To see ourselves as others see us

Robert Burns wrote, "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us". Orcadians have more chances than most to do just that. For hundreds of years visitors to Orkney have felt the urge to write about us and our islands. It enables us to see how things have developed over the years and that some things never change.

Desciptions of Orkney

"Lonely Planet dropped a love bomb [chose Shetland as sixth best place in the world to visit] but it missed a genuine gem of a target. For if you want to visit a truly astonishing, otherworldly, human (and wildlife) rich land, set your tiller for the islands of Orkney. I'm from Sutherland, not far from the top of Britain. When visitors came from afar and stayed too long, my parent swold kindly suggest they visit Orkney and, ridding themselves of two irritants at once, would send the 10-year-old me with them as a "guide". I was delighted, for the 70 dark islands are a wonderland... All these years later, Orkney feels like it has the best-adjusted community of all the islands I have visited."

- Ruaridh Nicoll, The observer 7 November 2010t


"Still, Orkney is the best place. Happy are they who never leave it."

- Edwin Muir, Orcadian poet


In common, simple things, the Orkneys have found uncommon content.

- Joseph M N Jeffries, London and Better 1936


The Orkney roads are instruments of fancy, stretching far out of view, making their way across the plain or by slow gradients less towards towns and villages than to the sea and the clouds and to the thoughts which are born of both.

- Joseph M N Jeffries, London and Better 1936


Most of us therefore remain altogether unaware of what lies here amid the long and twisted islands, so bare and beautiful and flawless.

- Joseph M N Jeffries, London and Better 1936


In their midst "living on air" ceases to be a metaphor; you begin to be awake to air, to judge and to appreciate all its strength and its sweetnesses, to admire all its vibrating beauty.

Joseph M N Jeffries, London and Better 1936


The details of Orkney prosperity will escape no-one who visits the isles. They are manifest in grey farm houses visible from afar all over its mosaic slopes.

Joseph M N Jeffries, London and Better 1936


"Scythes and reaping machines and the march of agricultural improvement have well-nigh succeeded in Orkney as elsewhere in scaring away the romance, mirth and love-making of other times from the harvest fields. Happy the young men and maidens in farms remote who can yet shoulder the sickle and buckle to their work in company on the same rig."

Daniel Gorrie, Summers and Winters in The Orkneys 1868


Orkney was so joyful and self-confident, so full of more history than anyone can consume at a sitting, that you finish by being dazzled, able only to wander around the Corrigall farm museum patting the pet lambs and inhaling peat smoke.

Libby Purves, One Summer's Grace 1989


Even in Kirkwall, the islands' trim and busy capital and largest town, with a population of nearly 6,000, the world beyond the water soon begins to feel like a vaguely doubtful rumour.

Bill Bryson, National Geographic Magazine June 1998


Strangers naturally form a very wrong and unfavourable opinion of the climate of Orkney, and its peculiarities are only beginning to be understood by even the best informed of its own inhabitants. From these observations it has been ascertained, that the mean annual temperature of Orkney is not only equal to that of the north and middle of Scotland, but even to that of the southern border. Mean temperature of Orkney 46.26 Applegarth, Dumfries 46.24

Professor Thomas Stewart Traill, Encyclopedia Britannica 8th edition 1852-60


The air is clear and crystalline, and what enraptured me right from the start was those unforgettable sunrises and sunsets, and those very still, starlit nights with a full moon reflected on the Flow, framed by the silhouette of the gentle Orkney hills. A visitor from Australia once told me that Orkney was the nearest approach he had seen to '3-D'. No wonder that it is the photographer's paradise.

Gerald A Meyer[ex-editor of The Orcadian], The Scots Magazine Dec 1969

[re-printed, In From the Cuithes 1995]


Mr Back and Mr Hood took views and sketches of the surrounding scenery, which is extremely picturesque in many parts, and wants only the addition of trees to make it beautiful. The hills present the bold character of rugged sterility, whilst the valleys, at this season, are clothed with luxuriant verdure.

Sir John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea 1823


Indeed, the ship owners make an objection to Stromness, that it affords such good entertainment to the captains and skippers of the vessels that they are loath to go to sea.

The Saturday Magazine Supplement June 1835


Kirkwall has excellent shops, one of the finest cathedrals in Britain, a delightful situation, and is a quite comfortable and pleasant place for a halt for a week."

George Bernard Shaw 1925


The prevailing idea of each proprietor [in Stromness] appears to have been to have his house built as unlike his neighbour's as possible. Upon the whole the attempt may be said to have been a success.

R Menzies Fergusson, Our Trip North 1892


It is thought that at the beginning of the nineteenth century about 50,000 native short-tailed sheep roamed the Orkney commons; sheep farming at this period partook more of the nature of hunting than of animal husbandry

Patrick Bailey, Orkney 1971


The Frost and Snow do not continue long, but the Wind is very boisterous; and it rains sometimes, not by Drops, but by violent Spouts of Water.

A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain by a Gentleman 1748


I could not live there. That land is too near to the world of Gotterdamerung for human habitation. One looks to see something huge and incredibly grisly standing smiling among its stone circles and plush hills. Our visit added to science a new variety of mollusc and to ourselves much food for future planning, and now and again for nightmares.

