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SUE WILSON reports on the Wrigley Sisters efforts to find a new home for their culture centre in Kirkwall

THROUGHOUT the 1990s and beyond, the Orkney duo of fiddler Jennifer Wrigley and her guitarist/pianist twin Hazel were one of Scotland’s most successful young folk acts, touring extensively around the world and releasing four increasingly acclaimed albums. They were based in Edinburgh during this time, until the birth of Jennifer’s son Magnus in January 2003 prompted both sisters’ return home to Orkney, where they planned to continue their careers on a different track, primarily through teaching.

“We were both so homesick after all those years of travelling,” Hazel remembers, “but after having such an amazing time playing Orkney music around the world, we also wanted to try and put something back into the scene here.” Their first small step towards any larger ambitions was to look for a venue where their respective students could meet: “It just seemed daft to be always teaching the fiddlers and guitarists separately, when they could be learning to play together as well.”

In 2004, they rented a ground-floor room in a former social club in Kirkwall, where “people would queue on the stairs, and we bought a second-hand coffee machine and asked 20p for a biscuit.” As the venture gradually expanded to take over the main social space on the first floor, then eventually the entire three-storey building, the Wrigleys’ first employee was a school-leaver hired for a couple of hours at a time to serve coffee to waiting parents.

We see this as something that could still be realising its potential in a hundred years time: that’s why we have to get it on a sound long-term footing, but without losing the things that have made it work up till now

Now renamed as The Wrigley Sisters’ Centre of Music, the premises today incorporate The Reel, a comfy and popular café which converts to a bar on weekend evenings, hosting a lively Saturday-night session as well as occasional jazz, blues and singer-songwriter nights, with a well-stocked music shop downstairs, and four variously sized teaching/rehearsal rooms on the top floor.

There are now 26 staff on the payroll – mostly part-time – and a complement of 19 tutors teaching some 600 students, with around 70 percent of the latter aged under 20. As well as the Reel’s busy daytime trade, it serves as a meeting-place for a number of community and youth music groups, including the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society, and has become an important social and networking hub for local music musicians.

Four years on from those makeshift beginnings, however, not only are the building’s capacities being stretched to their limits – so are the Wrigleys themselves. “We came back to teach, and to recharge the inspiration that had sent us off in the first place,” Hazel says, “but suddenly we’ve found ourselves running this huge business. It’s great the way it’s taken off, but it just swallows all our time, and ultimately that’s just not sustainable, for us or for what we’re trying to do.”

Indeed, a typical day at the Centre will find both sisters constantly on the go, morning till night, be it staffing the music shop, serving coffees and lunches, teaching students, ordering stock, fielding phone-calls, cleaning the kitchen or ploughing through paperwork.

Additionally, the building itself has several major drawbacks, chiefly its lack of disabled access and soundproofing. The requisite conversion work, particularly to install a wheelchair lift, would be dauntingly costly, an investment the Wrigleys are understandably reluctant to undertake on the basis of their current temporary lease, and especially now that they could really do with somewhere bigger.

The perfect solution, however, could be just a stone’s throw away, across the corner of Kirkwall’s main street from the Centre’s current site, in the shape of the former tourist information centre, vacant since Visit Orkney decamped to its new purpose-built home near the ferry terminal. A handsomely proportioned, 18th-century merchant’s house, it sits right at the heart of the town alongside St Magnus Cathedral, thus offering the ideal symbolic as well as physical location for an enterprise devoted to the islands’ indigenous culture – to its past, present and future.

“The building’s ready to go – we could just move straight in,” says Hazel, as the sisters await the outcome of their application to take over the premises, due to be considered by Orkney Islands Council (OIC) next month. “We really need somewhere in the centre of town, so it’s within walking distance for kids coming from school – if their parents have to ferry them about too much, it’s just another disincentive. Plus the café and bar need to be somewhere people can just drop into, without making a special trek to get there, otherwise you lose that whole organic social side to it.

“This place is also exactly the right size – it would give us up to ten teaching rooms – it’s got good access already, and it’s also got loads of space out the back: we could have café tables outside in the summer, and ideally we’d like to build another study space there, a kind of combined education centre and social history museum, to link in with the music teaching.”

She remains cautious, however, about the likelihood of these plans reaching fruition. “There have been surveys showing that local people want the building kept for public or community use,” she says, “but Orkney College are also interested in taking it over, as well as commercial landlords. And even if the council offered it to us, but at a commercial rent, we’d need a fourfold increase in trade to cover that, which – if it was feasible at all – would inevitably take away from the other things we want to do with the place.”

It’s worth noting that the Wrigleys’ application for the building is their first recourse to any form of publicly funded support, other than approaching Highlands and Islands Enterprise for help in planning their proposed move and expansion. In order to retain the current operation’s independence and its multi-faceted nature, while ensuring its long-term sustainability, the business model they envisage would comprise a number of separate but interlinked enterprises, under the collective name of The Cog.

This refers both to the cogs in a machine, whose individual movement drives that of others within the mechanism as a whole, and the communal drinking vessel – akin to the Scots quaich – known traditionally in Orkney as a cog. Components within The Cog would include The Reel café/bar; the music school; a shop and information point known as The Stop, which would publicise and promote music events around Orkney, as well as advising on tuition; The Wrigleys themselves, as resident professional performers and tradition-bearers, and a fully equipped recording/rehearsal studio, which could also double as a performance space.

By partially separating out the more commercially-based elements of the facility from its cultural-development aspects, the Wrigleys hope to facilitate partnerships for delivering the latter, in particular, with outside bodies such as OIC, VisitOrkney, Orkney Arts and the Scottish Arts Council.

It would also enable different parts of the enterprise to access relevant sources of funding, be it for service provision or business development, without either falling foul of the public/private divide, or being subsumed by external policy objectives.

Additionally, the openness and fluidity of The Cog’s structure would encourage the development of creative and business relationships with other cultural and educational bodies in Orkney, according to the twin overall aims of nurturing local traditions and heritage within the islands, and increasing their national and international profile.

It’s a radical vision, but no less an inspiring one, with the potential not only to create a world-class cultural resource for Orkney, but to offer an alternative social-enterprise template for creative practitioners elsewhere.

“We’re very aware that what we’re trying to do – promote Orkney’s culture and its cultural growth, and help secure its economy – is much bigger than Jennifer and me,” Hazel says. “We see this as something that could still be realising its potential in a hundred years time: that’s why we have to get it on a sound long-term footing, but without losing the things that have made it work up till now.”