Orkney: What Do You Do?

MikeachimOrkney7 Comments

What can you actually do in Orkney?

No, forget the sightseeing. Forget the daytrips, the beach walks, the clambering up sea-stacks to watch intrepid archaeologists braving the elements while hugging filthy mugs of tea (more on that topic another time). Forget visiting. We’re talking living up there.


I know of a number of people who are intending to move up there – and they intend for their jobs to follow them, either via remote working (a slow but steady trend) or self-employment. They’re transplanting their careers, not going in seek of an Orcadian vocation – and they’re moving there because of the place, not the economy. (Everyone falls in love with Orkney. Well, nearly everyone).

So what is the local economy?

Building work is at the start of everything. I chatted to a couple of Scottish guys who had landed a building contract in Kirkwall, arranged elsewhere – and they had enough work to last them until 2011, at least. Not just housing, mind: Orkney is expanding at an impressive lick, thanks to being a renewable energy powerhouse. When I visited Westray – where I worked as an archaeologist for a few summers – plans were afoot to build two new wind turbines, weaning the island off the national grid and presumably allowing it to sell excess electricity to the likes of Scottish Power. (If it follows the model adopted by neighbouring island Sanday, the turbines are paid for by a community fund).


And that’s just the wind, which is nothing compared with the potential offered by the sea. Take the Oyster project, featured today on Click Green. Every day, two oceans push back and forth across the Pentland Firth, creating some of the most excited water around Britain. Once modern engineers find a way to ward off the Orcadian winter storms – no small feat  – the small abandoned islands around Mainland Orkney (such as Stroma) are going to start filling up.


Despite all that, Orkney’s is still an agricultural economy. The soil is bursting with fertility. Farming is the most important activity on the islands – if you’re going to get run over while in Orkney, it’ll probably be a tractor. Forget forestry – there aren’t any trees apart from a few timid examples cowering behind wind-breaks or crawling along the ground. There are so few that in the whole of the island chain, there’s only one Tree Preservation Order in place.


Fish. Beef. Lobster. Fish. Whisky (Highland Park). Cheese. Fish. Seafood, generally. Fish. I should also mention the fish, which is worth repeating because it appears to be uniformly superb quality. All the service-based jobs you’d expect from a gently popular tourist attraction – and if the oft-mentioned Orkney Tunnel gets built, these industries will boom.

(I’m not forgetting the arts and crafts industries here, as impressive as you’d expect from a place with such an extraordinary heritage. But on those, I’ll write another time).

Half a century ago, of course, Orkney had a somewhat different major employer

Images: M. Sowden, 2009.
  • Beautiful pictures. I can understand why you know people who are planning to move there, and why you love it so much. And the fish and seafood …!

    • It’s an amazing place – neither Scottish or Norwegian, not connected or disconnected, backward or modern…it’s unique, at least in my limited experience.

      And the colours are truly incredible.

  • Wow – you’re not kidding. Gorgeous colours!

  • Jimbo

    It is a wonderful place but it isn’t all a bed of roses. I still think it must be grim in winter (I was reading how Shetland only gets 10hrs of sunshine in December…) and as an outsider would you or your family ever really fit in? It’s also the only place I’ve seen a cars dumped in blowholes (geological not a whale’s) and skips!

    • Agreed. (And I’m writing another time about whether I’d actually want to live up there. The isolation was driving me a little potty towards the end of my ten days – and it’s a place to unleash the demons of introspection, for sure).

      It’s a lovely place, but unsympathetic, and doesn’t reward the incautious. I’d like to experience winter up there, just to set the record straight in my own head (and since the idea of crossing the Pentland Firth between October and February fills me with horror, I’d want to make a full winter of it. A writing retreat, then).

      And while seeing you folk at the cottage and the site was the highlight of my trip, Deerness is – an eerie place. With strange old men. (See upcoming post today).

      The outsider thing – well, I’m not sure. Orcadians seem unusually friendly people – but there’s a massive difference between friendly and really accepted into a community. I’m presuming that kind of acceptance would take a fair while, based on the general pace of life up there. However, with more and more people moving to Orkney for one reason or another, there will be more and more sub-communities to interact with and presumably more multiculturalism.

      But…with the renewable energy development work, is it going to be another Scapa Flow, with big teams of people coming in (engineers rather than soldiers this time), sealing themselves off almost completely from local life, and never the twain shall meet?

      • Also – maybe the car-in-blowhole-dumping is a weapon – like a kind of mortar. In comes the sea, out flies the car.

        Bet you hadn’t thought of that.

        No – bet you had, actually.

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