An Introduction to Orkney

When we decided to travel to the United Kingdom in 2016, I found I could barely contain my excitement. It was my first big international trip and I wanted to see everything. I managed to get just over four weeks of time off of work, an unprecedented bounty, and I set about planning our trip as if it was going to be the only chance we would ever have to visit England, Scotland, and Ireland. One of the many things I was interested in seeing was Stonehenge, a prehistoric stone circle that was constructed 141 kms (88 miles) southwest of London sometime between 3,000-2,000 BCE. While I was looking into the possibility of adding this site to our itinerary, I began reading about similar prehistoric monuments found elsewhere in the U.K. It was during this research that I learned about and became fascinated with Orkney, an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland that contains a group of more than 60 islands—20 of which are presently inhabited.

A view of the Orkney coastline, featuring the Kitchener Memorial1 on Marwick Head; the tidal island of the Brough of Birsay is in the distance. Image sourced from Pixabay.
The Orkney Islands. The main body of Scotland is located towards the bottom left of the map. Thurso and John o’Groats are popular points of departure for ferry travel to Orkney. Image sourced from Google Maps.

The Orkney Islands have a long and rich history. Remarkably, this history is accompanied by an incredible collection of exceptionally preserved archaeological sites, some of which are more than 5,000 years old! The main island of Orkney itself contains two notable sites of standing stones: the Ring of Brodgar (erected circa 2,500-2,000 BCE), and the Standing Stones of Stenness (thought to possibly be the oldest monument of this type in the British Isles, with work beginning by 3,100 BCE). Nearby is another highlight, Maeshowe, a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave that was built around 2,800 BCE. But the site that really caught my attention was Skara Brae: a stone-built Neolithic settlement that was discovered in 1850, when a severe storm stripped the earth from atop a grassy ocean-side knoll and revealed a cluster of eight houses hidden below. Skara Brae was occupied between 3,180-2,500 BCE, and predates both Stonehenge (3,000-2,000 BCE) and the Great Pyramid of Giza (circa 2,560 BCE). It is the best-preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe. As soon as I read about Skara Brae, I was hooked. I made the immediate decision to skip seeing Stonehenge in favour of visiting Orkney.    

A view of some of the Neolithic houses at Skara Brae. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The Ring of Brodgar. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

My partner and I traveled to the largest island of Orkney, called Mainland, during the evening of June 21. We took a short 45 minute flight out of Inverness on a small regional airline. We landed at the airport and went to pick up our rental car. There, we discovered that I had failed to properly specify that we needed a vehicle with an automatic, rather than manual, transmission. In a larger centre, this is a mistake that could be easily rectified. Unfortunately for us, this rural airport had no other options. Neither of us knew how to drive the car. But my partner was brave, and so the approximate 10-minute drive to the capital of Kirkwall (population around 10,000) turned into an unexpected adventure. Thankfully, there was only one major intersection that we had to navigate as we came into town. We found the street upon which our accommodation was located and stalled out as we slid into a parking space. Good enough! We had rented a room for two nights in the home of a friendly local resident. We were happy to leave the car where it was and set about finding some dinner. We had just spent a full day touring the Culloden Battlefield, and the following day would be even busier as I wanted to explore as many sites as possible. I had planned for us to begin the day at Skara Brae, and then we had a guided tour scheduled at Maeshowe. I also considered it essential to see the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement, and the Ring of Brodgar2. Amazingly, we managed to see all five, largely because the last three were within walking distance of each other.

Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. Image sourced from Pixabay.

Today, the Orkney Islands are considered remote. They are bordered by nothing but the North Sea in three directions, counting only the Shetland Islands as a close northerly neighbour. Iceland is situated further to the northwest, and Norway to the east3. However, Orkney’s location was once very advantageous, and allowed it to serve as the heart of a maritime economic network that stretched across Europe. There are a few conditions, some of which have since changed, that set Orkney up for success. First, the Orkney Islands have long benefited from their position along the warmer waters of the North Atlantic/Norwegian Current of the Gulf Stream. This results in a milder, more comfortable climate than might be otherwise expected of a northern coastal region. Second, around the time Orkney was first inhabited, sea levels were up to 20 meters (65 feet) lower than they are today. As a result, Orkney had not yet been divided into the dozens of small low-lying islands that make up its present appearance. Instead, Orkney consisted of two larger main islands. It had plenty of natural harbours and wide sandy beaches, which allowed for relatively easy access to the sea—crucial to the development of a maritime culture. Rising sea levels began to change the geography of Orkney about 4,000 years ago. Today, the water between these individual pieces of land can be treacherous to navigate. Third, Orkney boasted a lot of natural resources such as fertile soil, fresh water, mammals (red deer, boars), and abundant marine life. Its early landscape included woodland (made up of hazel, birch, and willow trees), open grassland, and heath lands on the higher hills and moors. Orkney had a lot to offer both to settlers and visitors.

View of Orkney and its neighbours. Orkney is indicated by the yellow pinpoint with a star. The main body of Great Britain is to the south. Iceland is northwest, towards the top left of the map. Norway is east, to the right. The Shetland Islands are indicated by the green pinpoint with a flag. Image sourced from Google Maps.
Wildflowers growing in the Orkney countryside. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Orkney’s first inhabitants had arrived on its shores by 7,000 BCE. They consisted of a few family groups of Mesolithic nomadic hunter-gatherers who were possibly displaced from Doggerland, a landmass that had once connected Britain to mainland Europe but had become increasingly too wet to support life before being fully submerged by rising North Sea levels around 6,500-6,200 BCE. These Mesolithic people led a mobile lifestyle, and traveled largely by boat. Their goods and materials were portable and largely organic in nature, involving the use of animal skins, bones, wood, local grasses, and shells. Their shelters were temporary, easy to pack-up and move. As a result, these people left very few traces of their presence beyond a few stone tools that were later discovered in fields during ploughing (a charred hazelnut shell, recovered during excavations at Tankerness House in central Kirkwall in 2007, has been dated to 6,820-6,600 BCE). Recall, also, that the period of inhabitation by these Mesolithic people coincided with the time when Orkney was still a pair of large islands rather than an archipelago. The rise in sea levels later submerged the coastal lands upon which these early inhabitants had tended to settle and roam, further erasing them from the archaeological record. 

A display at the Irish National Heritage Park recreates what a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer’s campsite would have looked like circa 7,000 BCE. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Orkney circa 8,000 BCE. From The Changing Landscape of Prehistoric Orkney, by Wickham-Jones et al., 2018. Image sourced from the website of the Ness of Brodgar.
Orkney circa 4,000 BCE. From The Changing Landscape of Prehistoric Orkney, by Wickham-Jones et al., 2018. Image sourced from the website of the Ness of Brodgar.
Orkney today. Image sourced from Google Maps.
Map showing changes in sea level over time, including the hypothetical extent of Doggerland. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Neolithic farmers arrived on Orkney around 4,000 BCE, and their settlement permanently changed the island landscape. The farmers brought domestic livestock such as cattle, sheep, and pigs along with them. They began to clear the land for fields and grazing; boundaries and roadways also began to appear. Unfortunately, environmental circumstances make it hard to regenerate woodland on Orkney once it is gone. The resulting crops and herds thrived, but the settlers soon ran out of timber with which to build their homes (early timber homesteads have been excavated on the Isle of Wyre and near the Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn on the Mainland). Happily for them, and later archaeologists, Orkney had another natural resource in abundant supply: sandstone. This sandstone served as an ideal building material due to its natural tendency to fracture into slabs, which allowed for the easy construction of walls, floors, and even furniture. Permanent housesteads began to appear, and villages such as Skara Brae and the Barnhouse Settlement soon developed. The Knap of Howar, located on the Isle of Papa Westray, is a single farmstead that was occupied sometime between 3,700-2,800 BCE; it is possibly the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe, predating Skara Brae (3,180-2,500 BCE) by 300-520 years. Stone monuments, such as the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, were erected as markers across the landscape. Massive tombs, such as Maeshowe, were also constructed. Many of Orkney’s exciting historic sites, some of them the oldest and best-preserved in all of Europe, hail from this period between 4,000-2,000 BCE. “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney” refers to a group of these sites located on the Mainland that were proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. 

