Orkney is a group of islands north of the mainland of Great Britain but clearly visible from the north coast of Caithness and separated from it by the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth.
The islands have a dominating Norse heritage: they were settled by Norwegians in the Dark Ages, who created the Earldom of Orkney, the tales of which are told in a Mediaeval saga. The place-names of Orkney are almost wholly Norse and the local culture and dialect retain much from those days.
There are some 90 islands comprising Orkney, but fewer than a third are inhabited. The main island is Mainland. To the north of Mainland are many scattered islands including Shapinsay, Roussay, Egilsay, Westray and Papa Westray, Stronsay, Sanday, and the furthest, North Ronaldsay. From the south-east edge of Mainland a series of causeways built during the War runs southwards to Burray and then to South Ronaldsay.
Lying to the southwest is Hoy. Unique among the islands, Hoy is mountainous, while the rest are generally low, rocky, and treeless, with an occasional cultivated area. Hoy, Flotta, South Ronaldsay and Mainland form a ring around a great body of water; Scapa Flow. Scapa Flow is the Navy’s finest deepwater anchorage, and famous also as the place where in 1918 Rear Admiral von Reuter scuttled the German High Seas Fleet rather than let it remain in British hands.
The county town, Kirkwall is on Mainland. St Magnus’s Cathedral, built by the Norse Earl Røgnvald, is an impressive edifice, and the town’s dominant feature.
Across the islands of Orkney are prehistoric remains: standing stones, mounds and monuments. The folk of Orkney though claim Norwegian blood. King Harold I (Harold Fairhair) of Norway added Orkney to the Scandinavian domain in 875, long after the Norse had settled the islands, and made them a Norwegian Earldom. The islands remained nominal dependencies of Norway until 1468, when Christian I of Norway and Denmark pledged them as security for the dowry of his daughter, Margaret, on her marriage to James III of Scotland. The pledge was never redeemed, and Orkney remained the property of Scotland. Nevertheless, the islanders, while proud to be British, insist that they are not Scots but Orcadians.
County Town: Kirkwall
Main Towns: Balfour, Kirkwall, Pierowall, St Margaret’s Hope, Stromness.
Main Rivers: None.
Highlights: St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall; Scapa Flow, Mainland; Old Man of Hoy; Skara Brae ancient monument.
Highest Point: Ward Hill, Hoy, 1,565 feet.
Area: 376 sq miles
County Flower: Alpine Bearberry