The Moving to Orkney Guide

Mermaid illustration by Stromness, Orkney artist Bryce Wilson for Tom Muir's Orkney folklore book The Mermaid Bride.


Moving to Orkney is a bit more challenging than the average relocation.

It's not easy shifting your entire household to an island. Additional challenges arise if you're moving to Orkney from outside of the UK.

Most people would agree, the decision to relocate to the Orkney Islands not one to be made on a whim.

The question is, is it worth it?

Hoy High lighthouse, island of Graemsay, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Photo credit Rhonda Muir of Orkneyology.com

Is Orkney the best place to live?

It's an inflammatory question - completely unfair and subjective. But I'm just going to go ahead and say yes. 

All those surveys naming Orkney as the best ... most romantic ... happiest people ... they're true. Orkney is the best place in the UK to live.

At least for me. As of this writing I'm three years into my adventure, and I'm still enthused. There's so much more to learn and enjoy for the first time.

The most important question is: would moving to Orkney be a good decision for you?

Mull Head walk, Deerness, Orkney Islands Mainland - www.Orkneyology.com

What you'll get from this page ...

I'm enlisting the help of expatriate friends willing to share their stories about moving to Orkney and their experiences of everyday life in Orkney.

I hope these stories will inform you, helping you to explore your options.

We'll discuss these topics and more:

  • The process of moving to Orkney from overseas ... because everyone who moves to an island has to cross at least one sea!
  • Visa issues that some folks will have to tackle before being allowed to move to the UK
  • Reflections about island life 
  • Insights into what it's like to live in Orkney and Scotland 
  • Unique challenges that expats face when we settle far away from family and homes of origin
  • Tips on adjusting to a new culture, coping with challenges and learning resilience
  •  What we've learned about ourselves, our cultures (new and old) and about other people since moving to Orkney
  • Resources for people contemplating moving to Orkney or elsewhere in Scotland

Got an Orkney expat story to tell?  Read to the end of the page for instructions about submitting your story, or click here.

Skyran Moon art exhibition in Orkney Islands, Scotland at storyteller Tom Muir's Orkney storytelling event - www.Orkneyology.com

Friendly advice

In addition, I'll curate the advice of people who have lived in Orkney at some point in time and have since moved elsewhere.

Together, we'll try to provide some helpful guidelines for moving to Orkney and offer tips for negotiating life on a Scottish island.

Cottage on the Orkney island of Rousay, Orkney, Scotland, UK. www.Orkneyology.com

You may prefer the term immigrant, global nomads or some other synonym to the word expat

For simplicity, I'll mostly stick with "expat" to describe people  outside of their native culture who are currently living in Orkney and other parts of Scotland, whether their stay is permanent or temporary.

Questions about moving to Orkney?

To explore the possibility of moving to Orkney, first consult the expert resources at the bottom of this page. 

If you can't find the answer in the Expat in Orkney Resources below, please email me, and I'll do my best to steer you in the right direction.

I'm no expert, but I have managed to survive the complicated move from America to Orkney, so I know it's possible.

Cottage on the Orkney island of Rousay, Orkney, Scotland, UK. Photographer Rhonda Muir of www.Orkneyology.com

My Moving to Orkney Story

I was 49 years old and had raised four children on my own. I'd worked myself ragged during some very hard years. My kids were all launched into their life adventures.

I felt that I deserved one, too.

Rhonda Muir of www.Orkneyology.com with two of her children
Rhonda Muir's family - www.Orkneyology.com

A Long-Delayed Journey

I decided to visit the beautiful Scottish islands that I'd dreamed of for so long.

Orkney had long been a secret whisper in my heart, encouraging me in the hard years, not allowing me to give up. I'd never traveled beyond Florida, but I knew I had to do this for myself.

I began to make plans, which included contacting a man who'd helped me to research a book long years before - Tom Muir. 

Orcadian traditional storyteller Tom Muir of www.Orkneyology.com; photo credit Tom O'BrienPhoto credit Tom O'Brien

If you'd like to read  more about how Tom and I met, you can find our story here.

