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.