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Orkney stands proudly on the national musical map

Orkney stands proudly on the national musical map
20 May 2021

While not wishing to focus on himself, Edmund Holt was instrumental in laying the foundations – alongside Alistair Bain – for what is now widely recognised as one of Orkney’s Education Service success stories – and now almost 50 years later the Orkney Instrumental Music Service is still going strong.

Photo of Ed Holt.In his own words, Edmund Holt reflects on the early days.

In 1971, there were two days of string tuition provided in Kirkwall Grammar School (KGS), taught by Clive Strutt, in the then dinner hall off The Strynd. There was also some brass tuition from the late Willy Buchan, at that time Band Master of the Salvation Army. In Stromness, with the presence of Jean Leonard, Principal Teacher of Music, there was naturally encouragement in strings, and also visits by Willy Buchan—but there was no woodwind tuition. With the arrival of a new assistant teacher of music at KGS, who was a woodwind specialist, this was a disappointment. Soon, some pupils from Stromness came to Kirkwall for evening lessons, but in KGS ‘free-periods’ (later more correctly called non-class contact time) were sacrificed and three pupils began to learn the clarinet.

In April 1973, the Authority created a new Music Adviser post, whose remit included organising music outwith the two senior secondary school and to coordinate and develop the instrumental music service over the county. The Authority at this time was very fortunate to have as its Director of Education, Alistair Bain, himself an instrumentalist and keenly interested in music in schools, and with a Westray heritage on his mother’s side, was supportive of music and ‘the Isles’.

Instrumental tuition on this basis was rather uneven, as indeed was the itinerant teacher service, and focused on the schools in the two main centres of population and Dounby Primary School. It was during Alistair Bain’s tenure that both services, instrumental and itinerant, were expanded and provision moved towards being evened out. One illustration of the provision in class music at this time may serve to illustrate: North Ronaldsay Primary School received one visit every 6 weeks from a music teacher, this meant that if the one visit due in a 10-week the term fell on a foggy or gale-force day, that was the visit lost for the term, a fate similarly repeated in other small island schools such as Eday, Papay and Flotta.

With the division of Kirkwall Primary School into Papdale Primary School (PPS) and Glaitness Primary School (GPS) in the later 1970s, each needed provision, putting further demands on the service, but there was also pressure from head teachers of rural primary schools for provision in their schools. Over the next years, string teaching was to be encouraged in most Mainland primary schools, and woodwind tuition provided in Stromness Academy and Kirkwall Grammar School. But even this was not enough, and the pressure built on the service because there were always more pupils wanting to learn than there were places available. Soon, a second brass tutor from within the ranks of the Salvation Army, the late Billy Stanger, was employed part time to provide the brass tuition in Papdale, and the late Dougie Shearer employed to teach strings, which brought the number of string and brass players to new heights at KGS, Papdale and Glaitness.

With the pressure from the head teachers of rural primary schools for some instrumental provision, and with increasing pressure for woodwind tuition, a husband-and-wife team of a full-time woodwind teacher and string tutor was appointed; and not only was more wood-wind provision available to both secondary schools and their main feeder primary schools, but now there was opportunity to respond to the pressure for equity for rural Mainland primary schools. String tuition grew to be provided fairly universally on the Mainland, and primary schools offered a choice of woodwind or brass.

Following on from the ‘Summer School of Music’ organised by Jean Leonard, in the early 70s the county instituted the Orkney Instrumental Music Course and schools now had the leverage that if you received instrumental tuition at school, you were ‘expected’ to attend the Instrumental Music Course as part of your tuition in the belief that making music is a social activity, not one confined to the pupil’s bedroom.

One of the enlightened things undertaken by the Council, which was to have, strangely enough, a later benefit to the isles schools, was to encourage the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYoS) to hold some of its summer courses in Orkney. NYoS hired the school hostel which was packed with music students from all over Scotland, and of course brought with them many well-known tutors, and soloists, like Nigel Kennedy.
Many young players from the orchestra have returned to Orkney over the years, both on holidays or as members of groups in the St Magnus Festival; some have even taken their honeymoon here—so it was good publicity. Orkney too, had students who had gained places in NYoS, and it was in their third course here that some of the county’s other instrumental pupils were invited to join in NYoS rehearsals at the hostel and KGS hall with some of the best youth players in Scotland and their high calibre tutors—a tremendous opportunity for them.

The county needless-to-say, got a generous public concert from the orchestra before it departed for its tour of Scotland or abroad. A strong bond was formed with the orchestra’s administrator, the late Richard Chester, a flautist. This was to bear further fruit. The orchestra Trust was keen to develop music tuition in rural areas and awarded grants to fund the employment of an instrumental tutor in rural areas for one year. With an eye to the continued long-term provision to the isles, Orkney made a case that there was (with the exception of Sanday) no cohesive string tuition in the junior high schools, and applied to the Trust to fund a tutor for a year to see what the uptake was and to give pupils in these schools an opportunity only hitherto available on the Mainland. A fine tutor, Cathy Johnson, was appointed. As a good orchestral and traditional fiddle-player, she was ideal. Tuition took off. With a well-argued case, Orkney was given an extension by the Trust of a second year for tuition in the isles which, it was hoped, would encourage the council to continue the provision. When the funding ran out, it would have meant a lot of disappointment after two years of tuition for the many promising players, if the service had been terminated. Fortunately, a ‘home grown’ tutor had moved to Stronsay, and the doctor’s husband in Westray could continue the service after NYoS funding ran out, and the authority saw it as prudent to employ them part-time to continue the work, particularly as there were now players coming into KGS from the isles.

