Orkney Islands

Orkney Islands
Missing image
Orkney flag (unofficial)

Unofficial flag of Orkney
- Total
- % Water
Ranked 16th
990 km²
? %
Admin HQKirkwall
ISO 3166-2GB-ORK
ONS code00RA
- Total (April 29, 2001)
- Density
Ranked 32nd
19 / km²
Orkney Islands Council
MPAlistair Carmichael
MSPJim Wallace

The Orkney Islands are one of 32 unitary council regions in Scotland, and form a traditional county and Lieutenancy area. Orkney consists of about 200 small islands 16 kilometres north of Caithness in northern Scotland. The largest island in the group is known as "The Mainland"; about 20 are inhabited in total.

Orkney's administrative capital is Kirkwall on The Mainland. Home to the Saint Magnus Cathedral, it has about 7,000 inhabitants and a large port. The only other burgh is Stromness at the western end of The Mainland, with a population of only about 2,000. The third largest settlement is St Margaret's Hope, on South Ronaldsay.



The largest island in Orkney is known as The Mainland. Other islands can be classified as north or south of The Mainland. The islands north of The Mainland are known collectively as The North Isles, those to the south as The South Isles.

The North Isles

The northern group of islands is the most extensive and consists of a large number of moderately sized islands, linked to the Mainland by ferries. Most of the islands described as "holms" are very small.

Orkney Islands
Orkney Islands

The South Isles

The southern group of islands surrounds Scapa Flow. Hoy is the highest of the Orkney Isles, while South Ronaldsay and Burray are linked to the Mainland by the Churchill Barriers. The Pentland Skerries lie further south, close to the Scottish mainland.


Scapa Flow

The Pentland Firth separates Orkney from the mainland of Scotland. The firth is 6.75 miles (11 km) wide between Brough Ness on the island of South Ronaldsay and Duncansbay Head in Caithness.

Orkney lies between 58 41' and 59 24' North, and 2 22' and 3 26' West, measures 50 miles (80 km) from Northeast to Southwest and 29 miles (47 km) from East to West, and covers 3755 square miles (973 km²). Excepting on the west coasts of the larger islands, which present rugged cliff scenery remarkable both for beauty and for colouring, the group lies somewhat low and is of bleak aspect.

The highest hills are on Hoy. The only other islands containing heights of any importance are The Mainland, with Ward Hill (880 feet), and Wideford Hill and Rousay. Nearly all of the islands possess lochs (lakes), and The Loch of Harray and The Loch of Stenness on The Mainland attain noteworthy proportions. The rivers are merely streams draining the high land. Excepting on the west fronts of the Mainland, Hoy and Rousay, the coastline of the islands is deeply indented, and the islands themselves are divided from each other by straits generally called "sounds" or "firths", though off the north-east of Hoy the designation "Bring Deeps" is used, south of The Mainland is Scapa Flow and to the south-west of Eday is found the Fall of Warness.

The very names of the islands indicate their nature: the terminal "a" or "ay" represents the Norse ey, meaning "island", which is scarcely disguised even in the words "Pomona" (an older alternative name for The Mainland) and "Hoy". The islets are usually styled "holms" and the isolated rocks "skerries".

The tidal currents, or races, or "roost" (as some of them are called locally, from the Icelandic) off many of the isles run with enormous velocity, and whirlpools are of frequent occurrence, and strong enough at times to prove a source of danger to small craft.

The charm of Orkney does not lie in their ordinary physical features, so much as in beautiful atmospheric effects, extraordinary examples of light and shade, and rich coloration of cliff and sea.

The islands are notable for the lack of trees, which is partly accounted for by the amount of wind (although the climate in general is temperate). The formation of peat is evidence that this was not always the case, and deliberate deforestation is believed to have taken place at some stage prior to the Neolithic, the use of stone in settlements such as Skara Brae being evidence of the lack of availability of timber for building.

Most of the land is still taken up by farms, and agriculture is by far the most important sector of the economy, with fishing also being a major occupation. Orkney exports beef, cheese, whisky, beer, fish and seafood.


All the islands of this group are built up entirely of Old Red Sandstone. As in the neighbouring mainland county of Caithness, these rocks rest upon the metamorphic rocks of the eastern schists, as may be seen on The Mainland, where a narrow strip is exposed between Stromness and Inganess, and again in the small island of Graemsay; they are represented by grey gneiss and granite.

