2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Great Britain

Area Ranked 16th
 -Total 990 km²
 -% Water  ?
Admin HQ Kirkwall
ISO 3166-2 GB-ORK
ONS code 00RA
Population Ranked 32nd
 -Total (2005) 19,590
 - Density 20 / km²
Orkney Islands Council
Control Independent
  • Alistair Carmichael
  • Jim Wallace

Orkney consists of about 20 inhabited islands plus 50 others, some quite small, and is 16 km (approximately 10 miles) north of Caithness in northern mainland Scotland. The largest island in the group is known as the Mainland and has an area of 202 square miles, making it the sixth largest Scottish island and the ninth largest island surrounding Great Britain.

Orkney is administered by the Orkney Islands Council, one of the 32 council areas of Scotland. The administrative capital, Kirkwall, is on a relatively narrow strip of land joining West Mainland [ ]and East Mainland [ ]. Home to the St Magnus' Cathedral, it has about 8,500 inhabitants and a large port. The only other burgh is Stromness in West Mainland, with a population of about 2,000. The third largest settlement (c. 550) is St Margaret's Hope, on South Ronaldsay.

Orkney is also a constituency of the Scottish Parliament, a Lieutenancy area, and a former county.


Stromness in 2006.
Stromness in 2006.

The largest island in Orkney is known as the "Mainland". An older name for it is Hrossey (Horse-island). Other islands can be classified as north or south of the Mainland. The islands north of the Mainland are known collectively as the North Isles, those to the south as the South Isles. The remote Sule Skerry and Sule Stack lie around 60 km west of the archipelago, but form part of the council area.

The North Isles

Flag of Orkney (unofficial).
Flag of Orkney (unofficial).

The northern group of islands is the most extensive and consists of a large number of moderately sized islands, linked to the Mainland by ferries. Most of the islands described as " holms" are very small.

  • Auskerry
  • Calf of Eday
  • Damsay
  • Eday, Egilsay, Eynhallow
  • Faray
  • Gairsay
  • Helliar Holm, Holm of Faray, Holm of Huip, Holm of Papay, Holm of Scockness
  • Kili Holm
  • Linga Holm
  • Muckle Green Holm
  • North Ronaldsay
  • Papa Stronsay, Papa Westray
  • Rousay, Rusk Holm
  • Sanday, Shapinsay, Stronsay, Sweyn Holm
  • Westray, Wyre

The South Isles

The southern group of islands surrounds Scapa Flow. Hoy is the highest of the Orkney Isles, while South Ronaldsay, Burray and Lamb Holm are linked to the Mainland by the Churchill Barriers. The Pentland Skerries lie further south, close to the Scottish mainland.

  • Burray
  • Calf of Flotta, Cava, Copinsay, Corn Holm
  • Fara, Flotta
  • Glims Holm, Graemsay
  • Hoy, Hunda
  • Lamb Holm
  • Rysa Little
  • South Ronaldsay, Switha, Swona


Orkney Islands Aerial photomap
Orkney Islands Aerial photomap

The Pentland Firth is a seaway which separates Orkney from the mainland of Scotland. The firth is 11 km wide between Brough Ness on the island of South Ronaldsay and Duncansby Head in Caithness.

Orkney lies between 58° 41' and 59° 24' North, and 2° 22' and 3° 26' West, measures 80 km from northeast to southwest and 47 km from east to west, and covers 973 km². Except for some sharply rising sandstone hills and rugged cliffs on the west of the larger ones, the islands are mainly lowlying.

The hilliest island is Hoy; the highest point in Orkney, Ward Hill, is to be found there. The only other islands containing heights of any importance are the Mainland, with (another) Ward Hill (268 m) and Wideford Hill, and Rousay. Nearly all of the islands possess lochs (lakes), and The Loch of Harray and The Loch of Stenness on the Mainland attain noteworthy proportions. The rivers 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", though off the north-east of Hoy the designation "Bring Deeps" is used, south of the Mainland is Scapa Flow and to the south-west of Eday is found the Fall of Warness.

The very 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 "roost" (as some of them are called locally, from the Icelandic) off many of the isles run with enormous velocity, and whirlpools are of frequent occurrence, and strong enough at times to prove a source of danger to small craft.

The charm of Orkney does not lie in their ordinary physical features, so much as in beautiful atmospheric effects, extraordinary examples of light and shade, and rich coloration of cliff and sea.

The islands are notable for the absence of trees, which is partly accounted for by the amount of wind (although the climate in general is temperate). The formation of peat is evidence that this was not always the case, and 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.

Most of the land is still taken up by farms, and agriculture is by far the most important sector of the economy, with fishing also being a major occupation. Orkney exports beef, cheese, whisky, beer, fish and seafood.


The Old Man of Hoy.
The Old Man of Hoy.

