Orkney Updates

Orkneyology.com is your online Orkney travel guide - with stories!

Let Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir and his American wife, Rhonda, help you find your best experience of Orkney.

Orkney Updates is like a helpful broonie. Here you can find Tom and Rhonda Muir's latest articles, travel advice and stories.

We'd love to help you get carried away in Orkney.

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.

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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

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No More Stinky Jobs! - Building a Portable Home Business

How am I building a website business about my new home in Scotland's Orkney Islands with no technical knowledge? What I'm building is more than a business. I'm creating a lifestyle of freedom. If I can do it, you can, too.

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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

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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 job,

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Share Your Moving to Orkney Story!

An invitation to people who are living or have lived in Orkney (primarily), and in other parts of Scotland, to tell your “Living in Orkney” story on Orkneyology.com. The focus is on moving to Orkney from other places, but we welcome the viewpoints of Orcadians about life in Orkney, as well. If you have a local business, blog or website, you’re welcome to share the information in your story. Follow the instructions on the form at the bottom of the page to submit. After it’s approved, your story will become a page on Orkneyology.com. Thanks for sharing your insights with our visitors, and please let me know if there are any problems with the form. Thanks! Rhonda Muir

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Moving to Orkney - Is It Really the Happiest Place to Live?

Moving to Orkney? You should know a few things first. Life on a Scottish island isn't a good fit for everyone. Make the most informed decision possible. Get thoughtful guidance from an American expat in Orkney. Consider these things before you make the big move to Orkney.

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Renewable Energy in Orkney, Land of Opportunity

Read Laura Watts' poetic-scientific reflections on life, light and the renewable energy industry in Orkney. Another reason that Orkney is such a great place to live and work.

Laura is a poet, writer, ethnographer of futures, and Interdisciplinary Senior Lecturer in Energy and Society in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, and a good friend.

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What's so Great About Living in Orkney?

The latest survey once again places Orkney at the top of the best places to live in the UK. This isn't surprising to people who live in Orkney, especially incomers like me who have moved to these beautiful islands by choice.

As the linked BBC article points out, there are aspects of life on a northerly island that weren't considered in the survey: connectivity, transport issues and fuel poverty, for example. All of these issues are concerning Orcadians at the moment.

But every community has its issues. It's a matter of personal priorities, if you're fortunate enough to be able to choose where to live. For me, the downside of living in the Orkney Islands is slight compared to the blessings of life here.

But then, I'm terribly biased.

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George Mackay Brown - Orkney's Beloved Bard

George Mackay Brown breathed life into Orkney's people, history and lore through his gorgeous writing. Find out why this man is still so loved in Orkney.

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Orkney Renewable Energy Pioneers - Still at it!

Take a look at this short Financial Times video showcasing another aspect of Orkney's pioneering alternative energy research. Hydrogen-powered passenger and car ferries are hoped to be in use by 2021 as an alternative to fossil fuels.

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Old Orkney Customs - The Yules

The festivities began on Tulya’s E’en, seven days before Yule Day.

‘On that night the Trows received permission to leave their homes in the heart of the earth and dwell, if it so pleased them, above ground.’

To protect their crops and animals from the trows farmers had to attend to the ‘saining’, making the sign of the cross. Two straws were placed as a cross in the gate of the stack yard. A hair from the tail of each cow and horse was plaited together and fixed above the byre and stable door. A burning brand was carried through the byre and other out houses. There was fiddle music, feasting and dancing in the evening.

The following day was Helya’s night. Milky porridge was made for the children, placed in the protection of the Virgin Mary. On the 20th December was Tammasmas E’en, the eve of the feast day of St Thomas. This was a holy day - no form of frivolous merriment was allowed. No work was done after dark. If anyone broke this tradition it was very bad luck:

The very babe unbornCried oh dul! Dul!For the breaking of Thammasmes E’en,Five nichts afore Yule.

The Sunday before Yule Day was Byana’s Sunday. Half a cow’s head was boiled and eaten for supper. The skull was cleaned and set up for another important custom.

