Sounds of... Orkney — Jennifer Wrigley

In this new instalment of the 'Sounds of...' series on the British Music Collection, professional fiddler, composer, recording and touring artist and part of Sound and Music's New Voices 2021 programme, Jennifer Wrigley shares with us the aural traditions of her native Orkney, an archipelago off of the northeastern coast of Scotland.

In this new instalment of the 'Sounds of...' series on the British Music Collection, professional fiddler, composer, recording and touring artist and part of Sound and Music's New Voices 2021 programme, Jennifer Wrigley shares with us the aural traditions of her native Orkney, an archipelago off of the northeastern coast of Scotland.

Orkney, my creative centre, is located approximately 15 miles off the north coast of Scotland. It is an archipelago of more than 70 islands and throughout history has been a cultural thoroughfare, especially for sea travellers; evidence of which can be seen in the recent discovery of the 5500-year-old Ness of Brodgar complex, used for ceremonies and rituals; the natural harbour of Scapa Flow, home to the Vikings and subsequently the British Grand Fleet during two world wars. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the nearby harbour town of Stromness, birthplace of influential twentieth century Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown, served as the last port of call before the long trip across the Atlantic for seafarers including Captain James Cook and Sir John Franklin. Now an integral part in the development of diverse and successful renewable energy sources, being home to the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) Ltd—the world’s first and leading facility for demonstrating and testing wave and tidal energy converters—Orkney, with the sea and the wind, coupled with ancient history and roots is a beautiful place for artists, creativity, and worldwide cultural cross-stitching melodies.

As a professional fiddler, composer, recording and touring artist for the past 30 years, I feel so very lucky to have been steeped in the aural tradition of Orkney from a young age. I think that traditional music of the fiddle (aka violin) is like your accent. When you grow up sitting next to your forefathers and playing music there is a certain rhythm and manner in their voice. “Orcadians” speak quite quietly and softly with their fun staccato accent bearing a recognisably Scandinavian lilt. Their fiddling style similarly uses a short, light, distinctive bowing technique which gives the music an understated simple lift and assured dance. The focus being always on the simplicity of the melody which is traditionally what people danced to. A traditional tune was one you could hum: memorable and catchy and passed on aurally. Perhaps less to do with the notes and more to do with the rhythmic voice and personality of the player, unique to different traditions of the world.

Thank you to the British Music Collection for this opportunity to share my own personal ‘Sounds of Orkney’. I hope you enjoy them! Jenny x


‘Spælimenninir ("the folk musicians") is a lively sextet that plays traditional and contemporary folk music from Scandinavia on fiddle, recorder, piano, guitar, mandolin, acoustic bass and vocals. The group's home base is the Faroes Faroes (a small group of Islands located halfway between Scotland and Iceland), but Spælimenninir is not strictly a Faroese band, neither in personnel nor music. Having played together for over 20 years, the line-up includes one native Faroese, one Swede, two Americans and two Danes. This international collaboration has resulted in a varied repertoire, which reflects each member's heritage and illustrates the links between the music traditions of the Scandinavian countries and the United States.

“There has always been enormous Scandinavian influence in Orkney. I have very fond memories of their visits and recall as a child first hearing them play in my local hall. Led by the group’s founder ‘Kristan Blak’, his rolling and energetic piano playing is very similar to the piano style played in Orkney. I was captivated by their musical energy, drive, and swing. One notable memory was seeing them transport all the way from the Faroes a real upright piano which they brought with them in the back of a Volvo estate, lifting it on and off the stage and tuning it for every performance!”

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Ivan Drever

Ivan Drever and his nine siblings grew up on Sanday, one of the islands of Orkney, and from an early age it was clear that the young Ivan was going places in the music world. In 1974 he founded the group Knowe O’ Deil and at the same time started to build an impressive solo career. After moving away from Orkney to the Scottish mainland, in 1990 Ivan joined 90's celtic-rock group, Wolfstone, which gave him and his fellow musicians worldwide recognition. After leaving Wolfstone, Ivan pursued a flourishing solo career, releasing some 16+ albums, and at the same time continued to collaborate with fellow band members Duncan Chisholm on the critically acclaimed album 'Lewis Blue', and Struan Eaglesham on the 1994 album 'Back to Back'. Ivan’s songs and tunes have been recorded by an impressive list of artists.