The Knap of Howar on the Isle of Papa Westray. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Standing Stones of Stenness. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

By 2,500 BCE, many Neolithic settlements had been abandoned. It’s not really known why, although climate change (rising sea levels) and shifts in Orcadian society are likely contributors. The British Bronze Age (2,500-800 BCE) slowly made its way north, although the availability and use of copper and bronze goods did not reach Orkney for some time. New pottery types and styles of stone tools appeared first. At this point in time, villages began to empty out as islanders chose to live instead on scattered farmsteads. There was a corresponding shift in religious belief and ceremony. Many of the communal chambered tombs were closed, and individual burial became more common with the construction of small circular barrows (although large ones were still occasionally used). The circular ceremonial sites continued to be used, although they were remodelled. Large, extensive stone structures fell out of fashion. Very few of them were installed at this time, and some of the existing ones were abandoned. The monuments at Brodgar, which had once been so fundamental to Orcadian life, lost their primacy. Several monolithic single stones were erected, such as the 4.5 meter (15 foot) tall Stone of Setter on the Isle of Eday. Only a handful of historic sites survive from this time period, including the Plumcake Mound located near the Ring of Brodgar (dated to 2,500-1,500 BCE); several mounds and small cairns at Tofts Ness on the Isle of Sanday; and the remains of two houses on the Holm of Faray.  

The Stone of Setter, located on the Isle of Eday. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Plumcake Mound. Its name was an attempt by 19th century antiquarians to describe its appearance. Unfortunately, the mound was damaged during its excavation in the 1850s, so it now looks like a collapsed plumcake. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

There was further change in Orkney with the advent of the British Iron Age (800 BCE-100 CE), when metal objects became more commonplace. This led to an increase in social stratification. It was this period that also saw a return to village life, with small communities springing up around tall circular towers; such a tower is officially classified today as a “complex Atlantic roundhouse” and is often referred to as a broch3. Examples include the Broch of Gurness (first settled between 500-200 BCE) and the Broch of Borwick (inhabited circa 1000 BCE – 500/600 CE), both located on the Mainland. Other structures dating to this period, such as underground storehouses (known as earth houses or souterrains) and aisled roundhouses (wheelhouses), indicate that the residential needs of the Orcadian population were becoming increasingly more complex. 

Aerial view of the Broch of Gurness. Image sourced from the website of the Historic Environment of Scotland.
Ground-level view of the Broch of Gurness. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Broch of Borwick. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Despite its remote location off the northern coast of Britain, Orkney had many connections with the world beyond its shores. Some Iron Age artefacts indicate links to the area around Stonehenge, which is located about 1,136 kms (706 miles) to the south. Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas of Massilia (modern-day Marseille in France) circumnavigated and visited a considerable portion of modern-day Great Britain and Ireland sometime between 322-285 BCE. Pytheas’ own account of his voyage has not survived to the present day, but it was widely known by and recounted in the work of other writers. Diodorus of Sicily, an ancient Greek historian, drew on this Pytheas-linked scholarship when writing his universal history of the world, Bibliotheca historia, sometime between 60-30 BCE. It is through this circuitous route of study that Orkney first enters the written record when Didorus, based on Pytheas, describes Britain as having a triangular perimeter of three main points: the first, in the southeast, is where Kantion (Kent) can be found; the second, located to the west at a sailing distance of four days, is Belerion (possibly Cornwall, roughly a distance of 458 kms/285 miles from Kent); the third, to the far north, is Orkas, which is presumably the main island of Orkney (1,302 kms/809 miles from Cornwall). There are a couple of possibilities behind Pytheas’ use of the word Orkas: one, it may have been adapted from the Ancient Greek word óryx, meaning “antelope”; two, it may have come from a local indigenous word, either the proto-Celtic *φorko- (meaning either “pig” or “salmon” so “Island of the Pigs/Salmon”) or the Pictish tribal name orc- (“young pig” or “young boar”).

Statue of Pytheas located outside the Palais de la Bourse in Marseille. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
A 1490 recreation of Ptolemy’s Map of the British Isles, from The Geography of Ptolemy (originally published circa 150 CE). Ptolemy likely used Pytheas’ measurements for this map. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Roman conquest of Britain, which was undertaken between 43-87 CE, did not reach quite as far north as the Orkney Islands. A “King of Orkney” was said to have been one of the 11 leaders who submitted to Roman Emperor Claudius at Colchester (then known as Camulodunum) following his invasion in 43 CE, but this information is possibly propagandistic in nature. The earliest Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, refers to the Orkney islands as the Orcades around this time in his work, De situ orbis libri III (Geography Book III); the Latin word orca (plural orcae) means whale. The Roman General Agricola may have anchored his fleet at the Isle of Shapinsay during his invasion of Caledonia (as Scotland was then known) from 81-83 CE. Agricola’s son-in-law, the famed Roman historian Tacitus, later claimed in 98 CE that Agricola had “discovered and subjugated the Orcades hitherto unknown.” However, it’s likely that Roman influence was likely limited to trade rather than invasion and occupation. Fragments of a Roman amphora (a container mainly used for wine) were discovered at the Broch of Gurness, and excavations at Mine Howe revealed a carnelian stone engraved with an eagle (possibly used in a signet ring). The Romans began to gradually withdraw from Britain between 388-400 CE due to increasing pressures on its over-extended empire; Emperor Constantine and his magistrates were later decisively expelled in 409-410 CE.

The World According to Pomponius Mela, from the 1912 book, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, by Wilfred H. Schoff. Note the island of Brittania towards the top left, with the scattered “Orcades” beside it. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
A Roman carnelian stone, dated to the 2nd century CE, that features an engraved Imperial Eagle. This may have been similar to the stone found at Mine Howe. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

By 500-600 CE, Orkney had become part of the Pictish kingdom. For the first time, Orkney was connected with a nation that extended beyond its shores. The Picts were a confederation of Celtic-speaking tribes that lived in eastern and northern Scotland, likely arising from an earlier grouping of Celtic tribes known as the Caledonni (the Greek form of this word, Caledonia, was the one the Romans used to name this northern territory). The Pictish people first appeared in the Roman records around the end of the 3rd century. The Romans called them the Picti, “the painted people,” possibly in reference to their use of dye or tattoos to adorn their bodies4. However, it’s also possible that these people of northern and eastern Scotland called themselves Pecht, an indigenous word that alluded to their reverence of their ancestors. Pictish society was largely agricultural, with Orcadian farmers living in small villages and farmsteads that consisted of stone-built houses. A significant Pictish settlement was situated on the Brough of Birsay, a small island that is separated from the Mainland by a tidal causeway; another was located at Mine Howe. Common livestock included sheep and pigs, with prosperous individuals owning cattle and horses. Indeed, some local aristocrats were able to accumulate a large amount of wealth, suggesting that social stratification intensified during this period. Cereal crops and vegetables were grown in the fertile Orcadian soil, and marine life helped supplement the local Pictish diet. The Picts are known for their distinctive artwork, which appears on stones, metalwork, and small precious objects of bone and stone. Several Pictish symbol stones have been discovered on Orkney. The most famous of these, the Stone of Birsay (shown below), is a 1.82 meter (6 foot) tall stone that was found during an excavation at the Brough of Birsay. The original stone5, thought to date from the 8th century, now resides at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, while a smaller copy was installed onsite.

The Birsay Stone. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
A scabbard chape, created sometime around 800 CE, is a good example of the artistry and detail that went into Pictish metalwork; a chape was used to help a sword blade fit snugly into the sword grip, and also helped to keep out moisture. This chape is part of a collection of 28 silver and silver-gilt objects, known as St Ninian’s Isle Treasure, that was discovered in 1958 on St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland in the floor of a church. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

There is not much known about pre-Christian Pictish religious practices, although they are presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism. Christianity began to spread throughout Scotland in the 5th and 6th centuries due to the influence of Irish missionaries (Ireland was converted to Christianity in the 5th century). Irish abbot Saint Columba founded a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona in 563 (now Iona Abbey), which served as an early focal point for the spread of this new religion. The monastery of Lindisfarne followed in 634, when it was established by an Irish monk named Saint Aidan on a tidal island located off the northeast coast of England. Christianity managed to reach Orkney by the early 8th century, and it seems to have taken hold relatively quickly. Unfortunately for the Picts, this conversion did not really stick as Orkney was soon visited by another external force: Vikings.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, with a view of Lindisfarne Castle (built in 1550). Image sourced from Pixabay.

