Orkney: Living “Beside the Ocean of Time”

The 2019 survey from Halifax Bank of Scotland has put Orkney at the top of places to live in the UK. The survey bases its results on a mixture of:

  • an above average employment rate of (9 out of 10 people aged 16 to 64 are in work)
  • good health
  • low traffic congestion on the roads
  • residents happiness rating
  • broadband speeds

Orkney has always featured at the top of these surveys but how accurately do they reflect the real life of living in the islands?

June 20th 2 Kirkwall A Summer's Night  Kirkwall Harbour June 20th 2017 (K Armet)


Whilst it is true to say that Orkney has a low unemployment rate that statement needs to be balanced by looking at what this means. Many employers, especially the local council employ people on zero hours contracts. This counts as being employed. So even if you have only worked a few hours that would still register you as employed. Orkney also has a low wage economy. For those in middle management and above their income will be fine, however, Orkney has seen a 40% rise in those having to access the Foodbank for emergency supplies.  That Orkney even has a Foodbank should give you cause for concern. Most of those who access a Foodbank are the in-work poor.

Health and Well Being

Orkney has a population of 22,000 – this has remained steady for some time. Most people – 80% –  live on the main island (Mainland) – with the other populated islands struggling to maintain their numbers. This itself presents problems with housing and related facilities such as child care places and schooling. For instance Papdale Primary School in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney has 525 pupils. In contrast to this some islands ( Flotta and North Ronaldsay, for example) no longer have schools open.  And this leads onto another issue…

An Ageing Population

Orkney just like Scotland has an ageing population. When this occurs in island communities it is much more of a problem to address than on mainland Scotland. Excellent health services on the islands and a super new hospital ready to open in the summer means that as you get older you will be able to find medical care locally for most of your needs. Social care, however, is more of a problem. Delivering care in people’s homes requires a younger workforce and there are always shortages in this sector. It results in those who provide this high standard of care always under pressure.

Many people choose to retire to Orkney. If you are moving to the islands and selling a property down south you will be able to pick up a house that would cost you far more in some areas in the rest of the UK. Often those who choose to retire to Orkney have spent many happy holidays in the islands and have come to love them. This is something Orkney should be proud of – that people choose to come and live here because they have happy memories of it. Unfortunately it contributes to the demographic imbalance and what Orkney also needs is young people and young families to remain locally as well as new ones moving here.

wind turbines Burgar HillFor people already living in Orkney buying a house is not easy – as stated above it is a low wage economy. Combined with the low wages other costs are higher in Orkney than elsewhere – just trying to heat your home is extremely expensive. This despite the fact that Orkney produces over 100% of its energy requirements from renewables. Do not confuse energy generation with transmission. Just because the energy is produced in Orkney it does not result in people here paying less – in fact quite the opposite. Inequality is built into the system.

The Environment

Westray Seal

The Orkney landscape is one of green fields and expansive skies. Wildlife is abundant with seals resting on our shores and seabirds filling the cliffs in the summer months. The landscape is one which has been sculpted by farmers for thousands of years. Archaeological sites are in abundance with The Heart of Neolithic Orkney a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

cruise ship MSC Meraviglia 02/05/2018 F GrahameThis attracts thousands of tourists each year. Orkney is the most popular cruise ship destination in the UK and in 2019 169 cruise ships are so far registered to call in. cruise-ships-2019

Tourism is therefore a growth sector and Orkney has upgraded its facilities including training tour guides to enhance the visitor experience.


Summer months see the roads on Mainland very busy especially on the main routes to the top visitor attractions. Patience is indeed required as visitors park in passing places, tour buses take their time and farm vehicles have to move from one location to another.

Islands rely on ferries and Orkney is served well with connections to the Scottish mainland in comparison to other islands. Northlink Serco provide the lifeline services to Aberdeen and Scrabster, Pentland Ferries links to Gills Bay and in the summer months a passenger only boat will take you to John O Groats.

The inter island ferries provide the services to the other islands of Orkney. Ferries are expensive to run and have to be subsidised. Even with an islander discount most residents have to limit the number of trips they can afford to take.

Funding Crisis: £6.8 Million Needed To Run Orkney’s Inter Island Ferries

You could always use the plane and Loganair provides the service to the main Scottish airports and the ones to Orkney’s islands. It is actually much cheaper for someone in Scotland  to fly to a holiday destination in some warm clime than to fly to Orkney.


The Arts abound in Orkney. Music, art, literature, drama – all aspects of the Arts are not only well supported in Orkney but many people actively participate in them. Mainland has a modern theatre, a cinema and leisure facilities – the smaller islands also provide venues for entertainment. There are numerous clubs and a diverse range of social/sporting events.

Sea Hames

Photo N Armet

Just like everywhere else there are good and not so good things about living in Orkney. It is a small community. This  can make it both a difficult and a supportive place for those struggling with personal issues. For every person keen to help there is another to sit in judgment.


This is perhaps the most defining feature of Orkney. It is windy. There are very few days where you will not experience the sound of wind in your ears. The winters are dark and can seem to go on much longer than they actually do. But there are the Northern Lights and those big expansive skies. Sunrises that fire up the mornings and summers that barely go dark.

sunset 17th August K Armet

Is Orkney the best place to live?

It is not a place to choose to live in unless you can take the rough with the smooth. It is not a place where you can hide out and remove yourself from community ties because there will come a time when you will need the support and help of those around you. That is the nature of island living. Orkney has to be in the heart of you and if it is then even with the rough it will be the best place to live.

“We never find what we set our hearts on. We ought to be glad of that.” 
― George Mackay Brown, Beside the Ocean of Time

By Fiona Grahame

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2 replies »

  1. Fiona – hitting many nails on heads.
    Telling it like it is.
    And, plus and minus, rough and smooth, it’s …..GOOD!.

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