It’s a gray January morning in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. I’m crouched in my bathing suit in the parking lot of a 17th century manor house, yanking a thick wetsuit over goose-bumped legs, in the company of seven other novice surfers.
Hoods on and boards in neoprened hands, our group tiptoes across a grassy path leading down to the Bay of Skaill. Neolithic stone dwellings, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site older than the Egyptian pyramids, are camouflaged like roofless hobbit houses among the green. As I slip across smooth rocks into the shock of North Atlantic water, the sun rises above sea cliffs at my back and a double rainbow arcs across the ancient bay.
I can’t believe I live here.
A few days later, my toes swell painfully, and the doctor’s office diagnoses chilblains — an old Anglo-Saxon term for what is essentially mild frostbite.
It was coincidence that I moved to the newly crowned “Best Place to Live in the UK.” I’m still unsure of the title.
On days when low-lying clouds lift off the water, you can see the southernmost of the 70 Orkney Islands from the port of Scrabster on Scotland’s remote northern coast. It’s from here that I boarded the Viking-painted MV Hamnavoe last September.
I was joining my partner, Richy, whose one-year master’s course in the tiny fishing village of Stromness has led to an exciting job offer. After a half-decade of on-and-off travel, then a move from South Jersey to Richy’s home of Glasgow, my 30s begin by trading Scotland’s largest city for an outpost of 2,000 closer to the Arctic Circle than to London in the descent toward winter.
As the daylight swung from the summer high of 18 hours to its low of six in December, I left the 9-to-5 office grind to finally take a stab at writing full-time. In Orkney we could live frugally and without the distraction of busy city life, gaining the quiet and the clarity needed to take big steps toward new goals.
Our apartment is in the bottom quarter of an old stone house along Leslie’s Close, one in a network of alleyways that snake up a low hill away from the waterfront. The space has high ceilings, a sink for a flower bed, and a bad draft that the wood stove can’t entirely erase.
In the mornings, I walk along the flagstones of the narrow high street, with adjoined houses of all shapes and character rising up tightly on both sides. Fishing boats chug out of the harbor toward Scapa Flow, where a hundred years ago German sailors scuttled their fleet to avoid seizure after the First World War.
Divers from around the world journey here to explore these wrecks. More visitors come to tour the Neolithic sites, uncover Viking history, hunt for rare bird life, or pilgrimage to Highland Park, one of Scotland’s finest whisky distilleries. But after a busy summer tourist season, the town has quieted. The days follow a natural rhythm, dictated by the elements.
When the wind and rain aren’t assaulting from all directions, I stop still in the middle of an afternoon run to soak in the panorama of treeless farmland rolling into the Hoy Sound, claw-marked hilltops of the neighboring “High Island” reaching toward a cloud-covered sky. During my previous visits to Orkney, its silence was medicine that sloughed away layers of city stress. Without the leaving, that silence becomes all-consuming.
There are many other young expats who have moved to Stromness for degree or work, especially (like Richy) in the renewable energy industry. They come from across the United Kingdom and also Portugal, France, Mexico, even Trinidad. They teach me the importance of packing one’s schedule as the days grow shorter.
Together, we host themed potluck dinners around fireplaces on Friday evenings, alternate rounds at the Flattie (one of three Stromness pubs), and invent weekend excursions around the island — to a Neolithic chambered tomb that lays near-forgotten up a hill off Old Finstown Road, to the sandstone sea cliffs at Yesnaby, to Kirkwall to savor the luxury of a café lunch and a good coffee in Orkney’s largest town, 20 minutes away
Most of these friends are members of several clubs that seem to exist in communities where making your own fun is key to survival. There’s volleyball (both competitive and not), a climbing gym in Kirkwall, Sunday touch-rugby, swing dance, yoga, and fat-burn classes at the Stromness community center.
Despite all the options, during that first month my schedule remains impossibly open as I decide how best to cultivate a life among new acquaintances who live for group participation. Eventually I join a small writers’ group and begin ballet classes — two activities that are both familiar and all my own.
Around the end of October, darkness begins lingering deeper into the morning. I swallow Vitamin D pills in vain and write by the light of our eBay-ordered sunlamp. At 3 p.m., outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of the harbor front library, a gray dusk spreads across the water to the lighthouse on tiny Graemsay, then to Hoy beyond. I walk home in 5 p.m. blackness and search for lights in apartments above the closed shops, desperate for a sign that there’s still life in this seaside hamlet in the cold, lonely Atlantic.
But with the waning days comes the aurora. On a night when a Facebook group made of local Mirrie Dancers enthusiasts buzzes with the report of good conditions, Richy and I put on thermals under our jeans and walk toward the nearby vantage point of Brinkies Brae. We hit a field where our eyes can adjust away from streetlights. Richy perches his camera on an old stone wall, and I stare northward until a faint green begins to pulse above the horizon. A breeze sweeps across the island, cows moo from a nearby barn, and all else is quiet.
It’s the end of January when a Halifax Bank survey names Orkney the best place to live in the U.K. That Saturday night, I’m in a small group hurrying along the main street from an Indian-themed potluck dinner to the pop-up West Side Cinema at the Town Hall. If we want to secure a coveted downstairs table instead of a hardwood pew bench in the narthex — Town Hall is also an active church — we need to pick up the pace.
Our boots click along the flagstones as we carry bottles of wine and debate the new designation. The uniqueness of my evening plans doesn’t escape me in that moment: I have landed somewhere special. When the time comes for us to leave Orkney, likely within the next year, these will be the aspects of small-town island life that I most miss.
I am unable to speak to the experiences of those friends and coworkers, those familiar faces that I smile and wave to, who are Orkney-born. I would never try.
Among those of us who aren’t, I’ve discovered a common and lingering unease, the understanding that we’ve found our way to this stark and beautiful island in the faraway north, where green fields run toward sandstone cliffs and drop off into pure, clear sea; where humanity is traced back five thousand years; where tourists come to tick once-in-a-lifetime experiences off a bucket list.
But there is also the knowledge of isolation, of tedious months with no warmth from the sun, of the expense of traveling off the island. At any moment, someone you know will be riding high on the peak of Orkney’s greater attributes, while another is deep in the trough of its harsher realities.
Inevitably, there comes another high. … like drifting on a surfboard in a Viking sea, surrounded by new friends whose paths have crossed in Orkney for an interlude. I dive under the bracing ocean surface, then pop back up to see sunshine breaking through a winter blanket of clouds, giving hope that even this far north, seasons change.
Taylor St. John is from Egg Harbor Township, N.J.