The Viking age of conquest and expansion is seen as beginning on June 8, 793 with a violent raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne. This wasn’t the first Viking raid in Britain, but the brutality of its encounter sent shockwaves throughout Europe. It was inconceivable that a sacred centre of worship could be so ruthlessly violated. For the Vikings, this was an easy payday. Monasteries were full of treasure, and they were poorly guarded. It would be hard to find a more perfect low-risk/high-reward opportunity for a group of pagan mercenaries. Word spread, and Britain soon became a very attractive raiding target. The monastery at Iona alone was attacked three times in 795, 802, and 806 before it was finally moved 35 kms (20 miles) inland in 807. Britain would continue to be hit with sporadic waves of Viking activity until well into the 11th century. The main drawback for the Vikings (aside from occasional pockets of domestic resistance) was the long journey home to Scandinavia. That travel time seriously cut into the number of raids they could undertake and the number of markets they could attend in order to sell off their slaves and purloined goods. Happily, they soon discovered a solution.

A 9th-century grave marker found at Lindisfarne, known as the Viking Domesday Stone. It shows a violent attack by 7 warriors armed with Viking-style swords and battle axes. Image sourced from the website of English Heritage.
An image of a Viking ship from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, circa 900. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The islands of Orkney and Shetland started out as a winter outpost for Scandinavian raiders. The Old Norse place names were Orkneyjar (meaning “Seal Island”) for Orkney; Megenland (Mainland) or Hrossey (“Horse Island”) for the main island of Orkney; Hjaltland (“Hill Land”) for Shetland; and Norðreyjar (“Northern Islands”) to refer to them both. The Northern Isles proved to be perfectly situated to serve as a central base for Scandinavian raiding and trading operations (a thin distinction), and so their presence in the area became gradually more permanent. Word got out that the Northern Isles also had a lot of nice farmland, and so Scandinavian settlers6 soon followed in the wake of their raiding countrymen, eager to seize their own chance at advancement. A large number of them arrived between the late 8th and early 9th centuries. It is not known how the transition between Pictish and Norse occupation was carried out on Orkney. Theories range from peaceful integration through enslavement to outright displacement or genocide. There is no archaeological evidence of mass burning or slaughter, so hopefully there were no extreme measures undertaken. What is known is that Norse culture became dominant, while Orcadian Pictish culture was almost entirely wiped out: the recent conversion to Christianity was largely abandoned; Pictish art and language disappeared; Norse housing types replaced their Pictish predecessors; and there were new systems of administration and taxation.

Viking ship carrying Harold III of Norway against his half-brother Olaf II in 1030, circa 1375. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Orkney in the Viking Age. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Norse society was highly stratified. The majority of its citizens were farmers who lived throughout Orkney on scattered farmsteads that featured long, spacious dwellings composed of stone foundations with turf walls and roofs. There were also a variety of trades and craftspeople living in larger settlements at Birsay and Kirkwall on the Mainland, as well as at the thriving market center of Pierowall on the Isle of Westray. In 875, Norwegian king Harald Fairhair (Harald Harfågre) is said to have annexed the islands of Orkney and Shetland, making them a province of Norway. By 900, the Norwegian king had appointed a titled representative known as a Jarl7 (similar, but not identical to, an English Earl), to manage the islands on his behalf. The Jarl of Orkney’s8 influence extended south to the Scottish mainland (including the northeast county of Caithness) and west to the Hebrides. Fishing became very lucrative around 950-1050, which made the Jarls of Orkney immensely wealthy. Orkney became a vital place for Viking ships to find men and supplies. Christianity returned to Orkney in 995, supposedly at the urging of King Olaf Tryggvasson of Norway; small churches and chapels sprang up throughout Orkney by the middle of the 11th century. The Church of Saint Olaf was built in Kirkwall sometime after 1035, and Saint Magnus’ Cathedral followed about 100 years later in 1137 (a residence for the cathedral’s first bishop, the Bishop’s Palace, was built around the same time) .  

A reconstructed Viking house in Iceland, which would have been similar to those found on Orkney. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Harald Fairhair, shown on the right, with his father Halfdan the Black in an illustration from the Flateyjarbók, an Icelandic saga of Norse kings written around 1387-1394. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Saint Magnus’ Cathedral. Image sourced from Pixabay.
The ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, seen from Saint Magnus’ Cathedral. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

An interesting document that dates to this time period is the Orkneyinga Saga (also called The History of the Earls of Orkney and Jarls’ Saga), an Icelandic saga that was compiled sometime between 1192 and 1206 by an unknown Icelandic scribe (or scribes). It is thought to draw from numerous sources, including oral tradition, and presents a semi-factual political history of Orkney and Shetland that begins with the Norse conquest of Harald Fairhair. The saga then outlines the lives of the many Jarls/Earls who ruled the Northern Isles from the 9th-13th centuries. The earlier sections of the narrative tend to be more mythical in nature, but its historical veracity seems to improve as the recorded events approach the period in which the saga was recorded. Regardless of the degree of its historical accuracy, the Orkneyinga Saga is a valuable piece of medieval literature that provides considerable insight and detail on Orkney’s Norse community. It includes the stories of some of Orkney’s most beloved figures including Saint Magnus the Martyr, whose murder in 1115 inspired the building of the cathedral in Kirkwall that bears his name.

Cover image of a modern translation of the Orkneyinga Saga by Penguin Classics. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
A page from the Icelandic saga of Olaf Trygvesson, written from 1387-1394. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Many of the locations referenced in the Orkneyinga Saga are still recognizable, and even retain the same place names. One such place is described in Chapter 66 of the Orkneyinga Saga, which discusses a Yule feast that was given by Jarl Paul at his bu (an Old Norse word meaning dwelling, household, farm, estate or home) on the Mainland of Orkney. The saga describes “a great drinking-hall at Orphir, with a door in the south wall near the eastern gable.” It continues, “on the left as you came into the hall was a large stone slab, with a lot of big ale vats behind it, and opposite the door was the living room.” The foundations of a large building at Orphir, known as the Earl’s Bu, are possibly of this residence and its drinking-hall. In the saga, this is where several violent incidents and deaths take place.

The foundations of the Earl’s Bu, thought to be the remains of a Viking Earl’s residence and drinking-hall. Image sourced from the Historic Environment of Scotland.

Chapter 66 of the saga also states, “in front of the hall, just a few paces down from it, stood a fine church.” Indeed, the ruins of the Orphir Round Kirk (derives from the Old Norse word kirkja for church) can be found a short distance away from the Earl’s Bu (however, there is some doubt about whether theses two structures were in use at the same period of time). This is one of only two surviving medieval circular churches in Scotland, and it is thought to have been built by Jarl Haakon Paulsson in the late 11th or early 12th century. The building’s design was inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Orphir Round Kirk originally consisted of a circular nave that was 6 meters (19.6 feet) in diameter, as well as a semi-circular apse with a central window; the walls were 1 meter (3 feet) thick. Most of the Orphir Round Kirk was still standing in 1757, at which point large parts of it were torn down in order to repurpose its stone for the construction of a newer church, which has since been entirely demolished. Only the apse of the Orphir Round Kirk and a small segment of its circular nave wall remain.

View of the Earl’s Bu with the Orphir Round Kirk behind it. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Exterior view of the apse of the Orpir Round Kirk. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Haakon Paulsson shared the Jarldom of Orkney with his cousin, Magnus Erlendsson (later Saint Magnus the Martyr) from 1105-1114. In 1115, Haakon killed Magnus on the Isle of Egilsay in order to claim total control over Orkney (he continued to rule until 1123). As penance, the saga states that Haakon then went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land; upon his return, he had the Orphir Round Kirk built in honour of his slain cousin.

The surviving portion of the nave. The gravel indicates where the rest of the nave’s circular wall would have been located. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Close-up of the surviving nave. Image sourced from Pixabay.

By the 11th century the Jarldom of Orkney also included Shetland, Caithness, and Sutherland (the county located west of Caithness on the Scottish mainland). In 1098, King Magnus III Olavsson of Norway (known as “Magnus Barefoot/Barelegs”) and King Edgar of Scotland met to discuss their borders. They agreed that Caithness would continue to be administered by the Jarls of Orkney, but as a fiefdom of Scotland rather than Norway. In exchange, the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Mann were determined to be Norwegian territories. This border agreement gave Scotland protection from Scandinavian raids, and allowed for peaceful trade relations between Norway, Orkney, and Scotland. The Orkney islands benefited from serving as a political, economic, and geographic link between Scandinavia and Scotland. There were many marriages between the ruling families of these three regions, and the descendants of these matches would go on to exercise their influence throughout Europe (for example, William the Conqueror was descended from a powerful Orkney family).

