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Orkney’s Music Pioneers: Robert Milne

Orkney Folk festival has swung into action. The festival which runs from 25th to 28th of May, centred in Stromness, attracts artists and visitors the world over. But there was a time when Orkney’s folk songs and tunes struggled to survive – a time before festivals. People still sang the traditional songs and played the tunes but in the quiet of their own homes. Or sometimes at the tail end of wedding celebrations as the night wore on.

Robert Milne of East Road Kirkwall was one man who kept traditional music alive in Orkney in the first half of the 20th century.

Advert for Robert Milne's shop in the Orkney Herald and Advertiser 16th February 1938
Orkney Herald and Advertiser 16th February 1938

He was a cabinetmaker, furniture and music dealer who had premises in Junction Road, Kirkwall. During World War 2 Robert Milne was a Civil Defence volunteer and also Head Air Raid Warden for No. 3 area which included Carter’s Park. He was also an elder in St Magnus Cathedral and served as a local councillor.

Robert Milne also had an outstanding collection of gramophone records of Orkney folk songs and music. It was his love of music and entertaining that involved him in bringing many performers to Orkney in the years between the two wars. He helped put on concerts for a wide range of music including William Hannah and his Band.

Advert in the Orkney Herald and Advertiser of 14th of August 1929 of concert by William Hannah

An advert in the Orkney Herald and Advertiser of 14th August 1929

William Hannah was involved in the development of the modern accordion and made many records. You can find out more about him here: William Hannah, Rare Tunes

Robert Milne was born in Papa Westray on 30th of June 1893, moved to Kirkwall when young and served his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker with David Peace. During World War 1 he served in the Royal Navy. He died on 25th of May 1980, aged 86 and is buried in St Olaf’s Kirkyard, Kirkwall.

Today, in Orkney, traditional/folk music is strong thanks to people like Robert Milne who kept it alive.

three accordion players from the UHI traditional music group
UHI Applied Music Group playing in 2017

Fiona Grahame

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