Graemsay – Orkney’s best kept secret


For a couple of years, I have been following an excellent blog called ‘Life on a small island‘. The blog is by Sian Thomas, who lives on the small, Orkney island of Graemsay. The island has a population of 23 and is located between mainland Orkney and the Isle of Hoy. I managed to catch up with Sian and as part of my ’10 questions with’ series, I asked her some questions about her life on the beautiful island of Graemsay Orkney.


Graemsay Orkney's best kept secret - Kirk panarama

Graemsay Orkney’s best kept secret – Kirk panarama


1. What brought you to the Isle of Graemsay and how long have you lived there?

I will have lived here 17 years in June 2017.  What brought me to Graemsay? I wanted a bit of an adventure! I had wanted to live near the coast for as long as I can remember. But that wasn’t possible in the crowded, costly South Coast of England where I had lived.  I’d lived all my live (40+ years) in the same town in Kent, more a suburb of London than the Garden of England.  So when a friend, James Antrican, suggested getting a house together and looking at properties elsewhere I was up for that.  Then a work colleague of ours was planning moving to Hoy, and we looked at the cast-off details.  That was it, we planned a trip to Orkney in May 1999.  My first visit to Orkney. We looked at various properties on Mainland Orkney. I was adamant that was “island” enough for me.  We wanted a property we could develop and run a business from. But my one criteria was I needed to be able to access the shore easily. We looked at various properties on the Mainland but really didn’t see anything that grabbed us.  Then on the last morning we came over to Graemsay, me adamant I wouldn’t live there. Despite a more or less daily ferry service it wasn’t Ro-Ro.  And the house wasn’t livable in – no sanitation, water or proper electricity connection.  But it WAS close to the shore AND there were seals on the beach!  James had the practical vision for the house.  I just kept wandering along the shore and looking for seals!  We shook hands on the deal with the landowners, Arthur & Cathy Ritch there and then and headed off to the lawyers.  I moved up a year later. I lived in a caravan in the garden, until the weather drove me to rent somewhere until the house was habitable.  Sadly island living wasn’t the thing for James and he chose to remain in London, so I bought him out of the house and have remained here, very happily, ever since.


2. What are the main attractions on Graemsay and what is your favourite place on the island?

Graemsay has none of the big archaeological sites that mainland Orkney or other islands such as Hoy or Rousay have and there are no shops, or cafes. The island has many beaches around the shore, each one different.  The views from the island are stunning.  We’ve lots of wild birds and wild flowers. There is a circular road around the island for those that prefer a more accessible route (assuming they can manage the steps at the pier).  And for the more robust, a lovely circular coastal walk, which can be quite challenging, but apparently is worth the effort.  My favourite place – I have so many of them depending on my mood. But the one I visit daily is the Coral Beach at Sandside.  It has maerl, a cold water coral, plus lots of beautiful shells and sand.


Graemsay Orkney's best kept secret - view of the island by Raymond Besant

Graemsay Orkney’s best kept secret – view of the island by Raymond Besant


3. What wildlife can you see on Graemsay?

As I say lots of wild birds – there aren’t huge numbers of “garden birds” on the island, but lots of birds will breed as there are a range of habitats from coastal, heathland, pasture etc.  In the summer the air is filled with the calls from Curlews, Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Arctic Terns, Snipe,  Shell and Eider Ducks among many others.  And Fulmars nest around the shore.  We also regularly see Hen Harriers quartering the fields.  Sadly no Puffins, as our island is quite lie lowing.

Seals are all around the shore, often hauling out on rocks to bask in the sun.  Otters have been seen too, though I’ve not seen one yet!  Unusually for Orkney we have no rabbits.  We do have hedgehogs though.


4. What are the best things about living on a remote island?

To people outside of Orkney we may be viewed as “remote”, but it doesn’t feel like that to me now.  We have a regular ferry to Stromness on the Orkney Mainland I so can easily get “to the town” on most days.  I think one of the things I love most, is when the last ferry has gone in the early evening and all visitors have left, we have the island to ourselves.  Just a beautiful place, to walk along the shore in solitude. And we don’t get huge loads of visitors because we don’t have any of the usual tourist attractions. 


Graemsay Orkney's best kept secret - Coral Beach

Graemsay Orkney’s best kept secret – Coral Beach


5. What are the challenges that you face living on a remote island?

Mostly the weather, which disrupts our daily ferry service  But we are all used to having well stocked larders and freezers.  And it’s surprising what you can go without when you have to.  Getting furniture and large items is a challenge, as we have a lift on lift off ferry service.  And EVERYTHING must come by that route.  There is always interest on a cargo day to see what folk are having delivered.  We will all pour over and comment on a new kitchen or bathroom!  Some mail order companies won’t deliver to the islands, so sometimes choice is more limited.  But really, Orkney has such good transport links with mainland Scotland, that there is a pretty good supply route for most things.


6. Have you visited any other Scottish Islands other than Graemsay and if so, which was your favourite?

I’m ashamed to say I haven’t visited any other island group, apart from a number of the Orkney islands.  I’ve been to most of them now. My favourite island is Hoy, particularly Rackwick Bay, which feels like stepping back in time and has the most fantastic scenery.


Graemsay Orkney's best kept secret - Old school

Graemsay Orkney’s best kept secret – Old school


7. What do you think are the issues that Graemsay will face in the coming years?

We have an ageing population which always brings challenges. Also, the main employment on the island is farming and a farm can only support one family, so others in the family need to leave.  Like many island populations, we need to maintain a sustainable population in order to get access to all the services such as  transport. We have a good service at the moment, as it is also the “school run”.


8. Has there been more visitors to the island as a result of the recent TV programmes about the scottish islands?

I haven’t noticed an increase.  We are a small farming community without the draw of Historic Scotland attractions or archaeological sites.  We have a coastal path which attracts walkers, and those interested in bird watching or wild flowers.  I have heard some folk say “there’s nothing special on Graemsay”. I smile to myself, because it’s my island and it is special as is our small community.


Graemsay Orkney's best kept secret - Sandside Bay

Graemsay Orkney’s best kept secret – Sandside Bay


9. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years time?

Hopefully still living on Graemsay!


10. Where can I find out more information about life on Graemsay?

My blog – Life on a Small Island is updated several times a month and details my life and life in general on Graemsay. My neighbour, Mick Braddock, has a web site about Graemsay called Graemsay – Orkney’s Green Isle. I’m not aware of any other websites specifically about Graemsay.


Graemsay Orkney's best kept secret - Sian Thomas

Graemsay Orkney’s best kept secret – Sian Thomas


All Photos (except where stated) displayed by kind permission of Sian Thomas – Life on a Small Island.