“Ivan is without question one of the most significant composers, musicians, and performers to come out of Orkney in generations. His lyrics represent Orkney as only a born and bred Orcadian can. His tunes are striking, unique and softly understated. I have chosen a recording of him playing his own piece ‘The Rose of St Magnus’ composed for the renovation of the rose decorated window of the St Magnus Cathedral which lies at the heart of Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital and was built by the Norseman in 1137.”

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Kirkjuvagr Ceilidh Band

“This clip of a traditional Ceilidh dance exemplifies beautifully how the community in Orkney come together. This kind of event is common, people of all ages, making music, dancing, and celebrating together. The video shows a favourite traditional dance called the Orcadian Strip the Willow. Dancers work their way down a long line of couples until they reach the end. It’s fantastic fun – you just need to watch out for the over enthusiastic partner who may dizzy you into a spin running the risk of you crashing under the tables.”

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Fiddlers of James Bay and the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society

More than 300 years ago, workers with the Hudson Bay Company arrived in Quebec and forged new relations with native Cree and Inuit with the help of the tunes that traversed the Atlantic. Vast numbers of Hudson Bay staff were from Orkney, with Stromness the last stop on the way to Canada, where supplies and workers were collected. It is thought that the violin had never been heard in Canada until then.

This film charts the links between Orkney and the James Bay Fiddlers in 1980, with two of the most talented musicians – Ray Spencer and Bob McLeod, whose grandfather was a Scot, brought to Stromness for a series of experimental concerts. It was said a tune played by Ray Spencer while in Orkney had not been heard in Scotland for 100 years.

“This includes early footage of The Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society who were a huge influence on me. Formed in 1948 and still going strong its members comprise of Orcadians from all walks of life. Lawyers, plumbers, postmasters and farmers coming together from across the county to play traditional fiddle and accordion music. The repertoire consisted mostly of tunes aurally passed down from players over the years. There is an honesty and integrity to the tunes as well as a genuinely distinctive Orkney traditional music lift! Like many other Orcadian traditional players, I have the Strathspey and Reel to thank for much of my traditional music upbringing. When I watch this film, it brings back so many memories of fun times with friendly and familiar faces.”

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Watch The Fiddlers of James Bay

Peter Maxwell Davies

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies CH CBE (RIP) was an English composer and conductor based in Orkney. As Master of the Queen's Music his status of a leading international and highly distinguished composer of the post-war period is widely acknowledged. Davies’s move to the Island of Hoy, Orkney in the early 1970s engendered a seismic shift in his own stylistic direction, moving away from the tormented parody and hard-edged exuberance of the music-theatre works of the mid-to-late 1960s towards a more austere and objective musical language that complemented the prose and poetry of Orcadian George Mackay Brown. He was a composer highly attuned to the soundscape of place, and very sensitive and acutely aware of his surroundings.

“As a young musician growing up in Orkney, I was very fortunate to be able to take part in the St Magnus Festival (which Davies co-founded with Brown, Archie Bevan and Norman Mitchell) and is still going strong. We were given the opportunity to play on stage with professional orchestral musicians. I’ll never forget, as a schoolchild, performing some of Max’s pieces whilst sitting on stage next to members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I made lifetime musical friends with these world class musicians. The link I’ve attached includes a lovely introduction by Max himself which I think sums up his connection to Orkney.”

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Nigel Firth

Along with my musical partner and twin sister Hazel, I set up ‘The Reel’ in the heart of Kirkwall, a teaching and performance venue for Orkney traditional music, enjoyed by thousands of Orkney folk and visitors alike, neatly combined six fully equipped teaching rooms, a licensed café bar, performance and rehearsal spaces and Orkney’s only music shop, serving as a highly popular, central cultural hub for all ages. It was the only music school dedicated to Orkney music and culture. It had a worldwide reputation for excellence. Sadly ‘The Reel’ was forced to permanently close following the Covid-19 pandemic.

At The Reel the Orcadian Summer Concerts were established in 2010 with the aim of giving a concert platform to both well-known and lesser-known local groups whilst also raising money for charity. Eight concerts were held every summer, primarily to give talented local entertainers, young and not so young, a performance platform whilst raising money for different local charities each time. These concerts have involved hundreds of local storytellers, musicians, dancers and magicians giving up their time for free to raise money. Nearly £30,000 was raised for local charities, many of these precious concerts have been archived forever on the ‘Reel Orkney Music’ YouTube channel. They have become a last chance to hear older generation musicians play who have since passed away.

“One of my favourite performances from these Summer Concert series was of a lovely pianist called Nigel Firth, who is sadly no longer with us. His gentle wit and personality matched his musical style and sweet piano playing. He starts this recording with a very well-known and evocative Orkney piece called ‘The Heroes of Longhope’ which was written by local fiddler Ronnie Aim following a lifeboat disaster in 1969 where a crew of eight men from Brims, on the island of Hoy lost their lives in the Pentland Firth.”

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iiMap Website

The iiMap is a project, supported by Sound and Music Dimensions Award, that aims to collect memories and ordinary familiar sounds specific to people and place, highlighting dialects and mannerisms that characterise roots and converting those creative influences into something digital that can be shared with others. The Identity Inspiration Music Audio Platform (iiMap) is a carefully considered and authentically local ‘Favourites Selection’ including but not exclusively highlighting the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland, UK. The “i,i” has a double meaning as “Aye Aye” (pronounced “eye, eye”) is an old dialect greeting in Orkney which means “Hello”. As part of my Sound and Music, New Voices 2022 composition, I wanted to highlight the importance of the rhythm in the music not only in the playing styles but also in the local dialect and mannerisms of Orkney, using local audio samples to inspire percussive ideas within my composition. There are stories of people dancing to anything in Orkney.

“I want to invite you to close your eyes and come with me on a carefully and lovingly crafted audio journey. See the place, meet the people, and hear what drives their musical, creative inspiration and influences. I’ve chosen here a selection of local Aye Aye’s which feature on the new website. They were kindly donated for my use by Orkney Voices, a group set up to promote the use of the Orkney dialect. The aim o hid wis tae mak a spaece whaar Orcadian spaekers could finnd weys o writan an spaekan aboot writeen. Translation: The aim of it was to make a space where Orcadian speakers could find ways of writing and speaking about writing.”

The iiMap website will go live on 31st March 2023. Until then, you can listen to a teaser of the Orkney Aye Ayes that will feature in the sonic works on the site: 

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Other notable Orcadian composers and compositions:

Evening at The Bu 

Ness of Brodgar

Ba Mens New Year Ba

Jimmy Johnston 

About Jennifer Wrigley

Jennifer Wrigley is highly respected globally not only as a world class fiddler but as an ambassador for traditional Orkney music. She is internationally recognised as one of the leading fiddle players and traditional composers to come out of Scotland in recent years; influencing and inspiring players all around the world. Her style reflects ages of musicianship that has been passed down aurally from her heroes in Orkney. She is a previous winner of the BBC Young Tradition Award and Nominee for BBC Alba Instrumentalist of the Year. Jennifer has written and arranged over 200 tunes which have been recorded and performed worldwide by artists including Liz Doherty, Alasdair Fraser, BT Ensemble, Trondheim Soloists and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Jennifer is debuting her New Voices 2021 work Catch the Rhythmic Orkney Tide and Ride at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on 31st March 2023. Tickets may be purchased online at the RCS box office, by contacting +44 (0)141 332 5057 or emailing

For more information, visit: and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Soundcloud, Soundcloud iiMap, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok

‘Jennifer's multifaceted fiddling - ranging from coquettish twists to full-blooded expression-as well as her consistently high-quality tunesmithery’ — Glasgow Herald

Cover Image: Jennifer Wrigley by Amanda Jackson