What I think makes the Orkney Islands such a special place are the many traditions that are celebrated throughout the year. These festivals and events often have roots that go back hundreds of years and are very much embraced by locals. So here’s a roundup of some of the best Orkney festivals for the coming year.
St Magnus Day [16th April 2023]
We start the calendar of festival with St Magnus day on the 16th of April. This day commemorates the Viking rule of Orkney in the 12th century, which resulted in the building of the St Magnus cathedral. Expect to see Orkney flags flying from public buildings.
Orkney Folk Festival [25-28 May 2023]
If you are a fan of traditional music, you won’t want to miss the Orkney Folk festival at the end of May from 25th til 28th May 2023. The town of Stromness is the focus for all things Trad, as the sound of fiddles resonates around the busy streets. It feels like music is coming from every bar and public venue, a great atmosphere.
Click here for the full programme and details on when tickets go on sale.
St Magnus International Festival [16-23 June 2023]
Around mid-summer in June, the St Magnus International Festival arrives in Kirkwall. It’s not uncommon for a member of the Norwegian royal family to make an appearance. This is a large cultural festival that features orchestras, soloists, opera, dance and theatre. Last year, the Hollywood actor Bill Murray even performed an array of music and readings!
The festival will take place 16-23 June 2023 and full details of this 5 day long festival can be found here.
Stromness Shopping Week [18-23 July 2023]
In the middle of July, the town of Stromness has a festival atmosphere, with floats parading through the streets and bands playing. This is because it’s Stromness Shopping Week, one of the longest running festivals in Orkney. There is street entertainment for both children and adults, a beer race, a swimming race and a 10k running race. And of course, the Shopping Week Queen is crowned, the highlight for some. It’s all rounded by a massive dance in the evening with live music provided by a top band.
Dates for Stromness Shopping Week 2023 are 18-23 July 2023 and full details of what’s on can be found here.
Kirkwall County Show [12 August 2023]
August is the season of the agricultural shows in Orkney, with the largest taking place in Kirkwall on the second Saturday in August (12th August 2023 this year). It’s called the County Show and lasts a day and a night. During the day farm animals are judged and awards given, agricultural suppliers and local producers have trade stands and there are many places to buy refreshments. Once again, the main event is an evening dance, with live music that goes into the early hours of the next morning.
Orkney Boys Ploughing Match [19 August 2023]
A much more low-key event is the Orkney boys ploughing match that takes place on the third Saturdy in August. The venue is a beach on the island of South Ronaldsay and the aim is for a boy to pull a miniature plough along the sand. The boy that pulls the straightest plough is the winner. This event is unique to Orkney.
Orkney International Science Festival [ 7 – 13 September 2023]
This festival is a more recent addition to the Orkney calendar as it was only established in 1991. But the Orkney Science Festival in September is a firm favourite with both locals and tourists. In the past it has been attended by the chief scientist of the Discovery Channel, Nobel prize winner Peter Higgs and filmmaker Alan Ereira. The festival theme covers all forms of science including astronomy, space travel, medicine, archaeology, genetics and black holes. There is also the chance to enjoy some excellent local food at the festivals food events. It’s a brilliant festival for both old and young. Check their Facebook page as it has lots of up-to-date information.
The Cathedral Tree Lighting Ceremony [early December 2023]
The enduring ties between Orkney and Norway are demonstrated yet again during the festive period when Norway gifts a Christmas tree to the people of Orkney. A special tree lighting ceremony takes place at St Magnus Cathedral in early December and includes the annual St Lucy Procession, as well as a performance by Kirkwall City Pipe Band.
The Ba’ at Christmas & New Year [25 Dec 2023 & 1 Jan 2024]
Finishing with Christmas and New Year, we have the Ba’ which takes place in the streets of Kirkwall. It’s a game which is a kind of mix between football & rugby. The Uppies teams aim is to land the ball on a street next to a catholic church while the Doonies target is to get the ball into the icy water of the harbour. The games take place on Christmas Day (25th December) and New Year’s Day (1st January) unless these fall on a Sunday, in which case, they get moved to Boxing Day (26th December) and 2nd January.