Life on a group of small islands has its unique qualities. Orkney is a collection of 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited.  It has a population of about 22 000, most of which live on the largest island called Mainland.  To some people “sooth”, we are remote.  Getting here has its challenges; a rough ferry crossing through one of the world’s most notorious stretches of water, or a plane journey often affected by delays or cancellations due to wind or fog in Autumn and Winter.  However, to us residents, the Orkney Mainland feels almost central.  We have all we need, although not many would reject the chance to get off the islands occasionally! 

Our islands have a strong sense of community.  People are connected, either by family links or acquaintances.  You never know if you have just met your best friend’s cousin!  This is not all happy and romantic however, as for many vulnerable individuals being part of such a close community with a relatively small population comes with incredible challenges. 

In the weeks since the country went into lockdown, the full force of community spirit has been felt by all.  With the power of Facebook, an Orkney Coronavirus Mutual Aid Group sprung up within days.  Neighbours are dropping off shopping for those in isolation, and businesses across the islands, from independent grocers, butchers, bakeries and breweries to clothes shops, are doing all they can to ensure people are getting their essential supplies by offering a delivery service.  Children going for their daily exercise can spot rainbows in windows and every Thursday at 8pm you can hear enthusiastic sounds of support for the NHS staff and keyworkers.  We are probably not that different from the rest of the world.

Home-Start Orkney, like Home-Start groups across the country, have adapted by working from home and getting to grips with virtual working.  We have a great team and are working hard to stay connected with our families.  Our weekly Zoom group session have proven to be a hit too!  Our families are coping well.  For some, particularly families living on the smaller North isles, this kind of isolation, albeit less strict, is not unusual and life hasn’t changed that much.  Transport links between the islands are limited, so attending our events has always been challenging.  People are used to planning ahead and not having a wide variety of playgroups or services available.  Those families are still walking distance from a beach and have more freedom than those living in Kirkwall or Stromness, the main towns of the Orkney Mainland.  While currently people are not allowed to travel on and off the islands, there are exceptions for families with special circumstances.

For the families who live on Mainland or the South isles which are better connected by the Churchill Barriers, staff can provide immediate, practical support by dropping prescriptions or supplies off.  But like everyone, our families are missing playgroups and seeing friends and family.  Families with poor or no internet access are feeling particularly isolated just now, and this can add to the challenges of working from home too.  However, many are also enjoying leisurely time at home with the children.  They have time to do baking and crafts rather than having to rush to a swimming lesson or school pick up.  Many also comment on how lucky they are to live in such a sparsely populated, beautiful place.   

There has been financial support coming our families’ way too.  Orkney Islands Council is doing its best to support residents financially as well as practically.  The Community Resilience Fund will provide support for groups working with vulnerable people, and every isles resident is allocated £5 per week for the next four weeks to spend in their local shop as with ferry travel being restricted, people are no longer able to shop in supermarkets in town where prices may be cheaper. 

Home-Start Orkney are going to be working in partnership with our local Salvation Army to distribute activity packs for the children, and we have just received a grant from the STV appeal to distribute amongst our families. 

Although Orkney’s residents are living under the same rules as the rest of the country and it is undoubtably tough not being able to socialise or taking our children to different places, most of us and our families are now adjusting to a slower pace of life close to home and appreciating the space they have on their doorstep.   And for those vulnerable individuals I mentioned right at the start, lockdown can come as a welcome time to carry less of the world on their shoulders and breathe. 

Although at Home-Start Orkney we had to adapt to socialising via the internet and providing telephone support, families know that as keyworkers we can be another person to call if they need to.  Most of the time knowing someone is there for you if you need them is enough.  We feel united, in that for once, we are going through and will come out of this together. 

Sarah De Rees is a coordinator at Home-Start Orkney