All the islands of this group are built up entirely of 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 (of course) 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 climate is remarkably temperate and steady for such a northerly latitude. The average temperature for the year is 8 °C (46 °F), for winter 4 °C (39 °F) and for summer 12 °C (54 °F). The winter months are January, February and March, the last being the coldest. Spring never begins before April, and it is the middle of June before the warmth grows comfortable. September is frequently the finest month, and at the end of October or the beginning of November the "peedie" (or little) summer or milder weather may occur.

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 21:25 — and darkness is unknown, it being possible to read at midnight. Winter, however, is long. On the shortest day the sun rises at 09:10 and sets at 15:17.

The soil generally is a sandy loam or a strong but friable clay, and very fertile. Large quantities of seaweed as well as lime and marl are available for manure.


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.

In recent years, the Orkney economy has seen growth in areas other than the traditional agriculture, livestock farming, and fishing. These include 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.


Frequent ferry services operate on the following routes:

  • Lerwick to Kirkwall
  • Aberdeen to Kirkwall
  • Scrabster to Stromness
  • John O'Groats to Burwick, South Ronaldsay
  • Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope

Most of the larger islands have their own airfield or airstrip. Loganair operates regular services to six islands from Kirkwall. 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 a minute if the wind is in the right direction.

There are ideas being discussed to build an undersea tunnel between Orkney and the Scottish mainland, at a length of about 9-10 miles (15-16 km) or (more likely) one connecting Mainland to Shapinsay. (Links: both 2005).


Skara Brae.
Skara Brae.

Located in West Mainland is the 'Heart of Neolithic Orkney', a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. This comprises a group of Neolithic monuments which consist of a large chambered tomb ( Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement ( Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites. The group constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which gives a graphic depiction of life in this remote archipelago in the far north of Scotland some 5,000 years ago.

Viking settlers comprehensively occupied Orkney, and the islands became a possession of Norway until being given to Scotland during the 15th century as part of a dowry settlement. Evidence of the Viking presence is widespread, and includes the settlement at the Brough of Birsay, the vast majority of place names, and runic inscriptions at Maeshowe and other ancient sites.


Ring of Brodgar.
Ring of Brodgar.

The rapid spread of Neolithic culture up the western seaways brought early Megalithic culture and farming settlements such as Knap of Howar from 3500 BC and the slightly later village at Skara Brae. Numerous chambered cairns include the magnificent Maeshowe passage grave, near the Ring of Brodgar and other standing stones.

The Iron age inhabitants were Picts, evidence of whose occupation still exists in "weems" or underground houses, and " brochs" or round towers.

The Romans were aware of, and probably circumnavigated, the Orkney Islands, which they called "Orcades". There is evidence that they traded, either directly or indirectly, with the inhabitants. However, they made no attempt to occupy the islands.

If, as seems likely, the Dalriadic Gaels established a footing in the islands towards the beginning of the 6th century, their success was short-lived, and the Picts regained power and kept it until dispossessed by the Norsemen in the 9th century. In the wake of the Scots, incursionists followed the Celtic missionaries about 565. They were companions of Saint Columba and their efforts to convert the folk to Christianity seem to have impressed the popular imagination, for several islands bear the epithet "Papa" in commemoration of the preachers.

Vikings having made the islands the headquarters of their buccaneering expeditions (carried out indifferently against their own Norway and the coasts and isles of Scotland), Harold Hårfagre ("Fair Hair") subdued the rovers in 875 and annexed both Orkney and Shetland to Norway. The martyrdom of Earl Magnus resulted in the building of St Magnus Cathedral, 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, as opposed to the Shetlands, where over half the male lineage is Norse.

Some jarls of Orkney:

  • Ragnvald Eysteinsson, 890
  • Turf-Einar, 910
  • Thorfinn Turf-Einarsson, Earl of Orkney, 963

In 1468, Orkney and Shetland were pledged by Christian I of Denmark and Norway for the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III of Scotland, and as the money was never paid, due to the fact that Margaret died in the crossing, their connection with the crown of Scotland has been perpetual. The town of St. Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay was named in her memory. In 1471, James bestowed the castle and lands of Ravenscraig, in Fife, on 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 February 20, 1472, was annexed to the Scottish crown.

In 1564, Lord Robert Stewart, natural son of James V of Scotland, who had visited Kirkwall twenty-four years before, was made sheriff of Orkney and Shetland, and received possession of the estates of the udallers; in 1581, he was created earl of Orkney by James VI of Scotland, the charter being ratified ten years later to his son Patrick, but in 1615, the earldom was again annexed to the crown.

The islands were the rendezvous of Montrose's expedition in 1650 which culminated in his imprisonment and death. During the Protectorate, they were visited by a detachment of Cromwell's troops, who initiated the inhabitants into various industrial arts and new methods of agriculture.

In 1707, the islands were granted to the earl of Morton in mortgage, redeemable by the Crown on payment of 30,000 pounds, and subject to an annual feu-duty of 500 pounds; but in 1766, his estates were sold to Sir Lawrence Dundas, ancestor of the Earls of Zetland.