The upper division of the Old Red Sandstone is found only on Hoy, where it forms the Old Man of Hoy and neighbouring cliffs on the northwest coast. The Old Man of Hoy presents a characteristic section, for it exhibits a thick pile of massive, current-bedded red sandstones, resting, near the foot of the pinnacle, upon a thin bed of amygdaloidal porphyrite, which in its turn lies uncomfortably upon steeply inclined flagstones. This bed of volcanic rock may be followed northward in the cliffs, and it may be noticed that it thickens considerably in that direction.

The Lower Old Red Sandstone is represented by well-bedded flagstones over most of the islands; in the south of The Mainland these are faulted against an overlying series of massive red sandstones, but a gradual passage from the flagstones to the sandstones may be followed from Westray southeastwards into Eday. A strong synclinal fold traverses Eday and Shapinsay, the axis being North and South. Near Haco's Ness in Shapinsay there is a small exposure of amygdaloidal diabase, which is (of course) older than that on Hoy.

Many indications of ice action are found on these islands; striated surfaces are to be seen on the cliffs in Eday and Westray, in Kirkwall Bay and on Stennie Hill in Eday; boulder clay, with marine shells, and with many boulders of rocks foreign to the islands (chalk, oolitic limestone, flint, etc), which must have been brought up from the region of Moray Firth, rests upon the old strata in many places. Local moraines are found in some of the valleys in The Mainland and Hoy.


The climate is remarkably temperate and equable for such a northerly latitude. The average temperature for the year is 8C (46F), for winter 4C (39F) and for summer 12C (54F). The winter months are January, February and March, the last being the coldest. Spring never begins before April, and it is the middle of June before the heat grows genial. September is frequently the finest month, and at the end of October or the beginning of November occurs the peerie (or little) summer or milder waether.

The average annual rainfall varies from 85 cm to 94 cm. Fogs occur during summer and early autumn, and furious gales may be expected four or five times in the year, when the crash of the Atlantic waves is audible for 30 km.

To tourists, one of the fascinations of the islands is their nightless summers. On the longest day, the sun rises at 3 AM and sets at 9.25 PM - and darkness is unknown, it being possible to read at midnight. Winter, however, is long and depressing. On the shortest day the sun rises at 9.10 AM and sets at 3.17 PM.

The soil generally is a sandy loam or a strong but friable clay, and very fertile. Large quantities of seaweed as well as lime and marl are available for manure.

Economic history

The woollen trade once promised to reach considerable dimensions, but towards the end of the 18th century was superseded by the linen (for which flax came to be largely grown); and when this in turn collapsed before the products of the mills of Dundee, Dunfermline and Glasgow, straw-plaiting was taken up, though only to be killed in due time by the competition of the south. The kelp industry was formerly of at least minor importance.

For several centuries the Dutch practically monopolised the herring fishery, but when their supremacy was destroyed by the salt duty, the Orcadians failed to seize the opportunity thus presented, and George Barry (died 1805) recorded that in his day the fisheries were almost totally neglected. The industry, however, revived, concentrating on herring, cod and ling, but also catching lobsters and crabs.


Frequent ferry services operate on the following routes:

Most of the larger islands have their own airfield or airstrip.


The isles are currently served by two weekly local newspapers, The Orcadian (http://www.orcadian.co.uk/) (published every Thursday) and Orkney Today (http://www.orkneytoday.co.uk/) (published every Friday). In addition, two local radio stations currently operate. Radio Orkney, the local opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland, broadcasts twice daily, with local news and entertainment. In addition, The Superstation Orkney (http://www.thesuperstation.co.uk/), Orkney's first commercial radio station, began broadcasting on 105.4FM in September on a restricted service license. In November 2004, this license expired, but it is hoped by many in the isles that the service will return: it looks possible that the station will resume broadcasting in spring 2005.


The famous Neolithic sites of Skara Brae and Maes Howe are located on Mainland. These have both been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Viking settlers comprehensively occupied Orkney, and the islands became a possession of Norway until being given to Scotland during the 15th century as part of a dowry settlement. Evidence of the Viking presence is widespread, and includes the settlement at the Brough of Birsay, several place names, and runic inscriptions at Maes Howe and other ancient sites.


The original inhabitants were Picts, evidence of whose occupation still exists in numerous "weems" or underground houses, chambered mounds, barrows or burial mounds, "brochs" or round towers, and stone circles and standing stones. Such implements as have survived are of the rudest description, and include quern-stones for grinding materials including grain, stone whorls and bone combs employed in primitive forms of woollen manufacture, and specimens of simple pottery ware.