When it was Yule E’en, 24th December, it was very important that the family have a piece of meat for their meal. ‘Yule Cakes’ were made for the children from oatmeal.

Every member of the family had to wash and put on clean clothes, then three burning coals were dropped into the washbasin to prevent the trows from taking their power. The house was tidied and the dirty water thrown away. All locks were opened and the lamps were left burning all night. An iron knife was on the table near the door as a protection from the trows.

Yule Day began with the farmer placing a candle in the eye socket of the half a cow’s skull eaten on Byana’s Sunday. He went to the byre and fed the cattle by this light. He returned to the house to wake the family and give them a dram – even the bairns. Breakfast was eaten by candle light, as well. No work was to be done on Yule Day, as the old rhyme says:

Nedder bake nor brew,Shape nor Shew,Upon gude Yule,Else muckle dulWill be dy shareDis year an mair.

(Neither bake or brew,Shape (cut cloth) or sew,Upon good Yule,Else great sorrowwill be your shareThis year and more.)

More feasting and dancing to fiddle music happened that evening. For the week of Yule, people were to avoid doing their usual work. The only exception was to the farmers, who had to look after their livestock.

New Year was also a part of the Yules, but that’s another story for another time.

The Christmas Season in Orkney

Christmas in Orkney is a community affair. For a solid month, there’s a community event going on somewhere in Orkney just about every night. Orcadians love to celebrate.

Every community has its own festive tree lighting, where wee mince pies and hot mulled wine are freely passed about. Shops are open late for special shopping extravaganza weekends – again, with the mince pies and mulled wine that are everywhere at Christmastime. You have to love a place that serves up tiny pies and hot wine at the drop of a hat.

Christmas and New Year's Day bring the ancient rough-and-tumble Ba' game. It's so rough that residents and shops along the street route barricade their doors and windows.

Joining in the rougher festivities last year was Stromness' revived custom of the Yule Log Pull, where a giant log gets yanked down the street in a massive tug o' war amidst great tumult from the crowd. These people know how to have fun.

And oh, the concerts! The glorious, soul-stirring, Norwegian-neighbor-welcoming concerts in St Magnus Cathedral.

Norway, with whom Orkney has close historic (Viking) ties, gives the Cathedral two Christmas trees every year – one from Hordaland, a county in Norway that’s twinned with Orkney (like a sister-city) and one from Grimstad, from the very estate where the cathedral’s St Rognvald came from.

Tom likes to point out that while London only gets one Norwegian tree, Orkney gets TWO.

The islanders are a musical bunch, and extremely talented, at that. Orcadians and “incomer” neighbors join forces to produce ethereal choir music, orchestral concerts and Christmas carol sings. Tom and I heard a group caroling in the streets of Stromness one night. They were good, too!

On the opposite end of the Christmas amusements spectrum are the pantomimes. Each community puts on its own show, with audience participation a must. Coming from America, I had only the vaguest concept of “pantos.” Tom coached me before my first one as to when to shout back the pre-scripted phrases to the actors – responses known by the whole audience and shouted enthusiastically at the appropriate times, no cues required.There's a whole lot of cross-dressing going on, too.

What silly fun! The best part is that everyone gets to be silly together. You can’t help but draw closer when that happens.

The odd concept of ghost stories at Christmas is another delightful new custom for an American transplant. But it seems less strange when I remember that both Tom's and my favorite story in the world – A Christmas Carol – is just that, a Christmas ghost story.

With that inspiration, the Orcadian Story Trust, which Tom and I are intimately involved with, held a mince-pied mulled-wined event at the beautiful Orkney Brewery this month. The theme for the night? Ghost stories for Christmas, of course.

Meanwhile, at the Muir house, A Christmas Carol is read aloud in nightly installments.

Orkney Storytelling Lives Again

Not that long ago, traditional Orkney storytelling was breathing its last. Today, an acclaimed "little festival with a big heart" is going strong, welcoming storytellers from all over the globe. How did the storytelling revival begin, and how can you take part?

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