The Isle of Lewis, part of the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides. Image sourced from Pixabay.
The Lewis chessmen are a set of 12th century game pieces that were discovered on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. They were possibly made in Trondheim, the medieval capital of Norway. Image sourced from Pixabay.

The year 1231 saw the end of the Norse line of Jarls in Orkney, which had continued unbroken for some 350 years from the time of Harald Fairhair. Jarl John Harraldsson died without issue, possibly murdered in a pub brawl in Thurso on the Scottish mainland. The Orkney Jarldom/Earldom was passed onto a Scottish relative of John Harraldsson in 1236: Magnus II, the son of Gille Brigte, Earl of Angus. Scottish influence had been building in the local aristocracy for decades, but this transfer of title confirmed the onset of Scottish power in Orkney.

Elsewhere in Scotland, Scottish-Norwegian relations began to deteriorate in the mid-13th century when two successive Scottish kings, Alexander II and Alexander III (father/son), decided they wanted the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides to become Scottish territories. When their offers to purchase the islands from King Haakon of Norway were rebuffed, they launched several aggressive military campaigns. This resulted in the Battle of Largs9 on October 2, 1263. Although the conflict itself was inconclusive, Haakon unexpectedly died of illness two months later while he and his fleet were spending the winter in Orkney. Alexander III pressed his advantage, and by the end of 1264 had forced the people of the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Man to submit to Scottish rule. The Treaty of Perth in 1266 saw Norway lease these territories to the Kingdom of Scotland in return for an annual payment, which they eventually stopped paying.

The Battle of Largs (detail). William Hole, circa 1899. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1290, a major succession crisis kicked off in Orkney with the death of Princess Margaret of Norway, the daughter of Eric II of Norway and Margaret of Scotland. The 7-year old girl was the only surviving descendant and heir-presumptive of her maternal grandfather, Alexander III of Scotland, who had died in 1286. Princess Margaret was on her way to England to marry Prince Edward, the son of Edward I of England, when she became ill during her journey. Her ship landed in Orkney on the Isle of South Ronaldsay around September 23; she died a few days later on September 26, possibly of food poisoning. Margaret and Edward’s match would have created a powerful union between Norway, Scotland, and England. Instead, her death resulted in 13 competing claimants to the Scottish throne including (most famously) John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. Edward I was asked to arbitrate by the Guardians of Scotland (Princess Margaret’s regency council) in an effort to avoid civil war, but Edward I seized the opportunity instead to try and subjugate Scotland under his own rule. His actions led to the Wars of Scottish Independence, which saw two major conflicts fought in 1296-1328 (during which William Wallace, one of the main leaders of the Scottish resistance, gained notoriety) and 1332-1357. Scotland managed to retain its status as an independent state, and the crisis played a defining role in its history and identity. 

A stained glass window on display in Lerwick Town Hall (the main town in Shetland) depicting “Margaret, Queen of Scotland and Daughter of Norway.” Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The village of St. Margaret’s Hope, located on the Isle of South Ronaldsay, is possibly named after Princess Margaret, who died here in 1290. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1320, the line of the Angus Earls died out. In 1330, the Earldom of Orkney was granted to a relation of the Angus family: Maol Íosa, Earl of Strathearn. He ruled over Orkney and Caithness until his death in 1350. However, Maol Íosa did not have any sons to succeed him, only daughters. The Earldom remained vacant for a long time, with two men unofficially filling it for brief periods: Erengisle Suneson, son-in-law to Maol Íosa, from 1353-1360; and Alexander of Ard, grandson of Maol Íosa, from 1375-1376. In 1379, the Earldom passed onto another grandson of Maol Íosa: Henry Sinclair, the Baron of Roslin (Roslin is located 11 kms/7 miles south of Edinburgh). Sinclair built Kirkwall Castle soon after 1379 as a base from which he could exercise control over the islands of Orkney and Shetland, which had gotten a little bit unruly in the nearly 30 years that had passed since they were ruled by a firm, official Earl. In the 1980s, a legend arose that Henry Sinclair took part in explorations of Greenland and North America almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus, including a voyage to Newfoundland in 1398; however, it should be stressed that these accounts are unverified and considered pseudo-historical by the academic community.

Statue of Henry Sinclair at Noss Head on the Scottish mainland. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Arms of the feudal Earldom of Orkney. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Three generations of Sinclairs would hold the title of Earl of Orkney before the islands became a property of the Scottish crown. In 1468, Christian I (who ruled over a combined kingdom of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) made arrangements to have his daughter, Margaret, wed to James III of Scotland. In his capacity as King of Norway, Christian I offered the islands of Orkney and Shetland as a guarantee of payment of Margaret’s dowry. In 1472, the islands were officially absorbed by the Kingdom of Scotland when it became clear that Christian I was not likely to pay the dowry. In order to ensure that the transfer of Orkney from a Norwegian to a Scottish crown property was clearly delineated, James III urged William Sinclair (grandson of Henry) to exchange his Orkney Earldom with the Scottish king for ownership of Ravenscraig Castle (located 66 kms/41 miles east of Stirling) and its associated lands in Fife. By doing this, James III had thus ended the Earldom of Orkney. However, James III then turned around and rented the management of the islands of Orkney back to the Sinclair family. The Sinclairs may have been urged to give up their official title, but everything else (their power, influence, and role) remained largely the same. 

Queen Margaret, wife of James III. Image sourced from the National Galleries of Scotland.

This switch from Norwegian to Scottish ownership in 1472 marked the official end of Norse influence in Orkney, although it had already been on the wane for around 240 years. Norse customs were gradually replaced by Scottish cultural practices (for example, the use of surnames like “Sinclair” rather than patronyms such as “Harraldsson”). The Norn language, a North Germanic/West Scandinavian dialect of the old Norse language that was specific to the Orkney and Shetland region, began to die out as the use of Scots (a West Germanic dialect also known as Lowland Scots) picked up; Norn is thought to have become officially extinct in 1850 with the death of its last known speaker, Walter Sutherland.  

The Shetland Island motto, shown above on its coat of arms, features a romanized phrase from the Norn language: MED LÖGUM SKAL LAND BYGGJA translates as “By law will the land be built up.” Image sourced from Wikipedia. (The Orkney motto is in Latin, otherwise I would have included it).
In December 1153, several Vikings sought shelter from a terrible snowstorm by breaking into the chambered burial cairn of Maeshowe. While inside, they carved runic graffiti inscriptions (presumably written in the Norn language) on the walls. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In the early 16th century, a feud sprang up between two branches of the Sinclair family based on their loyalty to James V. One group of the Sinclairs, headed by James Sinclair, was unhappy with the Scottish crown and its exercise of power (particularly its tax collection) in Orkney. The other family of Sinclairs, led by William Sinclair, were the ones in charge of managing Orkney on behalf of James V (they collected the taxes); as a result, they were loyal supporters of James V. James Sinclair and his kin launched a rebellion during which they refused to pay their taxes, seized Kirkwall Castle, and pushed the loyalist Sinclairs out of Orkney to Caithness on the Scottish mainland. William Sinclair and the Caithness Sinclairs obtained the support of James V, and then they launched a counter-attack against the Orkney Sinclairs with the Battle of Summerdale on May 19, 1529. The battle was fought on the Mainland, and it is said that it resulted in the death of all but 1 of around 500 of the men fighting for the Caithness Sinclairs; only one man representing the Orkney Sinclairs was killed. James Sinclair was later pardoned by James V for his role in the rebellion. 

The Crest of Clan Sinclair. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In 1564 Mary, Queen of Scots, appointed her half-brother, Robert Stewart (an illegitimate son of James V), the Sheriff of Orkney and Shetland. However, Stewart was quickly replaced in 1566 by a new candidate, Gilbert Balfour, who served as Mary’s Master of the Household. Balfour had Noltland Castle built on the Isle of Westray. In 1567, Mary created a new Dukedom of Orkney and granted it to her third husband, James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell. However, the dukedom was later forfeited that same year when Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne, and Bothwell was charged with treason (long story short: Bothwell was revealed to be one of a group of men, including Balfour, who conspired to kill Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, in February 1567; Bothwell kidnapped Mary and forced her to marry him three months later—this all looked very suspicious, and many Scottish nobles and members of the public turned on Mary). Bothwell fled Scotland in June 1567; during his journey, he stopped at Noltland Castle where he hoped to find sanctuary with his friend and co-conspirator, Balfour, but was refused. Bothwell was later arrested in Norway, and he lived the rest of his life imprisoned in Denmark.