The Romans were aware of, and probably circumnavigated, the Orkney Islands, which they called "Orcades". There is evidence that they traded, either directly or indirectly, with the inhabitants. However, they made no attempt to occupy the islands.

If, as seems likely, the Dalriadic Scots established a footing in the islands towards the beginning of the 6th century, their success was short-lived, and the Picts regained power and kept it until dispossessed by the Norsemen in the 9th century. In the wake of the Scots incursionists followed the Celtic missionaries about 565. They were companions of Saint Columba and their efforts to convert the folk to Christianity seem to have impressed the popular imagination, for several islands bear the epithet "Papa" in commemoration of the preachers.

Vikings having made the islands the headquarters of their buccaneering expeditions (carried out indifferently against their own Norway and the coasts and isles of Scotland), Harold Hrfagre ("Fair Hair") subdued the rovers in 875 and annexed both Orkney and Shetland to Norway. They remained under the rule of Norse earls until 1231, when the line of the jarls became extinct. In that year the earldom of Caithness was granted to Magnus, second son of the Earl of Angus, whom the king of Norway apparently confirmed in the title. Recent studies from the field of population genetics reveal a significant percentage of Norse ethnic heritage -- up to one third of the Y chromosomes on the islands are derived from western Norwegian sources, as opposed to the Shetlands, where over half the male lineage is Norse.

Some jarls of Orkney:

In 1468 Orkney and Shetland were pledged by Christian I of Denmark and Norway for the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III of Scotland, and as the money was never paid, their connection with the crown of Scotland has been perpetual. In 1471 James bestowed the castle and lands of Ravenscraig in Fife on William, earl of Orkney, in exchange for all his rights to the earldom of Orkney, which, by act of parliament, passed on February 20, 1472, was annexed to the Scottish crown.

In 1564 Lord Robert Stewart, natural son of James V of Scotland, who had visited Kirkwall twenty-four years before, was made sheriff of Orkney and Shetland, and received possession of the estates of the udallers; in 1581 he was created earl of Orkney by James IV(?), the charter being ratified ten years later to his son Patrick, but in 1615 the earldom was again annexed to the crown.

The islands were the rendezvous of Montrose's expedition in 1650 which culminated in his imprisonment and death. During the Protectorate they were visited by a detachment of Cromwell's troops, who initiated the inhabitants into various industrial arts and new methods of agriculture.

In 1707 the islands were granted to the earl of Morton in mortgage, redeemable by the Crown on payment of 30,000 pounds, and subject to an annual feu-duty of 500 pounds; but in 1766 his estates were sold to Sir Lawrence Dundas, ancestor of the Earls of Zetland.

In early times both the archbishop of Hamburg and the archbishop of York disputed with the Norwegians ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Orkneys and the right of consecrating bishops; but ultimately the Norwegian bishops, the first of whom was William the Old (consecrated in 1102), continued the canonical succession. The see remained vacant from 1580 to 1606, and from 1638 till the Restoration, and, after the accession of William III, the episcopacy was finally abolished (1697), although many of the clergy refused to conform.

The topography of the Orkneys is wholly Norse, and the Norse tongue, at last extinguished by the constant influx of settlers from Scotland, lingered until the end of the 18th century. Readers of Scott's Pirate will remember the frank contempt which Magnus Troil expressed for the Scots, and his opinions probably accurately reflected the general Norse feeling on the subject. When the islands were given as security for the princess's dowry, there seems reason to believe that it was intended to redeem the pledge, because it was then stipulated that the Norse system of government and the law of Saint Olaf should continue to be observed in Orkney and Shetland. Thus the udal succession and mode of land tenure (that is, absolute freehold as distinguished from feudal tenure) lingered to some extent, and the remaining udallers held their lands and passed them on without written title.

During World War I and World War II, the Royal Navy had a major base at Scapa Flow. The base was closed in 1956.

In the Arthurian legend, Orkney is the home to King Lot, Sir Gareth, Sir Gaheris, Sir Gawaine, and Sir Agravain.


The older Norn was replaced by Lowland Scots which in turn is being replaced by Scottish English.

Orcadian people

Some well-known Orcadians:

See also

Orkneyinga saga, Trowe, Udal Law

External links

United Kingdom | Scotland | Council Areas of Scotland
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Template:Scotland traditional countiesca:Illes rcades da:Orkney de:Orkney eo:Orkadoj fr:Orcades it:Isole Orcadi nl:Orkney-eilanden no:Orknyene nb:Orknyene pl:Orkady uk:Оркнейські острови


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