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, the only Council in Scotland in which all the elected members are independent.
Orkney has been inhabited for at least 5,500 years. Originally inhabited by neolithic tribes and then by the Picts, Orkney was invaded and finally annexed by Norway in 875 and settled by the Norse. It was subsequently re-annexed to the Scottish Crown in 1472, following the failed payment of a dowry for James III's bride, Margaret of Denmark.
Orkney and Shetland saw a significant influx of Norwegian settlers towards the end of the 8th century and first half of the 9th century. This was due to the overpopulation of Norway in comparison to the resources and arable land available there at the time. History once held that the Norwegians largely replaced the original population on the islands, the Picts, though contemporary DNA studies refute this, suggesting instead a slight majority of aboriginal Pictish genes. The nature of the shift in population is the subject of differing theories as little hard evidence remains. These theories range from complete genocide to intermarriage and cultural domination through a gradual majority dominance. According to Dr. Jim Wilson, an Edinburgh scientist, archaeogenetic evidence suggests that "Vikings, who colonised Orkney, did so by eradicating nearly every male member of its Pictish population".
Vikings having made the islands the headquarters of their buccaneering expeditions (also carried out against Norway and the other coasts and isles of Scotland), Harald Hårfagre ("Harald Fair Hair") subdued the rovers in 875 and annexed both Orkney and Shetland to Norway. Ragnvald, Earl of Møre received Orkney and Shetland as an earldom from the king as reparation for his son being killed in battle in Scotland. Ragnvald gave the earldom on to his brother Sigurd the Mighty. Eirik Bloodaxe followed his father on the throne, but when his half-brother Håkon the Good returned to Norway from England Eirik's support disappeared and he fled the country. He was given Nordimbraland (Northumberland) as a fief by King Athelstan of England and settled in Jorvik (York), but was expelled by Athelstan's brother Edmund in 941 because of his raids in Ireland and Brittany. Eirik fled to Orkney and lived there until he was killed in the Battle of Stainmore in England in 954. His sons continued to live on Orkney and challenged Håkon the Good's rule of Norway several times under the leadership of Harald Greyhide. The sons of Eirik eventually gained control of Norway.
The islands were Christianized by Olav Tryggvasson in 995 when he stopped in the islands on his way from Ireland to Norway. The King summoned Sigurd jarl (Earl Sigurd) and ordered him to let himself be baptised in the Christian faith. Sigurd was unwilling, but gave in when the King threatened to kill his son Hvelp. The islands received their own bishop in the early 1000s. From 1153 to 1472 the Kirkjuvåg bishopric was subordinate to the archbishop of Nidaros (today's Trondheim).
The martyrdom of Earl Magnus resulted in the building of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. The islands 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. Recent studies from the field of population genetics reveal a significant percentage of Norse ethnic heritage — up to one third of the Y chromosomes on the islands are derived from western Norwegian sources, whereas in Shetland over half the male lineage is Norse.
The Norse Kingdom of Mann and the Isles existed in the British Isles from 1079 till 1266. The Kingdom had two parts, Sodor (Old Norse: Suðr-eyjar), or the South Isles (the Hebrides and Mann), and Norðr (Old Norse: Norðr-eyjar), or the North Isles (the Orkneys and Shetland). The Kings of Mann and the Isles were vassals of the Kings of Norway.
Apparently without the knowledge of the Norwegian Riksråd (Council of the Realm) Christian entered into the contract on 8 September 1468 personally with the King of Scotland in which he pawned Orkney for 50,000 Rhenish guilders. On 28 May the next year he also pawned Shetland for 8,000 Rhenish guilders. He secured a clause in the contract which gave future kings of Norway the right to redeem the islands for a fixed sum of 210 kg of gold or 2,310 kg of silver. Several attempts were made during the 17th and 18th centuries to redeem the islands, without success.
In 1471, James bestowed the castle and lands of Ravenscraig, in Fife, to William, Earl of Orkney, in exchange for all his rights to the Earldom of Orkney, which, by an Act of the Parliament of Scotland, passed on 20 February 1472, was annexed to the Scottish Crown.
In 1669 an Act of Annexation was passed by the Scottish Parliament establishing Orkney and Shetland as Crown Dependencies following a legal dispute with William, Earl of Morton, who then held the estates of both Orkney and Shetland.
