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  • Waulkmill, Orkney

Honestly Orkney

Join author Richard Clubley for his latest thoughts on life in Orkney.

I parked at the Co-op the other day, next to a trailer full of lawnmowers covered by a tarpaulin. A man was removing the sheet to examine a mower when another man, coming out of the shop, said ‘Hi, can I help you?’

It was not in that aggressive, accusative tone often associated with the phrase: ‘Can I help you’, it was more in a friendly: ‘Do you need any help?’ sort of way. ‘Oh, hi,’ said the rummager, ‘I’m looking for a lawnmower and I see you have some.’

I went for my messages and when I came out, after a considerable delay occasioned by the Covid one-way system, people blocking the flow yarning and by not finding a cross to stand on, the pair were deep into conversation about the relative merits of Honda versus Hayter garden machinery. The first man had, essentially, been invading the trailer but this being Orkney the owner had taken no offence. It is one of the absolute joys of living here that such an attitude pervades. The key is that the second man did not start from a base-line of suspicion and aggression. He never assumed a theft was about to take place, or that the other was up to no good, because such things are so rare in Orkney they don’t naturally come to mind first.

Shops in Orkney are beginning to return to some kind of normality


On our first day here the postman, Charlie, arrived with our letters and introduced himself. ‘You’d best leave your front door unlocked when you go out so I can drop any parcels into the porch for you,’ he said. Being townies fae sooth we find it very hard to break the habit of a lifetime, and leave the house completely unlocked, so have compromised and just leave the outer porch door open. We have spoken to people since that day who have no idea where their house keys are and don’t even bother locking up if they go to Marbella for a fortnight. ‘The locks are corroded beyond use anyway’ someone said.

Cars are parked unlocked and often with the keys left in them. Car theft would be a risky business in Orkney as vehicles are difficult to get away on the ferry. There’s a digger driver I see quite regularly who operates a JCB and a tipper truck, he drives them to the beach to practice the art of loading and then leaves them, completely unattended, while he walks up the beach with his parents. He is four years old and his valuable plant, given for Christmas last year, is always there when he gets back.

Waulkmill beach in Orkney


There are more honesty boxes in Orkney than you can visit in a day. The Kirk Café operates one for the coffee and cake and another for the newspapers. Sometimes you have to change your fiver in the cake till, order your drink and then buy your copy of The Orcadian from the other till. Occasionally, if you only have a £20 and there’s no change accumulated yet, you hand your note to the staff and take whatever you want. Inevitably you forget to collect your change later so someone runs across the carpark after you.

The latest honesty box is at Birsay Village and sells souvenir jams, chutneys and biscuits for the visitors. Once again there’s the tin of cash for you to add your payment and take change. I met the proprietor whilst collecting a jar of rhubarb chutney, who told me the enterprise was working very well. I said I didn’t really need any chutney, I hadn’t woken up that morning with the thought I must dash down to town for chutney, but the idea of an honesty box was so appealing I would support it and get a gift for our next visitor into the bargain. Jane and Paul keep the box open round the clock ‘To cater for the midnight snafflers’ Paul told me.

The fabulous JP Orkney Honesty Box in Birsay


Allisia Burton opens the Peedie Bun Box part-time, to fit in with her full-time job, but still manages to support some local charity or other each year. Little Crofty Cakes raised £587.07 for the Freya Rose Dalrymple Memorial Trust to support heart screening in Orkney. They are Thursday to Monday in Tankerness. Shannon Foubister bakes for Brough Bakes in Deerness and Tankerness tREEts are where you would expect.

The original honesty box is probably the one at the end of the farm track advertising: ‘Fresh Farm Eggs for Sale’. A contract is made between two people who may never meet – to supply goods as advertised in return for the price stated. Would that all commerce could be thus.

Orkney is famous for its wind. It’s often breezy and folk take advantage to dry their washing on the line. There is some risk it will blow away, if it’s not triple pegged, but little fear of it being stolen.


Richard writes regularly for Scottish Islands Explorer. His first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. 'Orkney – A Special Place' appeared in 2017 and look out for 'Orkney – A Special Way of Life' coming soon. The books are published by Luath Press, Edinburgh.

The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020

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