It can lay claim to a wartime past like few other places in Scotland, its remoteness and inhospitable climate immortalised in a servicemen’s lament called “Bloody Orkney”.
Now, almost 70 years on, the Second World War heritage of the island chain is to be re-used as venues, themes and backdrops for its major annual cultural festival.
The St Magnus Festival, from 21-30 June, is hoping to attract ex-servicemen, their relatives and descendants to revisit some of the sites that played such a big part in the defence of the UK.
An old mess hall at the Ness Battery will be used to stage a show by a travelling concert party, appropriately called It Ain’t Half Cold Mum, while the famous Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, built by prisoners of war, will play host to a concert by musicians from Italy. Sound installations will also be set up at “listening posts” around the islands which were used as early warning systems for enemy approaches.
Festival artistic director Alasdair Nicolson said one of the inspirations for this year’s events was the decision to stage composer Michael Tippett’s landmark oratorio, A Child Of Our Time, sparked by events in 1938 when a Jewish teenager in Paris murdered a German diplomat, providing a pretext for the Kristallnacht attacks against Jews in Germany. Tippett began the composition on 5 September 1939, two days after the British declaration of war against Germany.
“Having decided on Tippett’s work, a broader theme of exile, dispossessed peoples and refugees emerged – and is represented in terms of the composers’ lives and repertoire across the programme,” said Nicolson. “In a way, the servicemen and prisoners who both shared Orkney in wartime also shared exile.
“There’s is a lot more things I could have done – given the budget I could have gone mad – but I have only touched the surface. Orkney’s rich wartime heritage is an interesting part of what it represents. It is as much part of Orkney as stone circles and Skara Brae.”
Strategically placed, Orkney played a key role in both the First and Second World Wars. In both conflicts, Scapa Flow was a vital anchorage for the Royal Navy and the islands became a billet for thousands of servicemen and women.
Orkneyman James Isbister became the first civilian victim of the Second World War in Britain, when he was killed in a German air raid on 16 March 1940. And in April 1940, three months before the Battle of Britain, a major air battle was fought for three days over the islands; it was also the first time that radar was tested to intercept enemy planes. Orkney’s lowest point came on 14 October 1939, when a German U-boat entered Scapa Flow and torpedoed the British battleship Royal Oak as it lay at anchor. The attack claimed more than 800 lives.