Orkney and the New Class Culture

In the 60s I would hear my father describe the Orkney in which we lived as a classless society. Then I didn’t know what ‘class’ meant. We were literally thousands of miles away from the industrial central belt, where the enormous shipyards, steel works and mines employed numbers which were in excess of our entire community. The Second World War made men of my father’s generation into union men, cementing their hatred of the forces hierarchy that was the badge of the pre-war Churchill world where workers won the war despite the blunders of the Colonel Blimps in command.

But in the isles unions and working class solidarity were a tenuous thing. The social aspirations of working people, farmhands, tradesmen and fishermen were predicated on the feudal patronage and allegiance to the mores of the Protestant Kirk, the Masonic lodge, and the acceptance that you would be Christian, subservient and thankful. In political terms Labour was a dirty word and socialist affiliations would ensure you were ostracised from the Kirk’s elder-led ladder of opportunity.

Without any kind of religious divide to speak of – there were no Catholics in evidence, or apparent consolidation of working class identity through a boss/worker dynamic, our only picture of the upper classes were the Lord Snooty visions of the joke toff. There were no private schools, so you might say today no choice, but like the very distant comic image, the few gymkhana children of the bona fide Laird class would disappear to Gordonstown and Eaton never to be seen again but in plus fours and loud cartoon voices. They however never counted in our world – they were already a whole galaxy apart.

We were all the same, or so we thought. We all wore home-knitted ganseys, and split into innocent childhood ‘gangs’ that divvied up the geography of the 2000 strong town into Nessers, Middletooners and Northenders. The demarcation of the gang boundaries could be a fluctuating as with all turf disputes. The Northenders claim took in the slaughter house, the egg packing factory and the Thornley Binders grain Store as well as what would now be known as a ‘mix’ of social housing. The Middle Tooners encompassed the ‘scheme’ of former army huts known as ‘The Attery’ that become temporary post war housing but lasted well into the 60s. Also the stone built villas of the retired sea captains, the three bakeries, the harbour and the school. The Nessers, the most feisty of the tripartite Stromness gang culture, laid claim to the area south of a burn that ran past a disused distillery that once produced Old Orkney Whisky, although there could be disputes about whether their line was not indeed another burn that lay further north… Within the Nesser’s patch lay the museum with its wonderfully politically red-faced collections of stuffed birds, animals and plunder from the British Empire, as well as a scattering of former air raid shelters which provided them with first rate gang huts and stores for the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire collections. Their’s was the largest area of council housing, the Captains villas petering out to ones and twos as you moved southwards until you reached Anderson’s boat yard and the nearest you might get to a place with a workforce that might suggest class solidarity.

There were divides in pay and education – the doctor, the teachers, the ministers (there were 3 forms of Protestantism plus methodist hall) were still revered and treated with some deference. This was the separation of education which perpetuated the need to please those in positions of influence. You could not risk a bad reference from the schoolmaster or the minister in your hope to enter the Post Office, nursing or the Navy… Attitudes or questioning views that could be described as uppity let alone subversive, could seriously impede your life’s ambitions. ‘Cleverness’ was talked of like some genetic given that ordinary people couldn’t achieve.

My father always insisted he was working class, a badge I realised could not apply to myself and nor technically to him as an adult. Still he wanted his family to share his working classness. He ended his career as a respected and radical educationalist and headmaster of the same school he attended as a ragged boy, and we lived in one of the afore-mentioned large merchant’s villas sandwiched between the new grey-harled council scheme and the crumbling substandard fishermen’s houses on the harbour.

If finance and professional status is the only definition of class then he was indeed the ‘working class boy made good,’ when he shifted himself to the middle class via a teaching diploma and by default his offspring. His attitude and those he taught all that he influenced, remained resolutely empathetic with the trials of the working class and the view that each individual retained the agency over their own life to make it the one they wanted it to be. He railed against unfairness, the plight of the under-dog and the injustices perpetuated by the powerful Kirk and feudal Empire- driven hierarchy.

The mass battles that were to be fought in the isles were not union or wage-based but were about the very survival of small peripheral and financially poor communities in the face of their perceived expend ability at the hands of a distant state justifying ‘national interest’. Middle and upper class London ( there was no power in Edinburgh) wanted to develop nuclear power, uranium mining and nuclear dumping and the insignificant peasant fishing and farming communities were mere gnats of irritation in their grand plans.

40 years on from the ‘classless’ innocence of my island youth I can appreciate that the divisions of opportunity and class were always more subtle than I may have thought then. Returning from the city as a refugee of Tory policies in 1986 it was apparent then that everything was on the shift and the bubble that was old Island Orkney was straining and breaking too.

In the wake of a push to bigger scale operations and EU regulations it emerged that industrial zones were preferred where people worked separated from their living communities. Planners told us this was for the best. Where small carpenters or blacksmiths operated next door to homes, hotels, butchers and bakeries, the new thing was to separate work and living. The financially robust did not want their nice new bungalow sited beside a noisy joiner’s shop surrounded by white vans. It was cleaner, more efficient, made economic sense to have food parks, industrial zones and residential areas.

At the same time it removed work as a sensual part of the fabric of the people’s lives. No longer could you walk from end to end of our small street and hear the noise of electric saws, smell crabs being boiled, fresh bread baking, oatcakes or fudge wafting, see beef carcases dripping blood on the floor through the back door of the butcher or the hose swill the blood across the street into the town drains. The dislocation of everyday life from the means of production of our necessities in particular food, has bred a sanitised class that balk at the simple hands-on dirtiness of what is means to provide for life. Work has become a thing separate from life that you go somewhere else to do and others don’t see.

The butchering, crab killing and welder’s flashes are all safely hidden from view and consciousness and have become an unknown world to most. Our workless non-class who cannot even aspire to the level of working class might if presented in a rural context be shooting seals, deer and snaring rabbits to survive, only to be much frowned upon by the emergent environmental class who manage not to see too clearly the human deprivation on their doorstep which results from the supremacy of the protected mammal. Foreign poverty is much more sexy it would seem.

A confident middle class has burgeoned in Orkney since my return in 1986. It was starting back then as refugees from elsewhere in the UK flocked to buy up the quaint old fishermen’s and crofter’s houses dirt cheap (but not so cheap the ‘workers’ could), effusing gushingly over the qualities of the ‘real’ community they had discovered. These were economic migrants with substantial stashes of cash that could fund non-working lifestyles of leisure pursuits and marginal tea-room operations. The below tolerable houses are now tarted up and titillated with government grant schemes homogenising even the paint palette to a selected shade card of colour options…And so in stead of the plethora of hotch-potch life there is now supplanted all the best accoutrements of transition to total gentrification.

Slick glassy galleries packaging the indigenous past, a fringe of satellite craft shops and further galleries reselling ersatz versions of the former place ad infinitum is the façade that sells itself in the weather- acceptable few months technically termed summer, while high culture from elsewhere is dispensed into ‘Orkney the Venure’.

This new middle class is a self sufficient social enclave of its own in a way it never was in years past operating within its own sphere, regaling in the virtues of clotted cream and despairing in the waiting lists for swimming lessons. Even the museum has had to withdraw its politically incorrect stuffed birds from its windows in the face of bird politics, only to replace them with much less intriguing felt offerings and touristy gizmos.

It was never classless here, as at the age of five I knew the boy who came to school in jumble sale clothes had less money than me, but now you can see the evidence of class difference much more clearly. The rampant middle class are on the rise loudly proclaiming their success at assimilating themselves into these blighted but ‘picturesque’ and disintegrating working communities.

In my childhood the differential was smaller, now it is vast, and the great working unwashed that spray slurry, stink of bait and know humans kill animals because we are top of the food chain, are in danger of extinction in their own environments for spoiling the sanitised green kailyards of the nouveaux gentile. This new middle class insist on the comforts of city supermarkets, knows their rights and vociferously insists on them. They stack themselves onto committees and into the better paid professional jobs, while as a region we remain staunchly among the lowest ranking wage economies in the UK.

Is middle classness a combination of finance, attitude and dislocation from your own roots with the unexamined assumptions that applications of your cultural values apply universally without investigating first whether or not they are appropriate in an adopted context?

Where does that leave the product of a middle class upbringing searching for a lost working class heritage? Well ditch the guilt, you’re still far from a posh kid. Use the skills you have to illuminate that the inequalities in society are still about class, where humans lose touch with each other’s living and working situations and the seismic unfairness there now is in access to opportunity.

The rich/poor divide is obscene and the middle class cannot be allowed to salve their social and financial consciences by psychological transference to distant causes and frilly single issues that ignore what is happening to the disenfranchised in their own backyard. The simple post war rules of class have changed and those most in need of a voice are even more disenfranchised than ever before.

In the years when the prevailing spin was that class was dead in Britain, the acquisitive individualist smoke and mirrors concealed the fact that this is very far from the truth. Organised middle and upper classness which never needed union meetings to consolidate its power is in ascendency while traditional organised working classness has evaporated along with the only mechanism it ever had to organise- work. Class is now something of a moveable feast split into many shards of definition akin to the fluidity of identity itself. And we are left with the simple truth that the poor are always with us, be they financially, aspirationally or educationally, that is unless we choose to change that.

Comments (0)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Barontorc says:

    What a eye-opening explanation of small community development and just how social structure is over-arched by vested power in the establishment, be it church or authority. It explains a lot about the continuing loyalty to the Liberal Party, as was. Perhaps, if this essay is correct the influx of “ootsiders” will bring a more populace driven political outlook and cut these status quo shackles. Pity though that what was truly Orcadian is becoming a diminishing memory, good and not so good.

  2. Rhys says:

    Brilliant piece. As someone who grew up as a teacher’s son in rural Ceredigion, I can relate to this. The Welsh-speaking working class community that defined my village has almost disappeared, the residents priced out by ‘downsizers’ and ‘white-flighters’ from the English Midlands who are openly hostile to our way of life. In many villages along the western coast of Wales around 70% of the residents are immigrants.

  3. George Gunn says:

    I can only concur with what Fiona has so eloquently and perceptively laid out in regard to the changing social make up of Orkney. I married an Orcadian and my wife’s experience is very similar if not worse – in as much as her family were economically cleared from their northern island which is now full of people from the South of England. In my native Caithness, just over the firth, the picture-pattern is the same yet around Thurso radically different with the thousands who came from all over “Britain” to work at Dounreay. Culturally what happens is that the indigenous way of life and the values attached to that get eroded to the point of invisibility. Cultural assumptions become those of the settler and as far as the arts is concerned what is produced is homogenised, fooshionless soup. This has been the pattern, historically, over time but hardly, I think, with such materialistic aggression. The “atomic” society of Caithness has a major problem: what happens when the decommissioning of Dounreay is over? The answer is (from both governments): nothing; we don’t care. The same will happen in Orkney when eventually tourism is no longer sustainable. As ever it is up to local people to create their local reality. The further from the central belt you are the greater this reality becomes.

  4. Dave McEwan Hill says:

    Hugely perceptive and moving. And true to a greater or lesser extent of much of highland and rural Scotland. A class of leisured incomers very often of good intent but just as often with very fixed views of how the community they have joined should behave and accord to their stereotype tend to find expression in all the local organisations which their comfort allows them to dominate.
    It’s not their fault and they are as varied and decent a selection of people as you are likely to find anywhere.
    They are a product of the political and constitutional situation we are in. We do not presently have the political power to provide the support that our rural and highland communities will expect when we are in charge of our own country.
    It is a very different country to the one we are presently part of .

  5. KL says:

    This article is an embarrassment. It is nothing more than a misguided sudo-political rant wrapped up fancy-dan words and visceral observations. The prevailing nostalgia for poverty and drudgery never ceases to amaze me.

    Firstly, when compared with .. well almost anywhere else.. Orkney is still pretty ‘classless’, at least in monetary terms.

    I was born and raised in Orkney and am familiar with the ‘real’ culture which exists now-ish (I have been living away for 5 years). I have subsequently travelled to many places across the globe and feel that the ‘classless’ tag given to the Orcardian social structure in relation to material wealth is correctly attributed. If people are monied they tend to leave for more stimulating climbs (Aberdeen, Inverness, London or Australia), and if they choose to stay, the ‘cut them down to size’ mentality of the locals keeps feet firmly grounded. Nicknames such as the ‘Mackerel Mansion’ are good examples of this.

    On the other hand the community does support those less fortunate and growing up there were those who struggled to get by but these people were firmly part of the community.

    Secondly, This does not mean there is no class system, (now, or in some imaginary ‘Fiona Past’). Class is based on something less fluid than money.

    Orkney is ‘ruled’ by families (yes, like the rest of the word was). This is perpetuated by community rituals such as ‘the BA’. At school those from certain families were treated at times with reverence by pupils and staff. I know personally of ‘incomers’ who have been the life and soul of a community (I would be hard to find anyone to disagree) for decades and have never been fully ‘accepted’ as being part of the Orcadian fraternity.

    Of course those with a vested interest in the ‘old social structure’ based on families are reluctant to embrace changes that disregard or disrespect the social standing that was been built over generations. This social structure is simply not equipped to deal with the rigours of the modern world.

    This development of social system over time is investigated through the writings of George Mackay Brown and Eric Linklater (and in case you feel this is a somehow unique the writings of world renowned writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez cover exactly the same ground) – which is covered decently by the book on Orkney literature by Simon Hall for those interested.

    In reality, the ‘Southern’ money and influence although resented locally has lifted thousands in Orkney out of poverty and hand-to-mouth existences providing livelihoods and facilities to those in need of them. Many local independents have done very well from this ‘southern interest’ including farmers and local entrepreneurs such as Judith Glue.

    Personally, I enjoyed growing up in a society where the answer to ‘where did you go to school?’ reveals nothing about wealth or social status. However the answer to the question ‘what’s your second name?’ will reveal more than you might like. Indeed even now, disconnected as I am with day-to-day happenings in the islands, when if I meet someone connected with Orkney, all I need is a second name and one phone call to track them down.

    Orkney is a social anachronism, like a reluctant child being led into the modern world.

    Growing up within the community was in some ways idyllic and others barbaric. ‘Gentrification’ (what a horribly misappropriated word) has benefitted the locals in terms of healthcare, art and housing immeasurably. I’m sure this has more than compensated for the ‘horror’ of moving unpleasant industrial workings out of residential areas.

    Fiona, it sounds like you are just an angry person looking for something to complain about (I bet you have a loud speaker in the cupboard somewhere – try behind the stack of socialist worker papers).

    The everyday lives of Orcadians are as good as they have ever been in most measurable ways, what are you moaning about?

    P.S would you rather have a neuclear power station in central London? Minimising those who are at risk while bringing much needed employment to an economically depressed (and generally depressing) area seems like a good idea to me.

  6. Dave McEwan Hill says:

    Yes. I’d rather have a nuclear power station in Central London. Then we might get some sense on th3e issue. And the Olympics money spent in Scotland. I could go on

  7. George Gunn says:

    In reply to KL; I don’t think Fiona MacInnes is being angry or nostalgic. You make some good points – yes, lots of people who have come to live in Orkney have made great contributions to the place, the same is true in Caithness. But the truth is the majority have not and as Dave MacEwen Hill has pointed out the reasons for this are many. In the Far North we all leave or come back. What happens to us is that if we leave we lose something and, after a time, if and when we come back, we lose something else. Class was somethig strange to both Caithness and Orkney. Now it means cash and aspiration. This can’t last, has never lasted, especially in places where the real wealth is from the land and the sea. Power is control of both of these. That is what is lacking for most Orcadians and Gallachs. Nostalgia will kill us all. What we need is active, working, local politics which ensures that economic generation, derived from resources, benefits all. If not, Orkney and Caithness will be empty of people in years to come. It may be uncomfortable for a few but what Fiona MacInnes is writing about is what she sees: it is the truth. The sheer longevity of human settlement in the northern isles puts all this into perspective.

  8. Dave Coull says:

    This is a very interesting article by Fiona MacInnes which needs thinking about but there’s one thing I must point out. “We were literally thousands of miles away from the industrial central belt” – no, not literally thousands of miles. Jo Grimond was the MP for Orkney, and he is buried there, but the family fortune was made from exploiting the workers in J & D Grimond’s Jute Mills, in Dundee, which is about 200 miles from the southern part of Orkney. Not “literally thousands”.

  9. Thorfinn says:

    I live in Orkney and agree with many of the things that both Fiona and KL.

    One thing that’s not so good here is a tendency to grovel to the elites. That aspect of Orkney society is something that needs talked about. Dissent here is articulated indirectly, if at all. Average wages are among the lowest in Scotland, and the recent economic downturn has hit Orkney hardest among Scottish council regions. But you would never know it from the local newspaper or radio, or from the pronouncements of the council. The local paper has columns every single week from Liam MacArthur and Alasdair Carmichael, denouncing all opposition from their pulpits like hell-fire preachers, while the closure of one business after another is treated as though its an incomprehensible mystery that no-one can do anything about. Likewise, the prodigious wife-beating and alcohol dependency never gets a mention, in case it gets in the way of the Orkney tourist nirvana image that local business elites, and their minimum-wage part-time staff, depend on. The liberal MSP lives like a lord and carries himself just like one too. In fact the previous MSP now sits in the House of Lords and his bairns are the image of the Lairdly gymkhana set described by Fiona. In other words there’s an insidious amount of downward pressure to conform from the local bourgeois elite, crudely supported by half-wit schoolteachers and the education department who teach bairns divisive ethnocentric bollocks about being *really* Scandinavians or vikings as though its important truth, even though it was invented in the nineteenth century.
    But even though most folk usually won’t say anything directly, they’ve seen right through it and they’re starting to vote with their feet. Macarthur was sweating like a rapist at the last election and only got through on account of the utter cluelessness of the opposition campaigns. Now that more folk see that others are not impressed with him, Macarthur’s number could well be up next time around and maybe it’ll be OK to talk about Orkney as a real place – just as George Gunn says above – instead of the shit about how fecking ‘magical’ it is. Its not magical, its just another bit of rural Scotland where it pisses down for nine months of the year, the wind rarely drops below 30mph, and it gets dark at 3.30 in the afternoons, where everyone except the MSP’s daughter eats out of the chippy just like they did in the rest of Scotland back in the ’70s, virtually everyone smokes and swallows a daily ocean of cheap drink from the Co-Op or LIDL.

  10. Very well put piece. The best description I have read of what happens when an island community is invaded by a separate society of incomers, socially, economically and culturally miles apart, making their ‘cartoon voices’ the loudest.

    1. Dave McEwan Hill says:

      If I could put a word in for some of the incomers. There are those who assimilate into local community and become one of us because that is what they want to be. They contribute to our communities on the community’s terms. Some of our most generous SNP supporters and members are in this group.
      And there are those who remain remote and keep company – almost network – with their own kind.
      Without over generalising the first group are very often from the north of England and the second group are more normally from the Home Counties but the history of the whole world is of changing communies and of moving people and the only way to have significant effect in this process is to have the political power and the political direction that ensures it is beneficial in effect

  11. RMac says:

    Fiona – thanks for an interesting if slightly sentimental article but I have to take issue with a couple of the main points of contention.

    Firstly the role of the immigrant/in-comer: I’d suggest that we tread very carefully in terms of generalisations, as KL has highlighted the truth is rather more complex. Any community be it a ‘small’ island like Orkney or a ‘small’ country like Scotland needs immigrants and benefits hugely from their presence – yes there are associated issues which need managed but lets keep them in perspective. The islands have a history of out-migration over the centuries and their legacy has brought good and ill across the globe (I’d argue more good). Its all very well to rail against the different values of immigrants and how these clash with indigenous values, but imagine the mechanisms for halting or reversing that process – that’d be the sort of insular, whae’s like us, society that would leave Scotland so much poorer – socially conservative, grey, isolated.

    On the role of the state/EU: far be it for me not to acknowledge the imperfections of the ‘democractic’ machine of the state: your examples of planning and regulation are frustrations for many of us but again I’d ask what is the alternative? I doubt may would welcome the idea of an independent Orkney cut from Scotland (London and possibly the EU might be a different matter)? I’d be really interested to see a cost/benefit analysis done of island societies and economies and how they benefit from participation in the wider state, but I suspect we can all guess the likely weighting. Rather than snipe from the sidelines the challenge instead has to be how do we best articulate the changes that we need and gain the democratic consensus that will allow these to come to pass. Orkney and other islands have a choice – participate as a valued part of a new Scotland or reject the state and go it alone (and I genuinely mean that there should be that choice). I come from the Outer Hebrides and am always saddened if never surprised by our council’s continual fight against any ‘imposition’ of outside regulation – fishing, environmental etc while continuing to look for that same government to subsidise economic development. The grown up thing would be to recognise that if you participate in a state and take the benefits that accrue from that participation you allow it also to have a say in how things are run. there are very real national and indeed global interests in environmental protection for example, even though I recognise that many of the urban masses have become at least partly disconnected from the environment, I would not deny them a voice. If its to be participation (and perhaps education) and not isolation then please stop the mumping about all the ills and start working towards a brighter future for Scotland and all of its citizens even if it involves sometimes difficult changes to our island idylls. Onwards and upwards.