Noltland Castle, located on the Isle of Westray. Abandoned in 1760, it is now a ruin. Note that it has lots of slots through which arrows or guns could be fired. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Robert Stewart was still interested in controlling Orkney, despite all of this political turmoil. In 1567 he traveled to Orkney and forced Balfour to surrender his position as sheriff. Stewart then worked for years to gradually seize more power and land in the region. He gained control over Kirkwall Castle in 1567, followed by Saint Magnus’ Cathedral in 1568, and then Noltland Castle. Stewart then began to build a new residence, now known as the Earl’s Palace of Birsay, in 1569. He also declared himself the Provost of Kirkwall. Stewart’s ambition earned him the enmity of some powerful people and, in 1575, he was detained in Edinburgh Castle after a complaint was made about him to the Privy Council. Stewart managed to earn the favour of his young nephew, James VI of Scotland (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) during this time. In 1578, Stewart was allowed to return to Orkney. In 1581, James VI established a second Earldom of Orkney, and Stewart was the lucky appointee. He was also made the Lord of Shetland and Knight of Birsay. In 1585, Stewart gained complete control over the islands when he was granted the Bishopric of Orkney. Stewart took advantage of his new position and began to illegally acquire more land. James VI took notice, and sent three armed ships to Orkney to collect rents that were owing to the Scottish crown, as well as capture Stewart and bring him back to Edinburgh. But the ships were met by a large force of Stewart’s supporters, and they were forced to turn around. However, Stewart got the message and made a gesture of compromise by returning some of the land he had dubiously seized.

Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Arms of Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney. The 1st and 4th quarters show the Scottish royal arms “debruised” by a black ribbon, indicating “bastardy” as Robert was an illegitimate son of James V. The 2nd and 3rd quarters show the arms of the Earldom of Orkney. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Ruins of the Earl’s Palace of Birsay. Unoccupied after the mid-17th century, the palace began to deteriorate rapidly from 1701 onward; it is now a ruin. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Aerial view of the Earl’s Palace of Birsay. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Stewart Earldom of Orkney was brief, consisting of only two title holders, but memorable. Robert Stewart and his son Patrick, who succeeded him in 1593, were ambitious and enjoyed flaunting their wealth and fashionable links with Renaissance Europe. Unfortunately, their reign over Orkney was hard on the local population. Their extravagant lifestyle required the payment of high rent and taxes, and their building projects involved forced labour. Patrick’s behaviour was especially tyrannical, earning him the local nickname “Black Patie.” Patrick amassed high levels of debt. He had Scalloway Castle built on the main island of Shetland in 1599, and began construction in 1607 on the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall. The latter project was meant to incorporate the Bishop’s Palace, (originally built in the 12th century and extensively rebuilt and remodelled in the mid-15th century). In 1609, work on the new palace was halted when Patrick was summoned before the Privy Council of Scotland on charges of financial mismanagement and brutality in his treatment of the Orkney populace. In 1610, he was indicted on seven charges of treason on the grounds of usurping royal authority.

Scalloway Castle. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The ruins of the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall, Orkney. Image sourced from Pixabay.

Patrick’s illegitimate son, another Robert, was appointed to act as his father’s deputy in Orkney while Patrick remained imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. In May 1614, Robert launched a rebellion on his father’s behalf with a force numbering around 700 men. He first seized the Earl’s Palace of Birsay, then the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, followed by Kirkwall Castle and Saint Magnus’ Cathedral. George Sinclair, the 5th Earl of Caithness, was dispatched by James VI to quell the rebellion. Sinclair and his force conducted a five-week siege of Kirkwall Castle, Saint Magnus’ Cathedral, and the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall. Sinclair finally laid waste to Kirkwall Castle, battering it with 140 cannons; Sinclair wrote that the walls of the castle were so thick that, when the the cannon balls hit them, they “were broken like golf balls, and cloven in two halfs.” Sinclair wanted to destroy Saint Magnus’ Cathedral as well, but he was fortunately deterred by James Law, who had been appointed Bishop of Orkney in 1605. Twelve of Robert’s men were hanged at the castle gate. Robert was taken to Edinburgh where he, along with five more of his men, were hanged for treason in 1615. Patrick was beheaded shortly thereafter, forfeiting this second incarnation of the Orkney Earldom. It was re-established for a third time in 1696 and still exists today, but is largely an honorific title and has little impact on the daily life of Orcadians (the current Earl was born and lives in Canada, for instance). Interestingly, the third manifestation of this title allows for daughters to inherit as well as sons; there have been three successive female Earls of Orkney, who held the post from 1737-1831.

Depiction of 16th century cannon placements from Le diverse et artificiose machine del capitano. Agostino Ramelli, 1588. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Cannonballs. Image sourced from Pixabay.

Orkney found itself drawn into the intrigue of national politics in the middle of the 17th century during the War of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651). On January 30, 1649, Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland was beheaded. A republican government known as “the Commonwealth of England” was subsequently established. The Scottish Parliament opposed this move and proclaimed a new king, Charles II, son of Charles I. Charles II, in exile at The Hague in the Netherlands, appointed royalist James Graham, the 1st Marquess of Montrose, as Lieutenant-Governor of Scotland and Captain General of his forces there. Montrose hired 400-500 Danish mercenaries and sent them ahead to Orkney. He followed them shortly thereafter, landing in March 1650. There, he recruited 1,000 Orcadians to the royalist cause. He then moved onto the Scottish mainland, where he was hoping to rally 10,000 more men in the Highlands. He was ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining the number of troops he needed from the Scottish Highland clans. On April 27, his majority Orcadian force was defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale: more than 450 soldiers were killed; over 200 drowned as they tried to escape across a river known as the Kyle of Sutherland; and at least 400 were captured. Montrose was later caught and hanged in Edinburgh on May 21. 

James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, circa 1636. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Charles II managed to find other Scottish allies, and so his royalist cause continued when he landed in Scotland on June 23. The new threat he posed was considered so grave that English general Oliver Cromwell felt compelled to leave Ireland, which he had been busy trying to (brutally) conquer. Cromwell arrived in Scotland on July 22. The forces of Charles II and Cromwell fought and chased each other throughout England and Scotland for over a year. During this time, a Cromwellian garrison of soldiers occupied Kirkwall. They used Saint Magnus’ Cathedral as a barracks and stable for their horses, and are alleged to have been guilty of “several irregularities and oppressions.” Cromwell earned a decisive victory over Charles II at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651. Charles fled the battlefield and made his way to France (he was forced to hide for an entire day on September 6 in the branches of an oak tree while patrols searched for him nearby—this later led to the popular use of the term Royal Oak for British pubs, ships, etc.). Scotland was ruled by England and kept under military occupation until Cromwell’s death in 1658. Orcadian and Scottish life during this period was largely peaceful, with the exception of the Highlands where Cromwell had a line of military fortifications built to deter further rebellion. 

Oliver Crowell. After Samuel Cooper, based on a work of 1656. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

For the average Orcadian, life had always centered on farming. However, climate change in the 17th century resulted in several years of poor harvests, and famine hit the community hard. In spite of this hardship, they had still been expected to keep up with high rent and taxation payments during the time of the Stewart Earldom. Luckily, the climate improved in the 18th century, which gave farming a chance to recover. The 18th and 19th centuries were prosperous times in Orkney, with high employment rates and other improvements to social infrastructure. New crops, such as potatoes, were introduced. The commercial burning of kelp to make soda ash (used to manufacture glass, paper, soaps, and detergents) briefly became an economic mainstay from 1720-1830. The fishing industry, with the fishing of herring in particular, helped to employ a lot of people. The first tourists began to arrive in 1833 due to a new steamship service. Others sought opportunities beyond the islands. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries a large number of men employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company were Orcadians, as their skill in ship-handling and their resilience to cold marine temperatures made them ideally suited for the harsh conditions of the Canadian wilderness. John Rae (1813-1893) was one of these Orcadian recruits, signing on with the company as a surgeon in 1834. Rae became one of the greatest Arctic explorers of his time, and worked closely with Indigenous Arctic peoples in his quests to discover the Northwest Passage and, most famously, to solve the mystery of what happened to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845.   

