Past Festivals

Each year’s festival has its own character, shaped by factors such as Scotland’s themed years, which provide creative stimulus for programmes, such as the Year of Young People and the Year of Coasts and Waters.

Other developments such as Foraging Fortnight have given a distinctive flavour to particular years.

There have been special visitors who have shaped the programme, such as Jane Goodall, or Nobel laureates Peter Higgs and Sir Paul Nurse.

There have also been collaborations with organisations and community groups on topics ranging from astronomy to renewable energy.

You can see from the picture from each year how varied the programme is, and our thanks go to so many people and groups for the imagination and energy they have put in to it.


You can do many things in the seven days of the Festival. There are talks on the future, and new ideas in energy and transport in medicine; talks on the past, with stories of discovery and adventure; workshops on AI and robotics and finding the night sky over Maeshowe 5,000 years ago; and walks to explore ancient landscapes.


We go back in time to the forming of Orkney’s rocks from the sediments in Lake Orcadie, and we look ahead to routes to a sustainable future. There are stories of voyages in polar waters and ships on the salt roads. There are Cathedral concerts, a candlelight lecture, and papermaking by the sea.

If you come to visit us, you will be able to experience so much of Orkney, but if you can’t then you can still enjoy much online. So wherever you are, join us on a seven-day journey with views across familiar harbours and out to far horizons.


For this 31st Festival we continue our adventure online, with the opportunity for everyone who has a web connection to access events. The Year of Coasts and Waters runs through the programme, with stories of tidal turbines and Arctic journeys, shore life and sea-cliffs, and the sights and sounds of the island of Swona with its seals and shipwreck stories. Looking at the sea and its transformations, hearing the music of northern composers along the old sea-routes, watching the waves break on the Rackwick beach. Hearing of the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, seeing Greenland and its ice, meeting researchers in a Stromness harbour setting.


This 30th Festival is a new adventure for us as we deliver online, with a big team of helpers joining in to make it possible. The Year of Coasts and Waters runs through the programme, with stories of tidal turbines and Arctic journeys, shipbuilding and shipwrecks, whale songs and selkie stories, and North Ronaldsay’s seaweed-eating sheep. Foraging Fortnight gives us an additional outdoor dimension, with outings to Hoy and Graemsay, and walks along parts of the St Magnus Way. Topics range from superconductivity to spaceports, ocean plastic to atmospheric pollution, Orkney’s Norse genetic links to the analysis of the finds from the Ness of Brodgar excavation.


Orkney International Science Festival this year will have an added outdoor dimension as it joins forces with a new Foraging Fortnight being established in Scotland. The Festival’s programme will be enhanced by a range of new events, including shore outings and papermaking from natural materials. There will be talks on wild food in Scandinavia, a look at the potential of seaweed for health and nutrition, and an evening of foraged food from the Neolithic.


The Year of Young People 2018 provide the opportunity for so much, not only in varied events but also in the development of a new look for the Festival with the team of young people who emerged to chair and introduce all the events. One of the highlights was Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse (2001, Physiology/Medicine) in conversation with Dave Gray of BBC Radio Orkney. Then there was the music, with the St Andrews New Music Ensemble putting on three concerts and musicians from Ireland as well, with local musicians and actors, there was a rich mix of music and dramatised lectures.


It was Scotland’s year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, and there were certainly plenty of anniversaries to commemorate. There were 50 years since the start of Loganair’s North Isles air service, and 50 years since the death of the Orkney shell expert and poet Robert Rendall. One of the highlights was Prof. Peter Higgs In Conversation with his former mathematical physics student Dennis Canavan. The Nobel laureate looked back at the events that had shaped his career and led to the prediction and discovery of the Higgs boson.


The sea surged through the Festival, in a year when the world looked back a century to the battle of Jutland and forward to the potential of tidal power. Marty Jopson of The One Show got the Festival off to a flying start, followed next day by a highly dynamic show on the science of everyday life. Each of the seven days was packed with events and activities, with topics from the Northern Lights to the origin of comets, from ancient humans to modern diet, from waves to whisky-making, from the mathematics of the Neolithic to the physics of golf.


Nobel laureate Peter Higgs was in conversation with fellow physicist Frank Close, the venue the impressive new Orkney Theatre in Kirkwall Grammar School. The school also hosted the exhibition From Maxwell to Higgs, brought north by a team from Edinburgh University.


Vistas of earth, sea and sky opened up in 2014, with a look into Orkney’s geological past as a great lake in Devonian times, and then a look further back in time to the origins of the universe and of life itself with one of the great astrophysicists of our time, Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe.


Exploration was to the fore in 2013, the bicentenary of the birth of the great Arctic explorer John Rae. The Festival was opened by the widely-travelled documentary film-maker Alan Ereira, who showed his new film, made with Kogi people of Colombia, opening up a dialogue with western science.


Jane Goodall opened the Festival, whose events included a courtroom-style debate on climate change and topics ranging from the history of marine communication to the search for exoplanets. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars, was amongst the speakers on astronomy.


In the Year of Scotland’s Islands, the Festival featured events across Orkney from an astronomy weekend in North Ronaldsay to an evening of underwater archaeology in the Hoy Kirk. It was opened by an islander – the Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod who comes from the Western Isles.


Events ranged from physics with rock music to Bach’s mathematics, from Jane Austen and revolutions in science and society to the Flashing and Banging Chemistry Show.  The Festival was opened by The Economist’s writer-at-large, Johnny Grimond.

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