As before, Tom was kind and helpful. We soon found ourselves corresponding more than was strictly necessary to plan my trip.

At some point, we decided it was easier to Skype. Then we were talking every night. It wasn't long before we realized that we had to be together.

Neither Tom nor I had any doubts. The people who love us were understandably nervous for us, but we weren't afraid. We knew.

It took a while to get things arranged so we could have our introductory meeting in Orkney. But finally, everything was ready. Off I went, dazzled by my own daring.

American expat Rhonda Muir of www.Orkneyology.com in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK.

Love at First Sight

A cancelled flight out of Buffalo delayed my journey by an entire day, which I spent biting my nails in the airport. Next came an exhausting chain of intercontinental flights.

I was a wreck. 

Not exactly the serene and romantic beginning I'd envisioned, but no matter. I was on my way to meet the man I'd fallen in love with from afar.

Shaking with nerves - and limp with relief that UK Border Control had allowed me into the country - I gazed down at the sculpted islands lying serenely below, still and green amidst the swirling waters.

They drew me into their spell. I was home.

www.Orkneyology.com - The gorgeous sculpted cliffs of Birsay, Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

Be realistic!

Tom and I had spent hundreds of hours talking, so I had an idea of what life in Orkney would be like.

I found Orkney more beautiful than I'd imagined and Stromness a supportive and creative community - almost as wonderful as the man I'd come there to meet.

www.Orkneyology.com - Native Orcadian storyteller, folklorist and historian Tom Muir and his American expat wife, Rhonda, in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

By the time I returned to the US several weeks later, Tom and I knew that we'd do whatever we had to do to make it happen.

I was moving to Orkney.

www.Orkneyology.com - Native Orcadian storyteller, historian and folklorist Tom Muir and his America expat wife, Rhonda, on Photo credit Rob Traill Thomson

Adjustments

Back in America, the process of moving overseas to Orkney began to look daunting. I bought a big notebook and started making lists.

Tom had offered to move to the US, knowing how close I was to my family. His willingness touched my heart, but Tom was rooted in Orkney in a way that I'd never been rooted in Western New York.

Negotiating the minefield of emotions was even more difficult than the logistics of moving overseas. As happy as my family were for me, we all experienced a kind of grief at the inevitable changes that my leaving would bring.

I can honestly say that dealing with the sadness of the people I love was the hardest task of all.

www.Orkneyology.com - American in Orkney expat Rhonda Muir's family

The Plan!

Over the next six months, I kept looking at things in my house, pondering, "Do I love this enough that I'd be willing to pay for it to travel across the Atlantic?"

My notebook was filled with lists and tasks, organized from most-urgent to things-that-can-wait. Some things, like selling my house in a an economically depressed area, were impossible to predict, but there was nothing to do but forge ahead and try.

Almost miraculously, my home sold by word-of-mouth before I got the chance to put it on the market.

I re-homed my pets (another sadness amidst the joy), gave away most everything I owned and sent my old car off with one of my daughters. 

The Plan was coming together. Tasks were getting checked off the Master List most pleasingly.

I'll be adding details about getting my Leave to Remain, often called a "spouse visa" , how to move house overseas and other mundane-but-necessary issues in days to come.

If you're thinking of moving to Orkney, be sure to check back soon!

In January of 2016, I cleaned my empty house one last time, locked the front door and hugged my two favorite trees goodbye.

Then I sat in my driveway in a rented car and cried.

www.Orkneyology.com - Pine trees in American expat Rhonda Muir's home before moving to Scotland's Orkney Islands

Everything that I hadn't given away, I had just sent off in a truck, bound for NY City to await a container ship. There was a lot of snow that day. I had to shovel my big driveway repeatedly so the moving truck could get in.

I'd forgotten to leave a winter hat out of my packed belongings. My hair froze. I reflected on how many ways I would not miss Western New York winters.

