Forget the harsh image of island life. New research shows Scotland’s happiest people are islanders, finds Sandra Dick.

They may have an image of being slightly dour, a bit weather-beaten, stuck in the middle of nowhere and with nothing much to do other than cut peat and count sheep.

And it’s true that when the wind blows hard and it’s dark midway through an October afternoon, even Orkney-born and bred islander Alistair Walker has to admit it’s hard to really feel the love for life on the edge of the map.

“You can’t be cheery all of the time; when the weather is bad then, of course, you’re not going to be that happy,” he concedes, breaking off from preparing for evening diners at Kirkwall Hotel where he is restaurant manager.

“But, it’s still a pretty good life.”

Indeed, new research suggests that life on some of Scotland’s most remote islands, where life is undoubtedly a little tougher and requires that bit more resilience and determination, is much better for the soul than some of us may have thought.

According to the Office for National Statistics’ annual wellbeing study, the islands of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are at the top of the nation’s happiest places to live.

Meanwhile, people living in towns and cities across the busy central belt with their easy access to entertainment, leisure facilities, a range of employment options and all mod cons, appear to be stuck in the doldrums, among some of the least upbeat citizens in the country.

The research had asked 150,000 people across the UK to rank their happiness, anxiety, life satisfaction and feeling that what life offers them is worthwhile.

When it came to life satisfaction, the Orkney Islands were given the highest rating in Scotland and the second highest in the UK: an impressive 8.4 out of 10.

The Western Isles also scored highly at 8.3, while Shetland achieved 8 out of 10 for happiness and a mere 2.5 out of 10 for anxiety compared to the Scottish average of 3.4.

The three island areas ranked top for persistently recording high levels of well-being across all categories from March 2012 to 2019.

The results outpaced Glasgow which managed to score just 7.5 for life satisfaction and Edinburgh on 7.7.

None of which particularly surprises Alistair, who sampled a taste of life away from Orkney for a spell but soon realised life was far better back on his island home.

“It sounds daft, but it’s that ‘home’ thing, the place draws you back. Young people go away, they go to university but at one time or another they tend to come back,” he says.

“Orkney is laid back, there’s a relaxed lifestyle. You’re not going to be spending your time sitting in a traffic jam here.

“A big part of it is the community feel. The fact that you know who everyone is, you feel like you can walk down the street and recognise everyone.

“People stop and speak to each other instead of everyone walking by and not saying hello.

“It makes it special and it draws people back.”

In Stornoway in the Western Isles where life satisfaction ranks at 8.1 out of 10, and happiness is a contented 8.3, father of two Keith Morrison, 35, is perfectly happy too.

“Island people are very bad at selling themselves and don’t want to be thought of as showing off, which has led to this idea of people being a bit dour,” he says.

“But there really is a lot of happiness here.”

Part of that is thanks to the rugged coastline, the wild moors, lochs and hills. But, he adds, it’s also the special way of life.

“People grow up together, go to school together and work together.

“If you’re searching for happiness, the icing on the cake is being able to say to your kids to go out the door and play and not worry about where they are.

“Their friends’ parents are the people you went to school with.

“The pace of life is such a big thing, there’s no hurry. But if people are ambitious and want to do something incredible, then the resources are here to do it too.”

The new research is not the first time the three island communities have been singled out for their quality of life. Two years ago a children’s quality of life survey carried out by the Halifax named Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles as the best places to raise children.

In particular, it praised Orkney’s low primary school class size, high school spending per pupil, low population density and traffic levels, adding that children there were likely to be surrounded by adults in full-time work and with high personal wellbeing.

Another Halifax survey last year put Orkney at the top of the places rural places to live in the UK, taking into account a range of factors, from residents' health, employment, crime rates and education to home size and the number of pubs.

Meanwhile, the search for an improved quality of life has seen a rise in the number of people opting to make Scottish islands their home: the 2011 census revealed 103,702 people living on inhabited islands in Scotland, a rise of four per cent on the 2001 census.

Mainland Shetland, Orkney, Lewis and Harris and Skye accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total population of Scotland’s islands.

“The image we have is probably the same as for Orkney and Shetland - that it’s extreme living and very little is ‘middle of the road’,” adds Keith who, along with wife Rhoda, is Lewis born and raised.

Perhaps as confirmation of the happy vibes that surround Western Isles’ living, he has made a living as a musician and producer, and runs Wee Studio Records in Stornoway, home to trio Peat and Diesel, whose punk-style upbeat and quirky take on island music is so popular that it has been dubbed ‘Peatlemania’.

“It’s true there’s a bit of stuffiness,” he adds. “But there are also some of the happiest people in the world here.

“In summer it’s beautiful, winter is drastic and different, there’s a diverse culture but no matter where you are from you are part of the community. And there’s wonderful music going on.

“You’re forced to share your life with others when you live here,” he adds. “I love it here.”