Welcome to Orkney Isles
Orkney is a truly remarkable place. Situated off the north coast of Scotland these 67 remote islands are home to a greater wealth of archaeological treasures than almost anywhere else in the world. Here grand Stone Age tombs and settlements older than the Egyptian pyramids share a haunting landscape with standing stones, Bronze Age forts, Viking ruins, medieval churches, castles and palaces. Orkney has also been crucial in more modern history as the Royal Navy was to use Scapa Flow, one of the biggest natural harbours in the world, as their base during the first and second world wars. Most recently the discovery of North Sea Oil has led to Orkney becoming an important location for perhaps the world’s number one industry.
Standing Stones Orkney
Orkney’s story begins over 9000 thousand years ago with the arrival of nomadic hunter gatherers who had followed the retreating ice fields north at the end of the last ice age. As the land thawed the seas rose and much of the evidence of their way of life was submerged by the rising waters. Over two thousand years passed before permanent settlements were to be established as an agricultural economy developed. Permanency of settlement led these people to adorn their landscape with monuments and buildings: archaeological treasures that testify to their primitive genius. It is no surprise that much of Orkney has been recognised with World Heritage Site status. Two of Orkney’s most important, and famous, archaeological sites are Skara Brae (the remains of a settlement) and Maes Howe (the grandest Neolithic chambered tomb in North West Europe, 38 metres in diameter at its base) both dated to around 3000 BC.
Orkney’s Bronze Age (2000-600 BC) seems to have been a time of relative decline. Changes in climate may have driven many from the islands and led society to fragment, resulting in increasing conflict. At this time cremation became more common and chambered cists like Maes Howe fell into disuse. The cremated remains were buried in small earthen mounds called barrows. Some of the finest examples of barrows include Ring o’ Brodgar (Stenness) and Knowes o’ Trotty (Harray). In the last 600 years BC round houses gave way to fortified towers called brochs as further climate deterioration exacerbated feuds. Still, the decline of broch building and the discovery of Roman pottery suggest that life on Orkney may not have been as impoverished as it might initially appear.
Skara Brae, Orkney Islands 3000 B.C.
Around the 7th century Orkney became incorporated into the Kingdom of the Picts. The Picts had their Orcadian capital at Brough o’ Birsay, to the north west of Mainland. Here one of the few Pictish symbol stones on the islands can be found. However the time of the Picts was short lived; by the end of the eighth century Vikings had arrived from the north taking over the islands and settling them. It is unclear whether the native population was merely wiped out or whether they intermarried with Norse settlers, although evidence from elsewhere in Scotland where Vikings dominated suggests that intermarriage may be more probable. In any case, over the following 700 years Orkney became a hub of Scandinavian trading and warring routes.
All the same, Scottish influence on the islands was to gradually increase. Scottish regal authority was bolstered in the region following the defeat of the Norse at the Battle of Largs in 1263 and later by the appointment of the Sinclairs, Earls of Roslyn, as Earls of Orkney in 1379, even though they held the islands on behalf of the Norwegian (and later Danish) crown. In 1468 the bankrupt Danish king, Christian I, gave both Shetland and Orkney to James III of Scotland after defaulting on payment of a dowry arranged for the wedding of his daughter, Margaret, to the Scottish king.
While Orkney ceased to be part of the Scandinavian empire in the 15th century, Viking influence lives on to this day. The islands have been bequeathed with many buildings founded by the Vikings. One of the finest examples is perhaps St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall (begun 1137), one of the finest and best preserved medieval cathedrals in Scotland. Apart from architecture and archaeology, their legacy is evident from the place names, folklore, accent and customs of the island.
Yesnaby, Orkney Islands
One dark period in Orkney’s history was in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Earldom fell to the Stewart Family. These tyrants used the land and its people merely to further their own interests, using forced labour, jailings and torture to rape the land of its wealth. Where the wealth went is clear to see from the Earl’s Palace, across from St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. The palace is considered by many to be the finest example of French renaissance architecture in Scotland.
The advantages of using the natural harbour of Scapa Flow were recognised by the Royal Navy 1000 years after the Vikings. Scapa Flow became the major base for the Royal Navy during the WWI, the natural harbour being considered the safest option as it was at some distance from the principal areas of sea combat. It was here during the armistice talks in 1919 that the German high seas fleet was taken, under skeleton crews, to be decommissioned. However, fearing that the 74 vessels would fall into the hands of the British should the war resume, Admiral von Reuter gave a secret order to scuttle the fleet. Today these vessels are a draw for around 20,000 divers who come to Orkney every year.
During both wars the islands were home to not just many of the countries marines but also a number of POWs. On the island of Lamb Holm a number of Italian prisoners were held captive while working on causeways linking a number of the islands. While captive they decided to convert one of the huts into a chapel, which they did so with immense skill. Now known as the Italian Chapel, it draws many visitors every year.
Orkney seeps history. Its unique history, so evident all around, makes it one of very few places on earth where history is so present and so alive. Indeed, it has been said that it is impossible to walk for more than a mile without stumbling across another remarkable artefact or monument. Orkney is evidently a truly remarkable place.