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Orkney Islands History

History has seen great empires develop in the past and these have included the Egyptians, the Romans and the Incas. But there are certainly two other races right up there in terms of importance and these were the Vikings and the ancient Britons. And with Orkney finding itself geographically between the two, it’s little wonder that this small group of islands has an amazing history. Because of its past, there are a huge amount of ancient structures on the islands and the place is dream area for archaeologists.

It was thought that the first settlers came in about 4000BC, but a charred hazelnut shell, found during an excavation in 2007 at Longhowe, was traced back via carbon dating to 6800BC. This shows that settlers were present at the time, and this was a period a mere 3,000 years after the end of the Ice Age.

This was so long ago that the whole geographical landscape and area would have been different. The sea level would have been up to 30 metres lower making the islands substantially larger. This was the Mesolithic period and the people were nomadic hunter gatherers whose buildings would have been temporary structures.

This was followed by the Neolithic period of 4000-1800BC, when the population began to become more domesticated, building permanent stone structures and developing agricultural communities in fertile ground. The groups lived together on a communal basis and it’s from this era that much has been learnt about early life, this due to all manner of archaeological tools.

Evidence has been found across all of the islands, but most notably at Knap of Howar and Skara Brae. Knap of Howar is the site of the oldest dwelling house found in the UK, whilst the village of Skara Brae at Sandwick, on the edge of the Bay of Skaill, was a place that lay covered in sand for thousands of years. It was only in 1850 that it was discovered. A fierce storm stripped away a large amount of sand and this revealed parts of the village. Further excavation exposed amazing details of Neolithic life with houses connected by underground passages and during this work, archaeologists were able to uncover beds, cupboards and hearths.

The village was thought to have been inhabited between 3200BC an 2500BC and today it’s one of the most famous landmarks in Britain. During this period, a host of standing stones were erected, most notably the Setter Stone of Eday, the Yetnasteen of Rousay and the Stan Stane of North Ronaldsay. There are also the magnificent stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar and burial chambers that include Maeshowe, Cuween and the Tomb of Eagles, with these all being sites that form part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Geographically, it was during this ancient time that the climate deteriorated and resulted in the development of peat bogs.

The Bronze age took us to 800BC and it was at this time that group living and burials started to move towards an existence on a less communal basis. The chambered cairns of group burials gave way to the individual burials in ‘barrows’ and these are the stone cairns or earth mounds that can be seen today. They can be seen for example at Ring o’Brodgar and Knowes o’Trotty. The climate during this time became particularly harsh and it’s believed that many inhabitants moved south onto the Scottish mainland, thus explaining the relatively few archaeological finds of the time.

The advance in weaponry during the Bronze Age led to stronger, more fortified dwellings, and in the Iron Age of 800BC-500AD, these were developed into ‘brochs’, which were large stone towers of which about 120 have been found. The most famous brochs are at Gurness on Mainland and Midhowe on Rousay. A hierarchal system was developing in the islands and these brochs were also used as a symbol of wealth and power. Metalworkings have been found in Minehowe in Tankerness from this time and there’s much evidence of a prosperous community emerging.

The islands were mentioned in the accounts of Roman historian Pytheas in 325BC, and again by geographer Diodorus Siculusin in 56BC, and it was during the Iron Age that the Romans inhabited Britain. Their forays into northern Britain were relatively small compared to the occupation of England and it’s thought that their dealings with Orkney were more on a trading basis than warfare as the islands had began to take advantage of their natural resources on a commercial basis with farming and hunting thriving. The Romans appear to have made no attempt to conquer the islands.

From around the 6th century, northern Britain was run by the ‘Picts’. The Romans called them the ‘Painted People’ and their control covered what is now north and east Scotland and at the time extended to Orkney. They eventually merged with the Gaels, who brought Christianity to the islands. The Picts erected a number of ‘Symbol Stones’ and the most famous one in Orkney is on the Brough o’Birsay, an island just off Mainland. There is also the carving of an eagle, now in the Orkney Museum, that was found at the Knowe o’Burrian. From a religious point of view, after Christianity arrived, possibly in the sixth century and certainly by the eighth century, a number of churches were built. The word ‘Papa’, seen in many place names, indicates evidence of early Christian settlements.

What then emerged has long been described as ‘The Golden Era’ of Orkney. This is when the Vikings arrived. At the time, they were unrivalled warriors and it’s uncertain whether it was a peaceful occupation or not. By the end of the ninth century, Orkney life was that of a Norse earldom, with the history of the time being recorded in the ‘Orkneyinga Saga’, a historical narrative of the history of the islands from their capture in the ninth century until the murder of the last Norse earl, John Haraldsson, in 1231.