Dr. John Rae, explorer of the Arctic. Henry Maull, circa 1862. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The Hall of Clestrain, birthplace of John Rae. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Orkney Islands became the site of a Royal Navy base in 1914. Scapa Flow is a large body of water that is sheltered by the Mainland and several of Orkney’s southern islands. It provided the British Grand Fleet with a protected deep water anchorage where boats could be fuelled, maintained, and housed between periods of action. Its location also provided the fleet with a strategic position by which they could control marine traffic in the North Sea. The Orkney garrison consisted of around 35 ships and 100,000 people, as well as corresponding infrastructure such as gun batteries, signal stations, and buildings for administration and accommodation. Scapa Flow was where Field Marshall Earl Kitchener1, Supreme Commander of the British Forces, boarded the ill-fated H.M.S. Hampshire on June 5, 1916.

Aerial view of Scapa Flow, 2003. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Lord Kitchener disembarking at Scapa Flow, hours before he was killed aboard the HMS Hampshire. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

When the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the Allied powers were unsure what to do with many of the ships in the German Imperial Navy High Seas Fleet. The dreaded U-Boats were immediately turned over to the Allies without any hope of their return, but the fate of the rest of the fleet was still to be determined. It was suggested that the boats be anchored in a neutral port until a final agreement could be reached. However, the two nations that were approached to consider this—Spain and Norway—refused. Instead, the German fleet was transferred to Scapa Flow, where it was supervised by a skeleton crew of German sailors and guarded by the British Grand Fleet. Most of the ships were moved between November 25-27, 1918 (the last one arrived on January 9, 1919). When the Paris Peace Conference began in January 1919, negotiations included the issue of the interned German fleet. France and Italy each wanted a quarter of the German ships, while Britain wanted them destroyed outright—they did not want to compromise their international naval numerical superiority. 

The German Fleet at Scapa Flow in November 1918. Royal Navy, 1918. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

As the months dragged on, the morale of the German soldiers stationed aboard the ships—which was not high to begin with—eroded. They weren’t permitted to go ashore, nor to visit other ships. Their food provisions were of poor quality, and there was little recreational activity. Postal service with Germany was slow and heavily censored, which meant they had long stretches of infrequent contact with their loved ones back home. 20,000 soldiers had initially sailed to Scapa Flow with the fleet in November, but most were eventually repatriated home to Germany; 4,815 of them remained as of December 12, with about 100 more leaving each month thereafter. German Admiral Hans Hermann Ludwig von Reuter was in charge of supervising the interned ships and the remaining sailors. As early as January 1919, he mentioned the possibility of scuttling (sinking) the fleet to his chief of staff. 

German sailors fishing over the side of a destroyer. The sailors would also hunt for seagulls to supplement their diet and break up the monotony of their internment. Royal Navy, 1919. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles was scheduled for noon on June 21, 1919. If you read my earlier blog post about the History of Versailles, part 6, you’ll recall that Germany was not pleased with its stipulations. Reuter was made aware of the treaty’s unfavourable terms in May 1919. He began to secretly prepare to have the German ships scuttled. In the meantime, the German fleet was being guarded by British Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle and the First Battle Squadron. Fremantle knew that the Germans were likely to scuttle their ships. He proposed a plan to pre-emptively seize the German ships at midnight on June 21/June 22 after the signing of the treaty was complete. On June 18, Reuter sent a message to the interned ships informing them that it was his intent to sink them “if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government.” The German soldiers began to do things like loosen portholes, turn and lubricate seacocks (valves), leave watertight doors and condensers open, place large hammers beside valves, and drill holes through the bulk heads to help hasten the spread of flooding water. On June 19, Fremantle read a report in a newspaper that erroneously claimed that the deadline to sign the Treaty of Versailles had been extended to June 23. Fremantle assumed this was true, and thus decided the plan to seize the German fleet could also be postponed until June 23/24. As a result, at 9:00 am on June 21, Fremantle decided to have the First Battle Squadron conduct a training exercise out on the open sea away from Scapa Flow. Reuter could probably not believe his luck as he watched Fremantle and the squadron depart. At 10:00 am, Reuter sent a flag signal ordering the German fleet to stand by for the signal to scuttle. At 11:20 am, the signal was sent. Scuttling began immediately. Flood valves, seacocks, and portholes were opened. All of the earlier preparations meant that it took little time at all for the ships to fill with water. By 12:00 pm, one of the German battleships began to noticeably list to starboard. At that point, the entire German fleet hoisted the German Imperial Ensign, and then their crews abandoned ship. 

Battleship SMS Bayern down by the stern and sinking at Scapa Flow. Royal Navy, 1919. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
An original German Imperial Ensign, used from 1903-1919 (including during WWI). This flag was acquired from a German submarine, donated after the Armistice in 1918. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Fremantle was informed of the scuttling at 12:20 and cancelled the training exercise. At 12:35, the First Battle Squadron was racing back to Scapa Flow. By the time they arrived at 2:30 pm, only a few of the bigger ships were still left afloat. Of the 74 ships that were anchored at Scapa Flow, the scuttled vessels included: 15 of the 16 capital ships (including battleships); 5 of the 8 cruisers; and 32 of the 50 destroyers. The rest remained afloat, or were towed to shallower water and beached. 9 Germans were shot and killed and a further 16 wounded as they made their way via lifeboat to land. Around 1,774 Germans were captured and sent to prisoner-of-war camps. The beached ships were dispersed to the navies of the Allied powers. Most of the sunken ships were initially left at the bottom of Scapa Flow. 39 of them were later salvaged between 1923-1931. The outbreak of World War II brought salvage operations to a halt. After World War II, there were a few more efforts to salvage metal from the remaining boats that lie in the deeper waters of Scapa Flow. The steel in these ships is useful in the manufacture of radiation-sensitive devices (such as Geiger counters) since they were produced prior to the detonation of the first nuclear bombs in the 1940s and 1950s, and are thus not contaminated with radioisotopes. In 2001, the remaining 7 wrecks were scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act; divers are allowed to visit them, but they need a permit to do so.

Only the upper works of the Battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg remained above the water after her scuttling. Royal Navy, 1919. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Scapa Flow was once more pressed into service as a naval base when World War II broke out in September 1939. 12,000 members of the British Home Fleet were stationed there. The Orkney Islands also housed several army camps, four airfields, and numerous gun batteries. On the night of October 13/14, 1939 a German submarine, U-47, navigated through the subterranean defences (sunken block ships, booms, anti-submarine nets) of an eastern entrance, Holm Sound, into Scapa Flow at high tide. From there, U-47 was able to torpedo and sink the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak (named after Charles II’s tree, mentioned earlier). 835 of the 1,234 men and boys (134 of the dead were not yet 18 years old) on board were killed that night or later died of their wounds. The wreck of the HMS Royal Oak is lying almost completely upside down, her top embedded in the sea floor, in 100 feet (30 meters) of water; her hull is 16 feet (4.9 meters) below the surface. The remains of the ship are considered a war grave, and they are protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. All diving and other unauthorized forms of exploration are prohibited.  

HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937. Royal Navy, 1937. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Up until this point, Scapa Flow had been considered impregnable to submarine attack. Winston Churchill, who was then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty (he was elected Prime Minister nearly seven months later on May 10, 1940), ordered the construction of concrete barriers to seal the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow. Work on the Churchill Barriers began in May 1940 and was completed in September 1944; they were officially opened four days after Victory in Europe Day on May 12, 1945. They consist of four causeways that span a distance of 2.3 kms (1.4 miles) that link the Orkney Mainland to, from north to south, the islands of: Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay; the barriers now link these islands by carrying the A961 roadway. The bases of the four barriers were made of 250,000 tonnes of broken rock encased in gabions (metal cages/cylinders/boxes). 66,000 concrete blocks weighing 5- and 10-tonnes were then laid overtop, with the 5-tonne blocks forming the core and the 10-tonne blocks being laid out on the sides in a random pattern to serve as wave breaks. This project was the largest engineering feat of World War II, and the work was mostly carried out by Italian prisoners-of-war, most of whom had been captured during the North African campaign (June 1940 – May 13, 1943). The first round of 550 prisoners were brought to Orkney in 1942. There would eventually be more than 1,300 of them held in camps at Lamb Holm and Burray.  

