2019/3 – Ferries, planes, automobiles and early arrivals

Last night’s Orkney Folk Festival pre-party – brought to you by a Highlands and Islands Airports industrial dispute – actually kicked off in Shetland, somewhere around 5pm, when around a dozen of those other islanders, who’d planned to fly today, boarded the good ship Hjaltland in Lerwick and headed immediately for the bar, where they remained ensconced for the six-hour sailing to Kirkwall.

Knowing that even the fast car waiting at Hatston would only get them to bar in Stromness within an hour of last orders – and, let’s face it, being Shetlanders – they’d not only booked the taxi but adapted some kind of bijou flight-case into a mobile drinks cabinet for the journey, containing four bottles of prosecco, plastic glasses and Nurofen. Rumours of their falling from the vehicle upon delivery at the Stromness Hotel have been grossly exaggerated, we’re sure of it.

Among the Shetland delegation, the Peter Wood Dance Band of that parish were nonetheless sufficiently bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning to get a horde of Stromness Primary schoolkids delightedly strutting their stuff in a three-ring Circassian Circle. (Though it may be that bassist Arthur Nicolson was secretly grateful for whatever technical glitch prevented him playing his own instrument, so he ended up using the school’s – complete with coloured stickers showing him where to put his fingers).

Yesterday’s earliest arrivals included Canadian four-piece Còig, who, despite having also undergone one of the longest journeys, were collected at the airport and taken straight to play a session at Radio Orkney – broadcast this morning – which included the story of why they named a tune ‘Princess Flower Puppies’: a dark tale of family secrets and juvenile blackmail. They were then allowed to check into their hotel – but were also up and at it early this morning, on a visit to Stromness Academy, before being marshalled onto a bus to headline in Sandwick tonight: their heads must seriously be spinning by now, and it’s only the first day.

Also safely landed are Irish legends Four Men and a Dog, who got themselves well settled in at the Royal, happily at home amid the front bar’s customary week-night pool-playing clientele and rock’n’roll jukebox soundtrack. So happily settled, in fact, that once peckishness set in, the band ordered a takeaway delivery – all the way from the Chinese right next door.

In the case of Irish guitar ace John Doyle’s re-routed journey today, it was a story of planes, trains and automobiles – only with boats instead of trains. An initial drive to Edinburgh from Cumbria was followed by a flight to Wick (which was strike-free, for some reason), with a taxi waiting there to whisk him off to Gill’s Bay, to catch the 1.30pm Pentland Ferries service to St Margaret’s Hope. Then came the news that this sailing (later followed by two more) was cancelled, due to a broken boat, so the cab was redirected to Scrabster (and – unofficially – instructed to floor it) in the slim hope of catching the 1.15 Northlink ferry – which was indeed thankfully caught. 

Afflicted as they’ve been this year by transport gremlins, the festival committee were at least able to reap the benefits of their long-cultivated local contacts and goodwill, with Doyle’s progress facilitated firstly by a call to Wick air traffic control to make sure the plane was in, then to Northlink to pass on his mobile number, so they could call him in the taxi if things got close to the wire. 

Spare a thought, too, for the poor souls travelling today from Stornoway, for the festival’s Hebridean/Orcadian collaboration Between Islands: not one but two ferry timetables to navigate, and a snarly three-and-a-half hour drive in between – and then they, too, had been booked with their car on the cancelled Pentalina, but couldn’t manage the Scrabster turnaround quick enough, so eventually sailed at 7pm, as foot passengers: the Hamnavoe was at capacity with vehicles, so the car’s coming as freight tomorrow.

One small silver lining to the airport strike, though, was a flurry of national broadcast coverage for the festival via related news stories – such that the committee member who deals with the press, after starting his day live on Radio Orkney, was interviewed in quick succession for Good Morning ScotlandReporting Scotland and the STV news, all before he’d even had breakfast.

And with last night’s pre-festivities having featured the inaugural song rendition of Orkney 2019 (‘Braw Sailin’ on the Sea’, courtesy of father/daughter duo Jim and Beth Malcolm); with today’s extra-busy lunchtime Northlink crossing – despite somewhat un-braw weather – having witnessed some fine-warm up tunes in the bar, followed by a first Stromness Hotel teatime session that ranged from cajun to Celtic to country, arriving artists and audiences very evidently in good heart and fine fettle, regardless of adversities in getting here.