for the festival. The clocks go back and there’s that sense of turning inwards. We come indoors, draw the curtains and have a dram by the fire while listening to a story. It’s a different experience to being in Orkney during the summer, with visitors in particular loving that opportunity to feel what it’s like to be part of our community in the autumn.
“After the festival, people leave and carry the stories they’ve heard, and the experiences they’ve had in Orkney, out into the world,” adds Fran. “There are different styles of storytelling and they’re all equally valid, but our vibe is one of sharing.The story’s out there now. It’s yours. Take it.”
For full details of the 2017 Orkney Storytelling Festival, which runs between the 26th and 29th of October, visit the official website.
Story by David Flanagan.