The Saga is believed to be a combination of legend and fact and tells of the Norwegian king Harald Harfagre who in 875 attacked the renegade Vikings, who had been attacking Norway from their Orkney base. The son of Earl Rognvald, it states, was killed in the raid and by way of reparation to him, the king gave him the Orkney and Shetland Islands. He then passed them on to his brother Sigurd who thus began a long line of Norwegian ‘jarls’ or earls. After 1231, the Earldom passed on to the Scottish Earl of Angus, although the islands were still owned by Norway and Angus had to pledge allegiance to the Norwegian Crown.

But Scottish influence and control was starting to take hold and culminated in Scottish ownership in almost bizarre circumstances from 1468. The islands were under Danish rule and the Danish king, Christian I had a daughter, Margaret, who was to marry King James III of Scotland. Margaret was 12 years old and James 8 years old and the marriage was arranged to foster relations between the two countries. Orkney was given to the Scottish Crown as collateral for Margaret’s dowry, which would be taken back when Christian I paid 50,000 Rhenish florins. After a year, the payment hadn’t been made and Christian gave Shetland, but with a proviso that it could be taken back upon payment of 8,000 florins. Two years later, when payment had still not been made, ownership of Orkney and Shetland officially became Scottish, with Kirkwall becoming a Scottish Royal Burgh in 1486.

In 1564, Mary Queen of Scots gave estates on Orkney to her half brother, Robert Stewart, and this was followed by James VI granting him the Earldom. But his cruel treatment of the islanders saw him despised and upon his death in 1593, the earldom was handed to his even more unpopular son Patrick, who held them until 1614. His reign ended when he was hanged for treason. The Stewarts had used the locals for forced labour, with main projects being the building of Renaissance Palaces, including ones that can be seen today in Kirkwall and Birsay. These Stewart earldoms then reverted to the Crown and in contrast to the golden era of the Vikings, these were the ‘Darkest Days’ of Orkney history.

In the period to the 20th century, the island community developed with the islanders taking advantage of the fertile ground and rich seas to develop trading opportunities through agriculture and fishing. Indeed such were the maritime skills of the locals that the famous Hudson Bay company in Canada did most of their recruiting at one point from the Orcadians.

The two biggest events of the 20th century both involved wartime incidents, one in the First World War and the other in the Second and both centred around the naval port of Scapa Flow.

Following the armistice at the end of WW1, on 11th November 1918, it was agreed that the German U Boats would be handed over to the British alliance, which they were, and that the German Fleet of ships would be gathered together and their fate would be decided at a future time. The Americans suggested holding the fleet at a neutral port and approached Norway and Spain, but both refused. The fleet was then taken to the deep waters of Scapa Flow, where they arrived in November 1918. They arrived with 20,000 crew and remained there for months. The crew were gradually repatriated back to Germany, leaving just a maintenance crew. Their fate was to be decided with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 21st June 1919, but this was postponed until 23rd June. An underlying dispute at the time was that many alliance partners wanted a share in the fleet, but the British were reluctant to give foreign navies such an advantage. By the middle of June there were less than 2,000 sailors aboard the German ships.

At 9.00am on the morning of 21st June 1919, most of the British ships left the port on exercises, leaving only 3 Destroyers, 7 Trawlers and some Drifters. The acting officer in charge of the German Fleet was Rear Admiral Reuter. At 11.20 am he sent the signal for all his fleet to scuttle (deliberately sink their own vessels). This they did through opening seacocks, flood valves and portholes, leaving open doors and covers and in some cases, boring holes through bulkheads. The sinking became noticeable at midday and with the allied fleet not being able to return until 14.30, 51 ships sank out of a total of 74. Many of the sunk ships were salvaged and used for scrap, but a few still remain underwater today and are famous as Orkney dive sites. No loss of life occurred by the sinking, although 9 men were killed in the struggle to prevent it. They were the last fatalities of WW1 and the magnitude to the incident becomes clear when it’s recognised as the largest loss of shipping in a single day in world history.

The second major incident happened in October 1939, a month after the start of the Second World War. HMS Royal Oak was a battleship that had seen action in the First World War and twenty years later was deemed too slow to be part of the front line of the British Fleet. She was at anchor in Scapa Flow when war was declared. In early October, the ship took part in the unsuccessful Atlantic search for the German battleship ‘Gneisenau’ and came back to Scapa Flow.