In early times, both the archbishop of Hamburg and the archbishop of York disputed with the Norwegians ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Orkney and the right of consecrating bishops; but, ultimately, the Norwegian bishops, the first of whom was William the Old (consecrated in 1102), continued the canonical succession. The see remained vacant from 1580 to 1606, and from 1638 till the Restoration, and, after the accession of William III, the episcopacy was finally abolished (1697), although many of the clergy refused to conform.

The toponymy of Orkney is wholly Norse, and the Norse tongue, at last extinguished by the constant influx of settlers from Scotland, lingered until the end of the 18th century. Readers of Scott's Pirate will remember the frank contempt that Magnus Troil expressed for the Scots, and his opinions probably reflected the general Norse feeling on the subject. When the islands were given as security for the princess's dowry, there seems reason to believe that it was intended to redeem the pledge, because it was then stipulated that the Norse system of government and the law of Saint Olaf should continue to be observed in Orkney and Shetland. Thus, the udal succession and mode of land tenure (that is, absolute freehold as distinguished from feudal tenure) lingered to some extent, and the remaining udallers held their lands and passed them on without written title. By the mid 1800s, Orkney was firmly under the rule of Scotland, with absentee sheriffs holding nominal power. For example, Lord Neaves, the esteemed Scottish jurist, held the sheriff position on Orkney from 1845 to 1852.

During World War I and World War II, the Royal Navy had a major base at Scapa Flow. The base was closed in 1956.

In the Arthurian legend, Orkney is the home to King Lot, Sir Gareth, Sir Gaheris, Sir Gawaine and Sir Agravain.


At the beginning of recorded history the islands were inhabited by the Picts, whose language is unknown. Opinions on the nature of Pictish vary from its having been a Celtic language, to its not having been Indo-European at all. In addition there is archaeological evidence for the pre-Norse existence of Old Irish in Orkney, for example the Buckquoy spindle-whorl.

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 became replaced by the Orcadian dialect of Insular Scots. The Education Act of 1872 accelerated the weakening of the Orcadian dialect, which, since World War II, is being replaced by Scottish English.

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 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", meaning small. Its origin is not Norse, but may well be a borrowing of 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 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.

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 Orkney Trout Fishing Association's "Ferryloupers Trophy", demonstrating it to be a non-derogatory appellation.

Well-known Orcadians

In family name aphabetical oder:

  • James Atkine (1613 – 1687), bishop first of Moray and afterwards of Galloway
  • William Balfour Baikie (1825 – 1864), traveller in Africa
  • George Mackay Brown (1921 – 1996), poet, author, playwright.
  • Mary Brunton (1778 – 1818), author of Self-Control, Discipline and other novels
  • Stanley Cursiter (1887 – 1976), artist
  • Walter Traill Dennison ( 1826 - 1894), Orcadian folklorist
  • Magnus Erlendsson (Saint Magnus) (c1070 – c1117), Earl of Orkney c1105 – 1117
  • Matthew Forster Heddle (1828 – 1897), mineralogist, author of The Mineralogy of Scotland
  • Malcolm Laing (1762 – 1818), author of the History of Scotland from the Union of the Crowns to the Union of the Kingdoms
  • Samuel Laing (1780 – 1868), author of A Residence in Norway, and translator of the Heimskringla, the Icelandic chronicle of the kings of Norway
  • Samuel Laing (1812 – 1897), chairman of the London, Brighton & South Coast railway, and introducer of the system of "parliamentary" trains with fares of one penny a mile
  • Eric Linklater (1899 – 1974), novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, and poet
  • Magnus Linklater, journalist, son of Eric Linklater
  • John D Mackay, headmaster and Orkney patriot
  • Murdoch McKenzie (died 1797), the hydrographer
  • Edwin Muir (1887 – 1959), author and poet
  • Dr. John Rae (1813 – 1893), an Arctic explorer
  • Rognvald Kali Kolssson (Saint Rognvald) (c1103 – 1158), Earl of Orkney 1136 – 1158
  • Julyan Sinclair, television presenter
  • William Sinclair (1766 – 1818), Chief Factor at the Hudsons Bay Company
  • Thomas Stewart Traill (1781 – 1862), professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh University and editor of the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Cameron Stout winner of Big Brother in 2003, brother of Julyan Sinclair
  • Wrigley twins Jennifer and Hazel, international folk duo.

People associated with Orkney

  • Rev. Matthew Armour (1820-1903), Sanday’s radical Free Kirk Minister
  • Andrew Greig (born 1951), Scottish writer
  • Jo Grimond (1913-1993), former Liberal Party leader and MP for Orkney and Shetland 1950-1983
  • Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer
  • Luke Sutherland, writer of novels Jelly Roll, Sweatmeat and Venus as a Boy


Orkney is represented in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom as part of the Orkney and Shetland constituency, which elects one Member of Parliament (MP) by the first past the post system of election.

In the Scottish Parliament the Orkney constituency elects one Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) by the first past the post system. Also, Orkney is within the Highlands and Islands electoral region.

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