Orkney Scotland. Known to some as the Orkney Isles, the Orkneys, Orkney Islands or Orkneyjar. Made up of about 70 small remote islands, only of which 20 are inhabited. The string of islands that make up Orkney Scotland are quite unlike the rest of the British Isles. The treeless landscape, local dialect, weather and even local traditions are more like a culture of its very own.
An archipelago at latitude 59 degrees north, Orkney Scotland is only 50 miles south of Greenland. Made up of mostly flat lands and some slightly rolling hills, the dramatic sandstone peaks on Hoy, the Mainland and Rousay, as well as a few rugged western coast cliffs stand out in stark contrast to the mostly low lying terrain.
Temperate yet atmospheric. Winds are often tumultuous, seas often rough, rain often imminent and then the sun comes out. The surly weather and remoteness of this island chain has allowed it to maintain a treasure trove of prehistoric and neolithic archaeological sites in near pristine order.
Orkney Scotland heralds a history unique to that of mainland Scotland. Due to geographical isolation, wildlife, foliage as well as its unique historical ancestry is somewhat anomalous to the rest of Scotland. Although Scotland’s history as well as its people have been mixing with the Norse for uncountable centuries, the genetic qualities of natives of Orkney Scotland tend to be a higher percentage of Scandinavian and they continue to show a strong indication of their Nordic ancestry today.
The largest island of Orkney Scotland is referred to as “the Mainland”, having evolved from the Old Norse word “Meginlan”. The Norse or “Northmen” aka Vikings, maintained a stronghold of these Orkney Scotland islands on and off for centuries. Orkneyinga Saga a Nordic text written in the early 13th century, is a perfect example of how interwoven these cultures once were and remain. Relics and ancient sites heralding back to Nordic rule are rampant and much of the dialect, customs and traditions continue in Orkney Scotland to this day.
The Mainland of Orkney Scotland is separated into 13 parishes divided by West and East. The two (2) most populated towns are Kirkwall and Stromness. For the most part the major architectural and archaeological sites on the “the Mainland”, are found in Kirkwall, Stromness Birsay and Stenness. In my next post I will go into more description about visiting these places.
Kirkwall: One could say the most visited town on the island, Kirkwall maintains wonderful ancient buildings to visit, some intact and some in ruins. It has a couple of hotels, BnB’s, AirBnB’s and restaurants and an amazingly cutting edge hospital is being constructed nearby.
- The Earls Palace: The Earls Palace Built in 1607 by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scotland’s history. Upon his imprisonment, bastard son Robert rebelled in his name and seized the previously “taken” palace, St Magnus’s Cathedral and Kirkwall Castle. It all went awry, the Earl of Caithness destroyed the palace. Earl Patrick and his son were later executed for treason. (not to be confused with the “Earls Palace” in Birsay)
- The Bishops Palace: The Bishops Place Built in the 12th century across from St Magnus Cathedral, in the centre of Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. Home to William the Old, of the Norwegian Catholic church. The ruined structure now looks like a small castle and is part of the Earls Palace grounds in Kirkwall.
- St. Magnus Cathedral: St. Magnus Cathedral Built in 1137, by Viking, Earl Rognvald ( Rögnvald Kolsson), in honour of his uncle St Magnus and known as the ‘Light in the North.’ Today the cathedral is owned by the township of Kirkwall and not by the church. (not to be confused with St Magnus Church in St Birsay)
Other interesting sites to see
Stromness: Wonderful historic town commanded by the sea. Winding roads lead to quaint shops, historic buildings and farms surrounded by neolithic wonders. A surprisingly bustling town at times (at least by Orkney standards) that just celebrated 200 years as a Burgh of Barony. Keep up to date with the latest in the events section of this website.
- Skara Brae: Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete neolithic settlement. Older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Near Stromness on the Bay of Skaill, these eight stone houses, nestled together, were occupied around 3180 BC to about 2500 BC. Skara Brae is an UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Skaill House: Skaill House was built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham and has remained within the family to this very day. An intact historic manor house overlooking Skara Brae and the magnificent Bay of Skaill in Sandwick.
- Maeshowe: Maeshowe is a Neolithic tomb is considered to be architectural genius. Designed for the light of the setting sun at the winter solstice creeps along the narrow passageway, illuminating the chamber inside. There is also graffitti inside or the most hysterical ilk, created by a group of Vikings that utilized the tomb for shelter during a winter storm well over 1000 years ago
- Barnhouse Settlement: Barnhouse Settlement is a neolithic site by the shore of Loch of Harray, Orkney Mainland, Scotland, not far from the Standing Stones of Stenness, about 5 miles north-east of Stromness. It was discovered in 1984 by Colin Richards. Wikipedia
Stenness: A village and on the Orkney Mainland in Orkney Scotland. It contains several notable prehistoric monuments including the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. (from wikipedia)
- Ring of Brodgar: The Ring of Brodgar is the 3rd largest, northernmost such circle (in Britain), and only known Neolithic stone circle henge to be truly circular. Ranking with Avebury and Stonehenge . Yet due to its resistance to carbon dating, the age remains uncertain. Thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, making it the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Standing Stones of Stenness: Standing Stones of Stenness is possibly the oldest henge site in the British Isles, the few remaining enormous stones are about 19 feet (6M) tall. Found five miles northeast of Stromness. Stane-is in Orcadian dialect, comes from Old Norse meaning stone headland.
Birsay: An amazing little town little affected by the tenants of time. Already rich in neolithic history when the Vikings came to power. Today archeological digs are constant and the people of this tiny village are welcoming and eager to chat about their unique history. St Magnus Church (originally St Magnus Cathedral until the much larger St Magnus Cathedral was built in Kirkwall) with where St Magnus is buried. There is so much to see in this tiny swath of rugged, windy and striking terrain.
- Brough of Birsay: The Brough of Birsay is an uninhabited tidal island about 13 miles north of Stromness. At low tide you may cross by walking the ocean floor and visit the excavated Norse settlement then known as “Byrgisey” . In the 7th and 8th centuries it was a significant Pictish fortress, taken over by Norsemen by the 9th century.
- The Earls Palace: The Earl’s Palace Birsay, Orkney, Scotland, is a ruined 16th-century castle built by Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney, illegitimate son of King James V and his mistress Euphemia Elphinstone. Managed by Historic Scotland. Not to be confused with the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall.
- St Magnus Church: St. Magnus Church stands partly on the site of a Christchurch built by Earl Thorfinn in 1064 has been in continuous use as a church for almost a thousand years. After Earl Magnus was killed on Egilsay he was buried here and canonized in 1135.
Other interesting sites to see
Broch of Gurness