On the surface, it’s easy to just attribute this to the archipelago’s good schools, affordable houses, clean air and abundance of space.
However, Orkney’s real edge comes in the form of a robust communitarianism that instils a profound sense of safety and social trust among residents. It’s the sort of place where crime is rare, farm equipment is shared and where a builder’s yard won’t charge you for half a bag of sand.
If you want to see what a communitarian social model looks like, a trip to Orkney is a good idea.
What’s the root of this communitarianism? You could start by looking at the part played its Norse heritage. Scotland acquired Orkney by accident in 1471; once a central hinge in the Nordic chain linking Scandinavia with Iceland and Greenland, it became a peripheral province of Scotland.
Even today, some Orcadians talk about travelling to Scotland as if it were a separate country. The local language of Orkney Norn, similar to Icelandic and Faroese, was gradually replaced by Scots but survived on the outer islands until the late 1700s. The modern Orkney dialect has a noticeable ‘sing song’ Scandinavian quality, characterised by a rising intonation at the end of a word (known as ‘the post stressed syllable’).
Orkney certainly enjoys a strong sense of local patriotism underpinned by its Norse identity, and a sense it possesses of separateness to the rest of Scotland. Orcadian poet Edwin Muir once infamously disparaged Scotland as ‘a sham nation’. George Mackay Brown drew deeply on Orkney’s Norse mythology.
I’ve always found Oracadians somewhat conservative in the best sense of the word. In his ‘History of Orkney’ of the late 1700s George Low noted that Orcadians were reserved in their sentiments, honest in their dealings with one another but ‘studious to conceal their gains’, while also being tenacious in their preservation of old customs. A politeness and civility also seems to pervade the islands, which seems to be largely gone in other parts of the British hinterland.
By modern standards, Orkney remains basically monocultural. This can be an awkward conversation. The idea of a monoculture might seem impolite and déclassé in a society where diversity is now promoted as a foundational value. For progressives, monocultures are unacceptable, exclusionary things, in need of correction.
However, the monocultural strength of Orcadian culture seems to make it easier for incomers to fit in. Unlike most of Britain, Orcadians set a cultural tone into which new arrivals can assimilate. These clearer rules and norms make it easier for outsiders to find a place in the community. It’s not uncommon for settlers from the south (called ‘Ferry-Loupers’) to give their Orkney-born children names like Erland, Thorfinn and Mangus.
In her 2016 book The Outrun, Amy Liptrot describes returning to Orkney after spending her twenties in London. She makes the acute and rather devastating observation that her social network in Orkney was more diverse than in London.
This sounds odd. I’ll explain. On the small island of Papa Westray (population 90), Liptrot had no option but to interact with her fellow islanders, since day-to-day life demanded it. She met and became friends with a wide range of people of different ages, political outlooks, habits, and backgrounds (the outer islands have a high proportion of ‘incomers’). In contrast, her London friendship group was narrowed to people of a similar age, viewpoints and habits. In a large city it’s possible, if you wish, to assemble friends only among those similar to yourself. Perhaps it’s a conceit that the urban are broad-minded and those in distant hinterlands are not.
Familiarity is ubiquitous. The scale of the place is such that, particularly on the outer islands, everyone knows each other. Of course, metropolitans accustomed to anonymity might view this as a version of hell. But to Orcadians, knowing everyone is just part of being rooted; part of being at home; part of being secure.
Orcadians are used to enjoying their space, with 22,000 people occupying an area only around half the size of Greater London. The Orkney Islands Council’s historically generous attitude to sporadic house-building means that median house prices are an affordable £145,000, as opposed to the UK average of £248,000. This supports family life by helping people settle down. Until relatively recently, if a relative had a field in the right place you could expect to buy a kit-home and quickly become a homeowner.
Crime is extremely low and in some remote parishes is virtually non-existent. Thirty years ago my parents bought a property overlooking Scapa Flow which, with a few short intermissions, had been owned by our wider family for generations. On requesting the door key the estate agent replied that it didn’t exist.
The role of Orcadian newspaper – a local institution and published since 1854 – in governing public morals should not be overlooked. If someone has a pub fight in Kirkwall they risk a walk of shame in The Orcadian’s Sheriff’s Court pages. It will eventually be forgotten, but a more serious crime will not. The lesson Orkney provides is that public morality presupposes a coherent public.
The Orkney microcosm offers much to learn. A strong social ‘mythos’ binds people into a common identity which fosters trust and togetherness. Assimilation among migrants is seen as an achievement and ostentation is frowned upon. Above all, there is a sense among Orcadians of being part of something bigger than themselves.
Orcadian communitarianism was part of the worldview of the late Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond, who represented the division at Westminster from 1950 to 1983. Grimond reflected the Orcadian experience when he said:
‘There is such a thing as society and it’s as necessary to the individual as water is to fish.’