Located off the northern coast of Scotland, Orkney is an archipelago of around 70 islands and skerries, of which only 16 are inhabited. However, though the total population of this region may be less than twenty thousand people, Orkney is an important region of Scotland, historically and archaeologically, and Orcadians are very proud of their unique sense of regional identity – kilts and bagpipes are uncommon this far North, where instead the old Norse traditions and legends still have a strong influence. Today we will look at the history, important places and unique cultural aspects of this harsh but beautiful landscape, and the people who live there today.
Orkney has been continuously occupied for at least eight and a half thousand years, and has only been part of Scotland for the last 550, after the region was gifted to James III of Scotland by Christian I of Norway. However, the Norwegian earls themselves only ruled Orkney for about 600 years; prior to this it was an independent region, used often by Vikings, Picts and Scots, as well as being settled by hunter gatherer tribes since Neolithic times.
From the time that Orkney came under Scottish rule, the stories of the ordinary people emerge in historical documents more clearly; Scottish entrepreneurs flocked to the region and helped to build a diverse community that included farmers, fishermen and merchants who were powerful and able to defend their rights more confidently to prevent further exploitation by feudal overlords. Beginning in the 16th century, fishing fleets from mainland Scotland, and the Netherlands, dominated the local herring industry. Orcadians, unusually for such a coastal people, did not have a fleet until the early 19th century, but this changed quickly and by 1840 over 700 Orcadian boats were fishing the region, centres on ports at Stronsay and Stromness. Meanwhile, at Shapinsay, burning seaweed to create soda ash had become a lucrative industry, and agricultural improvements led to many Orkney farms producing high quality beef cattle. By the 18th century, Jacobites found many sympathisers in Orkney, at the end of the 1715 rebellion, a large number of Jacobites who had fled north from mainland Scotland sought refuge on Orkney and were helped to flee to safety in Sweden. In 1745, the Jacobite lairds on the islands ensured that Orkney remained pro-Jacobite in outlook, and was a safe place to land supplies from Spain to aid their cause. Orkney was the last place in the British Isles that held out for the Jacobites and was not retaken by the British Government until 24 May 1746, over a month after the defeat of the main Jacobite army at Culloden.
But, of course, it is the prehistoric features which have survived to modern times that Orkney is most famous for, especially the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae on the Orkney Mainland. Discovered in 1850 after a storm ripped away its earth covering, Skara Brae – nicknamed “the Scottish Pompeii” is a near perfectly preserved small stone village, with stone beds, storage boxes, and hearths all still present along with artefacts such as paint pots, beads, ivory pins and other valuable items. Although the remains of this ancient civilisation have taught researchers a lot about the activities and day-to-day lives of the inhabitants, one thing about Skara Brae which remains a complete mystery is why it was abandoned so suddenly that these types of items were left behind, even remains of what seems to be a half-eaten meal have been discovered! The village, along with three other Neolithic settlements makes up “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney” and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre – there is a wonderful museum showcasing the history and artefacts from the region and many brilliant opportunities to learn about the settlement and other ancient monuments in the area; a uniquely designed chambered tomb at Maeshowe with the largest collection of runic inscriptions (left by looting Vikings!) ever discovered, the jagged, imposing and supposedly magical Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Ring Of Brodgar, one of the largest henges in the UK, containing more standing stones, runic inscriptions, and other evidence that this area was at one time an extremely important sacred ritual landscape for the early settlers of Orkney.
Coming into more modern times, but still with an eye to the past, and the ways in which Orcadian residents respect traditions while having fun, is the Ba’! This rambunctious and chaotic game is traditionally played in Kirkwall on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, is open to any resident to play and is similar in many ways to mass football games which have mostly died out now. The town is split into two teams the Uppies and the Doonies, your team allegiance will depend on where you were born. As the majority of people are now born in hospitals (and Kirkwall doesn’t have one – good thing too or it would skew the numbers of the team whose turf it was located on drastically!), people take their newborn children home by particular routes to ensure they are on the “right” side of the team line when they enter Kirkwall for the first time in their lives – and adult incomers to the town are encouraged to do the same thing! On the designated days, the eligible players from each team (usually about 200 players in total per game) will meet at the Mercat Cross and the ball (or ba’) thrown between them. A mad rush will ensue and the ball will be kicked thrown or run with until a goal is reached – either by getting it safely past the Catholic church up the end of the road for an Uppies win, or into the salt water of the harbour for a Doonies win! The winning team will then declare their overall winner, not necessarily the best player of the match, but a team member who represents an ideal of a Ba’ player, and who has been dedicated to the game. This is quite a high honour, and the winner will be given the Ba’ itself to take home, and encouraged to hold an open party for all players to attend!
