Orkney Islands

Orkney, also known as the Orkney Islands, is an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, situated off the north coast of the island of Great Britain. Orkney is 10 miles north of the coast of Caithness and has about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited. The largest island, the Mainland, has an area of 202 square miles, making it the sixth-largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles. Orkney’s largest settlement, and also its administrative centre, is Kirkwall.

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 colonised and later annexed by the Kingdom of Norway in 875 and settled by the Norsemen. In 1472, the Parliament of Scotland absorbed the Earldom of Orkney into the Kingdom of Scotland, following failure to pay a dowry promised to James III of Scotland by the family of his bride, Margaret of Denmark.

In addition to the Mainland, most of the remaining islands are divided into two groups: the North Isles and the South Isles. The local climate is relatively mild and the soils are extremely fertile; most of the land is farmed, and agriculture is the most important sector of the economy. The significant wind and marine energy resources are of growing importance; the amount of electricity that Orkney generates annually from renewable energy sources exceeds its demand. Daytime temperatures generally range between 5 °F in winter and 61 °F in summer.

The local people are known as Orcadians; they speak a distinctive dialect of the Scots language and have a rich body of folklore. Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe; the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Orkney also has an abundance of marine and avian wildlife.

The mainland is the largest of the Orkney Islands and, Kirkwall is the centre town and main port. It is a Norse Viking town founded in 1035. St. Magnus Cathedral in the centre is a medieval cathedral built by the Norse Earl Rognvald Kolson in 1137. There are other Norse sights to visit on the islands such as Brough of Birsay, the rock stack in Brough of Deerness, Orphir circular church, the Earl’s Palace at Birsay, the Earl’s Palaces in Kirkwall, Skaill House near Skara Brae, the Martello towers on Hoy, and Noltland Castle on Westray.


Skara BraeThe prehistoric sights of the Orkney’s are the biggest tourist attractions on the island. Skara Brae is a recreation built near the actual sight of a village from 5000 years ago. It displays certain artifacts in the house such as stone beds, dressers, and other stone furnishing. Preserved under protective glass are the actual ruins left of the village. Near by the village are the standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brogar, said to have been standing since 2500 BC. Sir Walter Scott described the Stones of Stenness as an altar for human sacrifice, but it is still not sure the reason for the circles. It is calculated that the circles would have take about 5000 man-days to erect considering the digging and ploughing also involved. Ring of BrogarMaes Howe is an ancient Neolithic burial tomb that is older than the pyramids in Egypt. It appears on a grassy mound rising from a flat plain, hiding a complex of passageways and chambers, the slabs of stone weigh up to 30 tons and had to have been carried a great distance. In the east mainland is the mound in Tankerness known as Mine Howe, another rock built burial tomb. Other prehistoric sights to visit are the Brochs at Gurness (circular defensive towers made of stone), Burroughston on Shapinsay in the north isles, and Midhowe Broch on Rousay.


Scapa Flow BlockshipsThe Scapa Flow on Hoy is an old 20th Century naval complex built by Churchill in World War 2. A terrible disaster happened here in 1939 as a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the blockships killing 833 members of the HMS Royal Oak’s crew. After this Churchill built barriers and causeways throughout the island, they were completed just as the war ended. Some sunken blockships are still visible. Now there is a Visitors Centre on Scapa Flow with a museum.


Off the shores of the mainland there are many ferry services to the northern and southern isles. Each have there own unique characteristics including historical sights, sea wildlife and natural landscapes. Some to note are the Balfour Castle in Shapinsay, Midhowe in Rousay, Ward Hill and the Cuilags in Hoy. The Highland Park Whisky Distillery is located just outside Kirkwall.

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