View of the Churchill Barriers linking, from north to south: the Orkney Mainland, Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay. Image sourced from Google Maps.
Churchill Barrier 1, which connects the Mainland with Lamb Holm, now blocks the access point into Scapa Flow that was taken by U-47. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Aerial view of Churchill Barrier 2, which connects Lamb Holm to Glimps Holm. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Aerial view of a Churchill Barrier, showing the roadway and the concrete blocks used in its construction. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

200 of the Italian prisoners-of-war were held at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm. In 1943, Camp 60’s new commandant, Major Thomas Pyres Buckland, and its new Catholic priest, Father Gioacchino Giacobazzi, agreed that the camp required a place of worship. Two Nissen huts (prefabricated steel structures used by the military) were joined together. Artist Giovanni Pennisi designed a concrete façade that would make the structure look more like a church, which was then built by stonemason Domenico Buttapasta and a small team of assistants. The corrugated interior of the combined huts was covered with plasterboard; an altar and an altar rail were constructed of concrete; a baptismal font was made from concrete and a car exhaust pipe; and the light holders were made of corned beef tins. The interior of the chapel was then painted by the Italian prisoners. Most of the work was done by a man named Domenico Chiocchetti, who painted several beautiful murals at the sanctuary end; Pennisi assisted him with the task. A blacksmith, Giuseppe Palumbi, spent four months forging a rood screen to separate the altar from the rest of the hut (he had to make his own forge in order to do this!).  

Exterior of the Italian Chapel. Image sourced from Pixabay.
The sanctuary end of the chapel with its rood screen. Image sourced from Pixabay.
Close-up of the sanctuary end of the chapel. Chiocchetti based the mural “Madonna with Child” on a prayer card his mother had given him. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

After the war, the POW camps at Lamb Holm and Burray were quickly torn down; the concrete foundations are all that remain of the accommodation blocks that once housed the Italian prisoners. However, in spite of their orders to destroy everything on site, the demolition team left the Italian Chapel untouched. They were too moved by its beauty and the careful work that had gone into creating it. The years passed and, eventually, weather gradually eroded the condition of the chapel. Water damage began to take its toll on the interior paintings and rood screen. In 1958, Father Joseph Ryland-Whitaker, the Catholic Priest of Shetland (whose area of responsibility also included Orkney), established the Italian Chapel Preservation Committee. He and several locals dedicated themselves to the task of repairing the chapel. They managed, with the assistance of the BBC, to track down Chiocchetti and arranged for him to come to Orkney for three weeks in 1960 to restore his paintings. He visited again in 1964 with his wife, and then in 1970 with his children. In 1992, a small group of 8 other former prisoners-of-war returned to Orkney to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their internment there; sadly, Chiocchetti was too ill to participate. The Italian Chapel has since become a popular tourist destination, with around 100,000 people visiting it every year. Mass is held there on the first Sunday of the summer months from April through September.

Domenico Chiocchetti (left) and Giuseppe Palumbi (right) stand in front of the Italian Chapel. Photo by James W Sinclair. Image sourced from The Italy Magazine.

The navy base at Scapa Flow was closed in 1957. Many war-time buildings were removed or repurposed, and several of the decommissioned anti-aircraft batteries remain along the coast. At Stromness, the former Ness Battery still features former accommodation blocks, a mess hall, underground magazines, a command tower, and gun emplacements. A mural within the mess hall features painted scenes of the English countryside, created by servicemen who were longing for home. 

Ness Battery during World War II. Image sourced from the Ness Battery’s website.
Ness Battery today. Image sourced from the Ness Battery’s website.
The mural inside the mess hall of the Ness Battery. Image sourced from the Ness Battery’s website.
Detail of the Ness Battery mural. Image sourced from the Ness Battery’s website.

Today, Orkney has a thriving industry of locally made products such as jewelry, knitwear, crafts, art, food, and music. Archaeology is also a vibrant field of employment, due to the numerous sites that require careful excavation, research, study, and management. In 1999, Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, and the Stones of Stenness were collectively designated as a World Heritage Site10 called “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” That same year, Orkney College (part of the University of the Highlands), opened an Archaeology Department. As a result, students can train in Orkney and then remain in the area after graduation to begin their careers. When we visited, a couple of the locals joked that their fellow Orcadians have to be very careful about how deep they dig when they work in their gardens—you never know what priceless Neolithic site may be lying a few inches below the surface! The Ness of Brodgar was discovered as recently as 2002/2003, so I’m sure that the community is very aware of the possibility of similar occurrences. Orkney’s remarkable historic sites are also great for tourism, bringing lots of people (such as us!) to the islands.

Kirkwall Harbour, 2014. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Before I leave this (13,000+ word) “introduction” to Orkney, I would like to mention a fun local tradition known as “the Kirkwall Ba’ Game.” It is a game of medieval/mob football that is played on the streets of Kirkwall twice a year, usually every Christmas and New Year’s Day. The present form of the game seems to date back to around 1800, but similar ball games have been played in Britain since the Roman occupation so a version of the Kirkwall game is likely to have been played here for far longer. It is played between two opposing teams, known as the Uppies (“Up the Gates”) and the Doonies (“Down the Gates”); the reference to “gates” is derived from the Old Norse word gata, meaning path or road (so “Up the Road” or “Down the Road”). Traditionally, team membership was determined by whether a player was born up or down the street (Main Street, I’m assuming). This changed around the middle of the 20th century when babies started being increasingly born in hospital, and with the arrival of new housing developments—the locations of which benefited the Uppie team disproportionately. Local players are now drafted to the Uppies or Doonies based on family loyalties. Incoming players (known as ferryloupers) traveling from rural areas and the other islands determine their side based on the route they first took when arriving in Kirkwall. There is a desire to keep the game a community-driven tradition, and so only Orcadian residents are permitted to play in it; tourists and visitors are welcome to watch and cheer from the sidelines. 

Various players in the scrum struggles to gain possession of the ball as spectators look on. Image sourced from Orkney’s official website.

The game begins at 1:00 pm in front of Saint Magnus’ Cathedral, when a ball is thrown up at the Mercat Cross. There can be up to 350 players in the awaiting scrum who then compete with each other to seize the ball and try to move it to the designated goal area. The game features more hand than foot play. The Doonies’ task is to get the ball “down” to Kirkwall Bay and immerse it in the water. The Uppies must carry the ball “up” to the junction of Main Street and New Scapa Road, known as Mackinson’s Corner (opposite the Catholic Church), where the old town gate used to be located. The Uppies must touch the ball to the gable end of a house at that intersection. The game can last for hours, with hundreds of spectators crowding and following the scrum as it navigates the narrow streets. All the shops and houses located along possible game routes put up shutters and barricades. The game has no official rules, but the community nature of the event encourages a code of honour and safe conduct that is observed by all players; this is one major reason why locals don’t want strangers to participate. In potentially dangerous situations, such as the collapse of the scrum, competitors will cease play and provide assistance to teammate and opponent alike until everyone has safely returned to their feet. Tempers can flare and there are occasional injuries (broken and cracked ribs are not uncommon) but, overall, the sense of camaraderie prevails. At the conclusion of the game, the winning team will elect a player (usually a long-standing participant) to take the ball home as their trophy.  

Example of a ball used in the Kirkwall Ba’ game on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester. The balls are handmade by an Orcadian craftsman using leather for the exterior, and then stuffed with cork. Image sourced from the National Football Museum.

This “Men’s Ba” game is played by male participants 16 years of age and older. There is a separate “Boy’s Ba’” game for those 15 and under; their game begins at 10:00 am, and their matches can be over in as little as 4 minutes (New Year’s Day 1985) or also last for hours. A “Woman’s Ba’” game saw one match played on Christmas Day in 1945 and one a week later on New Year’s Day in 1946. This came about because after the conclusion of World War II, a new societal push for gender equality motivated local establishment of a women’s version of the game. Unfortunately, the Women’s Ba game was discontinued after these two matches, allegedly because the members of the community considered the spectacle “un-ladylike.” I think this is a little disappointing! One of the winners, Barbara Yule, donated her ball to the Orkney Museum in 1999.

The Ba’ nears the Doonies’ goal area of the Kirkwall Basin. Image sourced from

That’s it for my introduction to Orkney and overview of its history. It is a really fascinating place, definitely worth a visit! I will be writing separate posts on Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar. Stay tuned! Thank you for reading!

1 Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener (known as Lord Kitchener), was Britain’s Secretary of State for War during WWI. He is the man on the famous 1914 “Kitchener Wants You” recruitment poster. On June 5, 1916, Lord Kitchener boarded the H.M.S. Hampshire at Scapa Flow. The ship was taking him on a diplomatic mission to Russia, where he was going to negotiate with Tsar Nicholas II. However, the ship struck a German mine at Marwick Head along the west coast of the Mainland of Orkney, and sank within a period of 20 minutes. Kitchener was 1 of 737 people killed; only 12 survived.

