The sky is huge in Orkney. Few trees interrupt the view, just a wide expanse of blues, grays, greens and, at sunset, bright oranges. It is this sky, says Lynne Collinson, that testifies to her love for this place and the opportunities it brought in her 60s. “You feel like you’re on the edge of something here; as if anything was possible,” she says.
We are outside an abandoned stone farm building on Shapinsay Island in Orkney. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by a patchwork of fields with birds singing overhead. Lynne has planning permission to make it a creative art space and a ten bedroom hostel. The pandemic has delayed construction work, but she is confident the project will soon be back on track.
Lynne moved from Wales to Orkney aged 60, having clung to a dream she hatched more than four decades earlier when she spent time here on an archaeological dig in as a student. ‘I thought, wow, what a beautiful place. It’s a place where you could reinvent yourself.
She is not alone. There is a steady trickle of later arrivals to Orkney; the islands regularly top UK happiness ratings and were named the best place to live for the over-65s in a 2020 survey. Cheryl Chapman, Orkney Development Manager for VisitScotland, explains that the islands off the north coast of Scotland (there are over 70 of them, around 20 of which are inhabited) attract people who want something different. “These are people who aren’t looking for a career, they’re not looking for the money. What they want is an authentic, honest life – and that’s what they find here,” she says “It attracts those who appreciate the feeling of being connected to nature, the seasons and a history that dates back to Neolithic times. There is a spirit to the place that allows one to re-appreciate life. She knows what’s what.” she speaks: she moved here five years ago, aged 53, from Hove in East Sussex.
And if a group of remote islands looks like a backwater, think again. Orkney has been at the forefront of innovation for centuries. “In Viking times, it was central to everything,” says Cheryl. Today, it’s pioneering green and blue energy, with electric planes and hydrogen ferries both in the works.
Everyone I met who had moved to Orkney later in life spoke of the slower pace of life, the closeness to nature and the sense of community, and the irresistible pull that place had on their heart. This sense of reinvention was also important: these open skies seem to allow for broader thinking, allowing people to make changes they may not have thought possible before. That’s right, when you disembark the ferry at Stromness, having made the 90 minute ferry journey just outside Thurso in the far north of Scotland, you feel like you’ve reached a far away place.
“I felt the depth of history and the joy of nature here. I had never experienced anything like it’
Andrea Holmes, 54, moved here with husband Adrian from County Durham in 2017 after quitting her 30-year career in advertising and graphic design. “On one of my first evenings here, I went to a ceilidh in Kirkwall, the capital, and someone I met offered to rent me a house.
At first she worked in a teahouse and brewery drop-in center, but life on the islands sparked new creativity. “As a teenager, I bought a set of pastels; when I was 50, I opened them for the first time. She started doing landscapes and animal paintings, and her work started to sell. After finishing our coffee at their cream-washed new home in Birsay, on the north-west tip of the Orkney mainland, we walk across Andrea’s lawn to her new office, studio/gallery/shop, which it opened two years ago. “If someone had told me I would be working as an artist in Orkney, I would have thought they were crazy,” she says. “But the place changed me. It’s about discovery, including discoveries about yourself.
“There’s nothing better than putting on your coat and a woolen hat, even if it’s June, and feeling the salty wind on your face, and listening to the sea and the birds.
Adrian’s job as a music tour manager means she’s often alone (her 30-year-old daughter lives in England), but the friendly spirit means she never feels lonely. “You are welcome here from day one, and I know that if I needed anything there would be so many people who would be happy to help me.”
Jane and Paul Cooper, both in their 60s, also talk about the sense of community. Like Andrea, they had loved holidays in Orkney. ‘And then the children [they have a grown-up son and daughter] were out of our hands, and we thought, let’s do it,” says Jane. “We can buy a house with a field.
The plan took off like a mushroom when they fell in love with a place whose huge living room windows offer wonderful views of the vast bay below, and it came with 25 acres of land. Jane decided to go into farming. She bought a few sheep and was raising her first lambs when the Rare Breeds Survival Trust contacted her to say her Boreray sheep belonged to a lost flock and were in danger of becoming extinct. “Once we knew that, I knew I had to keep going,” she says.
“These are people who are not pursuing a career. They want an authentic and honest life’
The four years since have been “terrifying and exhausting,” says Jane, but she has never regretted becoming a farmer in her 60s with a herd of around 40 sheep. “When they whelp — which is May here — I go out to check on them at 11 p.m. and get up to see them again at 4 a.m.,” she says. She and Paul are delighted with their success so far: the meat from their sheep is served in one of Edinburgh’s best restaurants, and the butcher who sells it has a waiting list.
Not everyone would like to live in Orkney, say the Coopers. “You have to be able to fit into a small community that can sometimes feel like you’re in a goldfish bowl,” says Paul. “But it’s very safe and the people are very friendly. The man we bought the house from couldn’t find the key because he hadn’t locked the front door in 17 years.
American-born Rhonda Muir, who moved to Stromness six years ago, got to know Orkney from afar. She was in New York, writing a book about selkies (seal women), and the Kirkwall Library put her in touch with a man called Tom who worked at the museum. A few years later, she planned to visit him and contacted him again to ask about accommodation options. Acquaintance turned to love and they married in the US in July 2016. When it came to deciding where to live, she says, Tom offered to move to the US – but despite the pain to get away from her adult children and mother, she knew Orkney was her place. “I had that kind of craving for that,” she says. “I felt the depth of history and the joy of nature here. I knew I wanted to stay.
“It’s a much healthier pace. Orkney is not a miracle place – you have to do the work. But it gave me the opportunity to become a different person. She and Tom are currently working on a publishing project which will specialize in books about Orkney.
Nearby, in Deerness, I meet another newcomer, this one from England: Yorkshire-born John Foster, who moved to Shapinsay in his 50s to become a nurse practitioner.
When he left four years later he knew he wanted to stay in Orkney and in 2018 he decided to combine his love of the islands with his enthusiasm for motorbikes and bought a motor tricycle, which he uses to take tourists on tours. “If someone had told me earlier in my life that I would be a professional biker at 63, I would have thought: quite a lot!” he says.
Like his comrades who arrived later in life, he likes the tempo of Orkney. “There’s no mad rush here, no greasy pole,” he says. “It may mean there is less for young people, and I understand why a lot of them are moving away. But for older people, this place means opportunity, with a way of life that gives us many things we value – friendship, time to chat, care for each other, nature and a beautiful space all around.’
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