FIVE months ago, I boarded the ferry at Scrabster bound for Stromness to start a new job and life in the Orkney Islands. Emblazoned on the side of the ship, named the Hamnavoe, was a giant Viking pointing northwards, serving as a reminder of Orkney’s unique heritage, something I was very excited to learn more about.

After living in the central belt area for 37 years it was time for a change and when an opportunity arose to move to Orkney, I knew I wouldn’t be able to turn it down. It’s a special place which has always had an allure that is hard to put into words.

Any time I’ve spoken to people in mainland Scotland who have been to Orkney, their eyes have lit up as they reminisce about their memories of the islands, speaking with such a fondness that it is was if they were talking about an old friend or first love.

When I told friends and colleagues about the move I was met with questions such as “Where is Orkney?”, “Is it true there’s no trees there?”, “Can you drive to it?”, “Is it in a different time zone?” and – most ridiculously – “are there roads there?”

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For anyone who doesn’t know: Orkney is a group of islands just off the north-east tip of mainland Scotland; there are some trees in Orkney (although not a huge number); you can only reach the islands by ferry or plane; it’s on Greenwich Mean Time; and yes, there are many roads! My first impression, which has only got stronger the longer I’ve lived here, is how Orkney very much feels like a country. And it is a place which proudly celebrates and embodies its Scottish, British and Norwegian identities.

Orkney was Norse for as long as it’s now been Scottish and those cultural bonds with Norway run as deep as Scapa Flow. Almost every place name in the islands derives from what the Vikings called them; Orkney celebrates Norwegian Constitution Day; it’s common for children to be named after the Nordic Earls of Orkney such as Magnus, Thorfinn and Erlend; and even the flag of Orkney is a Nordic cross and looks similar to Norway’s national flag.

But culturally, while the Scandinavian ties are strong, Orkney is very much Scottish. Although many Orcadian words can be heard in conversations (particularly “peedie”!), the Scots language is very widely used, more than in most parts of the country actually. And when I went to the pub to watch the Scotland men’s side play Norway at football, there definitely weren’t any doubts as to who the locals were supporting!

Orcadian people are very friendly and there is a very strong sense of community here. I was speaking to a woman in Westray, an Orkney island of around 600 people, who described the residents there as a big family where “if someone hurts, you hurt and if someone is successful, you’re excited for them” and how she didn’t feel like she had brought up three children on the island, instead that “we’ve all brought up all our kids together”.

Take a drive or even just walk on a road in Westray or on another Orkney island and passing drivers will wave hello. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a resident on the island or a visitor – you’re made to feel welcome, at home.

And being around people like that has helped me settle in here after moving from Glenrothes. The first time it sunk in for me just how far away north Orkney is was when a Kirkwallian asked if I was “fae doon sooth”, a term I’ve always understood to mean England.

“No” I replied, “I’m from Fife”.

I was informed that to someone living in Orkney, Fife is “doon sooth”!

I’ve tried to immerse myself in Orkney and to explore as much of it as I can in between the storms – it can get very windy here in winter with winds speeds and gusts at ground level at times akin to what I would experience hillwalking on the Cairngorm plateau!

The National: The Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle in Orkney. Picture: Jamie Simpson/Herald & Times

I love the awe-inspiring coastline and sea stacks which run along the west of Mainland Orkney – it’s like someone took a huge knife and carved out enormous cliffs which you can perch yourself above to look out over the ocean. At sunset, looking across the open sea, it can truly feel like you’re standing on the edge of the world.

The islands around Mainland Orkney are just as special. Hoy, which Vikings called the “High Island”, is just mesmerising for natural beauty – it’s where you’ll find Ward Hill the highest hill in the Northern Isles and a superlative viewpoint, some of the tallest cliffs in Britain at St John’s Head, and the unmistakable and majestic Old Man of Hoy. It offers so much and on such a grand scale.

On mainland Scotland, I would sometimes take a train to get a work meeting, appointment or to explore somewhere new. In Orkney I take a ferry. Many Orcadians rely on ferries on a daily basis to get to work, to get to school or college, to make doctors appointments, to do shopping, to move livestock and materials, to connect with friends and family and for many other reasons.

They are lifelines and keep Orkney moving. There are also planes which keep some of the more distant islands in Orkney connected with each other and Kirkwall, the largest town. To many people in Scotland and the rest of the UK, including myself at one point, Orkney seems distant, remote, on the periphery.

In reality it isn’t like that at all. Geographically, the archipelago is only eight miles across the water from John O’Groats, or a one-hour flight from Glasgow or Edinburgh, it’s not as far away as it can sometimes be perceived.

Scotland’s islands and what they contribute to the country, culturally, socially and economically, are just as important as anywhere else. Rather than being thought of as an outlier, Orkney is very much at the heart of so many things that Scotland does well, such as renewables, tourism and food and drink.

It goes back to those questions friends would ask me about what life is like in Orkney, which stemmed from a lack of understanding and knowledge of what life is like here.

I believe the only way to change that is for more people to take the time to see and learn more about Scotland’s islands and the communities who live there.

Then who knows, you might realise island life is for you as well.