Here I am, sitting in my room, writing away with classical music in the background, and the announcer says that a guitar quartet will be playing (Sir) Peter Maxwell Davies’s “A Farewell to Stromness” — so I stop writing and start listening. Originally written as a piano piece, it translates very well to the guitar. After the piece is finished, the announcer relates that Davies wrote it as a piano interlude in his “Yellow Cake Review”—which was written in protest to a planned uranium mine that was to open in the Stromness area in 1980.
Thankfully, due to complete opposition by the local community and the Orkney Islands Council, and the recommendation to reject the mining proposals, the plans for the uranium mine were scrapped and Stromness remains safe from the effects. (At least so far.)
Davies first performed this piece at the Stromness Hotel on the Summer Solstice as part of the St Magnus Festival. The Review was done as a cabaret-type performance with music and spoken pieces. It refers to the “yellowcake” powder that is part of the processing of uranium ore.
The Yellow Cake Review, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
- Tourist Board Song: O come to sunny Warbeth
- Patriotic Song: You’ve heard of the man with the pace-maker
- Piano Interlude: Farewell to Stromness
- Recitation – Nuclear Job Interview 1: The Security Guard
- Uranium’s Daughters’ Dance: They said, when they’d extracted the uranium from the ore
- Recitation – Nuclear Job Interview 2: The Truck Driver
- Atlantic Breezes
- Recitation – Nuclear Job Interview 3: The Mental Healthworker
- Piano Interlude: Yesnaby Ground
- The Tourist Song: Have you heard of the terrorist suicide squad?
- The Triumph of the Cockroach: As earthquakes subsided
I’ve mentioned the very narrow main street of Stromness in a previous blog, Northern Links, and what fun I had driving through the little town.
Stromness, Strummis in Scots and Sròimnis in Gàidhlig, comes from the Norse (or perhaps the Norn) Straumsnes (“headland protruding into the tidal stream “). The Vikings named the area where the town now stands, Hamnavoe (“peaceful” or “safe harbour”).
Stromness became a major port during the later part of the 17th century when England was at war with France. To avoid the English Channel, major shipping routes came through Stromness from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Whaling ships also sought harbor in Stromness, which explains the many whale bones that hang from the walls of buildings in the town.
The St Magnus Festival, where “Farewell to Stromness” premiered, is an annual midsummer arts festival that began in 1977. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is a resident of Orkney, was a founding member of the group along with George Mackay Brown, one of the great 20th century Scottish writers. A poet, novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories reflecting life on Orkney, Mackay Brown was a native of Stromness and lived his entire life there (with the exception of attending the University of Edinburgh). His best-known poem, “Hamnavoe” was written in memory of his father and pays tribute to the people and places on his father’s postal route.
When MacKay Brown died in April of 1996, Maxwell Davies played “Farewell to Stromness” at his funeral. Mackay Brown’s reverence for his work and his native land is reflected on his gravestone with the last two lines of his poem, “A work for poets”:
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence.
I think that these two artists, and the many locals who were active in stopping the mine must feel very content that they carved the runes of protest. Silent they may now be, the beauty of Stromness stands in witness to their work.