  12. Exile says:

    Interesting article. I’d draw a distinction between Mainland Orkney which has at least enjoyed genuine modernisation and jobs growth in a range of areas and the Northern Isles, which have continued to decline despite (because of?) improved transport links. In the 80s, Economically successful Westray was famous/infamous for being a last native redoubt, where properties for sale were not advertised in Exchange & Mart to be snapped up by the English. The more agricultural Sanday, by contrast, was full of incomers, to the extent that new arrivals never picked up the native tongue. With the decline in birth rates and opportunities in fishing, Westray has no doubt gone the same way.- wasn’t Jack McConnell fronting an initiative to save it?

    The young natives have been, in George’s phrase, “economically cleared” or have chosen to escape “the idiocy of rural life” to Kirkwall and beyond, and the cheap housing left on the islands has been purchased by retirees and good lifers, just as in France or Spain.

    At least a population exists though- do we really want another St. Kilda? Residents of Sanday can be schooled until Standard Grade and swim in their own pool- not bad for an ageing island of only 500 folk. And Tesco is but a ferry-ride away….

    1. Ray Bell says:

      “The more agricultural Sanday, by contrast, was full of incomers, to the extent that new arrivals never picked up the native tongue.” – Aye I was watching “Pointless” with some friends, and some guy was on from Sanday who was at Glasgow Uni. He didn’t sound as if he’d been north of Birmingham…

  13. Derick fae Yell says:

    Nautheen abides but change, bernes. Or ‘bairns’ as they say in the imported Scots.

    btw w’re aa keynans at da end o’t.

    Nationality comes fae geography – and white settlers dis generation will be native o Innse Ork an my native Innse Catt (or is it Caitaibh? “Islands of Spindrift” – soonds aboot right ta me) da nixt. Orkadian wi a hint o Brummie? Wid dat be so bad?

    whit am I sayin???? Orkney: a sad, flat place fu o fairmers voting Tory (or Liberal which is da sam bloddy thing), while livin affa socialist subsidisies. Da shuiner da Sea swallows it da better. bah. And bloddy Northlink – don’t get me started. Refugee boats we nae cabins.

    Soarry: Fear not: it’s joost my funs.

    Recommend follow debate in Shetland News, Shetlink and Shetland Times on Viking Energy. Some incomer voices for, some against. Some native voices for, some against.
    Muggins – ‘native’ Sheltie. Scot Nat. pro VE
    Ian Tinkler – British Empire Loyalist. very anti VE. Possible sleeper?
    Gordon Harmer. English by birth. been in the Northland since a boy. Tory. pro VE
    such is da varied nature oda bald monkey.


    Vote Yes in 2014

  14. potential incomers says:

    Hmm, you’ve just hit a nerve in our family. I guess, reluctantly, my husband is right after all. We would never be welcome. Maybe not even tolerated.
    The thing is, I have for a while been wondering about moving to Orkney. Is it so bad, to want a better life for your kids? It’s not as if we’re posh. On my dad’s side, painters and decorators, workers in the shoe and garment industries of Leicester, tram drivers and firemen. On my mum’s side it’s mainly greengrocers. I did go to a grammar school and have lived in London for a couple of decades, so my accent may scream posh southern bitch to some ears. But they would be mistaken. My husband’s background is similar. Working class boy given a leg up through education. His mum’s family left South Africa under apartheid, when their coloured neighbourhood was cleared. His white granddad abandoned the family, his coloured granny became a clippie (bus conductress) on a route through some of the dodgiest parts of south London. It was an upbringing clouded by uncertainty, alcoholism and depression. Oh, yes, even a spell in the workhouse. Funnily enough it is my husband who can trace an ancestor back to Orkney, part of a group who left a couple of hundred years ago and settled near Cape Town, as a result of, yes, land clearances. History has a way of repeating itself. My husband’s “middle-class English” accent was also acquired at school, followed by 20 years of working in London. His dad, despairing of the secondary education available in Hackney, North London, where they lived on one of the most run-down estates, took a job in a cheese factory in Somerset so that my husband could take up a scholarship at a minor public school. Were they selling out their working class roots? The son of an Irish labourer and a Grimsby herring gutter, his dad was never allowed to take up his own place at grammar school. He passed and they wouldn’t let him go. I think my husband’s parents made the right choice. Townies, both of them, they might have felt a bit out of their comfort zone in rural Somerset, especially the first winter was very harsh and they had no car. But they did it for the sake of their boys. Of the children my husband was at school with in London, several are in prison, including for murder, and some dead, generally gang and drug-related.
    Why have I given so much detail about our family? Because life is about family, the choices you make are made for those you love. I just don’t get this nostalgia for poverty business. We’ve been there, done that, and it’s not romantic. There’s nothing noble about being cold, hungry, and ill-shod. Surely everyone is looking to improve things for the next generation?
    Do not make the mistake of thinking that life in London is all ease and affluence. It very much depends on your neighbourhood. We don’t even live in one of the roughest parts of south London –it gets worse than here- but even so I worry for the future of my four sons, the oldest of whom is about to transfer to secondary school. I worry on a daily basis about knife crime, gun crime, gangs, bullying, drugs. For starters. Then there’s the more trivial stuff that saps the spirit, the graffiti everywhere, the litter, the needles, the chewing gum, spit and dog turd on the pavements. The relentless crowds, the anonymity. There are properties not far from us that are still boarded up after the riots.
    It wouldn’t be my intention to deprive a local of their property. Surely populations are naturally a little fluid? Why would it be so wrong of me to buy a small holding from someone who wanted to retire, or a cottage vacant because the young people wanted a mainland life and moved away to brighter lights? I just want a patch of ground for veggies and some fresh air for the boys. Please don’t tar all incomers with the same brush. Doubtless some are annoying. Many committee-joiners of a certain age are like that, in my experience. But you never know, some of us might be nice, if you gave us a chance. And on a practical note, if you do not welcome incomers, surely you will end up with facilities closing? I was looking at the school’s website on Stronsay. HALF the islanders are incomers. Surely their children help to keep the school numbers viable? I’m sorry if my accent p*sses you off, but if you would give me a chance, you would find that I am a hard-working, kind neighbour.

    1. Aine King says:

      Thank you for entering this. Our family of similar average / working class background in similar position of wanting to move to Orkney, and similarly discouraged by some of the entries above…when my mother came to London from Ireland in the 1950s she endured the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs in the windows of guest houses and in the mouths of the people…I have never forgotten how her face pinched with remembered shame and hurt when she spoke of it even forty years later…
      Like you, we have growing sons – one just graduated from uni (just) and one 16 and a little last minute surprise one of 6…we live in a really nice community, but have worked so hard to achieve this that we have sometimes not spent as much time with each other and our children as we should have done…I hate the crowds and traffic and dirt and false pretensions of the South East of UK,…my other half is from the North East…moving to Orkney isn’t about buying cheap property and lording it over the locals…it seems to me a shame that some Orkadians – I really hope that’s the right word – don’t seem to see their own community as being worthwhile enough that someone else might actually want to join it…
      I really hope that you find your patch of ground for your veggies and your boys – and if we all end up on Orkney that would be fun – who on earth wouldn’t welcome a hard-working, kind neighbour?

  15. Dave McEwan Hill says:

    You’ve come very late to this debate some of which echoes the remarks made by Alasdair Gray and James Kelman recently. Let me say that there is very little prejudice about immigrants in Scotland and very little anti English sentiment. The recent attempt the the Scotsman to suggest that there is is aimed at frightening incomers into supporting the NO campaign. Any distaste is reserved for those who find it inconvenient or beneath them to integrate and to become part of the community they have arrived among. That’s all and there are a number of people like this. Gray describes them as “colonists” as opposed to “settlers” which he approves of (and they may just as well have come from some posh background in Scotland).
    A difficult situation I suspect is those who come with good honest intent and then find the rural idyll and much hearder shift than they envisaged.

  16. angie mair says:

    hhmm, these reviews have changed my mind about thinking about trying island life, i wonder if it is as religion says that peace and harmony is only to be found in the after life?. i live in north east scotland. where coastal villages have similarly become very cosmipolitan, not a bad thing, but even in elgin. where i am currently living, in passing the time of day with a stranger. it is a surprise if they turn out to be “local”. but it is the same all over the world. . i will now house hunt for somwhere in the countryside, as low cost as poss being the dicate, maybe have to be a camper van, but even just now, on entering the library to use the computers i heard teenagers from “travelling” familys bemoaning about townies. i feel depressed now! but i am gratefull to the article written by “potential incomers” as it will here on stop me making snap judgements about others based on accent alone. thank you

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.