The climate is mild, windy, and wet. The Orkneys are one of Scotland's richest farming regions. Beef cattle and eggs are the most important produce. Sheep and pigs are also raised. Some fishing, mainly for lobster, is carried on. The discovery of North Sea oil in the early 1970s provided employment for many inhabitants.
The Orkney Islands were settled by Picts. Vikings invaded in the 8th cent. From 875 to 1231 it was a Viking earldom under the Norwegian crown. Details of this period are recounted in the Orkneyinga Saga, a Norse epic. In 1231, the islands passed to the Scottish earls of Angus on the death of the last Viking earl. It became a possession of the Scottish crown in 1472 in trust for the undelivered dowry of Margaret of Norway on her marriage to James III (1469), but the Norse occupation left marked Scandinavian traces; islanders spoke Norn (a form of Norse) until the 18th cent. James V visited Kirkwall in 1540 and made the Orkney Islands a county. Scapa Flow, S of Mainland, was Britain's major naval base in World Wars I and II.
The islands have many prehistoric relics. Stone Age villages have been unearthed at Skara Brae on Mainland and a broch (prehistoric fort) at Rinyo on Rousay. Other relics are the burial chambers at Maeshowe and the standing stones at Stenness. The islands have become increasingly popular with tourists and are home to the St. Magnus music festival, founded by the composer Peter Maxwell Davies.
Subsequently, the Islands were frequently visited by sealers and whalers, but no thorough survey was ever done until the expedition of William Speirs Bruce on the Scotia in 1903, which overwintered at Laurie Island. Bruce surveyed the islands, reverted some of Weddell's name changes, and established a meteorological station, which was sold to the Argentinian Government upon his departure in 1904. This base, renamed Orcadas in 1951, is still in operation today and is thus the oldest research station continuously staffed in the Antarctic.
In 1908, the United Kingdom declared sovereignty over all Antarctic and South American territories south of their colony in the 50° parallel, including the South Orkney Islands. The Islands were then regarded to be part of the Falkland Islands Dependency. A biological research station on Signy Island was built in 1947 by the British Antarctic Survey.
The archipelago comprises four main islands. Coronation Island is the largest island; its highest point is Mount Nivea and rises to 1266 m above sea level. Laurie Island is the easternmost of the islands. The other islands are the smaller Powell Island, Signy Island and Robertson Island, as well as a few tiny ones named Saddle Islands. In total, these island have a surface of about 620 km², most of which is covered with ice.
The climate of the South Orkneys is generally cold, wet, and windy. Summers are short and cold (December to March) when the average temperatures reach about 2°C and fall to about -10°C in winter (i.e., in July). The extrema reach about 12°C and -44°C, respectively. The seas around the islands are ice-covered from late April to November.