The Act made Orkney and Shetland exempt from any "dissolution of His Majesty’s lands". In 1742 a further Act of Parliament returned the estates to a later Earl of Morton, although the 1669 Act specifically proscribed this, stating that any such change is to be "considered null, void and of no effect".
In the 17th century, Orcadians formed the overwhelming majority of employees of the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. The harsh climate of the Orkneys and the Orcadian reputation for sobriety made them ideal candidates for the rigours of the Canadian north. Today, many of the Métis people of western Canada trace their history to the Orkneys.
The Mainland is the largest island of Orkney. Both of Orkney's burghs, Kirkwall and Stromness, are on this island, which is also the heart of Orkney's transportation system, with ferry and air connections to the other islands and to the outside world. The island is more densely populated (75% of Orkney's population) than the other islands and has much fertile farmland. The name Mainland is a corruption of the Old Norse Meginland.
Kirkwall lies on a narrow strip of land between West Mainland (the major portion) and East Mainland. The island is mostly low-lying (especially East Mainland), but with coastal cliffs to the north and west and two sizeable lochs. Mainland contains the remnants of numerous Neolithic, Pictish and Viking constructions. Four of the main Neolithic sites are included in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1999. The group constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which gives a graphic depiction of life in archipelago in the north of Scotland some 5,000 years ago.
The other islands in the group are classified as north or south of the Mainland. Exceptions are the remote islets of Sule Skerry and Sule Stack, which lie west of the archipelago, but form part of Orkney for local government purposes.
In the Scottish Parliament the Orkney constituency elects one Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) by the first past the post system. The current MSP is Liam McArthur of the Liberal Democrats. Before McArthur the MSP was Jim Wallace, who was previously Deputy First Minister. Orkney is within the Highlands and Islands electoral region.
The Orkney Movement, a political party that supported devolution for Orkney from the rest of Scotland contested the 1987 UK general election as the Orkney and Shetland Movement (a coalition of the Orkney movement and its equivalent for Shetland). The Scottish National Party chose not to contest the seat to give the movement a "free run". Their candidate, John Goodlad, came 4th with 3,095 votes, 14.5% of the those cast but the experiment has not been repeated.
Orkney lies between 58°41′ and 59°24′ North, and 2°22′ and 3°26′ West, measuring from northeast to southwest and from east to west, and covers . Except for some sharply rising sandstone hills and rugged cliffs on the west of the larger ones, the islands are mainly lowlying.
Other than Hoy, the only other islands containing heights of any importance are the Mainland, with (another) Ward Hill and Wideford Hill; and Rousay. Nearly all of the islands have lochs (lakes): The Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness on the Mainland attain noteworthy proportions. The watercourses are merely streams draining the high land. Excepting on the west fronts of the Mainland, 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". However, off the northeast of Hoy the designation "Bring Deeps" is used. South of the Mainland is Scapa Flow and to the southwest of Eday is found the Fall of Warness.
The names of the islands indicate their nature: the terminal "a" or "ay" represents the Norse ey, meaning "island". The islets are usually styled "holms" and the isolated rocks "skerries".
The tidal currents, or races, or "roosts" (as some of them are called locally, from the Norn) off many of the isles run with high velocity, and whirlpools are of frequent occurrence, occasionally strong enough to prove a source of danger to small craft.
The islands are notable for the absence of trees, which is partly accounted for by the amount of wind. 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.
The superficial rock is almost entirely Old Red Sandstone. As in the neighbouring mainland county of Caithness, these rocks rest upon the metamorphic rocks of the eastern schists, as may be seen on Mainland, 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 on Hoy, where it forms the Old Man of Hoy and neighbouring cliffs on the northwest coast. The Old Man of Hoy presents a characteristic section, for it exhibits a thick pile of massive, current-bedded red sandstones resting upon a thin bed of amygdaloidal porphyrite near the foot of the pinnacle. This, 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 the Mainland 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 older than that on Hoy.
Many indications of ice action are found on 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 Mainland and Hoy.
The average annual rainfall varies from 850 mm (33 in) to 940 mm (37 in). Fogs occur during summer and early autumn, and furious gales may be expected four or five times in the year.
