Diary: Kirkwall

Waking up, we open our tents to the wide-open sky and sea, bright blues and greens. Nick offers us cups of tea, the use of his space-age shower, and talks us through his house, still in the process of being built. He opens a little cupboard-like door in the wall and shows us what’s at the centre of the walls – bales of barley straw. He tells us, that in the coldest March on record, they were still able to turn the heating off. By the time we’ve had a proper tour, seen the grass roof and the balcony with its ledge subtly placed at the perfect height for resting a gin and tonic while watching the sea, Zara and I are ready to move in.

But Kirkwall is calling, and we set off, stopping on the way to take photos at the Standing Stones of Stenness – tour buses and sheep, the Hills of Hoy slumbering in the background, sheer time on a scale we can’t even imagine. I make up some archaeological ‘facts’ for the group, and try to sneakily overhear the proper tour guides to confirm my suspicions.


When we arrive at the Reel, the Wrigley Sisters’ music cafe tucked in next to St Magnus Cathedral, there’s an unexpected connection waiting for us. Dr Tom Webster, whose article we’ve just published on the National Collective website, is on holiday in Orkney and is relaxing with a coffee in the Reel. He recognises our t-shirts, and within a few minutes he’s agreed to join the bill tonight to share his Journey to Yes. Sitting outside in the late afternoon warmth, Orkney ice creams all round, we’ve got a little time for contemplation before it’s all systems go for the evening. Sun on red sandstone, St Magnus Cathedral towers above us.

Back in the Reel later, it’s transformed from earlier, our flowers adorning the speakers and the colourful bunting (on tour following an appearance at Mairi’s wedding in June) across the room. It’s full of people – although no matter how busy it gets, people are always reluctant to take the front seats. The first musician tonight is an Orcadian, James Watson. ‘I am actually really happy to be here. This is a happy song, I just sing it in a sad way. I can’t help it.’ By the end of his set, the audience is in love. Then Stewart Shearer gives us some tunes, one dedicated ‘to everyone who’s never had a tune dedicated to them before.’


At the break, we assemble the team and audience outside the Reel to get a picture with our Vote Yes! sign. Passing cars show support with cheers and horns. Declan Welsh opens the second half with a rousing set – switching between observational songs about the Glasgow nightclub scene and passionate anger directed at lack of political compassion in general, and David Cameron in particular. ‘Gaun yersel, son!’ a woman shouts from the audience. I hear someone murmuring ‘I like this boy’ on their way to the bar.


Then it’s my first storytelling performance for Yestival – I’m a member of the Orkney Storytelling Committee, so it feels like being on home turf. I tell a story from Angus, a legend from Finavon about the fates of the orphan Jockie Barefoot and the cruel Earl Beardie. I’m amazed when someone comes up to me after to tell me she knew the story – no one’s ever said they knew this one before. Louise, a Dundonian living in Shetland and in Orkney for work, heard it when she was on holiday in the Angus countryside in her teens. Discovering these hidden shared connections between people’s paths through Scotland, and the world, is one of the joys of travelling – storytelling is a way of bringing them to light.


Jamie Marshall closes the evening, ending with No Gods and Precious Few Heroes – which is becoming a tour anthem, and the Reel sings along wholeheartedly. As soon as the last note has died away, we spring to action – we have half an hour to get to the ferry to Shetland. If only we could move this fast every night. Thinking we’re well ahead of ourselves, we speed off – only to discover, a couple of streets away, that a vital cable is still plugged into the Reel’s sound system. As we turn round to collect it, something sets off an alarm sound from the megaphone we’ve got in the boot. Yestival emergency! After a quick dash into the Reel, and much hilarity, we get back on the way. Reversing onto the ferry with Gloria (as the Airstream has been christened – Gloria Yes-te-van, geddit?) is a nerve-wracking experience. The Northlink staff are wonderfully supportive – “It’s fine. If you go wrong, you’ll hear a splash.” (Seriously, though – Northlink staff were wonderfully supportive. You know who you are! Thanks!)

As we sail away ever-northwards into the night, the Yestival team gratefully collapses into the ferry cafe and cracks open the Haribo. Shetland, we can’t wait to meet you.

Erin Farley

  1. Lynne Thornton

    Best night I have had since I moved to Orkney permanently.Gave me areal lift and some hope for the future . Thankyou 🙂

    • nationalcollective

      That’s what we aim to do! 🙂 The amazing audiences we’ve been having have really given us a massive boost too, so thank you for being part of that!

  2. Louise

    Hi Erin, I’ve still not
    made it back to Shetland due to the fog!

    • nationalcollective

      Oh dear – hope you are safely home now! Our ferry down from Lerwick was absolutely packed, so many flights cancelled that morning! I miss the Northern Isles already…


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