Our small team creates a festival that celebrates the new, showcases both the renowned and emerging, and brings a year-round opportunity for participation on stage and behind the scenes as well as creative learning projects for all ages.  The Festival also supports a range of courses for emerging professional composers, writers, conductors and singers.

The Festival Story

The story begins in 1977 with an idea in the minds of a diverse group of people - some Orcadian, some newly resident – amongst them the young, firebrand composer Peter Maxwell Davies (newly moved to the islands) and the eminent, quiet Orcadian, poet George Mackay Brown.  With many others from the community they persevered, sometimes against the tide of public opinion, to establish a Festival in a remote part of the country which is now one of the most significant cultural events of the early summer in Scotland and the UK, and whose performances and commissions over 44 years represent a catalogue of renowned performers and established and burgeoning creative talent.

Throughout its history the Festival has had a magically intuitive eye for spotting emerging talent and has offered early opportunities to a long list of well-known names particularly among composers.   The earliest years of the Festival were very much about musical performance with the first Festival bringing to the centre of the stage St Magnus, and the medieval cathedral that bears his name in the opera on his life by Maxwell Davies.

Along the way the Festival has added theatre, dance, literature, cabaret, circus, world music and more to the picture to create a truly grand, international event beloved of visitors and locals.  Pioneering at all times, the Festival led the way in its engagement with young and old from the community and also its education work: with operas, music, plays being created for performance by local talent – sometimes on their own and sometimes alongside professional artists.   

Above all, Orkney, the archipelago of islands just north of mainland Scotland, lies at the heart of the event and the Festival celebrates the rich history and heritage of the islands with performances in venues ranging from Neolithic sites to the medieval cathedral, distilleries to palaces, wartime barracks to cattle auction marts.

The first directors of the Festival were composer Peter Maxwell Davies and Norman Mitchell, music teacher and organist of the cathedral.  When Norman Mitchell moved away to a new job in Edinburgh, Maxwell Davies was left to continue the work but stepped back in 1986 when he was succeeded by Glenys Hughes a local music teacher who had brought so many children’s works by Maxwell Davies to premiere and Archie Bevan, Headmaster of Stromness Academy. Glenys Hughes eventually became sole director of the festival and, when she decided to step down, in 2010 she was succeeded by the Scottish composer Alasdair Nicolson.


BBC Symphony Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nash Ensemble, Trondheim Soloists, Engegard Quartet, Randers Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Fires of London, Hebrides Ensemble, BBC Singers, Tenebrae, Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, Marian Consort, Voces8, A Filetta, 


Isaac Stern, Andre Previn, Christine Brewer, Angela Hewitt, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Guy Johnston, Alexei Volodin, Ilya Gringolts, Steven Osborne, Håkan Hardenberger, Evelyn Glennie, Nicola Benedetti, John Eliot Gardiner, Sergei Leiferkus, John Lill, Ailish Tynan, Sean Shibe, Tommy Smith, Nicholas Daniel, Imogen Cooper, Julian Bream, Mary Bevan


Peter Maxwell Davies , Judith Weir, Simon Holt, Sally Beamish, James MacMillan, Alasdair Nicolson, Judith Bingham, Cheryl Frances Hoad, Richard Rodney Bennett, Poul Ruders, Thea Musgrave , John Tavener, Edward Harper, Martin Dalby, Judith Bingham


John Gallas, Jackie Kay, Liz Lochead, Stewart Conn, Don Paterson, Sinéad Morissey, Alice Oswald, Seaumus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Jen Hadfield, Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan, Vikram Seth, Aonghas MacNeacail, Alan Plater