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Composing in Orkney

In conversation with Gemma McGregor


'Maes Howe'

Katherine Wren (Nordic Viola): How did your composition Carry His Relics come about?

Gemma McGregor: There was a lot of excitement in Orkney about a decision to renovate the St Magnus Way, which was the pilgrims’ route to carry Magnus’ relics from Birsay to Kirkwall.

Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and was born at the end of the 11th century. About twenty years after the martyrdom, a farmer called Gunni had a dream, and in the dream, Magnus said: ‘Bring My Relics to Kirkwall’. Gunni asked Bishop William, the head of the church at the time, who wasn’t keen at first, but he did give permission and the relics were brought the fifty-eight miles to Kirkwall.

The St Magnus Way was restored in 2017, the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom. There was a wonderful opening ceremony on St Magnus Day in 2017. David McNeish, the chair of Orkney Pilgrimage, gave a speech and a prayer and about a hundred people walked the first part of the Way. I imagined the sounds that the pilgrims would have heard and thought about there being the same birds in Orkney that lived there 900 years ago. There were birds all around us and the sound of the sea, and people were singing. It was a very joyful occasion and I wanted to capture the sounds of the journey in music. My story is quite programmatic in the sense that it does use birdsong and marching music and I use some plainsong from the Office for St Magnus.

'Carry His Relics'

KW: That idea that the ancient people heard the same bird sounds and that link with the past… St Magnus would have seen the same environment. Have you any thoughts about the project as a whole: the fact that the various pieces of music have common threads, and that the pieces reference the idea of prehistory running through them?

GM: Yes, in the sense that I did look at the cliffs in particular that Magnus must have seen. On the route we saw the Mansie stones where the pilgims rested Magnus’ coffin on their journey. Those stones are still there and mark the route.

KW: You also wrote On the Trysted Shore. Can you tell me more about the relationship between the two pieces and whether you plan for that to grow into anything bigger beyond the two pieces?

GM: Both pieces include fragments of chant and I intend to continue building up my collection of music associated with Magnus. It’s a bit back to front because On the Trysted Shore describes events that happen before Magnus dies, and again it was inspired by going to places and being inspired by history.

It’s the story of when there was a lot of conflict on the islands because there were two rulers: Magnus and his cousin, Haakon. The people were divided over who should rule. Haakon said: ‘Lets stop all this conflict and make a peace treaty. Meet me on the island of Egilsay and bring two ships’. Magnus went to Egilsay with his men. They stood on the shore and looked out to sea and saw seven ships approaching. He knew straight away what his end would be. Haakon ordered his men to execute Magnus but none of them would. Haakon ordered his chef, Lifolf, to do it. My piece describes Magnus going to the kirk on Egilsay and spending the night praying.

Gemma McGregor and Katherine Wren

KW: What is it like living in a place with so much history?

GM: Because everything is so immediate, you see all the layers coexisting. Whether that’s the place, or the sounds, the history, the poetry, the dialect... I know it’s the 21st century but in Orkney you have all this around you and its quite united in a way that it could never be in an industrialised city.

KW: What effect does having that history all around you have on your music?

GM: All these legends come from the 12th century Orkneyinga saga and almost certainly these sagas would have been sung. Anything we know about sagas, including the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, indicate that they would have been pitched, at least to the extent of going up and down, and that this would have been sung to a drone on an instrument. Even when you read the words you hear music.

I love speech rhythms as well. You can see them in some of the Orkney names for things – they are not Scots, so they must be Norn, the lost language of Orkney. Orkney only became part of Scotland five hundred and fifty years ago. There are still Nordic words in use, like voe which means a small bay. The real name for Stromness is Hamnavoe, which means peaceful voe, or safe harbour.

KW: Yes, having been to Iceland, the Faroes and Shetland I have seen lots of place names that are held in common between these Islands.

How would you describe your approach to composition?

GM: I’m fascinated with perception, and I often see one of my pieces as a metaphor, whether that is depicting my musings on events from the past in a stream of consciousness style or portraying an emotion. I have just finished a choral piece about emotions felt during lockdown – the feeling of racing thoughts and trying to calm yourself even though all these thoughts keep coming. It’s quite hard to describe how that consciousness turns into a piece of music, but music is quite unique because you can do so many things at once, and of course these things exist in time and transform. That is my main compositional technique – everything I write is constantly transforming into something else.

Churning Sea, Orkney

KW: Yes, you can feel that very much in the sense of journey in the pieces and the motifs evolving. Are there any particular influences on your work?

GM: Yes, I was taught and encouraged with my composition by Peter Maxwell Davies who lived in Orkney for many years. He was working on these old stories a long time before anyone else. He was influenced by the work of the composer Sibelius, and the sounds of the North. I saw a performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ music theatre work, Eight Songs for a Mad King and heard his piece, Stone Litany, and they influenced the way that my music references the old alongside the new. He was interested in depicting the seascapes and the light and the extreme weather.

KW: Thinking about the Sagas and Seascapes programme, how did you find it being on location In Orkney and talking about your pieces with Lillie and Linda?

GM: It was a really special day. Living in an isolated place, unless I go on a summer school or something, I don’t get the chance to speak to other composers. Spending a whole day talking to two other composers about pieces that had a lot in common was quite profound.

KW: Was it interesting talking with composers that were just visiting the islans and weren’t as familiar with them as you?

GM: There was a difference because they are not quite as steeped in it as I am and I have lived here a long time, but I think anyone who visits can’t help but be affected by the landscapes and the legends. Also, the light, it is a different light – especially in the summertime.

KW: What was it like working with Orla Stevens? Was her vision of your piece how you thought it would be?

GM: I spent about an hour sitting with her on the shore and watching the colours that she used that I thought that they were the colours that I used even though they are presented in a different art form.

KW: I have her pictures in my house at the moment and the longer I look at them, the more I see all the layers in the painting. There are even bits of the score embedded in the texture.

GM: When I was an undergraduate, I painted watercolours on my score and included images – that was an attempt to depict something more than sound.

KW: You said you were interested in working the other way round – music first then art.

GM: One first and then the other responding is an interesting way to work but I suppose dialogue is the ultimate - where you work together but it’s an almost wordless experience.

KW: What does it mean to you to have Sagas and Seascapes as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase and to take it to Edinburgh?

GM: It’s a great project and it deserves a wider audience. I’m glad to see a more isolated place like Orkney represented and not just work from the Central Belt. People could enjoy it in lots of different ways whether that be musical, historical, visual or the ancient languages. No matter what your background was you would still find it a rich experience.

For more information on Gemma's Work please visit:

Gemma McGregor Portrait

We are so excited to screen the film with live music for the first time in Edinburgh and hope to welcome you all there from 15th-17th August at 8:30pm.

You can book tickets here.

There will be a relaxed performance on 17th August which also has audio description and social distancing. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, then the original digital show will screen from the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s website at 7pm on 18th August, followed by a zoom Q and A with the creators at 8:30pm.

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