My belongings would languish for five months in a warehouse, waiting for another half of a container that wanted to be shipped to Scotland. 

www.Orkneyology.com - Moving to Orkney Islands, Scotland!

Suddenly, there was nothing more to do except submit my visa application and pray for approval.

While I was sweating out the visa application and waiting for the decision, I stayed with my stepmom for several weeks in the very bedroom where I'd grown up.

I had one suitcase with me. It contained a few clothes, my journal, several books and the huge pile of papers that I needed for completing my visa application.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Orkney Rhonda Muir's old homeBefore ...

In some ways, those liminal days were very uncomfortable. It felt like I was dangling over a chasm. I was certain about my decision but feeling ... uprooted

During this strange time, I wandered around my old hometown, visited all of my old haunts and said goodbye over and over to people and places I loved.

It was both exciting and poignant.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Orkney Rhonda Muir's old home while moving to OrkneyAfter

Moving to Orkney at last!

Tom's friends and family took me to their hearts with great warmth. I guess I'm fortunate in that way, having a ready-made community to step right into.

For me, the process of taking firm root in my new home is ongoing, even three years into my adventure. And yet, in all the important ways I felt at home here immediately.

It was the "rooting" that took longer, and is ongoing. Like a tree taking root, there's nothing to do but water the little rootlets and wait.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Scotland's Orkney Islands, Rhonda Muir, getting rooted in her new home in Orkney

Who are you?

Being a stranger can be an unsettling feeling when you've always lived among the same people - people who have known you since you were born.

When you move to a new place, it's like you have no history. Everybody around you has a history; many of them have a history with each other.

You're a foreigner who doesn't get the jokes, pronounces everything wrong and calls foods by the wrong names.

On the other hand ...

Having no known past is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself!

Have fun with that.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Scotland's Orkney Islands Rhonda Muir on Rackwick Beach, Hoy, Orkney Islands, Scotland

What I miss since moving to Orkney

Peepers. Thunderstorms. Fireflies. Solo campfires in my back yard, gazing at the stars with my dogs and cats clustered around me on the blanket. Crickets. Trees. Sometimes snow ... but not usually. Autumn colors lighting up the hills. Walking in my woods. Sitting in my Amish rocker on the front porch with the little wind chimes tinkling in the breeze.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Scotland's Orkney Islands, Rhonda Muir - family

What about your FAMILY?

Believe it or not, I see my kids more now than I did before I left for Orkney.

Luke was in the army and then at West Point for many years, so he was away a lot. The girls were dispersing across the US. Getting together had become increasingly difficult and visits only lasted for a few days.

www.Orkneyology.com - Rhonda Muir's family - West Point graduation

Now when I go to visit them, I stay for 3 - 4 weeks at a time, giving us lots of time - more than we used to have.

And of course, they love the excuse to come to Orkney, too.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Scotland's Orkney Islands, Rhonda Muir's family

Three or four WEEKS, you ask? Who can take that much time off work? 

My girls were quite stricken at the thought of my not being close enough for them to run home to Mom any time they needed to. I promised them that I'd keep my time as open as possible so I could be in the US quickly, if they needed me.

I tell the story of my location-independent business here.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Orkney Rhonda Muir's family in Chautauqua, NY, USA

My philosophy is that people are portable. I can go there. They can come here.

So I don't usually miss them, because we'll always be seeing each other again soon.

www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Orkney Islands, Scotland, Rhonda Muir and son

The Journey


One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.


–Mary Oliver

My moving to Orkney tips

  • Visit the islands in every season, if you can. Some people can't handle the winter dark. Personally, I find it cozy.  It's the endless light of summer that gets to me! The weather can be a bit damp, cool and windy for some people's tastes.

