The Festival Of The Horse
On the third Sunday of August, a unique event takes place in the island of South Ronaldsay. As the tide ebbs from the Sands o Wright, young boys furrow the beach with miniature ploughs, striving to achieve the most even and regular dreels. This is the Boys’ Ploughing Match, and it’s as keenly contested as the matches fathers and older brothers compete in every spring with their Massey Fergusons and John Deeres.
Being lovers of jewellery, adornment, and all kinds of art, our eye is drawn more to the Festival of the Horse, which takes place earlier in the afternoon, a mile or two away in the village of Saint Margaret’s Hope.
Going back 70 years or more, when horses provided the power for farmers, mighty Clydesdales would be spruced up to look their best for ploughing matches, with forelocks and fetlocks combed, harnesses polished, and ribbons plaited into their manes. Such adornment can still be seen in competitions such as Orkney’s County Show – though it’s always modest and restrained.
Restrained is not the word to describe the costumes in the Festival of the Horse. They are gloriously over the top, with decoration layered on decoration. The black suits worn by the girls (for this is traditionally the girls’ part of the day) are almost completely obscured by ribbons, rosettes, baubles, fringes, tassels, chains, braids, brasses, embroidery, highly polished harnesses, and even miniature versions of the leather collars traditionally worn by heavy horses. Some have stylised ears and tails, some impressive headgear.
The end results are simply stunning – a unique Orcadian art form.
There’s an element of competition, with prizes being awarded for the best costumes, and also for the best-preserved costumes, some of which have been handed down through the generations since the 1940s. You could call it Orkney sustainability: these costumes represent the opposite of fast fashion.
The origins of this special day go back at least to the 1800s, and at one time similar events happened in different parts of Orkney. Only South Ronaldsay survives, but luckily it is appreciated and supported, with crowds coming to applaud the efforts of the participants.
We love the Festival of the Horse. Partly because it is something that happens nowhere else in the world outside Orkney. Partly because it links us to our agricultural heritage. But mostly because the art and craft poured into each costume – usually by the mother or grandmother of the girl wearing it – is a testament to the creativity and imagination of Orcadian women.
At Ola Gorie, those are qualities we hold in the highest of esteem.
All photos in this blog are by another creative, imaginative, Orkney woman - Rebecca Marr. See more of her work here.