Orkney – the magic of 70 Scottish islands
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From the time that Orkney came under Scottish rule, the stories of the ordinary people emerge in historical documents more clearly; Scottish entrepreneurs flocked to the region and helped to build a diverse community that included farmers, fishermen and merchants who were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!