The Orkney Islands Visitor Information

Orkney lying some 6 miles of the north east tip of the Scottish mainland, the Orkney islands have an area of around 380 sq miles.

There are sixty islands in Orkney, twenty one being inhabited, and the largest of these is simply Mainland but to an Orcadian ‘the mainland‘ simply means his own mainland and not that of Scotland.

This mainland is a richly indented island with some 200 miles of excellent roads.

It contains more land than all the other islands together, it also has Stromness the only other town in Orkney, to the west.

Many of the other islands contain items of antiquarian, archaeological and other interest and they are dealt with below.

Orkney is particularly rich in bird life and is proud of having three Reserves looked after by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the mainland and a fourth on Copinsay, which has been named as the James Fisher Memorial Island after the famous naturalist and broadcaster.

  • Orkney: Latitude: 58.9809° N Longitude: 2.9605° W
  • Orkney: KW15
  • Orkney: WOEID 12602205

The Orkney group of islands, separated from the Scottish mainland by the turbulent waters of the Pentlands Firth, total some 70, of which about one-third are still occupied, though many more were inhabited over the centuries as the ruins of deserted dwell­ings indicate.

The land is fertile and has thus offered the islanders a two-pronged economic advantage, with the sea providing an excellent source of income and employment, in contrast with, the Shetland Island and the Outer Hebrides, those who work on the land tend more to be farmers than crofters. Indeed, Orkney's many green, lush fields often stretch to the very edge of precipitous cliffs or encroach on to sandy beaches. That these islands have attracted people for thousands of years is evidenced by the fact that there are said to be three sites of historical interest to every square mile. Neolithic relics and ruins are more nu­merous and better preserved here than anywhere in the British Isles.

The prevailing historical ambience of the Orkney islands is Norse, reflecting the coloniza­tion from the 8th century onwards by Vikings and farmers from Scandinavia. The islands came under Scottish rule only in 1468, when they were pledged to the Scottish Crown in a marriage settlement. Not that this made any difference to the cultural heritage and integrity of the island­ers.

The rhythm and syncopations of island life and living owe more to Scandinavia than toScotland, which has given the islanders a healthy outward-looking attitude towards the many problems now associated with living on any of the Scottish island groups.

One aspect of Orkney independence is shown by the fact that, whereas elsewhere in Britain the seashore belongs to the Crown, in Orkney the coastal land is owned by the islanders as far as the low-tide mark, a relic of the old Norse udal mode of land tenure that dates from before the feudal system. Freshwater fishing is also free, thanks to the udal tradition and residual Norse law that still obtains in these islands.

The culture extends into the every day language, which is English heavily larded with words and phrases - often of Norse origin - that require the visitor to have the ears well tuned, which can take a day or two. But this is no real disadvantage to anyone who desires to visit a part of the British Isles which is 'different' in so many ways. 

Orkney History

The Norse influence on Orkney is clearly evident in the place-names, the names of some local people and the atmosphere which indicates that these islands came into the Kingdom of Scotland only through ‘an unredeemed pawning operation’ between the Scottish and Danish crowns in 1468 as five-sixths of the promised dowry for Margaret, daughter of Christian 1 of Denmark as bride to James1ll of Scotland, but the human story goes very much further back.

There were Pictish, and Celtic, and long before them Neolithic peoples who inhabited Orkney centuries before the first Norse longship was seen off the coasts, and happily their relics have been left largely unravaged except by time and weather.

The Picts left some mysterious symbol stones Ancient dykes which possibly enclosed tilled land are known as Pickie-dikes, Pictaits were a form of wild’ oats which ripened early, and even the Pentland Firth which separates Orkney from the Scottish mainland was the Pictland Firth.

In the 6th century came Christian missionaries, but a l2th century Latin history states that Orkney was first inhabited by Picts and Papae, the latter being Celtic clergy, and their name survives in islands such as Papa Westray, These missionaries did their work well, for the Picts, although over whelmed by the Norsemen in the 8th and 9th centuries, had spread Christianity among them long before the official conversion in A.D. 995, as is indicated by the presence of several Kirkbister (kirk farm) place names.

The Norsemen were ruthless in their conquest their deeds and misdeeds are related in the Orkneyinga Saga, written in l3th century Icelandic, of which there are several English translations; but they brought trade and immigrants, many of whom were farmers, and to this day the Orcadians, although never far from the sea, are a land-cultivating race.

The power of the island earls was immense: Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, from his base on the Brough of Birsay, ruled the Northern and Western Isles, and a large part of Scotland, and held sway in Ireland; his widow became the first wife of Malcolm1ll (Canmore) of Scotland. His grandson, Magnus Erlendsson, Joint Earl of Orkney, was of a contrastingly peaceful, gentle nature, and it was this clash of personalities with his fellow earl Haakon that led to his martyrdom at the latter‘s hands on Egilsay, his canonization and the foundation of his great memorial cathedral of St Magnus at Kirkwall in ll37 by his nephew Earl Rognvald, a man of great culture who was later himself canonized.

The Norse influence in Orkney will it may be hoped, never be obliterated. Although it was in I468 that the direct links were severed with the pawning of the islands to Scotland, the Orcadians had to suffer the much harsher tyranny of the Stewart earls; the Marquis of Montrose took hundreds of young men for his last campaign, and Cromwell sent in a garrison.

Later Orkney enjoyed comparative peace and agricultural consolidation, until it found itself in the front row during the two world wars.

Peace reigned again for thirty years until in the mid 197Os came the new invasion aflectiitg so much of Scotland, that of the oilmen, and once more Scapaflow was to see big ships, albeit unarmed, and Flotta become an oil terminal.

The effect on the economy was immediate and enormous, but the oil consortium that was building and operating the terminal emphasized from the start that they would work closely with local authorities to ensure that the terminal would blend smoothly into the special economic, social and environmental character of Orkney.

Naturally there are spin-offs in the creation of service industries and other facilities. but these have been confined to the mainland and particularly to Kirkwall and Stromness, the other islands are unaffected.

The visitor who may visualize Orkney as ‘remote’ should be swiftly disillusioned, there are daily air services from Scottish airports. a drive on ferry service from Tuurso etc.

And, for the visitor who chooses to turn his back on the antiquarian and archaeological treasures, there is superb freshwater loch and sea fishing, brown trout, halibut and skate are not uncommon, there are swimming pools at Kirkwall and Stromness and many beautiful beaches, golf courses, innumerable hotels, guest-houses and ‘bed-and-breakfast’ cottages.

The Orkney Tourist Organization at Kirkwall has all the facilities and information.

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