Northern exposure

Orkney - This magical island is the perfect setting for an annual feast of music and poetry, reports

Location, location, location - festivals are all about the places they happen in, and the St Magnus Festival on Orkney, the largest of the islands in that magical archipelago six miles north of the Scottish mainland, is unique. Its founding artistic director, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, now Master of the Queen's Music, visited Orkney as a tourist in 1970, fell in love with the place, met the local bard George Mackay Brown, and then started to write music in a hut on Hoy that had not been lived in since 1918 and was knee-high in sheep's droppings.

He built another house on Hoy - though he has since moved to the more remote island of Sanday - and founded the festival in 1977 with a performance of his opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus (with a libretto by George Mackay Brown) in the glorious, red-brick, Romanesque cathedral that bears the saint's name. At one stroke, Maxwell Davies created an international festival that was rooted in its own history and community. What Wagner did for Bayreuth and Benjamin Britten did for Aldeburgh, Maxwell Davies has done for Orkney.

And so it has continued for 28 years, artists of international stature rubbing along with school community plays, brass-band processions, chamber concerts and traditional Orcadian folk music, mostly performed in the towns of Kirkwall and Stromness on Orkney, but with excursions, too, on to the other islands. Fifty per cent of the audience is local. The rest have heeded Britten's advice that a good festival should involve a journey to a special place and require preparation and effort.

Mackay Brown died nine years ago, but his work was celebrated this year in a performance of Olaf Isbister, about an Orcadian sailor and drunkard who deceives an heiress in Barbados and joins the gold rush in Australia before returning to his wife and children. The playwright Alan Plater, an Orkney regular, told me that his next play for the festival will be based on another of Mackay Brown's florid characters, Willie Farquhar, "the Al Capone of Orkney", who kept an illegal shebeen that was closed down by the island authorities only in 1961.

Maxwell Davies hailed the poet's collected works, newly published in a def-initive edition, in a speech that expressed his own devotion to Orkney and his admiration for Mackay Brown. "I learned how to imagine the whole of life in every detail," he said, "that sense of sheer joy in the commonplace person and thing . . . For a composer, he is the ideal poet because his words are not so complex that they exclude the possibility of a catalyst for music."

Earlier that Sunday afternoon we had luxuriated in the piano-playing of Steven Osborne at Stromness Town Hall, in a programme of Ravel, Michael Tippett and Debussy. After Mackay Brown, we dashed to Kirkwall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing the most wonderful concert of Mendelssohn, Maxwell Davies, Nigel Osborne and Haydn's Paukenmesse (Mass in Time of War). And then a trip to the island of Lambholm for a recital of Bach and the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina in the Italian Chapel, built by prisoners of war inside a Nissen hut and decorated with pastel frescos. Festival-goers and artists mingled on the bus back to Kirkwall as the great expanse of sky turned red in a midnight sunset.

This year's festival was directed by Ian Ritchie, who will be taking over the City of London Festival in September. The most important work at St Magnus reflected Ritchie's humanitarian work over the past eight years in Bosnia. Notes in Time of War was a stirring promenade performance of songs and fragments based on the diaries of children in Bos- nia, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Rwanda. The simple chanting of schoolchildren, backed by Gemma McGregor's mock-ceremonial score for flute and brass, and John Kenny playing the carnyx - a replica of a Romano-Pictish trumpet on a long pole with an animal head - said it all: "We thought we would be safe"; "We see damage all around"; "The sky is upset"; "I want to go home and live with my family". It was powerfully complemented by Communicado Theatre's Zlata's Diary, the story of a ten-year old girl who, consciously echoing The Diary of Anne Frank, scribbled down her thoughts and feelings during the siege of Sarajevo ten years ago. The director Gerry Mulgrew set it in a production of such vigour and ingenuity that it reverberated as a testament to an elusive peace.

I staggered away from Zlata's Diary to a world premiere by the Orcadian folk-singing sisters Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley of Slices of Time, a 60-minute evocation of Orkney, from the island's history as part of an equatorial land mass, through its tectonic upheavals and volcanic eruptions, to its calm, idle drift into northern waters. A lot of this sounded like bad improvisation, but the central "break-out" section was a thrilling demonstration of just how good, by gum, the Wrigleys can be.