A Guide to Events and Festivals in Orkney

Orkney has a packed calendar of diverse events. We’ve collected a list of annual events and festivals, from summer agricultural shows to the mass yuletide game ‘The Ba’.

There is a roar under St Magnus Cathedral as a surge of men, a freak wave of bodies, washes up to meet The Ba.’

With classical, jazz, rock and traditional folk music mixed in between, Orkney has every possible taste covered.

New Year Ba, Orkney
New Year Ba, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

The Ba’ (25th December 2023 and 1st January 2024)

In Orkney on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day there is a roar under St Magnus Cathedral as a surge of men, a freak wave of bodies, washes up to meet The Ba’ when it is thrown in the air! The ba’ then disappears amidst a huddle of men, amongst grappling hands and is held tight against chests, with steam rising from the crowd! Every now and then there will be a breakout from the scrum – when one of the teams (the Uppies and the Doonies) rush towards their goal. The Boys Ba’ starts at 10:00 and the Men’s Ba’ begins at 13:00. On the years where Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fall on a Sunday, the Ba’ will be played the following day.

SCDA Drama Festival
Cast of ‘The Steamie’ photo © Copyright Stromness Drama Club

SCDA Drama Festival (28th February – 1st March 2024)

A great passion in Orkney is amateur drama, and each night of the SCDA (Scottish Community Drama Association) Orkney District One Act Play Festival two or three one-act plays from various Orkney Community Drama Clubs will be performed. Each night promises great joy, heartache, comedy and drama – and that’s just the judging at the end!

Orkney Nature Festival
Orkney Nature Festival – Nature photography workshop at Woodwick House grounds photo © Copyright Alison Nimmo

Orkney Nature Festival (16th – 19th May 2024)

The Orkney Nature Festival has a brilliant diary of activities and events which celebrate the wildlife and wild places of Orkney. Activities include boat trips, guided walks, fascinating talks, and many events are family-friendly!

Norwegian Constitution Day, Orkney
Norwegian Constitution Day, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Norwegian Constitution Day (17th May 2024)

The annual Norway Constitution Day Celebrations in Kirkwall celebrate the close ties between Orkney and Norway with a service and concert in St Magnus Cathedral and a parade through the street. Come and see the Norwegian visitors in their traditional outfits.

Orkney Folk Festival
Orkney Folk Festival photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Orkney Folk Festival (23rd – 26th May 2024)

The Orkney Folk Festival began in 1983 and is now regarded as one of the best and friendliest festivals in Scotland. Based in its spiritual home of Stromness, there are also events elsewhere in the islands. Whether you enjoy a lively toe-tapping pub session or an energetic ‘stomp’ – Orkney Folk Festival attracts visitors and a stellar line-up of artists from all over the world!

St Magnus Festival
Poland’s Teatre Klinika Lalek and life-size elephant puppets photo © Copyright St Magnus International Festival

St Magnus International Festival (21st – 28th June 2024)

The St Magnus International Festival is a celebration of the arts which brings international orchestras, recitalists, theatre, dance and literature to the Orkney Islands for six days around midsummer and is renowned for its unique blend of world-class performance and community participation.

St Magnus Marathon
Running in the St Magnus Marathon photo © Copyright St Magnus Marathon

St Magnus Marathon (7th July 2024)

The St Magnus Marathon is a popular new event. Runners start in Kirkwall, at the St Magnus Cathedral, and finish in Birsay at the Birsay Community Hall. This challenging marathon is accompanied by a 5km “Fun Run”, children’s entertainment and a ceilidh that night!

Stromness Shopping Week
The Stromness Shopping Week Queen and attendants arrive at Stromness Pier Head

Stromness Shopping Week (24th – 27th July 2024)

Stromness Shopping Week began shortly after World War II to attract shoppers to Stromness after the lean war years. Shopping Week continues as it began, with events for all the family organised by local volunteers. The week ends on Saturday night with a parade of floats and fancy dress through the town, followed by an open air dance and a fireworks display. A programme of events is available to buy locally from mid-June.