To tourists, one of the fascinations of the islands is their nightless summers. On the longest day, the sun rises at 03:00 and sets at 21:29 GMT and darkness is unknown. It is possible to read at midnight and very few stars can be seen in the night sky. Winter, however, is long. On the shortest day the sun rises at 09:05 and sets at 15:16.
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.
Today, the traditional sectors of the economy export beef, cheese, whisky, beer, fish and seafood. In recent years there has been growth in other areas including tourism, food and beverage manufacture, jewellery, knitwear, and other crafts production, construction and oil transportation through the Flotta oil terminal. Public services also play a significant role.
Orkney has significant wind, and marine energy resources and renewable energy has recently come into prominence. The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) is a Scottish Government-backed research facility that has installed a wave testing system at Billia Croo on the Orkney mainland and a tidal power testing station on the island of Eday. At the official opening of the Eday project the site was described as "the first of its kind in the world set up to provide developers of wave and tidal energy devices with a purpose-built performance testing facility.". Funding for the UK's first wave farm was announced by the Scottish Government in 2007. It will be the world's largest, with a capacity of 3 MW generated by four Pelamis machines at a cost of over £4 million. During 2007 Scottish and Southern Energy plc in conjunction with the University of Strathclyde began the implementation of a 'Regional Power Zone' in the Orkney archipelago. This ground-breaking scheme (that may be the first of its kind in the world) involves 'active network management' that will make better use of the existing infrastructure and allow a further 15MW of new 'non-firm generation' output from renewables onto the network.
Within Orkney, the council operates airfields on most of the larger islands including Stronsay, Eday, North Ronaldsay, Westray, Papa Westray, and Sanday. The shortest scheduled air service in the world, between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray, is scheduled at two minutes duration but can take less than one minute if the wind is in the right direction.
Inter-island ferry services connect all the inhabited islands to Orkney Mainland, and are operated by Orkney Ferries, a company owned by Orkney Islands Council.
A local BBC radio station, BBC Radio Orkney, the local opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland, broadcasts twice daily, with local news and entertainment. Orkney also has a commercial radio station, The Superstation Orkney which broadcasts to Kirkwall and parts of the mainland, although reception in Stromness and the North Isles is very poor.
Moray Firth Radio broadcasts throughout Orkney on AM and from an FM transmitter just outside Thurso. The community radio station, Caithness FM also broadcasts to most parts of Orkney. Northsound 1 and Northsound 2 can also be heard on parts of the islands, with poor reception.
Orkney competes in the biannual Island Games.
After the Norse occupation the toponymy of Orkney became almost wholly West Norse. The Norse language evolved into the local Norn, which lingered until the end of the 18th century, when it finally died out. Norn was replaced by the Orcadian dialect of Insular Scots. This dialect is at a low ebb due to the constant influences of television, education and the large number of incomers. However attempts are being made to revitalise its use by some writers and radio presenters.
However, the distinctive sing-song accent and many dialect words of Norse origin continue to be used. The Orcadian dialect lingers in the remoter parts of the archipelago. Studies made by Gregor Lamb and others demonstrate the Norse influence on the grammar of Orcadian. The Orcadian word most frequently encountered by visitors is "peedie" ("peerie" in Shetland), meaning "small", which may be derived from the French petit.
An Orcadian is a native of Orkney, a term that reflects a strongly held identity with a tradition of understatement.
Although the annexation of the earldom by Scotland in 1472 took place over five centuries ago, most Orcadians regard themselves as Orcadians first and Scots second. (Readers of Scott's The Pirate will remember the frank contempt which Magnus Troil expressed for the Scots).
When an Orcadian speaks of "Scotland", they are talking about the land to the immediate south of the Pentland Firth. When an Orcadian speaks of "the mainland", they mean Mainland, Orkney. They are emphatic that tartan, clans, bagpipes and the like are traditions from the Scottish Highlands and are not a part of the islands' indigenous culture. However, at least two tartans with Orkney connections have been registered and a tartan has been designed for Sanday by one of the island's residents, and there are pipe bands in Orkney.
Native Orcadians refer to the non-native residents of the islands as "ferry loupers", a term that has been in use for nearly two centuries at least. This designation is celebrated in the Orkney Trout Fishing Association's "Ferryloupers Trophy", suggesting that although it can be used in a derogatory manner, it is more often a light-hearted expression.