There is so much more richness to the experience of visiting Orkney; the lighting of midsummer bonfires, the WWII history of Scapa Flow, the arts and folk music festivals becoming famous now, that we are not able to discuss everything in just one article! But we encourage you strongly to consider adding this to your travel itinerary alongside the nation’s cities and Highland retreats. This wild, Viking-influenced region may not always match the idea of Scotland we have in our heads sometimes; but it is such an interesting and vital part of the nation it should never be discounted!
As Scotland is a nation rich in history and steeped in long-held traditions, it can be difficult sometimes to discern the legends and myth from the truth. Some stories are so outlandish as to be easily identified for the tall tales they are – but some true stories are even more strange seeming! Rumours and myths regarding kilts and tartan are perhaps the most prevalent of all, so let’s examine some of these in detail, and see what the fact and fiction is behind these legends!
Let us begin by examining the confusion over the symbolism behind tartan; as this beautiful, traditional and varied cloth has caused many rumours and legends to spring up around it! First among these is the suggestion that the number of colours in a tartan highlights the rank or overall importance of the person wearing it. This is of course completely untrue, and is easily debunked with just a bit of forethought. For example, most people, when thinking of tartan, think of a clan tartan. The clan tartan is worn by all members of a clan regardless of rank – whether it has three colours or seven! And of course, the chief of clan Douglas is not considered less important than the chief of clan Stewart because he displays fewer colours! This myth may have begun in connection with certain colours in and of themselves denoting wealth, and therefore importance; a poor Scotsman could not have afforded to use saffron to dye yellow threads in his tartan, or to use silk for the pure white threads – however like many things about tartan and kilts, the true reasoning behind this legend is now lost to time.
Also lost to us, is the origination of tartan as a mark of your clan or family origins. Many people think that, to negate the myth that Scotsmen have worn tartan and kilts since ancient times, they have to take the complete opposite attitude and instead state that clan tartans and modern kilts are a pure invention by the quite recent Victorian era! However, the truth is somewhere in between; while the Victorians are certainly responsible for popularising tartan, kilts, and all things Scottish, it was always the case that many Highland clans lived in relative isolation, with all their neighbours being family and having a common tartan. Tartans of this era were what we would now consider “district setts”, that is, the local weaver for that area had his own preferred pattern and so everyone living in that district would wear the same tartan. For these small or isolated clans however, the lines between district and clan tartan were blurred – as the only people living in that district were all also related! It isn’t until the early 1700’s that some evidence is discovered for the possible realigning of tartans along clan lines, and it is not properly confirmed that tartans were now viewed in this way until the year of Culloden, and the subsequent Act of Proscription. This set back the development of clan tartans seriously, and during the Victorian revival of Scottish pride many clansmen had to scramble to find our “their” tartan, with this demand inspiring unscrupulous invention on the part of some weavers. However, it can be considered that the natural evolution of tartan was already heading in the direction we find ourselves today!
Another common trope amongst kilt aficionados is the belief that certain colours have a symbolic meaning. Again, the truth of this rumour lies somewhere between acceptance and denial; old tartans do not have any particular meaning based on their colours, though a meaning may have been later ascribed. Nowadays though many, if not most, modern tartan designers will explain their design choices in terms such as “I chose the blue to represent the Scottish loch near the families home, gold to represent the richness of their harvests, and red to represent the love amongst the family”, the fact is that there is still no fixed meaning for particular shades, and in fact several designers may variously describe the exact same shade of red (or any other colour) as signifying love, blood, rowan berries, or any other connotation!
Finally, let us discuss a couple of kilt outfit myths; firstly the idea that you cannot wear more than one tartan at a time. This one is almost correct – you should not wear the tartan of two different clans at once, and generally speaking for reasons of good taste you should probably avoid wearing other tartans simultaneously as well! Tartan colours can be difficult to match attractively and the clashing patterns don’t help! However, if you are wearing a standard clan tartan kilt you are permitted to wear the hunting version of the same clan tartan for your fly plaid – an odd exception but completely true! Last but not least, of course everyone has heard that old chestnut about what a “real” Scotsman wears under his kilt (not much if the rumours are true!). The simple truth of this statement is that, when kilts were first worn, undergarments were just very uncommon for the average man (or woman) to own! It wasn’t a particular choice or requirement, just an everyday fact of life. Nowadays we do of course have access to a far wider range of attire, and even the kilts itself has changed drastically in design, so underwear is perfectly appropriate – or even recommended! Male Highland dancers for instance are actually required to wear underwear when competing to ensure they don’t accidentally flip their kilt too high and embarrass the judges; and with their skill, athleticism and dedication to Scottish tradition, no one can deny that Highland dancers are the epitome of true Scotsmen! As one kilt enthusiast put it; “If you’re man enough to wear the kilt, you’re gentleman enough to think about the women and children around you”!
So readers, what are your favourite kilt myths? Were you ever taken in by one of these only to find out the truth later? We look forward to your comments!