Orkney Vintage Rally
Orkney Vintage Rally photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Orkney Classic Motor Show (3rd – 4th August 2024)

An annual showcase, run by the Orkney Vintage Club, of vintage and classic cars, tractors, motorcycles and engines from the past. Farm implements, collections of models and interesting artefacts from a bygone era are also on show at the Orkney Auction Mart.

The Dounby Show, Orkney
The Dounby Show photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Orkney Agricultural Shows

Sanday Agricultural and Industrial Show (2nd August 2024)
East Mainland Agricultural Show (3rd August 2024)
Shapinsay Agricultural Show (6th August 2024)
South Ronaldsay & Burray Agricultural Show (7th August 2024)
Dounby Show (8th August 2024)
Orkney County Show at Bignold Park, Kirkwall (10th August 2024)

Orkney’s main industry is farming; it provides employment for a quarter of the workforce in the islands. The agricultural shows in August are the high points of the farming year and are brilliant days out for all the family.

Farmers wake up early on the morning of a show to display their best stock. Cattle, Sheep, Poultry and other animals are groomed to look their best in order to make off with a winning rosette! There are also stalls run by Orkney businesses and organisations, fun fair rides, trade stands, horse riding competitions, sheep dog trials, vendors selling delicious Orkney food and drink and much more!

The Riding of the Marches, Orkney
The Riding of the Marches photo © Copyright Charles Tait

The Riding of the Marches (11th August 2024)

The Riding of the Marches sees the streets of Kirkwall filling with horses, ponies and carriages. The riders travel in a procession to mark the old boundaries of the town. They take a circular route, from Broad Street to Scapa Beach and back. This event has roots in the past but was revived in 1986, the 500th anniversary of Kirkwall being granted the status of a Royal Burgh in 1486.

The Festival of the Horse
The Festival of the Horse and Boys’ Ploughing Match photo © Copyright Charles Tait

The Festival of the Horse and Boys Ploughing Match (17th August 2024)

This traditional event dates back to the 1800s and begins at the St Margaret’s Hope School where horses and ploughmen are judged. Young lasses don family heirlooms – traditional Clydesdale horse decoration – and these colourful displays are quite a sight to see! Then the competition moves to the beach at the Sands O’ Wright, where the boys must use vintage miniature ploughs to carve a straight furrow in the sand.

The Orkney Rock Festival
The Orkney Rock Festival photo © Copyright Orkney Live Wire

The Orkney Rock Festival (6th – 8th September 2024)

A fairly new addition to the Orkney calendar, the Orkney Rock Festival has quickly grown in popularity and presents a head-banging, foot-stomping, rip-roaring line up of local and visiting artists. Expect the volume to be turned up to eleven!

Orkney International Science Festival
Orkney International Science Festival photo © Copyright Orkney International Science Festival

Orkney International Science Festival (5th – 11th September 2024)

Melding Orkney’s environment, history, skies and culture with scientific insights makes the Orkney International Science Festival a really unique event. World class speakers visit, and there are science talks, hands-on experiments, demonstrations, bus tours, ceilidhs, good-humoured lively discussion and workshops for adults and children alike. Attendees have come to expect a fascinating range of topics for curious minds every year!

Orkney Blues Weekend
Orkney Blues Weekend photo © Copyright Orkney Blues Festival

Orkney Blues Festival (20th – 22nd September 2024)

A friendly and fun weekend of Blues which primarily takes place in Stromness. The Orkney Blues Weekend features the cream of blues artists from Britain as well as many exciting local bands and performers.

Orkney Storytelling Festival
Orkney Storytelling Festival photo © Copyright Orkney Storytelling Festival

Orkney Storytelling Festival (tbc 2024)

It is fitting that the Orkney Storytelling Festival should take place in October as, in the past, Orcadians would have listened to tales around the peat fire as the nights grew darker. The programme of events for the Orkney Storytelling Festival includes walks, talks, story sessions and workshops with renowned international storytellers and familiar local faces!

Magnus DixonBy Magnus Dixon
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, adores audiobooks and films, eats a little too much for his own good.

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Header image: The Ba in Kirkwall, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait