Maxwell Davies’ music memorializes an important victory
By Linda Pentz Gunter
On a midsummer day on Saturday, June 21, 1980, in a Victorian Hotel on the Orkney Islands, resident composer Peter Maxwell Davies and actress Eleanor Bron performed the composer’s newest piece — The Yellow Cake Revue. It was part of the Islands’ annual St. Magnus Festival, founded by Maxwell Davies, poet George Mackay Brown and Archie Bevan.
“Yellow cake” or uranium ore, seemed like an unlikely subject matter for a cabaret. But Maxwell Davies was an unlikely kind of musician — deeply connected to causes including gay rights, anti-war and the environment.
That concert — bold, wild, different — was in 1975. But unbeknownst to me at the time, Maxwell Davies and his fellow residents of the Orkney Islands, — an archipelago located just off the northeastern coast of Scotland and where the Salford-born Maxwell Davies had chosen to settle — were already confronting an ominous new threat that would consume the islands for several years.
The Orkneys were being surveyed for a potentially valuable deposit of uranium ore. The South Scottish Electricity Board had already persuaded local farmers, unaware of the health risks, to allow bore hole drilling on their land.
The uranium “corridor” as it was known, stretched from the town of Stromness to the cliffs of Yesnaby, both of which would feature as piano interludes in Maxwell Davies’ haunting new piece — as the now well-known refrain, Farewell to Stromness, and as Yesnaby Ground.
By 1977, the entire local population on Orkney opposed uranium exploitation there. Among those opponents was Max. A Public Examiner was appointed to examine both sides of the case for and against uranium mining in Orkney.
The Public Examiner recommended the plan be abandoned.
As Bevan, who died in 2015, recounts it, the Orkney population universally opposed the uranium plan “not only from the fear of pollution itself, with the gravest consequences for the second principal town of the islands, but also from the point of view of the psychological damage and disastrous social and economic implications of uranium extraction on Orcadian fishing, dairy farming and tourism.”
“The Yellow Cake Revue,” writes Bevan, “symbolizes the active position of vigilance inside Orkney.”