  • But don't worry about being bored. There are always tons of creative events going on. Orkney communities really come alive in winter. 
  • Find other expats and incomers for understanding advice and empathy. You can start even before you flit by joining the friendly Facebook group "Incomers to Orkney."
  • If you're going to require a visa, start preparing early. There's a lot of paperwork to gather. Being organized makes it less of a freak-out time. 
  • Take note of information you'll be expected to provide when it comes time to renew your visa. I had a hard time scraping together the proof of residence for my renewal, since I hadn't realized that I'd need them. 
  • Find out if the UK accepts a driver's license from your country of origin. Unfortunately for me, the UK does not accept a US license, although you can drive on it for a year. It's good to know ahead of time if you'll need to get a new license eventually.

  •  Consider taking driving lessons if you're at all shaky about driving in Scotland. Good teachers are easy to find. I just asked on Facebook and found mine.

  • When you get to Orkney, you might want to join groups, clubs and activities that you find interesting. There are plenty of things to do here. 

  • Pitch in and help, but don't try to reinvent a culture that's been flourishing without your help basically forever. One complaint that I've heard about some new Orkney residents is a know-it-all attitude. "This is how we do it where I come from" might be considered rude - at least at first, when people don't really know you. Earn the right to be heard. Be gracious, respectful and friendly, and you'll make friends. Real relationships take time to grow. Be patient.
  • Be curious and interested. Orkney is a fascinating place.
  • If you come from a culture that honors the old Puritan work ethic, as I do, expect that it will take some time to settle into island time. There seems to be a more natural rhythm in Orkney, which I appreciate deeply. I am trying to learn to relax into this rhythm after decades of hurry and stress. Still working on that one.
  • When I first arrived in Orkney, a new friend who had moved from another part of the UK a few years earlier counselled me to expect for the rooting process in my new home to take at least a year. Someone else had given her that advice, and so I pass it on to you. (But don't be surprised if it takes longer.)
  • You can keep in touch. Communicating with people back where you came from - and all over the world, for that matter - is simple and free with the advent of Skype, Facebook video calls and other free services. Tom and I can keep in close contact when I'm in America, too. 
  • People with a more sensitive nature might find the onslaught of micro-changes overwhelming: ingredients you can't find or don't know the UK name of; figuring out what temperature to use for baking and what measurements to use; (Tip: look up conversion charts online, and bring your own measuring utensils with you when you move.) hundreds of new names and faces to remember. And on and on and on. Remember that it does get easier over time as the new things slowly become normal.

  •  Remember that you live on an island, now. Things will need to be ordered well ahead of time and alternate plans will be necessary if the ferries can't sail. 
  • Consciously cultivate gratitude for the privilege of living in such a beautiful and special place.
  • Be encouraged -  you will find your place in the community, but it will take some time to settle into it. Enjoy life for what it is while you're settling.
www.Orkneyology.com - American expat in Scotland's Orkney Islands Rhonda Muir and family in USA


Expats in Orkney Resources

Expat websites, podcasts, books and blogs

And finally ...

If you can understand half of this, you might be ready to move to Scotland.



~ Living in Orkney Stories ~

Share your stories about what it's like to live in Orkney and Scotland as an expat.

Life in the Orkney Islands and Scotland - What's YOUR Story?

Whether you're currently living in Orkney or once lived here and have since moved away, we would so appreciate hearing your Orkney story. Expats in other parts of Scotland are also very welcome to submit your story.

Read More Life in Orkney Stories

Click below to read other stories about living in Orkney contributed by our visitors.

A Week Turned into Ten Years and Counting 
My first visit to Orkney was for a week, in 2000. However, by the time we got there, I had studied Orkney's history and language for a whole semester. …

On a Whim 
I moved to Orkney in June 2017. I'm a mother of two little girls. We have a crazy dog and the world's most anti social cat! I was living in Yorkshire …

The Marryers 
About thirty years ago, I (Helen Woodsford-Dean) came up on holiday to Orkney and fell in love with this exceptional place that is Orkney. For the next …

My Mid Life Orkney Crisis  
So I was 50. I thought my life was settled and then, bam! Redundancy struck. What to do? I could have stayed in Somerset and tried to get another …

Click here to write your own.

Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages) courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE - Thanks, Bryce!

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