Orkney is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
‘Where?’ they said, when I told my friends in the south I was moving to Orkney. ‘What is there?’ ‘Where will you get your food?’ ‘Isn’t it perpetual darkness?’ ‘Doesn’t the wind blow all the time?’
If you’re familiar with Orkney you’ll have heard all this before. You may even have prepared your own standard reposte, such as: ‘Oh it’s not that bad,’ or ‘but there’s hardly any crime.’ It’s actually a lot better than that.
From my house, half way between Kirkwall and Stromness on the Mainland (Orkney’s main island is called the Mainland. Orcadians never use ‘The Mainland’ to indicate the main body of the UK – that is referred to as ‘south’), I have everything I could possibly want within a 20 minute drive. Remote? Not a bit.
For a kick off the short drive will be on an excellent road. There’ll be an almost perfect surface and no traffic. No traffic lights, few junctions and only the odd roundabout. I can head west, to Stromness for a NorthLink ferry connection south. I can be in Caithness in 90 minutes. The haddock and chips on board is excellent, as is the breakfast. I enjoy an islander discount on everything. MV Hamnavoe is a comfortable ship and the journey is (usually) a pleasure. For extra luxury I can have a cabin on board overnight to save getting up early for the 06:30 sailing.
I can head east, to Kirkwall, for a NorthLink ship to Aberdeen or Shetland. Both are overnight so a good sleep in a cabin (steerage class aka ‘sleeping pod’ is available for budget travellers. One is even allowed to have a reclining seat in the cinema, after the last film showing).
A few miles south of the ferry pier is Kirkwall Airport (still with in the 20 minute rule). Flights can be had to major Scottish cities and even direct to Manchester in the summer. I can go door-to-door to a friend in Derbyshire in about six hours on a good day. Orphir to Chesterfield between meals (with a snack on the plane).
Outside my self-imposed radius, but never-the-less excellent, is St Margaret’s Hope and Pentland Ferries, founded by Andrew Banks OBE. The fast catamaran, MV Pentalina, carries cars, lorries and passengers across the Pentland Firth in an hour. The new boat, MV Alfred, will come into service this year and be bigger, comfier, shinier red and the greenest ship to come into service in Scotland, based on payload per litre of fuel. Together with NorthLink there are five or six short sea crossings every day of the year plus the over-nighters. Spoiled for choice.
When not travelling I need to be entertained so it’s a good thing we have theatres, cinema, leisure centre, music venues, live sport, bars, restaurants. In the soaring St Magnus Cathedral one can pray or worship but also listen to fabulous choirs and orchestras that come to Orkney or have formed here. The Winter Choir and St Magnus Festival Choir are drawn from amateur locals in December and June and move the soul. As the crescendos are reached I gaze upwards at the pillars and stained glass and remember where I am. A stone ship Jocelyn Rendall called it and it is – on a wave of song. There are good schools and a brand new hospital too.
Early Orcadians gathered limpets to eat but we have our choice of supermarkets and local producers. The quality, flavours and variety are excellent. There’s space aplenty, of course, so you can grow your own, perhaps in the deep, dark soil of the Kelliequoy allotments.
If you had been thinking of a holiday, or a move to Orkney, and I’ve put you off with all this talk of bustle, fear not, I haven’t told you about the other half yet.
I took the ferry to Graemsay and cycled round it one afternoon, never meeting a living soul. From the house I walk a two-hour circuit of lanes, beach and cliff and am alone. With a friend I climbed the highest hill on the Mainland and we met no one. In Stronsay I had the beach to myself and gathered fabulous shells, I don’t think they get picked over. In Eday the door locks were rusted inoperable from decades of redundancy – and they have a resident snowy owl. I passed a basking shark in my boat the other day. The grass and wild flowers grow so tall on the cliff path they arch over and soak my trousers as I swish through. Heather forms a background in the season.
Our winter visitors are arriving from the north, they come for a gentler winter. There are geese and wading birds of several kinds. Soon there’ll be goldeneye and long tailed ducks on the town pond. The puffins have gone back to sea for the winter, but they’ll be back in the spring. In the depths of winter a terrible four gigawatt current swirls in the Pentland Firth and waves crash at the Yesnaby cliffs, but we are safe and cosy in our island fastness.
Richard contributes regularly to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and his first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. His new book 'Orkney – A Special Place' is available from all the usual outlets now.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020