Pack your fiddle – we’re going to Orkney! The Orkney Folk Festival is one of the most prolific music festivals for traditional music in Scotland and beyond. For four days, the pubs, music venues and community halls in Orkney are filled with the tunes of hundreds of fiddles, bagpipes, whistles and bodhráns. But how can you get the most out of a trip to Orkney’s music highlight of the year? Read on for everything you need to know about visiting the Orkney Folk Festival.
This post contains affiliate links from which I may make a commission. Find out more here. All opinions are my own.
The Orkney Folk Festival was first held in 1983. At the time, traditional music was considered unfashionable, and few tourists visited Orkney outside the summer months. To counteract both, the Orkney Folk Festival created opportunities for musicians from far and wide to gather and perform and gave visitors a reason to visit Orkney – as if they really needed one…
Ever since the Orkney Folk Festival has been a highlight in the annual events calendar on the islands. The festival has only grown in popularity and is attracting thousands of visitors to the islands.
I first attended the Orkney Folk Festival in 2023 and found it a little tricky to find information for first-time visitors upfront. Since it was also our first time in Orkney overall, we learnt a few things the hard way.
But you shouldn’t have to do that!
This guide contains everything you need to know about attending the Orkney Folk Festival, including:
- How and when to get tickets for the festival,
- What happens apart from the concerts,
- Tips for transport to and from music events,
- Practical travel tips for Orkney and more.
The Orkney Folk Festival FAQ
What and when is the Orkney Folk Festival?
The Orkney Folk Festival is a festival for folk and traditional music. It takes place every year at the end of May and lasts four days (Thursday – Sunday). Stromness is the main location of the festival, but there are also events in Kirkwall, which is home to the largest venue in Orkney, and community halls around the islands.
In 2024, the Orkney Folk Festival takes place from 23 – 26 May.
What’s on at the Orkney Folk Festival?
The lineup of the Orkney Folk Festival features just as many local musicians from Orkney as performers from further afield in Scotland, the UK and the world.
You can find a wide range of genres that all come under the umbrella of folk music, from traditional fiddle ensembles to bands that blend trad sounds like electronic beats.
In addition to live music events, the programme also contains ceilidhs, clubs, workshops and family events. The biggest draw of the festival might just be the pub sessions that are held in venues around Stromness.
What are the Pub Sessions?
The pub sessions are an important part of the Orkney Folk Festival. While the festival has introduced many more ticketed events over the years, these are still free to attend.
Pub sessions are informal music sessions at a handful of venues around Stromness. They are usually led by a band or group of performers from the festival programme. However, anyone is welcome to join in and so it happens that 30-40 people might play together.
The schedule for the pub sessions tends to be released on short notice before the festival. Usually, they happen from Friday to Sunday.
History of the Festival
The Orkney Folk Festival was established in 1982 and held its first edition in 1983. One of the festival’s aims was to extend the tourism season before the summer. But the festival was also orchestrated to create a stage for traditional and folk music, which wasn’t particularly popular back then.
Fast forward to several decades later, the Orkney Folk Festival has become one of the leading music festivals in Scotland and an important platform for folk music in the UK. Many traditional musicians pass through the venues of Orkney and for homegrown Orcadian talent, the festival presents an opportunity to reach new audiences.
Ever since the 1980s, the festival has been organised by a volunteer committee and there is a strong community feel about the events – especially the free pub sessions.
Do you need tickets?
Yes and no. There is no overarching festival pass for the Orkney Folk Festival that would give you access to all the events. Each ticketed event requires you to buy a separate ticket.
However, a big part of experiencing the atmosphere of the Orkney Folk Festival is attending the free pub sessions in Stromness. You do not require a ticket for these sessions, but seats are first come, first serve.
Food at the Orkney Folk Festival
The Orkney Folk Festival is a popular event and with some of the gastropubs also serving as venues for the pub sessions, it can be tricky to make dinner reservations.
Some eateries in Stromness switch to a takeaway operation during the Orkney Folk Festival, so it’s easy to grab a bite to eat on the go. There are also food trucks and pop-ups around the harbour.
On Saturday, there is a small market showcasing local crafts and produce in Stromness.
A note on dietary requirements: In my experience, the food trucks and cafes around Stromness aren’t particularly accommodating of dietary requirements. I rarely saw vegan options available, so you may have to pack your own meals or head to the Co-op in Stromness for picnic supplies.
Tips for visiting the Orkney Folk Festival
As a first-timer, I wish I had known all of these things in advance.
1. Book Accommodation well in advance
The Orkney Folk Festival attracts thousands of visitors every year. Add to that the number of visiting musicians and non-Orcadian volunteers who help to make the festival run smoothly… You can imagine that accommodation is much sought after – especially places to stay in Stromness.
