Folk, jazz etc: Journey back in time for Orkney Song

YOU could call it musical excavating. Given that the Orcadian archipelago is so richly endowed with neolithic and other antiquities, perhaps it's only appropriate that Sarah Jane Gibbon, founder member and now archivist of the Big Orkney Song Project, boasts a background in archaeology.

Three years ago, she and fellow Orcadian singer Aimee Leonard wanted to reinvigorate Orkney's neglected song heritage. With Emily Turton, they established the Big Orkney Song Project (BOSP), and a two-year Heritage Lottery Fund grant set them trawling folk-song archives and holding "SongShare" concerts to encourage local input. The project presented a showcase concert at January's Celtic Connections in Glasgow and has since won further funding, from the Scotland's Islands scheme, to publish a songbook.From tomorrow, the project enjoys a homecoming as part of the Orkney Folk Festival - whose bill, mixing local talent with established names from the wider Scottish folk scene, reflects an apparent resurgence of interest in Orkney's own musical culture, which has tended to be overshadowed by the better known massed fiddles of their northerly neighbours in Shetland.

Gibbon appreciates the analogy of digging for songs rather than archaeological remains: "We've become so interested in where the songs came from and how they got to Orkney, and what they can teach us about the social history of the islands."

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She reckons that the past decade or so has seen a greater promotion of Orkney's own music, with organisations such as the Orkney Traditional Music Project (also featured during the festival) teaching local fiddle and accordion tunes to school children. "We just felt that the songs were being neglected. From my experience singing at festivals, you often heard visitors asking whether there were no more Orkney songs."

Ask most folk music enthusiasts to name an Orcadian song and the only one you're likely to hear name-checked is that magisterial ballad The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry, which Gibbon regards as not exclusively Orcadian as there are so many versions sung in Scotland. What she and her fellow collectors found was that many of the songs they unearthed were variants of those found elsewhere in Scotland and beyond, such as The Greenland Whale Fishery. Unsurprisingly, many had maritime or fishing themes, all too often commemorating seafaring tragedies.

"You can follow the transition of some songs as they move from the mainland up to Orkney, and others travelling from Orkney to America and back."

Apart from local contributions, one important source mined by the BOSP prospectors proved to be recordings made by Alan Bruford of the School of Scottish Studies while, ironically enough, another significant insight into this northern song heritage came from a trip south to London's Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, where they unearthed a cache of Orcadian recordings made during the 1950s by Peter Kennedy.

The BOSP database now contains more than 1,000 songs. Gibbon sees Orkney today having a stronger presence in the traditional music world, with artists such as Kris Drever and the Wrigley sisters carrying the torch, as do bands such as The Chair and the duo Saltfishforty - who include one of the Song Project findings, The Bride's Lament, on their current album, Netherbow.

Notable non-Orcadian names featuring at the festival include Box Club, Daimh, Emily Smith, Ireland's Four Men and a Dog and Session A9, while Orcadian "expats" making the return trip include Drever and accordionist Billy Peace.

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As Gibbon puts it, "When the festival started, nearly 30 years ago, it was to bring musicians up so Orcadians would get the chance to hear what was current.

"Now a lot of people are coming to hear Orkney music. It's all very positive."

• Orkney Folk Festival runs from 26-29 May, see For more on the song project, see

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