Encyclopedia > Orkneys

  Article Content

Orkney Islands

Redirected from Orkneys

Orkney Islands forms one of 32 unitary council regions in Scotland. It consists of about 200 small islands 16 kilometers north of Caithness[?] in northern Scotland. The largest island in the group is known as "Mainland"; about 20 are inhabited in total.

The most significant islands in the group are:

Orkney's administrative capital is Kirkwall on Mainland, a small city (due to the Saint Magnus Cathedral[?]) of about 7,000 inhabitants, with a large port. The only other sizeable town is Stromness at the western end of Mainland, with a population of only about 2,000. The third largest town is St Margaret's Hope[?], on South Ronaldsay.

Table of contents


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

The Orkneys lie between 58 41' and 59 24' North, and 2 22' and 3 26' West, measure 50 miles from Northeast to Southwest and 29 miles from East to West, and cover 240,476 acres or 3755 sqare miles. 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 occur in Hoy. The only other islands containing heights of any importance are Pomona, with Ward Hill (880 feet), and Wideford and Rousay. Nearly all of the islands possess lakes, and Loch Harray[?] and Loch Stenness[?] in Pomona attain noteworthy proportions. The rivers are merely streams draining the high land. Excepting on the west fronts of Pomona, 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 Pomona 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" 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 the Orkneys 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. The Orkneys export 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 of Caithness[?], these rocks rest upon the metamorphic[?] rocks of the eastern schists, as may be seen on Pomona, 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 in Hoy, where it forms the Old Man and neighbouring cliffs on the northwest coast. The Old Man 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 unconformably 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 Pomona 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 in Hoy.

Many indications of ice action are found in 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 Pomona and Hoy.


The climate is remarkably temperate and equable for so northerly a latitude. The average temperature for the year is 46 Fahrenheit, for winter 39 Fahrenheit and for summer 54 Fahrenheit. 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, the counterpart of the St Martin's summer of more southerly climes.

The average annual rainfall varies from 33.4 inches to 37 inches. 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 20 miles.

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:

A locally owned cargo service also takes passengers on its services from Kirkwall to Invergordon[?].

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


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 word "Orkney" probably derives from the Norse Orkn (seal), and ey (island). 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 querns[?] or stone handmills for grinding corn, 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.

Norse pirates 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 Haarfager ("Fair Hair") subdued the rovers in 875 and annexed both the Orkneys and Shetlands 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.

In 1468 the Orkneys and Shetlands were pledged by Christian I of Denmark 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 the Orkneys and Shetlands, 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.

Orcadian People

Some well-known Orcadians:

  • James Atkine[?] (1613 - 1687), bishop first of Moray and afterwards of Galloway
  • Murdoch McKenzie[?] (died 1797), the hydrographer
  • Malcolm Laing[?] (1762 - 1818), author of the History of Scotland from the Union of the Crowns to the Union of the Kingdoms
  • Mary Brunton[?] (1778 - 1818), author of Self-Control, Discipline and other novels
  • Samuel Laing (1730 - 1868), author of A Residence in Norway, and translator of the Heimskringla, the Icelandic chronicle of the kings of Norway
  • Thomas Stewart Traill[?] (1781 - 1862), professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh University and editor of the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Samuel Laing (1812 - 1897), chairman of the London, Brighton. & South Coast railway, and introducer of the system of "parliamentary" trains with fares of one penny a mile
  • Dr John Rae (1813 - 1893), the Arctic explorer
  • William Balfour Baikie (1825 - 1864), the African traveller.

Some material from http://1911encyclopedia.org (http://1911encyclopedia.org)

See also: Trow

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz

... (1842) System der Wissenschaft (1850) Meine Reform der Hegelschen Philosophie (1852) Wissenschaft der logischen Idee (1858-59), with a supplement (Epilegomena, ...

This page was created in 32 ms