If you want to make the most of the Orkney Folk Festival, make sure you book your accommodation well in advance. We looked in December and already struggled to find somewhere affordable to stay. Stromness was fully booked at that point. For our next trip, we booked as soon as the festival dates were released, around 9 months in advance.
2. Where to stay for the Orkney Folk Festival
The key deciding factor for where to stay on Orkney during the folk festival is transport.
Since many of the main events and the pub sessions during the Orkney Folk Festival happen in Stromness, you may want to stay there. Staying in Stromness means you have easy walking access to the pub sessions and several festival venues.
Alternatively, you could also stay in Kirkwall. Kirkwall is just a 30-minute drive away and it is easy to travel back and forth the two by bus. While there are no pub sessions in Kirkwall, the town has a few festival venues, including the Pickaquoy Centre, the largest venue of the festival. Finstown is another good place to stay as it’s located on the same bus route between Stromness and Kirkwall.
If you book accommodation in a more remote location, you have to rely on driving (make sure to appoint a designated driver) or taxis. I don’t recommend staying on another island (unless it’s connected by a causeway), as the festival programme off Mainland Orkney is limited.
We stayed at the Summerdale holiday apartment near Orphir, about 10 miles from Kirkwall and 9 miles from Stromness. Summerdale is located in a rural setting and has views towards Waulkmill Bay. There are 2 bedrooms, a spacious lounge and dining area, a modern bathroom and a well-equipped kitchen. The lovely hosts Marlyn and Rob live downstairs and were super helpful with tips for visiting Orkney.
From Summerdale, it’s a 5-minute walk to the bus stop with a direct connection to Kirkwall – which was great for gigs at the Pickaquoy Centre. From Kirkwall, we could take the bus to Stromness, but since there is no direct connection between Stromness and Orphir, we had to rely on taxis at night time.
3. Book Ferries in advance
Just like accommodation, ferry crossings around the time of the festival sell out in advance. You must book your ferry crossings well in advance, especially if you plan to bring a car or other motor vehicle across to Orkney.
There are two car ferries from mainland Scotland to Mainland Orkney. Northlink Ferries runs a ferry from Scrabster by Thurso to Stromness (1.5 hours), and Pentland Ferries operates a boat between St Gill’s Bay and St Margaret’s Hope (1 hour 10 minutes).
The journey with Pentland Ferries is slightly cheaper than the crossing with Northlink Ferries, but St. Margaret’s Hope is slightly less conveniently located, especially if you travel without a car. The port lies on the island South Ronaldsay which is connected to Mainland Orkney by causeways, but if you don’t drive, you have to navigate multiple buses to get to Stromness.
4. When should you arrive for Orkney Folk Festival?
I recommend arriving at least a day or two before the festival to get your bearings and make time for some sightseeing. We arrived on Monday before the festival started on Thursday which gave us a few days to explore Orkney.
5. How long should you stay in Orkney?
We left on Monday after the festival, so in total, we had a week in Orkney which is a good amount of time to justify the expense for the ferry and see a lot of the islands.
My biggest regret though, was booking the first morning ferry off Orkney at 6 am, which meant we had to get up super early to arrive in time for check-in. I suggest staying an extra day or at least booking one of the later crossings.
6. Be Quick with buying Tickets
The Orkney Folk Festival releases news about next year’s line-up from late November/early December, which gives you time to listen to bands and artists scheduled to play at the Orkney Folk Festival well in advance.
The full programme and event schedule are released about a week before tickets go on sale in late March. This means you have about a week to plan which events you’d like to attend and put together your festival schedule.
I highly recommend signing up for the festival newsletter to stay on top of these updates. You can find the sign up form on their website.
Once the tickets go on sale, you have to be quick to purchase them – especially if you’re interested in concerts held at smaller venues or any special events like workshops.
We delayed buying tickets by a few days and found that some of the gigs we were interested in, were already sold out.
7. Become an Orkney Friend
Orkney Friends is a supporter scheme for the Orkney Folk Festival. The membership allows you early access to buy tickets before the sale opens to the public and the festival organises exclusive events for members during the festival.
Orkney Friends get a discount on festival merchandise and a discount on ferry travel between mainland Scotland and Orkney.
There are five levels of Orkney Friends memberships, starting from £60 which enables you to buy up to 2 adult tickets per event. Find out more here.
8. Expect the Unexpected
You could listen to all the bands and musicians scheduled to perform at the Orkney Folk Festival in advance, and pick your favourites. Or you could pick a random concert to attend and let the music surprise you. We did a little bit of both and I loved how unexpected some of the music was!
We attended two ticketed events which included a lineup of 4 acts each. On both nights, I had listened to some of the bands in advance, but left others to be a total surprise.
9. Attend the Pub Sessions
With so many great bands performing throughout the festival weekend, it’s tempting to buy tickets for a different show each day – or multiple. However, costs can quickly add up and you may have to be a bit more picky.