The area, surrounded by islands, seemed to give ideal natural protection and whilst underwater U Boat attack was possible, it was felt highly unlikely as defence measures were in operation, these being ones that had captured and destroyed two U Boats in WW1. To reinforce the defences further ‘block-ships’ were planned to be sunk. On the evening of 13th October the Royal Oak was at anchor with the major craft of the British fleet having been wisely moved to safer ports as a precaution. A German U Boat, U-47, was sent to Scapa Flow by German Commander Donitz. He selected Lieutenant Prien with the task of attacking the British Fleet. This was in part to be a symbolic act at it was the site of the German Fleet scuttling twenty years before. Just after midnight, the commander threaded his U Boat through the defences and the islands and hit the Royal Oak with four torpedoes, one at 01.04 and a further three at 01.16. The vessel had completely sunk by 01.29 with an eventual loss of 833 lives.

To help prevent a repeat, Lord of the Admiralty and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a series of four causeways to be built between the islands that run south from east Mainland, to prevent access from the North Sea to the east side of the port. Work started in 1940 and lasted four years. These causeways now simply form part of the A961 road that runs from South Ronaldsay to Kirkwall on Mainland via connecting islands. The causeways are known as the Churchill Barriers and were constructed in part by Italian prisoners of war, who also built the Italian Chapel on one of the connecting islands, Lamb Holm.

Today the islands are home to 20,000 people with the economy largely based around beef farming and tourism. Other industries include oil, for which there’s a large terminal on the island of Flotta, wind turbines and fishing.

 

Orkney Islands Visit

The Orkney Islands are a popular tourist destination, with passenger ferries travelling from John O’Groats and passenger/car ferries travelling from Scrabster and Aberdeen. Planes regularly fly to the islands and inter-island plane travel is a popular form of local transport.

Many tourists take advantage of the day-trip offer at John O’Groats and book the ferry over, with a coach trip around the mainland waiting for them when they get there.

As with the Hebrides, the Orkneys have most of the facilities of normal city life, but the further out you go from Kirkwall, the less so this becomes. Things like fitness centres are plentiful, but not in the small islands.

There is certainly plenty to do, and with the islands steeped in prehistoric history, much to see that wouldn’t be available in most other parts of the UK.

The islands centre around the ‘Mainland’. This is where all the main facilities are (main airport etc). In all, there are about 70 islands of which 20 are inhabited.

Things to do on the islands include…

Mainland

Kirkwall – Bishop’s Palace, Scapa Flow, Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Orkney Museum, St Magnus Cathedral, Cuween Hill Cairn, Wireless Museum, HMS Royal Oak Memorial, Kirkwall Marina, Scapa Distillery, Orkney Golf Club

Stromness – Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar, Ness of Brodgar, Yesnaby cliffs, Ness Battery, Orkney Brewery, Stromness Marina, Stromness Golf Club, Stromness Museum

Stenness –  Maeshowe, Standing Stones of Stenness, Happy Valley, Unstan Cairn

St Mary’s – Italian Chapel

Evie – Broch of Gurness

Marwick – RSPB Nature Reserve

Deerness – Mill Head

Orphir –  Earl’s Bu, Viking Centre

Tankerness – Mine Howe

Dounby – Click Mill

Harray –  Corrigill Farm Museum, Knowes of Trotty

Birsay – Barony Mill, Brough of Birsay, Kirbuster Museum, Earl’s Palace

Hoy

Old Man of Hoy, Hackney Martello Tower, Dwarfie Stane, Longhope Lifeboat Station

Rousay

Midhowe Cairn, Taversoe Tuick, Blackhammer Cairn, Knowe of Yarso Cairn

Westray

Westray Visitor Centre, Links of Notland, Wheeline Steen Gallery, Westray Golf Club, Noltland Castle

Papa Westray

Papa Westray airport, Holland Farm, RSPB North Hill, St Boniface Kirk, Knap O’Howar

South Ronaldsay

Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, Banks Tomb, Olav’s Wood, Tomb of the Eagles, Blacksmith Museum, South Ronaldsay Golf Club

North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay lighthouse

Sanday

Sanday Heritage Centre, Quoyness Cairn, Sanday Golf Club

Stronsay

Vat of Kirbister

In addition there are a host of other activities that include water sports, wildlife, whale watching, boat tours and any number of walks.

Inter-island flights include the world’s shortest flight. This goes from Westray to Papa Westray and takes about 60 seconds!