Orkney also known as the Orkney Islands (but not "the Orkneys"), is an archipelago in northern Scotland, north of the coast of Caithness. Orkney comprises approximately 70 islands of which 20 are inhabited. The largest island, known as the "Mainland" has an area of making it the sixth largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles. The largest settlement and administrative centre is Kirkwall.
The name "Orkney" dates back to the 1st century BC or earlier, and the islands have been inhabited for at least 8,500 years. Originally occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes and then by the Picts, Orkney was invaded and forcibly annexed by Norway in 875 and settled by the Norse. It was subsequently annexed to the Scottish Crown in 1472, following the failed payment of a dowry for James III's bride, Margaret of Denmark. Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, and the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Orkney is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland, a constituency of the Scottish Parliament, a lieutenancy area, and a former county. The local council is Orkney Islands Council, one of only three Councils in Scotland with a majority of elected members who are independents.
In addition to the Mainland, most of the islands are in two groups, the North and South Isles, all of which have an underlying geological base of Old Red Sandstone. The climate is mild and the soils are extremely fertile, most of the land being farmed. Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy and the significant wind and marine energy resources are of growing importance. The local people are known as Orcadians and have a distinctive dialect and a rich inheritance of folklore. There is an abundance of marine and avian wildlife.
A charred hazelnut shell, recovered in 2007 during excavations in Tankerness on the Mainland has been dated to 6820-6660 BC indicating the presence of Mesolithic nomadic tribes. The earliest known permanent settlement is at Knap of Howar, a Neolithic farmstead on the island of Papa Westray, which dates from 3500 BC. The village of Skara Brae, Europe's best-preserved Neolithic settlement, is believed to have been inhabited from around 3100 BC. Other remains from that era include the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Maeshowe passage grave, the Ring of Brodgar and other standing stones. Many of the Neolithic settlements were abandoned around 2500 BC, possibly due to changes in the climate.
During the Bronze Age fewer large stone structures were built although the great ceremonial circles continued in use as metalworking was slowly introduced to Scotland from Europe over a lengthy period. There are relatively few Orcadian sites dating from this era although there is the impressive Plumcake Mound near the Ring of Brodgar and various islands sites such as Tofts Ness on Sanday and the remains of two houses on Holm of Faray.
Excavations at Quanterness on the Mainland have revealed an Atlantic roundhouse built about 700 BC and similar finds have been made at Bu on the Mainland and Pierowall Quarry on Westray. The most impressive Iron Age structures of Orkney are the ruins of later round towers called "brochs" and their associated settlements such as the Broch of Burroughston and Broch of Gurness. The nature and origin of these buildings is a subject of ongoing debate. Other structures from this period include underground storehouses, and aisled roundhouses, the latter usually in association with earlier broch sites.
During the Roman invasion of Britain the "King of Orkney" was one of 11 British leaders who is said to have submitted to the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 at Colchester. After the Agricolan fleet had come and gone, possibly anchoring at Shapinsay, direct Roman influence seems to have been limited to trade rather than conquest.
By the late Iron Age, Orkney was part of the Pictish kingdom, and although the archaeological remains from this period are less impressive there is every reason to suppose the fertile soils and rich seas of Orkney provided the Picts with a comfortable living. The Dalriadic Gaels began to influence the islands towards the close of the Pictish era, perhaps principally through the role of Celtic missionaries, as evidenced by several islands bearing the epithet "Papa" in commemoration of these preachers. However, before the Gaelic presence could establish itself the Picts were gradually dispossessed by the Norsemen from the late 8th century onwards. The nature of this transition is controversial, and theories range from peaceful integration to enslavement and genocide.
Both Orkney and Shetland saw a significant influx of Norwegian settlers during the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Vikings made the islands the headquarters of their pirate expeditions carried out against Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland. In response, Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre ("Harald Fair Hair") annexed the Northern Isles (comprising Orkney and Shetland) in 875. Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland from Harald as an earldom as reparation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland, and then passed the earldom on to his brother Sigurd the Mighty.
However, Sigurd's line barely survived him and it was Torf-Einarr, Rognvald's son by a slave, who founded a dynasty that controlled the islands for centuries after his death. He was succeeded by his son Thorfinn Skull-splitter and during this time the deposed Norwegian King Eric Bloodaxe often used Orkney as a raiding base before being killed in 954. Thorfinn's death and presumed burial at the broch of Hoxa, on South Ronaldsay, led to a long period of dynastic strife.
Thorfinn the Mighty was a son of Sigurd and a grandson of King Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (Malcolm II of Scotland). Along with Sigurd's other sons he ruled Orkney during the first half of the 11th century and extended his authority over a small maritime empire stretching from Dublin to Shetland. Thorfinn died around 1065 and his sons Paul and Erlend succeeded him, fighting at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Paul and Erlend quarreled as adults and this dispute carried on to the next generation. The martyrdom of Magnus Erlendsson, who was killed in April 1116 by his cousin Haakon Paulsson, resulted in the building of St. Magnus Cathedral, still today a dominating feature of Kirkwall.
In 1468 Orkney was pledged by Christian I, in his capacity as king of Norway, as security against the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III of Scotland. As the money was never paid, the connection with the crown of Scotland has become perpetual.
The history of Orkney prior to this time is largely the history of the ruling aristocracy. From now on the ordinary people emerge with greater clarity. An influx of Scottish entrepreneurs helped to create a diverse and independent community that included farmers, fishermen and merchants that called themselves comunitas Orcadie and who proved themselves increasingly able to defend their rights against their feudal overlords.
From at least the 16th century, boats from mainland Scotland and the Netherlands dominated the local herring fishery. There is little evidence of an Orcadian fleet until the 19th century but it grew rapidly and 700 boats were involved by the 1840s with Stronsay and then later Stromness becoming leading centres of development. White fish never became as dominant as in other Scottish ports.
In the 17th century, Orcadians formed the overwhelming majority of employees of the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. The harsh climate of Orkney and the Orcadian reputation for sobriety and their boat handling skills made them ideal candidates for the rigours of the Canadian north. During this period, burning kelp briefly became a mainstay of the islands' economy. For example on Shapinsay over of burned seaweed were produced per annum to make soda ash, bringing in £20,000 to the local economy.
Agricultural improvements beginning in the 17th century resulted in the enclosure of the commons and ultimately in the Victoria era the emergence of large and well-managed farms using a five-shift rotation system and producing high quality beef cattle.
Orkney was the site of a Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, which played a major role in World War I and II. After the Armistice in 1918, the German High Seas Fleet was transferred in its entirety to Scapa Flow to await a decision on its future. The German sailors opened the sea-cocks and scuttled all the ships. Most ships were salvaged, but the remaining wrecks are now a favoured haunt of recreational divers. One month into World War II, a German U-boat sank the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. As a result, barriers were built to close most of the access channels; these had the additional advantage of creating causeways enabling travellers to go from island to island by road instead of being obliged to rely on ferries. The causeways were constructed by Italian prisoners of war, who also constructed the ornate Italian Chapel.
The navy base became run down after the war, eventually closing in 1957. The problem of a declining population was significant in the post-war years, though in the last decades of the 20th century there was a recovery and life in Orkney focused on growing prosperity and the emergence of a relatively classless society.
Overview of population trends
In the modern era, population peaked in the mid 19th century at just over 26,000 and declined for a century thereafter to a low of less than 17,000 in the 1970s. Declines were particularly significant in the outlying islands, some of which remain vulnerable to ongoing losses. Although Orkney is in many ways very distinct from the other islands and archipelagos of Scotland this trend is very similar to those experienced elsewhere.