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Orkney - Background information
Orkney is justifiably renowned for its Neolithic treasures, such as here at the Ring of Brodgar © john braid, Shutterstock
Abridged from the History section in Orkney: the Bradt Travel Guide
Simply put, history goes way back on Orkney. Farming communities were settled here before the Pyramids were built in Egypt. Over millennia, a mesmerising mixture of Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish and Norse influences has ultimately evolved into modern-day Orkney.
The Iron Age
People settled in low-lying areas and it seems that the early Iron Age was a time of some conflict in Orkney, as tribes fought over the best available farmland. Order seems to have slowly established itself as communities coalesced around a ruling class and fortifications and dwellings, such as the broch and roundhouse. Iron Age Orkney is generally considered to have been a wealthy and organised society in which powerful overlords kept social order and commissioned draughtsmen for their houses. Orcadians of this time were more able to trade with people from the south. They enjoyed only slight contact with Roman Britain but there is evidence that they imported metals and stones, along with Roman jewellery, glassware and pottery. There were also extensive seatrading links with Shetland. The good lands were mainly around the coasts, where roundhouses were built, complete with byres and sheds, and defended by ditches.
They built with stone, including flagstone, quarried from cliffs. Driftwood was used for roofing and doors. The most distinctive Iron Age settlement was the broch, which emerged during the last centuries BC. By the 6th century, the Picts had seen off the Romans and proceeded to establish the Kingdom of the Picts across Scotland. At its height, this kingdom stretched from the Firth of Forth (near present-day Edinburgh) right up to Shetland. By the early 7th century Orkney was fully in the Picts’ embrace, although there was no invasion as such. It was less the case that the Picts moved in physically, rather that contemporaneous Orcadians were assimilated into Pictish culture. Orkney had its own ruler during this period, subject to the authority of the higher Pictish king.
Pictish society on Orkney appears to have been comparatively stable: fortified villages were replaced in the 7th and 8th centuries by substantial family farmsteads made of stone and turf. The Picts farmed deer for meat and skins, and used antlers for pull-rings (to function as handles for lifting items such as baskets) and combs. Power, meanwhile, was held by a handful of noblemen and centred in places such as the Brough of Birsay on the Mainland and Pool in Sanday.
Orkney’s involvement with the Pictish kingdom brought it into the wider world of early medieval Europe, and the islands began to hold an important role in Celtic culture. By the 7th century the Picts had converted to Christianity and the religion subsequently expanded slowly in Orkney. While the earliest Orcadian church dates to the 10th century, earlier ruins may well be awaiting discovery.
Wildlife is justifiably one of the main reasons people visit Orkney. Between April and July it can seem as though every ledge of every sea cliff in Orkney is occupied by nesting seabirds, the sky whitened with the confetti of birds flying back and forth to their nests. Yet this avian treat is just one of many highlights that make Orkney such a superlative destination for wildlife lovers. The nutrient-rich waters of Scapa Flow and the firths and sounds that connect the Outer Isles are home to an abundance of marine life. Furthermore, for such a northerly location, Orkney boasts several eye-catching wildflowers, along with butterflies and dragonflies, while lichens thrive in the islands’ clean air.
Arctic tern is just one of the many seabirds found on Orkney © Orkney.com
The volume of wildlife means that Orkney boasts a large number of nationally and internationally protected areas. These include 13 Special Protection Areas that cover the majority of the moorland of the West Mainland, Rousay, Hoy, and parts of Sanday, Westray and Papa Westray. In addition, six Special Areas of Conservation include Hoy, Sanday, lochs on the Mainland, and the heaths around Stromness. Meanwhile, there are three Marine Protected Areas around Wyre and Rousay Sounds, Papa Westray, and the seas to the northwest of Orkney (this last being designed to protect sand eel populations). A Ramsar site for wetlands protection covers the east coast of Sanday.
Harbour seals generally pup in June and July © Orkney.com
Furthermore, the islands boast 36 Sites of Special Scientific Interest including Waulkmill Bay and Marwick Head on the Mainland, the Holm of Papay, Westray and Rousay. Orkney also has one National Scenic Area (NSA) covering 16,000ha of the West Mainland and Hoy. NSAs represent Scotland’s finest landscapes, and are equivalent to the Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONBs) found in the rest of the UK. The RSPB (select ‘reserves and events’ and enter ‘Orkney’) has 13 reserves across the islands: the largest, on Hoy, covers nearly 10,000 acres. A number of reserves have boardwalks and provide a good deal of public interaction in the form of guided walks or rangers/volunteers on hand in bird hides. The Scottish Wildlife Trust also has a presence in places such as the unfertilised and never-ploughed farmland of South Walls.
Whatever time of year you come, there will be something to see, from the autumn migration to winter flocks of wildfowl and seals pupping. Most of the outer islands employ rangers who lead tours from spring until autumn (and occasionally in winter) across their particular patch.
Orcadians have long asserted their Norse heritage and, in 2015, a DNA study across the British Isles confirmed what islanders already knew – namely that Viking genes are prominent throughout the isles. However, the research also suggested that while Norwegian DNA accounted for 25% of Orcadian DNA, the genetic legacy of Pictish and other pre-Viking communities remained strong.
Chair-making is an age-old Orcadian handicraft © Orkney.com
Island culture can be very distinctive and nowhere more so than Orkney. However short or long your visit you will become aware of just how important Orcadian culture is to local people. Entrepreneurship is key: people are innovative, independent, self-reliant and good at making ‘stuff’ that works. In the past, those who couldn’t do so either starved or had to move on. Many islanders have more than one job, several have half a dozen or more. This ability to think on one’s feet and change direction on a sixpence is evidenced by the way in which local marine and fossil-fuel operators are moving swiftly and seamlessly into renewable energy. ‘It’s the Orcadian way to look for new things,’ says Dave Flanagan, a local journalist and Orcadian. ‘Everyone chips in. People are very quietly proud of their heritage. They’re not in your face all the time.’
This culture is also evident in family life and in tight communities. A vital component of any wedding, for example, is the Bride’s Cog, a wooden drinking vessel filled with spicy punch that bride and groom must lug around the dance floor. The making of a cog is a highly skilled art and all cog-makers have their own prints and styles. It’s easy to infer from what you see that there is a sense of Orkney first, Scotland second; and that people don’t want to be over-governed, whether by Edinburgh or Westminster.
Orcadian music covers a vast repertoire, extending from fiddle to country music and what is best described as ‘rebel yell’. Good places to hear it are The Reel in Kirkwall and the Ferry Inn in Stromness, as well as community halls. If you see a flyer, or hear of a gig, do grab the chance to listen. Orcadian music reaches a crescendo during the Orkney Folk Festival, usually held during the last week of May.
Orkney has contributed considerably to Scotland’s canon of literature with several home-grown heavyweights serving to inspire writers on the British mainland. The history of Orkney literary contribution is long: witness the 13th-century Orkneyinga Sagas and the Haakoner Saga, written in the 1260s about the reign of King Haakon of Norway. The literary tradition was maintained by James Russell Lowell, a US-born contemporary of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was strongly influenced by his Orcadian mother’s ballads, oral tales and sonnets.