Alex Comfort, Geographical Magazine August 1941

Orkney People

Success in the face of difficulty is exhilarating, and not the least characteristic feature of Orkney is the high morale of its people.

Ronald Miller, The New Orkney Book 1966


Young men [from Orkney] often rise to be masters and mates of vessels, being in general sober, honest and able to read and write.

Penny Magazine April 1840


I have a most favourable opinion of the Orcadian and Shetland character. In it industry, self-reliance, and courage are combined with the gentleness more frequently found in woman.

John Kerr, Memories Grave and Gay 1902


It [Stromness] is a rich nursery of young men for the navy, for the service of the HBC and for many other situations in active life, in which genius, prudence, integrity and intrepid adventurousness are required…

It is remarkable that the young men who go hence to make their fortunes in the world, more frequently return to settle in the scenes of their nativity than those who go abroad from places of more distinguished culture, civilization and politeness.

Robert Heron, Scotland Described c late 19th century


The lower classes are orderly, industrious, and far from being ill-informed. The upper classes, as a body, are not inferior to their equals in station in any part of Scotland. More frequent intercourse with the mainland of Scotland is rubbing off certain peculiarities; but we rejoice to know that the character which Orkney possess for kindness, courtesy, and generous attention to strangers, remains unchanged.

Professor Thomas Stewart Traill, Encyclopedia Britannica 8th edition 1852-60


If I were in a tight corner I could feel comforted and assured if I found an Orcadian by my side. I know that I could join with him in laughing at adversity, because the Orcadian has a deep rich sense of humour.

I have one fault to find. There are too few Orcadians in the world today. It would be a much happier world if there were more of the virtues one can find in the steps of St Magnus.

Rev Ross Morrison, Stromness The Orcadian June 1942


Unfortunately, as I had tried to warn the film team, the folk in Orkney do not thrust themselves forward to be televised. On the contrary, the streets cleared like magic. There was not a single soul I could stop and speak to. Eventually I met an ex-member of the crew and forced him to stop and exchange a few words. He shot off from that encounter as if he was on an elastic tether.

Bill & Sylvia Dennison, Bombay to Elwick Bay 1993


Orcadians may be reluctant to push themselves forward or behave emotionally, and they are sceptical of too much enthusiasm, 'no' bad' being a safe opinion on most things. The writer Eric Linklater described his fellow Orkneymen, whom he loved 'more than any people on earth', as 'honest and kind, shrewd and strong to endure.'

Liv Kjorsvik Schei, The Islands of Orkney 2000


The islands came as close as any part of the United Kingdom to the kind of Liberal ideal that Grimond espoused. The people were hardy and self-reliant, their communities were democratic and cohesive, and they were unimpressed by the considerations of status that so obsessed the political class down in London.

Michael McManus, Jo Grimond, Towards the Sound of Gunfire 2001


Notwithstanding the peculiar temptations to which the people of this parish are exposed, from the great influx of shipping and other circumstances, they are, upon the whole, a moral people.

Rev Peter Learmonth, Stromness New Statistical Account 1839


In general habits, the people are, now at least, remarkably decent and sober.

Rev Adam White, North Ronaldsay New Statistical Account 1842


The people are naturally shrewd and sagacious; their character is not without defects; but in many respects, it is very estimable. Gross immoralities are not known here. They are quiet and peaceable, and remarkable for their politeness to each other, and for their kindness to strangers.

Rev David Pitcairn, Evie and Rendall New Statistical Account 1841


The People of the Orcades, generally speaking, are very civil and industrious, hospitable, sober, and religiously disposed. Though the Air be sharp and cold, yet it may be called temperate. They are generally long-lived, the Women handsome, bearing children sometimes at sixty Years.

A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain by a Gentleman 1748


I was much amused with the extreme caution these men {Orcadians signing on as boatmen for Franklin's first Arctic expedition] used before they would sign the agreement; they minutely scanned all our intentions, weighed every circumstance, looked narrowly into the plan of our route, and still more circumspectly to the prospect of return. Such caution on the part of the northern mariners forms a singular contrast with the ready and thoughtless manner in which an English seaman enters upon any enterprise, however hazardous, without inquiring, or desiring to know, where he is going, or what he is going about.

Sir John Franklin, Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea 1823


As they [Orcadians] have not been spoiled by extravagant tourists they are neither servile nor rapacious".

George Bernard Shaw 1925


What is remarkable about Orkney is that in some ways it is like what the world should be like, but is not. It is largely class-less. It is a singularly uncensorious place.

Jo Grimond, National Geographic 1966


The residents of Kirkwall form a pleasant society, and are hospitable to strangers. There is a small gaol, in which the prisoners were singing aloud to relieve the tediousness of their weary hours

The Saturday Magazine Supplement June 1835


The Orcadian is an intelligent fellow who looks well after his farm and fish and anything else he can lay hands on.

R Menzies Fergusson, Our Trip North 1892


I had noticed in the Cathedral churchyard how long-lived the Orcadians are; and no wonder, in view of the absence of bustle, the temperate climate, the instinct to work, and their imperturbable good humour.

SPB Mais, Isles of the Island 1934