Modern reproduction of WWI recruitment poster derived from 1914 London Opinion magazine cover. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
H.M.S. Hampshire in 1903. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
The red pinpoint indicates Scapa Flow. The green flag indicates the location of the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, which is near where the H.M.S. Hampshire sank. Image sourced from Google Maps.

2 Other places of note that I considered visiting on the Mainland were: the Broch of Gurness (an Iron Age community site that was first settled between 500-200 BCE); the Brough of Birsay (features 6th-8th century remnants of Pictish and Norse settlement); Saint Magnus’ Cathedral (building work began in 1137); the ruins of the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces (constructed in the 12th century and early 17th century, respectively); the Churchill Barriers; and the Italian Chapel. Sadly, we ran out of time and energy before we were able to see any of these further attractions, due in part to the challenge of driving a manual car (there are some things you can’t learn from Google and YouTube videos alone). Also, it probably would have taken at least two days to adequately see these further seven sites, and we only had one day to work with. It’s true that I had a longer than usual day in which to schedule activities, as we were there at midsummer when the sun rises at 4:00 am and sets at 10:30 pm—even so, it’s fair to say that my ambition for Orkney far exceeded the bounds of reality. 

An “Atlantic roundhouse” refers to an Iron Age stone building found in the northern and western parts of mainland Scotland, the Northern Isles (the islands of Orkney and Shetland), and the Hebrides. They are unique to this region, and are categorized as being either “simple” or “complex”; the towers are considered to be complex structures. Atlantic roundhouses feature a dry-stone building method in which stones are carefully interlocked; mortar is not used to bind them. They mark a departure from earlier dwellings, such as the enclosed cluster of huts found at Skara Brae, in that these structures were the first to have features that sought to dominate the landscape (versus being rather nondescript). Scholars have used a few different terms to refer to these Atlantic roundhouses. Today, the term broch is often applied to roundhouse structures that featured a prominent tower. It derives from the Lowland Scots word brough, which translates (among other things) as fort. Earlier, in the mid-19th century, the term burgh was used, which comes from the Old Norse word borg, which also means fort. It’s not quite known what purpose these brochs served. Were they stately residences inhabited by the socially elite, effectively an early form of a tower house or a caste keep? Were they defensive structures that were used to protect villagers and their livestock? Many are placed at key strategic points along the coastline, so it’s possible that they had a defensive or offensive purpose of some kind. There is simply not enough archaeological evidence available. Brochs are often referred to as duns in Ireland, a word derived from the Irish dún or Scottish Gaelic dùn which also translates as fort; dun is cognate with din in Old Welsh, from which the Welsh word for city, dinas, comes from. Several place names come from dun: Dundee, Donegal, Verdun… perhaps even London. 

4 The illustration below features an imaginary depiction of a Pictish woman in head-to-toe floral tattoos. The image is certainly colourful and romantic, but also largely historically inaccurate. It is the work of French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, and features flowers that had only been recently introduced to Western Europe in the 16th century. Le Moyne accompanied the French expedition of Jean Ribault and René Laudonnière in an ill-fated attempt to colonize northern Florida in 1564. During this expedition, Le Moyne served as the official recording artist and cartographer. He painted the landscapes, the flora and fauna, as well as the inhabitants of the New World. Le Moyne returned to Paris in 1566, and later fled France for England after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 (he was a Huguenot, a member of the targeted group). Le Moyne worked in London as a highly regarded botanical artist. His experiences and interests all likely inform the illustration. As Lisa Ford from the Yale Center for British Art notes, the image was most likely “intended to remind readers that early natives of the British Isles existed in a savage state similar to natives in the Americas.”

A Young Daughter of the Picts. Jacques Le Moyne, circa 1585. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

5 When the Stone of Birsay was discovered in 1935, it was in fragments. It’s possible that the stone was intentionally smashed, although it is not known why. The stone features several intriguing carvings, some of which are commonly-repeated Pictish symbols. The carving at the top features a mirror-case design. Mirrors and combs were used by high-status Picts, and they were often paired together in other examples of Pictish artwork (although not in this instance). Below the mirror is a symbol known as a “Crescent V-Rod,” which may have been a method used to track the path of the sun (a tool that would have been very useful for an agrarian society). Following that is a creature known as “the Pictish Beast.” The Pictish Beast doesn’t directly depict a real animal, but it does have features reminiscent of a seahorse, an elephant, and a dolphin. It’s also possible that the Pictish Beast represents an imaginary folkloric character such as a dragon, a kelpie, or even a creature like the Loch Ness Monster. Real or imaginary, the Pictish beast accounts for nearly half of all Pictish animal depictions and so it was likely an important and powerful cultural symbol. Below the Pictish Beast is an eagle. At the bottom of the stone is a group of three fully armed Pictish warriors, seemingly arranged in ascending order of social status based on the amount of detail they are given: the man at the far right is wearing a grander cloak with a fringed hem, carrying a more ornate shield, and sporting a more elaborate curled hairstyle that is possibly topped by a head-dress or crown. 

The Birsay Stone. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Detail of the Birsay Stone. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

6 The many contemporary depictions of Vikings in popular entertainment has helped shape an impression that a majority, if not all, Scandinavian people were Vikings. However, only a small number of Scandinavians actually went “a-Viking”, and even fewer were professional full-time raiders. The majority of Scandinavians, like their Pictish and Anglo-Saxon counterparts, were farmers.

Everyday life in the Viking Age, as depicted on a Faroese stamp. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

7 The Norse term Jarl and the English word Earl are cognate, meaning that they both derive from the same word used in an older shared ancestral language. However, they do not have the same meaning. The difference between a Norse Jarl and a Norse King did not become significant until the late 11th century. And when they did, the title of Jarl was the highest rank a Norwegian citizen could hold below the King. A Norwegian Jarl would thus have had considerably more power and independence than what an English Earl would have had. There was usually no more than one Jarl in Norway at any given time, and sometimes there were none at all. The ruler of Orkney held the title of Jarl, ruling as the King of Norway’s representative. His position would have been the most senior rank in medieval Norway except for the King himself. I have decided to use the Norse “Jarl”/”Jarldom” until the death of the last Norse man to hold the title, John Harraldsson, in 1231. I then switch to the term “Earl”/”Earldom” when the first Scottish man, Magnus II, acquires the title.

8 There is some debate over who the founding Jarl of Orkney was, with sources differing on whether it was Rognvald Eysteinsson (a relative and close friend of Harald Fairhair); Rognvald’s brother, Sigurd; Rognvald’s son, Einarr Rognvaldsson (known as Torf-Einarr); or Rognvald’s great-great grandson, Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson.

9 In the summer of 1263, King Haakon of Norway responded to the latest threat posed by Alexander III by bringing a massive naval fleet to Scotland. On the night of October 1, a storm resulted in several of his ships running aground on the Ayrshire coast (51 kms/32 miles southwest of Glasgow). The next day, the Norwegians were in the midst of salvaging their vessels when the Scottish army arrived. The two sides squared off in what would come to be known as the Battle of Largs (named after a nearby town). The fighting lasted for several hours, but was ultimately inconclusive. The Scots withdrew and the Norwegians re-boarded their ships. Haakon’s fleet sailed to Orkney as the weather began to worsen; Haakon intended to spend the winter there before renewing the campaign in the spring.

10 World Heritage Status is granted to very few sites worldwide. There are 6 in Scotland (The Heart of Neolithic Orkney; St. Kilda in the Western Isles; Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns; the Antonine Wall; New Lanark; the Forth Bridge), and 26 additional sites elsewhere in the UK. World Heritage Status seeks to safeguard the wellbeing of exceptional sites, cultural and natural, worldwide. It is appointed by UNESCO committee as an acknowledgement of the importance of a site and the need to protect it. World Heritage Status appointment does not in itself award additional funds.  

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2 Replies to “An Introduction to Orkney”

  1. Annie McCarty says:

    Leah and Neil, this is the best blog I’ve encountered to date. It is well-written with stunning and pertinent photographs, brief and digestible, yet provides enough information to educate and entice. It introduces everything an armchair explorer or visitor to an historic region might want to learn more about. I have traveled to the Orkney Islands and must say that you have captured its magnificent essence in a single post. Well done!

    • Leah says:

      Thank you very much for your comment, Annie, you made my day. 🙂 I am really glad that you liked the post! Orkney is a beautiful and amazing place! I’m currently working on a new post where I go further into detail on the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and Maeshowe. I’m hoping to have it up in a couple weeks. We are in the midst of changing over the domain name of our website from to Hopefully you’ll be able to keep up with us there once we make the switch!

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