We love this story of being brave and moving to the UK from the USA for love. Rhonda Muir writes of her journey from New York to some of the northernmost islands of Scotland, the Orkney Islands in the United Kingdom. Rhonda has started her own website orkneyology.com to give people information about the islands and tell their stories. She’s written an ebook about life on the Scottish Island to give people who are considering a move to Orkney some solid grassroots information.
Alison and Alastair have asked me to update a previous article I wrote for them, describing what it was like moving from Western New York State to the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, at the age of 50 to marry my Orcadian husband.
Since that first report, I have finally achieved “settled” status, meaning I can rest easy and won’t be randomly kicked out of the country by some faceless bureaucrat. Probably an overstatement, but it’s happened to two people I know in different circumstances than mine. It’s been a real fear, so being legally settled is a huge relief. Another is finally getting my UK driver’s license, which you must do following the first year of being allowed to drive on a US license. My road test was postponed several times because of the pandemic. The sense of freedom I have now is intense and much appreciated after the child-like dependence of having to drive under supervision for so long, especially after 38 years of safe driving in the USA!
It has been a challenging process to settle in the UK. The paperwork and expense for every application – in my case, three of them – is expensive, overwhelming, nerve-wracking, and possibly even cruel. Read on to see if it was all worth it.
And along came covid ….
Besides finally jumping the last hurdle in the miserable UK visa process, the pandemic was the most challenging thing since my prior writing. Though it was nobody’s fault, I felt the distance between myself and my family far more painfully than usual. Like many other families, we couldn’t see each other for over two years. I think now that I had played down the physical distance between us when I moved to Orkney, telling my grown kids that I could be with them in a day if they ever really needed me. As far as I knew then, that was true. I have a new awareness now of the fragility of our connection. At the same time, I have a new appreciation of our ability to connect virtually. It’s no substitute, but it makes things bearable.
The pandemic was easier for Orkney folk in some ways than it was for some, although the laws in Scotland were stringent, especially at first. The fact that there’s so much natural beauty and space nearby, even for those of us who live in town, was definitely a blessing. People tend to be neighborly here, so there was plenty of help nearby for anyone who needed it. All told, it was probably one of the better places to be at such a time. Of course, what feels like a blessing to some might be intolerable for others.
So, what’s it like living in Orkney today?
The biggest complaint of those searching for housing in Orkney is the difficulty in securing any place to live. Adding to that, housing costs have skyrocketed in recent years, particularly during and following the pandemic. Everyone seems to want to flee to a Scottish island these days, which drives prices up for us all. At this time, housing costs continue to rise, as do fuel and other already-high living expenses on an island. Even though Orkney produces more electricity than we can use, our electric rates are higher than most places. I don’t understand it, either. Our electric bill recently went up by 80%, with more rate hikes set to come in the spring.
About healthcare: I have an American friend here who maintains a second home in America and pays for US health insurance, even though she’s lived here for many years. She is in the UK healthcare system and has indefinite leave to remain. Still, she finds it easier to navigate the US healthcare system and get the treatment she needs while in the US rather than languishing on waiting lists in Orkney and traveling to Scotland for treatment.
And then there’s the weather – don’t move here for it. Summer can be glorious. It can also be autumn-cool, windy, and rainy. To those who have yet to experience the long, windy darkness of an Orkney winter and the pretty-likely-to-be-dreich weather typical to all the other seasons, I would say, don’t underestimate the powerful effect that such a simple thing as the weather can have on emotions and general outlook. For especially sensitive souls (such as myself), summer’s long, light nights might be just as disturbing as the dark winters are to other folks.
Happiest place to live?
Recent polls show a high satisfaction rate with quality of life in Orkney. I urge you to exercise caution in swallowing popularity polls whole, especially those sponsored by slick magazines looking for a splashy headline but offering little depth. For an important decision such as moving, especially a complex move, I would check the official statistics concerning costs, education, work opportunities, prosperity, infrastructure, transportation, crime, etc.
I get a lot of emails from folk wanting to move here. Many are wearing a big pair of rose-colored glasses. That’s why I’m stressing this rather obvious caution about doing your homework before committing, encouraging a slow and careful approach. I don’t think you’ll be sorry for avoiding the rush of blissful daydreaming and instead taking time to decide with a cool head. I’ve written an ebook, available on our website, with more detailed information, helpful resources, and personal advice from my husband, a native Orcadian.
Orkney is a beautiful place to live, but it’s not paradise. In the end, aside from its many wonders, it’s just a place. Crime and drugs make an appearance here, though less frequently than in many places. (Crime seems to be primarily domestic abuse, people punching each other in pubs, theft, and vandalism.) We all have to deal with everyday duties and problems and perhaps a few more inconveniences than in non-island locations.
Asking key questions before you move
Given that moving to Orkney can be quite an undertaking, and leaving if you end up not liking it can be just as difficult, a wise thing to do might be to ask yourself some critical questions before making that final decision. Please take a little time to consider why Orkney.
• What are your reasons for wanting to live in Orkney? Why here, and not somewhere more convenient and less expensive?
• Are you running away from something, or do you desire to live in Orkney more than in any other place?
• Are you prepared to do without many things that you might currently take for granted?
• Can you tolerate the inconveniences that are part of everyday life on an island?
• Can you tolerate being a “nobody” with no history in this new place for a while?
• Have you considered the physical and emotional effects of the weather, physical distance, and drastically changing light levels at various seasons?
• Is it essential for you to return home often to see loved ones? (Travel to and from Orkney is expensive, even with islander discounts.) Can you afford regular long-distance travel?
So would I want to live anywhere else?
Despite all the realistic cautions listed above, no. I wouldn’t. Orkney has become home; these islands are where I feel most at home in the world. And while there are challenges as well as blessings, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.