PhD-ing in Orkney: A slightly different experience

Andrea Blendl is working on a PhD titled “Runic Writing in the diaspora: expression of a Norse identity” funded by a SGSAH Applied Research Collaborative Studentship. She is based at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney, other partners are Orkney Museum and the University of Aberdeen. Andrea moved to Kirkwall from Germany to pursue her research on runes and the Norse settlement of Orkney.

When thinking about a place for PhD research in Scotland, many automatically think of places in the Central Belt, big cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh. However, I am a SGSAH-funded PhD student based in Orkney, at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall. Some aspects of my PhD experience are thus quite different to what the “average” Scottish postgraduate research student might find.

The sandwich issue

Obviously, working in an island environment presents some unique challenges. Where else, for example, do you have to consult the weather forecast when planning your lunch? Being an Orkney rookie, I was surprised when the first winter storm hit us and I found that, as the ferry could not bring any fresh food that day, there were no sandwiches in the supermarket. By now, when the weather is really bad (meaning something like horizontal rain, hail, and gales up to 80 mph), I remember to bring my own lunch.

Generally, the weather is a big issue in Orkney. Gale-force winds can derail travel in winter; when I took the ferry to do some fieldwork in Caithness one day in December, I learned what seasickness really meant. Attending events or conferences usually means either a long ferry ride or a flight in a small propeller plane, often with another connecting flight. After all, most events for PhD students in Scotland are happening in the Central Belt. This, of course, is more expensive than simply hopping on a bus, and many funding bodies (thankfully not SGSAH!) seem blissfully unaware of just how expensive travel from the Northern Isles is.

Sea journey

Working in Orkney requires a lot of sea journeys, and sadly the sea is not always as calm as this, photo by Andrea Blendl

Naturally, the PhD cohort in Orkney is on the small side. Working without a larger local network of fellow students can be an isolating experience, and it is important to engage with the few fellow PhD students here to create a supportive community. However, this has also led to the few of us becoming a close-knit group and undertaking many extracurricular activities together.

Birsay

Some of the inscriptions I work with are on the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island you can only reach at low tide and in good weather on foot, photo by Andrea Blendl

Procrastination by puffin

Now this might sound quite off-putting for some, but to me, Orkney is the perfect place for a PhD despite all its challenges. First of all, it is stunningly beautiful. I get to do some of my fieldwork on the most spectacular cliffs in the UK or at UNESCO World Heritage sites. (By the way, thank you, dear Norse, for carving runes there. Much appreciated.) As if that was not enough, there is the unique wildlife, too. In the bays just a short walk from my flat, you can regularly see seals and often enough whales. A bit further afield, the cliffs are filled with puffins. Not that I ever procrastinate by puffin-watching, but come on, aren’t puffins the cutest things in the world?

The island community itself is one of Orkney’s biggest assets. There is an extraordinary sense of community and resourcefulness in the Northern Isles. Even as an outsider, I was quickly welcomed into the fold. The response to my research has been overwhelmingly positive, and people are genuinely interested in what I do. They also appear to talk about it, and more than once I’ve been asked about runes by people I thought I had never seen before, even a cashier at my supermarket (yes, Orkney does have supermarkets).

Another big advantage for young researchers lies in Orkney’s geography itself. Many sites are hard to access, and most academics in my field are based much further south or even on the continent. This means that in Orkney, there is still a lot to discover for me, and sometimes this happens in fairly quirky ways up here. At times, random chats in the pub can turn to my research, and people mention runes they have seen locally – and these chance encounters have led to various discoveries of antiquarian or modern runic carvings which were previously unknown to academics.

Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar is UNESCO World Cultural Heritage and happens to have a runic inscription, too, so I get to do some fieldwork there. Can it get any better?, photo by Andrea Blendl

An important matter for any PhD student is always finance. Luckily, while travel here is expensive, rents are much lower than in the South and food prices are about the same. As you might expect, heating in winter is also a big factor in my budget, but on the other hand, Kirkwall is great with student discounts, and other bits of my living costs (like a gym membership or cinema tickets) are cheaper than in big cities, too. Besides, Orkney’s main attractions are free. So I would argue that, on a student budget, you can enjoy a considerably higher quality of living than further south.

One thing I really enjoy about Orkney is that, somehow, the pace of life here feels less hectic. With Kirkwall being a small-ish town, you can walk everywhere, and cars actually stop to let you cross the roads with a friendly smile. In many places, you don’t even need to lock your door. I love being so close to nature and all these amazing monuments, from Neolithic to medieval. Sure, doing a PhD far away from the bustle of big cities in the Central Belt is not for everybody, and there are special challenges about working in the Northern Isles – but I wouldn’t want to change a thing.

Keep up to date with Andrea’s research on her blog: https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/research-enterprise/cultural/centre-for-nordic-studies/andreas-blog/

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