The Department of Education and the Council encouraged the involvement of ‘outside tutors’ in its Instrumental Music Course, as had its voluntary predecessor, the Summer School of Music.

As a young boy, through my father, I had met David Lumsden when he was assistant organist and choirmaster of St John’s College Chapel in Cambridge, and again later when he was director of music at Southwell Minster; so, when Dr Lumsden was appointed Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1976, the acquaintanceship was renewed, and the opportunity arose for a favour to be asked. This resulted in Peter Mountain, Head of Strings of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Edgar Williams, Head of Woodwind, to become regular tutors on the course. In one year, there was a veritable host of high-quality tutors: Peter Mountain, to direct the Senior Strings, with all four members of the Edinburgh String Quartet as section tutors; Edgar Williams to direct the Wind Band; and the Junior Orchestra was led by a senior string tutor from Cambridgeshire, Janet Taylor. What a line-up that was! Again, the course was centred on the school hostel, with pupils from the isles being able to stay in the hostel or with relations in the community. Peter Mountain, Edgar Williams, the Edinburgh Quartet, and Janet Taylor were regular visitors over a number of years, but only that once could they all be afforded at the same time.

One year, the Course commissioned composer John McLeod to write a Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Band, and its premiere was given by the band with our own Gillian Tulloch as soloist.

Another year, the senior orchestra rehearsed the Bach 2nd Brandenburg Concerto (for string orchestra, violin, flute, oboe and trumpet) and the performance was given in the (old) Phoenix Cinema. The pupils had the experience of playing with a professional soloist of the calibre of Peter Mountain as solo violin, and three members of our own staff: David Griffith, flute; myself oboe; and Brian Jones trumpet. Peter Mountain remarked how unusual it was to find members of staff who were prepared to put their playing on the line in such a public profile.

One year, as part of the twinning with Hordaland Fylkeskommune, a Loganair Islander was chartered to fly over to Bergen to pick up 8 Norwegian students and bring them over for the course. Extravagance? Not really, because the empty seats on the way over to collect the students were bought by people from Orkney who took the opportunity to fly over for a holiday, and it was considerably cheaper than using scheduled flights. The first of the ‘incidents’ that year was that shortly after take-off: the plane had to return to Kirkwall from just SE of Fair Isle, because the pilot had forgotten the official paperwork necessary to land in Bergen. In the same year, the tutor, Janet Taylor, brought her two daughters with her to Orkney, one an accomplished violinist and the other a cellist, but a pick-pocket on the tube on the way to Heathrow stole her purse, with all her money, tickets and documents; and as if that wasn’t bad enough, her daughter Emma, whilst doing a cartwheel on the lawn of her accommodation here, broke her collar bone, which put her out of action for the duration.

Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing and ‘money no object’—indeed, it was often the reverse. Any money raised was carefully allocated to help fund future activities, but by dedication, hard work, and some subterfuge, it did bring results for our pupils. Great ingenuity was applied to make sure that there was a very efficient use of resources to support the instrumental service. However, one year there were financial pressures on all educational provision, and the council decided that ‘cuts were necessary’, and its eye glanced as a matter of course at the instrumental service as non-statutory provision. Fortunately for the service, this was only a short time before an election. The tutors were asked with the connivance of head teachers, to survey pupils as to who owned their own instrument, and who used an authority-provided one. The result was that a considerable majority of instruments used by pupils were privately owned, sometimes fiddles handed down from parents or grandparents, or maybe they were instruments bought by families at considerable expense. This gave them a lot of financial as well as educational interest in instrumental tuition continuing, and councillors were encouraged to ‘realise’ that it represented a lot of voting power at the up-coming election. Nevertheless, Council ensured that instrumental tuition continued.

Over these fruitful years, the service grew beyond just string tuition in the rural primary schools, and brass or woodwind tuition was provided and eagerly taken up. At one rural primary school in particular, with sponsorship from a music instrument provider, Norman’s of Burton-on-Trent, one whole class was invited to take up a brass instrument, almost the whole class with parental support did, with great results not just musically but in other educational achievements as well. It was an interesting venture to see this cohort of pupils pass from primary through secondary.
Hand in hand with this, the itinerant teacher service was made more equitable and many timetabling experiments were undertaken to try to bring coherence to provision and robustness to the service. At one point, there were 36 members of staff involved in the itinerant teacher service and instrumental music teaching service.

There is no doubt that the school music staff both at Secondary and Primary level, the exceptional past and present tutors, the support of councillors, parents, and most of all pupils themselves put Orkney proudly on the national musical map. The service is not all about individual musical success: learning an instrument will have proved to many to be a useful discipline, which at least will help them when they are parents with children of their own wanting to learn, to know that application and self-discipline underpin all such learning.

So, it should be with gratitude that we recognise the achievements of the instrumental service, with former pupils playing in professional orchestras and bands of all sorts. Many others playing in our talented local bands and groups; and then there are our ‘home grown’ instrumental and class teachers, who, despite the temptations of opportunities in ‘the mainstream’, return to teach in the county and to keep alive Orkney’s rich musical heritage. The Instrumental Music Service is one of the things of which the Council has over the years and through difficult times shown itself to be justly proud.


School Place, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1NY

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Orkney Islands Council: BOREAS DOMUS MARE AMICUS