Diary: Stromness

Stromness

We leave Inverness early, the place names growing spikier and Viking-ier as we move northwards, the stone buildings greyer and sharper. Stopping for a caffeine and sugar top-up in Evanton, we see a poster for a showing of Scotland Yet on the wall of the Post Office. For some of the group, this is the furthest north they’ve ever been. After some mild peril involving the Airstream cutting it fine for ferry check-in, we’re leaving the mainland behind again on board the Hamnavoe. The sun deck, for once, lives up to its name, and we watch as the sea carries us in past the cliffs of Hoy, and the green lighthouse-studded shores of Orkney approach. It’s Shopping Week in Stromness, an excuse for celebration, and we arrive to bunting-decked streets and the sound of bands playing.

We find our home for the night down by the sea near Orphir, a field belonging to Nick. He has a turf roof, and a wind turbine, and two excitable dogs (one of which, the poor wee soul, has a grass allergy.) As we faff about trying to manouver minibus and Airstream trailer into an unobtrusive place on the narrow roads, Nick observes, ‘You’re not from the farming community, are you?’

‘No, replies Andy Summers, with great certainty. ‘I’m from Corstorphine.’ Ferryloupers though we undoubtedly are – that great Orcadian term for incoming upstarts – I must admit it feels good to be back in Orkney. My first visit here was a little over three years ago, as a confused student with a tape recorder and a vague quest for stories. I haven’t managed to stay away for long since.

Some of the group stay to pitch tents, and the rest of us make our way to pick up singer Stuart Braithwaite – recently arrived from Belgium – from Kirkwall Airport, and scope out tonight’s venue, the Royal Hotel in Stromness. Back in the town, the band has finished playing, and the stages are deserted, shards of coconut scattered on the cobbles. Our yellow and green t shirts have a carnival vibe too. We set up in the top room of the hotel, and gradually it fills, people coming in and recognising each other, chatting, laughing, kids with sparkly temporary tattoos from the fairs earlier.

We’re joined by two local acts for the first part of tonight’s event – firstly, Tom Ashman, playing acoustic but more normally found behind an electric guitar as part of Orkney’s one and only (probably!) funk band, Cosmic Soup. He plays a jazz tune, Stella by Starlight, which makes me think of George Mackay Brown’s Stella, the ‘Muse of Rose Street,’ whose voice Jo Clifford imagined for us back in Edinburgh. George Mackay Brown lived the most, and the happiest, of his days just steps from our room now. Many happy, and probably a fair few maudlin, pints in the bar downstairs for him. He saw Stella as a guiding star, led astray by his poetic brethren. Jo heard her as an unheard, wronged but determined voice. I wonder how she thought of herself.

Rachel Hurst, our other Orcadian musician tonight, is eighteen and preparing to vote for the second time in her life – her first being the European Elections in May. Her black guitar is embroidered with white flowers, and her voice melts through the room with ease, folding us in. The room feels happy. When Stuart takes the stage, being a nice sort of chap, he asks the audience how they’re doing. Silence. Eventually, an unrousing chorus of ‘No bad.’

‘No bad? I didn’t come all this way for no bad!’

‘That’s gushing, for an Orcadian!’ comes the response. But Stuart’s songs – what would you do, if you saw spaceships over Glasgow? – go down well, as does the film Scotland Yet, in which Orkney features heavily, an example of the potential for renewable energy we’re already not making the most of in Scotland. People leave the Royal in a good mood, full of ideas and plans. Some stay, talking politics and gossip at the bar until the shutter goes down.

Downstairs, a band has packed out the main bar, and those of us who still have the energy jump in, pogoing to covers of The Proclaimers and Is This The Way To Amarillo. As the bar staff try to persuade the buzzing crowd to go home, Robin proclaims, ‘In an independent Scotland there will ALWAYS be one mair tune!’ Driving back to the field under a glowing sliver of a harvest moon, singing and going to great lengths to leave all Orcadian rabbits unscathed, I can’t help but think… This Yestival is no bad, for a bunch of ferryloupers. And that, for a wannabe Orcadian, is gushing.

Erin Catriona Farley

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