A Ferry Looper’s Lament of Losing The Reel

by Professor Joe Goldblatt

The Reel, Kirkwall, Orkney

Imagination is the root of creativity. It is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses. This declaration was made by none other than the world renowned British education philosopher Sir Ken Robinson, who sadly died this week. I am certain that his heart, along with mine and many others would be breaking at the news that we may lose The Reel.

As an annual ferry looper whose enthusiasm for all things Orkney once resulted in a genuine Orcadian describing me as an “honorary Orcadian”, I am very concerned that the loss of this well respected and internationally loved music school, performance venue and community asset will diminish the great crown of Scotland that is an Orcadian jewel that showcases its unique and vibrant culture.

When I first visited Orkney many years ago, I recall being told immediately by locals that I must visit The Reel to hear traditional Orcadian fiddle music and also meet local citizens. I remember walking up the high street in Kirkwall toward The Reel and with every footstep becoming more excited about what I might find within this beautiful building.

My first visit to The Reel was to hear a local group of fifteen or so amateur fiddlers who played traditional music that made my heart soar primarily because of their devotion to these age old tunes and the freshness their bows brought to every note that was played. I immedately began to blether with local folk as we talked about our favourite tunes and I even learned a peedie bit of local gossip about the players themselves. One hour later I stepped into the cool night air still warmed from within because of the unique atmosphere in that small room.

Now I understand that The Reel is threatened with closure due to the impact of Covid 19. I also realise that other aspects of the Orcadian economy are struggling as well due to the pandemic. However, I firmly believe that if Orkney were to lose the imagination, creativity and innovation that has been carefully fostered for many years at The Reel, it would be one of the most severe losses ever experienced in this part of the world.

In a TED Talk delivered by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 and now seen by over 50 million people (the most watched TED Talk ever) he argued effectively that we must continue to invent an education system that encourages (rather than undermines) creativity. His research demonstrated that students at every level learn more and better by having an underpinning of creativity, imagination and innovation in their daily lives. That is why The Reel is so important and why its location in the heart of Orkney’s capital city is essential to future of Orkney and her people.

There are numerous studies proving the positive correlation between music and learning. In fact, the father of the Theory of Relativity, Alfred Einstein, used to sit and play music when he was stuck on a mathematical problem. By concentrating on the problem at hand (left brain) while playing the piano or violin (right brain), he was able to strengthen the communication between the two hemispheres of his brain and increase his brainpower.

Therefore, I implore the Orkney Islands Council and the genuine Orcadians as well as ferry loopers and also “honorary” Orcadians such as myself, to support and sustain The Reel and also encourage the expansion of opportunities for it to grow and flourish to serve many future generations to come.

Whilst every aspect of Orkney’s economy is important, without those critical moments through music that enrich our spirits and nourish our souls we may one day ask, why did we fail to protect and preserve that which makes all other aspects of our lives meaningful and essential?

Economically, the creative industries in Scotland employ 84,000 folk and generate over 3.2 billion pounds in economic impact. Even more importantly perhaps is the social impact that culture brings to remote parts of our country such as Orkney where local strangers soon become friends and where ferry loopers such as myself become devoted fans, all because of participating in a rare and transformative cultural experience such as a night of traditional music at The Reel.

Each time I depart from Orkney upon the Hamnavoe, I always stand upon the deck and listen to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies plaintiff “Farewell to Stromness”. My heart is always heavy with leaving the land that I so love and as the ferry glides further away from the Stromness shore it is not unusual for tears to form in my eyes and cloud my vision. As I listen to this brilliant music I also wonder who will be the next Max Davies and how will they tell the world about this unique land and her people through their music?

If we fail to sustain The Reel we may lose much more than a music school and a performance venue. We may lose the rare opportunity through imagination, creativity and innovation to indeed invent and sustain a better future for all those who love Orkney and those who may one day, like me, fall in love with this peedie place because of an Orcadian musician’s talent that was first nurtured at The Reel.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author, co – author and editor of 38 books in the field of events management. He has visited Orkney numerous times and for the past three years has attended with his family and friends the Orkney Folk Festival. He states that one of his proudest achievements was when a local Orkney resident described his boundless love and enthusiasm for Orkney as making him truly an “honorary Orcadian”.

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