2018/1 – Welcome, one and all!

The warmest of Orkney welcomes to one and all, visitors and locals both, as the county’s world renowned folk festival kicks off its 36th outing tonight, presenting the first six concerts – in Stromness, Stenness, Burray and Evie – from the weekend’s mouthwatering tally of 35 programmed events, including ceildhs, workshops, talks and free performances, in 20 different venues across the islands.

For the fifth consecutive year, the festival’s advance sales have broken new records: 6200 tickets had been snapped up by yesterday, representing almost 90 percent of overall capacity, and 20 complete selllout events – so if your musical dance-card’s not already full, you’d better be quick. And if you’re still to arrange accommodation, we hope you like camping – or are prepared to travel, as every bed in Stromness and for miles around has long since been bagged.

Alongside the main concert programme, there is of course Orkney Folk Festival’s (in)famous schedule of pub sessions throughout the weekend, hosted as ever by the stalwart triumvirate of the Royal Hotel, the Stromness Hotel and the Ferry Inn, all conducively situated mere stumbling-distance apart. These informal gatherings will feature many headline artists, and all musicians are welcome to take part.

This year’s festival started warming up earlier than ever, with more acts than ever opting to arrive yesterday to settle in, including most of those who’ve come the furthest, such as Australia’s The Maes, Newfoundlanders The Once, and the nine-strong international line-up String Sisters, including members from the US, Norway, Sweden and Ireland. They were greeted by a picture-perfect day of sunshine and blue skies, with more of the same forecast right through till Monday, and temperatures predicted to hit a sizzling 15ºC. Yesterday’s clement conditions gave way to a beautiful rose-tinted sunset – aptly matched, as the evening ferry’s arrivals dispersed, by the actual pink rose-petals mysteriously strewn across the entrance to the Stromness Hotel. (Apparently there was a wedding or anniversary celebration going on, but we prefer to see them as propitiously symbolic.)

String Sisters’ early arrival also resulted in a welcome bonus for a couple of return Danish visitors, who, having flown in yesterday, were attempting to puzzle out the somewhat counterintuitive bus timetable between Kirkwall airport and Stromness. Just as they were scratching their heads, they spotted a bus with a sign for their destination, and so naturally flagged it down. It was actually String Sisters’ designated airport pickup, just one part of the festival’s labyrinthine transport schedule, but there was plenty of room on board, and said sorority were happy to share, so the Danes got a free express ride, direct to the festival hub.

Given how full the town is, it can be a challenge for Orkney Folk Festival visitors to secure sustenance for the evening, in the somewhat narrow window between dinner-time starting and the concerts’ 7.30 kick-off. Besides basic catering capacity, the weekend’s particular conditions can also present further unexpected obstacles, as Kevin Macleod, our compère beyond compare, yesterday recalled from last year. In search of his supper one night, he first tried the Stromness Hotel, but in addition to a plethora of fellow hungry punters, the teatime session was still going strong, including a gentleman gi’in it laldy on the hammer dulcimer, a distinctively expansive instrument which took up an entire restaurant table. Inwardly musing that it was years since he’d seen somebody playing said instrument, Kevin next repaired to the Ferry Inn in hope of food – only to find that the likewise still-swinging session there featured not one, but two hammer dulcimers. As he himself observed – what are the chances?

The demise of Stromness’s chippie, a former firm favourite with festival-goers, has added further pressure to the logistics of keeping oneself fed (you can’t really eat a Chinese with your fingers while sitting by the harbour), and so we’re happy to report that the ever-sagacious folk festival committee, in anticipation of this issue, has been consulting with the Stromness Community Business Forum, to secure the presence of significantly more mobile food providers over this weekend, including Leigh’s justly celebrated burger van, which will be parked up in the town from Friday to Sunday, while the regular swimming-club stall, serving up soup, sandwiches and mince rolls, will stay open considerably longer. An army marches on its stomach, after all, so make sure and keep yours well ballasted – there’s a looong weekend ahead.