The good news is, that you shouldn’t plan to attend concerts all day every day anyway. I highly recommend you leave time to attend the free pub sessions in Stromness too – they are without a doubt one of the highlights of the Orkney Folk Festival!
When we visited the festival in 2023, there were four pub venues in Stromness: The Ferry Inn, The Royal Hotel, The Royal British Legion and the Lost Orchard’s Pop-up Bar at the Stromness Community Centre. This is where we had some of the most fun!
There are 2-3 informal pub sessions per venue per day, usually led by a specific band or artists, but anyone can join in for a spontaneous trad music jam.
Seats can be limited, so arrive early if there’s a session led by a particular musician you’d like to see.
10. Leave your Car at your Accommodation
Unless you’re staying in Stromness, you’ll have to travel to the festival venues and pubs somehow. It might be tempting to drive, but then you have to have a designated driver. That’s not a problem if you don’t drink (or if several of you can take turns), but if you want to try some local Orkney beer or whisky, you might feel like you’re missing out.
Luckily there are alternatives.
If you’re staying in Kirkwall or Finstown, you can get the bus X1 (also X10 or N1 at night). The direct connection between Stromness and Kirkwall takes about 30 minutes. The last bus back is before midnight though – or just after 1 am on Friday & Saturday.
Travelling from elsewhere on the island by bus might prove a little trickier. If you stay in a smaller village and/or want to stay out longer, you can also take a taxi home.
11. Book Taxi Transfers in advance
I highly recommend booking taxis for return journeys after concerts or late pub sessions in advance as there is more demand than vehicles available.
We got caught out after a gig in Kirkwall because we hadn’t booked a taxi in advance and most drivers were busy with passengers from the ferry that had arrived at the same time… Luckily our accommodation hosts came to our help and picked us up.
Here are some of the local taxi companies on Mainland Orkney:
- Orkney Cabs: 01856 875000
- Scapa Taxis: 01856 875511
- Craigies Taxis: 01856 878787
- Stromness Taxis: 01856 850750
12. Make Time for Sightseeing
Coming to Orkney for the music is great, but the islands have a lot more to offer than just that. Attending the Orkney Folk Festival is a great excuse to see more of Orkney and do some sightseeing.
Here are some of my favourite things to do on Orkney which we all managed to see while also attending the festival:
- Skara Brae – a well-preserved Neolithic settlement that allows you to step back 5,000 years in time
- Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness – two of the best-known standing stone circles in Scotland
- A walk to the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island with Pictish, Norse and medieval ruins, a lighthouse and seabird colonies.
- Day trip to another Orkney island via Orkney Ferries – we picked Westray, brought our bikes and visited the puffin colony at Castle o’ Burrian; but you may also want to visit Hoy, Rousay or Sanday.
- Day trip to the southern islands of Lambholm, Burray and South Ronaldsay – all of these are connected by causeways, so you don’t have to plan for ferries. Visit the Italian Chapel, go snorkelling at the Churchill Barriers, go for a coastal walk in Burwick, and wander around St Margaret’s Hope.
- A tour at Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall – or you could also visit Scapa Distillery just outside
- Make time to explore Stromness and Kirkwall, visit the local heritage museums and St Magnus Cathedral and browse the local crafts shops.
There are many more heritage sites to visit, coastal walks to do and birdwatching spots to check out – a week really isn’t enough to see it all.
You might also like: My Orkney Travel Guide (coming soon!)
13. Book certain Experiences in advance
Some sightseeing highlights are so popular, they must be booked in advance, for example, the distillery tours at Highland Park and Scapa.
One place we didn’t get to visit was Maeshowe, a chambered cairn that is over 5,000 years old. It can only be visited as part of a guided tour and all available times were fully booked several weeks before our trip. You must book this well in advance.
14. Check the Cruise Ship Schedule
Orkney is a popular stop on UK cruises. These cruise ships can carry thousands of passengers, so when they anchor in Stromness or Kirkwall, tour buses flood the main roads and attractions on Mainland Orkney.
It’s best to escape the crowds on these busy days by visiting another island, picking less popular spots for a coastal walk or booking a guided experience such as a boat trip, wildlife walk or heritage tour.
You can find the cruise ship schedule in advance on the Orkney Harbours page. Don’t worry so much about the smaller expedition cruises, just the oversized cruise ships.
15. Most importantly: Enjoy the festival and enjoy Orkney!
The most important part of attending the Orkney Folk Festival is to enjoy being a part of it! I could have been upset that we didn’t get tickets for some of the events on our list, or that we didn’t manage to find a place to stay in Stromness, but to be honest, neither put a dent in our experience of the festival. We had a brilliant time in Orkney and made fantastic memories.
In fact, we already booked our accommodation for next year’s festival edition! I can’t wait to return to see and experience even more of Orkney.
You should now know everything there is to know about a successful festival trip. I hope this guide helps you plan an epic trip to the Orkney Folk Festival yourself!