Travel/Scotland's Orkney Islands: Where water is a way of life

Travel/Scotland's Orkney Islands: Where water is a way of life


The Orkney Islands lie about 12 miles off the north coast of Scotland across the Pentland Firth, a dangerous stretch of water scattered with reefs and often battered by storms.

This archipelago of about 70 islands, of which about a third are inhabited, stretches over 1,200 square miles and, even though the northerly islands are on the same latitude as St. Petersburg, the influence of the Gulf stream means they have a fairly moderate climate all year.

"Orkney" means "seal islands" in old Icelandic, and there are many seals, both common and gray, in the waters of the islands.

Even though Norway is 300 miles to the east, the islands were ruled by Norway until the end of the 15th century, and the true Orcadian believes himself to be more Norse than Scot.

The Scandinavian influence is still very evident in the architecture, traditions, place names and the lilting Orcadian accent.

Two dominant features strike you when you travel around Orkney. First, water is part of life and the landscape, and wherever you go, water of some sort is close by, be it the calm sea in a bay or the wild sea crashing on the cliffs, lovely lochs or inlets.

Second, the four-color landscape strikes you — green, white, yellow and brown. Fields and pastures so green, spread with yellow and white wild flowers and dotted with white sheep and brown cows.

It's a scene of huge ancient standing stones, some in circles, some standing alone, stones that walk, according to legend. (We do wonder how they got to their positions.)

It's a land attractive to marine animals and birds, and bird watching is very rewarding. It's also a mainly treeless and windswept land.

Once you've visited Orkney, you'll want to return to discover more and to savor the wildness (as we have done). And people have been attracted here for thousands of years, as the historical remains attest.

The thread of history runs through life and landscape: The clues and evidence are there for visitors to join the dots if they wish. What is the pull? A slower way of life? History and nature around every corner?

You are never very far from water anywhere on the islands, and the dramatic coastal scenery ranges from 300-meter-high cliffs to wide sandy beaches.

On average, every square mile on Orkney has recorded items of antiquarian interest, from very obvious to very small.

More than 1,000 pre-historic sites have been identified, the greatest concentration of any place in Europe. There has always been a lack of wood, so everything was made of stone, which explains why so much remains.

A brief history

Orkney has remarkable stone remains dating from Neolithic times (about 4,500 B.C.), including underground dwellings (earth houses); tombs, such as the magnificent Maes Howe; and stone circles, such as the Ring of Brodgar. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae is the best preserved in western Europe and one of the oldest known villages.

The Greeks and Romans knew these islands, as some believe that the Greek navigator Pytheas sailed around the islands in 325 B.C.

They were later colonized by the Picts in the first century A.D. The Vikings raided the islands for about 200 years, and eventually, in 875, the Norse king Harald I Harfagri annexed Orkney.

The remains of Pictish and Viking settlements can be seen at the Brough of Birsay. The Norse earls (jarls) governed for around 400 years, a period immortalized in the Orkneyinga Saga, which was written in Iceland in the 12th century.

With this rich tradition of sagas, it's no surprise that Orkney has produced other great writers, most notably George Mackay Brown. Brown was born in the town of Stromness, and as a fervent champion of the islands' history and traditions, he evokes the Nordic heritage in his poems and stories.

The Scottish influence began from the 1400s. In 1469, Christian I, king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, mortgaged the Orkney and Shetland islands to Scotland against payment of his daughter Margaret's dowry when she married James III. The dowry wasn't paid by 1472, so the islands were annexed by Scotland and governed by stewards, many of them tyrants, until they were incorporated into the kingdom of Scotland in 1615.

Even today, the islanders refer to Scotland as "the south" not "the mainland," because the biggest island is called Mainland. Mainland has the three biggest towns, Kirkwall, Stromness and St. Margaret's Hope. However, the total population is only about 19,000.

Orkney has important more recent history too. South of the main town of Kirkwall is the great natural harbor of Scapa Flow, which featured prominently in World Wars I and II. It was a strategic Royal Naval base during both wars.

The captured German fleet was anchored there after World War I and the armistice of 1918. In June 1919, 74 German ships were scuttled in the bay; 63 were refloated but the rest remain and are great for scuba divers to explore.

Then in World War II, on Oct. 13, 1939, a German submarine broke through the defenses of Scapa Flow, where part of the Royal Navy fleet was anchored, and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak. The aircraft carrier and its 833-man crew lie at a depth of 90 feet in the bay.

The area is now a war cemetery and off-limits to divers. As a result of this, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered concrete dykes built between some islands to block entrance into the bay and strengthen its defense.

The causeways still link those islands today, and we can drive over them. These Churchill Barriers were largely built by Italian prisoners of war, who also built themselves a church out of two Nissen huts and even managed to paint it and decorate it with frescoes. Today, this is known as the Italian Chapel.

Vivienne Mackie is an ESL teacher and freelance travel writer. One of her favorite places is the Orkney Islands. See her blog at

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