WE learned last week that Orkney had been judged the best place to live in the UK for its stunning scenery, affordable housing and high quality of life with full employment, top-ranking education, absence of crime and healthy outdoor pursuits.

I love Orkney myself. The wonder of it to me is all its verdant fertility so far to the north, which allowed it to be settled early in the history of western Europe and leave behind legacy of marvellous prehistoric monuments.

I like the outer isles as much as the mainland. I’ve spent holidays on Rousay and Westray, and tramped round their shores to see the otters and puffins. The beaches can be of a Mediterranean blue and gold – pity about the numbing temperature of the water. Still, later you can always warm up the inner self once again at a gourmet restaurant, of which the islands boast several.

The thing that has suffered in this opulent Orkney of the oil boom is the local culture. The first book by the late sage of Stromness, George Mackay Brown, was Greenvoe, published in 1972, right at the beginning of the boom. It depicted a quirkish traditional community being undermined and destroyed by the ominous, anonymous forces of the military-industrial complex.

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With hindsight we can say it took a little too apocalyptic a view, yet there is no doubt that the new Orkney is a good deal different from the old.

One immediately striking feature is the presence of so many white settlers, or ferry-loupers in the local lingo. I have the impression they tend to dominate in the non-traditional roles, that is, those outside the farming and fishing sectors. I can recall a Question Time (or maybe the radio version, Any Questions?) that was broadcast from Kirkwall, when every single questioner had an English accent.

After the car-crash BBC broadcast from Motherwell, this is easy to credit. Perhaps the charming native Orcadians are still too bashful and tongue-tied compared to these incomer types, but with the money they are earning they don’t need to bother.

In fact Orkney has 89% of its population aged 16 to 64 in a job, the highest employment rate in the entire UK. This earning power shows in wealth creation, because the rate of home-ownership runs at 72% of households, well above the Scottish average and indeed better than in England. The recent history of the islands shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that economic growth is the most effective way to improve security and prosperity.

The economy of Orkney has grown faster than the economy of Scotland as a whole and so, along with it, has the affluence and welfare of Orcadians.

While once upon a time the Orcadians were among the poorer people in the UK, now they are among the richer. If we ignored Whitehall’s convenient fiddles and included in our measurement the value of their North Sea oil, cheap though it is at the moment, they would be fabulously wealthy.

Were we to ask them whether they might prefer their historic poverty to their present prosperity, there could be little doubt of the answer. They have got rich quick, and this has been their road to happiness. Not very high-minded, perhaps, but it works for them.

Their good fortune shows itself not only at a private but also at a public level. In the old days, the peasant communities living from farming or fishing were, in however picturesque a fashion, facing slow but steady long-term decline.

Now they have been wise enough to wield their windfall wealth to wangle themselves many modern amenities that had previously been wanting, so as to create the chance of sustaining their prosperity beyond the death of the oil industry – and in particular to keep the outer isles populated. While life has in reality become more and more concentrated in or round Kirkwall, there are still resources enough for development and infrastructure elsewhere.

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All of this suggests that stable jobs, good prospects and a secure place to live are what drive improvements in wellbeing, rather than anything more idealistic. On its simpler scale, Orkney may therefore offer lessons for Scotland as a whole. We all live on the edge of Europe, under eternal threat of being ignored or neglected.

We are liable at any time to be overwhelmed by economic forces far beyond our feeble control. The only thing we can do is try to keep ahead of the game, to accept change rather than hinder it and to respond to it in the best way we can. This, the truth of our condition, is still far from clear to the Scottish Government. Orkney Islands Council is more enlightened.

The National: Patrick Harvie 'sets the tone for an important part of the nationalist movement'Patrick Harvie 'sets the tone for an important part of the nationalist movement'

By comparison with Orkney, the economy of Scotland is at the moment in a fairly miserable condition. Last year it grew by just 1.4%, less than half the historic levels it has achieved, and below even the dismal English figure of 1.8%, this the lowest since 2012.

Quite apart from the economics there is a political effect. So long as the gap in growth remains, the UK government will be able to stock up on ammunition for its argument that Scotland cannot afford to become independent because it needs subsidy from Westminster.

Yet a few extra percentage points in all these dull statistics have the potential to transform lives and to change the country. Policies geared to raising growth in gross domestic product, whether tax cuts or initiatives to spur productivity, will over time yield tangible results in wider prosperity and in the personal sense of independence that goes with it (surely not inseparable from a public sense of independence).

The Scottish Government prefers to raise taxes and mount efforts to “save jobs” that only keep workers less productive rather than more productive – this in a situation nationally of pretty well full employment. There may be more to life than gross domestic product, but if policymakers take growth for granted we will in future have fewer resources to devote to our social and environmental wellbeing.

Here are the thoughts of the Green leader, Patrick Harvie, who is not a member of the Scottish government but who sets the tone for an important part of the nationalist movement.

He wrote just the other day in The National: “Nothing in nature can grow forever, and it’s absurd to think that human economic activity will be an exception to that. The more obsessively we chase after everlasting growth, the more harm we will do to our society, to our health and to the environment we depend upon.”

I’d like him to go and tell the Orcadians how their last half-century has been harmful to them.