Folk legends Capercaillie to play 40th Orkney Folk Festival, backed by local orchestra

The globally renowned Scottish folk group Capercaillie are set to appear at the 40th Orkney Folk Festival in May, in an unprecedented collaboration with a local orchestra led by Orkney Schools Instrumental Music Service, supported by players from Orkney Camerata and Kirkwall Town Band.

Fast approaching their own 40th anniversary, Capercaillie join 24 acts already announced for the landmark edition of the festival, with artists from the USA, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, England, Wales and throughout Scotland set to join home-grown Orcadian musicians.

A seminal presence in contemporary Celtic music, Capercaillie are revered for their many ground-breaking achievements – including performances in over 30 countries, and over a million album sales – and beloved as a thrilling live act. With just a handful of appearances in the county following their Orcadian debut in 1986, at the fourth Orkney Folk Festival, it has now been over 20 years since the band last visited the county. They are set to return in just three months, in an unprecedented collaboration with an orchestra from across Orkney. 

Following just three hand-picked live premieres in summer 2022, the band are currently preparing to record full symphonic arrangements of their songs – which will feature within their Orkney Folk Festival return. Having debuted with world class orchestras including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (later televised on BBC Alba), Real Filharmonía de Galicia and Orchestre du FIL, of Brittany, their performance in Orkney will not only be the second ever Scottish performance of their orchestral suite, but the first anywhere with a community orchestra. 

Capercaillie’s long-established line-up of Karen Matheson (vocals), Donald Shaw (accordion), Charlie McKerron (fiddle), Ewen Vernal (bass), Manus Lunny (bouzouki) and David Robertson (percussion) will join with James Mackintosh (drums) and Fraser Fifield (whistles and pipes) in taking to the stage flanked by the full splendour of a bespoke orchestra from across Orkney. 

The performance will take place in Kirkwall’s Pickaquoy Centre arena, on Friday 26 May. Featuring brand new orchestrations by Greg Lawson (who will also conduct the orchestra) and Donald Shaw, the set-list spans Capercaillie’s entire back-catalogue – from their debut album Cascade, released in 1984, to their latest, 2013’s At the Heart of It All, and featuring the first Gaelic Top 40 single, Coisich, a Ruin.

Looking ahead to Capercaillie’s return visit to the festival, Donald Shaw said: “We can’t wait to get back up to Orkney – and are delighted to be able to make it work within the festival’s 40th anniversary.

“Getting to work with orchestras is always inspiring, but that will take on another dimension to perform these songs with a community orchestra for the first time. We have all been amazed at the quality of musicianship that has come from Orkney over these last few years so we’re very much looking forward to this special concert.”

Orkney Folk Festival producer, Craig Corse added: “I’m not sure I can put into words how thrilled I am to see this actually happening. Not only the return of undoubtedly the most influential band on the Scottish folk scene in the last 40 years, and in our 40th anniversary – but this scale of local involvement really is exceptional, will be very special indeed, and something everyone involved should be immensely proud of. 

“Whilst the idea behind the project came about between Donald and I well over a year ago, it could only be possible with a tremendously strong instrumental service in Orkney’s schools, and I want to say a huge thank-you to the brilliantly enthusiastic tutors for going with us and helping make the idea a reality. As a former pupil within the service, I very much hope that the collaboration leaves a legacy and inspiration well beyond the festival, and can’t wait to see everyone together on stage.”

Widely credited with being the major force in bringing traditional Celtic music to the world stage and inspiring the great resurgence so evident today, it is almost four decades since Capercaillie first performed as teenagers in their native Scottish Highlands. As they continue the worldwide musical journey that’s taken them from the Brazilian rainforest to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – not to mention into the UK Top 40 pop charts – it is still the ancient Gaelic culture of their homelands that inspires them most.

Their role as pioneers of Scotland’s Gaelic song revival, thanks to Matheson’s sublime vocals, and the store of songs passed down from her Barra grandmother, has inspired myriad successors, while their innovative, outward-looking approach to arrangements and instrumentation has been hugely influential in today’s ongoing Scottish folk renaissance.

Capercaillie join a host of major international artists already announced for the festival, including Texan hot jazz and Western swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown, Cape Breton fiddle and New England cello duo Mairi Rankin and Eric Wright, leading English duo Spiers & Boden, hotly-tipped singer-songwriter Katherine Priddy, and celebrated Scottish artists including Elephant Sessions, Breabach and Kinnaris Quintet. 

One of Scotland’s finest and most acclaimed songwriters, Kris Drever will return fronting his own band, whilst home-grown groups Fara and Gnoss will appear alongside local favourites including The Chair and Saltfishforty, with many more still to be announced in the coming weeks.

The festival programme – covering a packed four-days of events – will be published in the coming weeks, with tickets due to go on sale in March. Orkney Friends, the festival’s new supporter programme, is on sale until 28 February, offering early access to tickets, 10% off festival merchandise and travel discounts with NorthLink Ferries. More information can be found here.