Rich archaeological heritage, soft, green fertile landscape, beautiful beaches, spectacular cliffs, abundant wildlife and a friendly, “chatty” local population awaits visitors to Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
Orkney lies just north of Mainland Scotland and comprises over 70 islands of which about 17 are inhabited by nearly 20,000 people. The first written reference to the islands is by Pytheas the Greek in 325 BC, but they have been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. Orkney was among the first archipelagos to face the Viking sword, but the fertility of the islands and proximity to Mainland Scotland is what made them stay and settle. Distinctive bone pins and combs of the resident Picts have been unearthed in a number of Viking settlements, which suggests that the invaders absorbed rather than exterminated early inhabitants.
One of the things that make Orkney unique is its concentration of accessible archaeological remains in such a small area. Orkney has a wealth of Neolithic sites to visit, of which Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae are the most spectacular. The great-chambered cairn of Maeshowe is the largest and grandest of its type and dates from about 2750BC, while the Standing Stones and the Ring of Brodgar were erected at about the same time. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae lies on the shore of the Bay of Skaill, and its well-preserved 5,000 year-old houses give a very good impression of life then. All four sites form a World Heritage Site.
There are many other fascinating monuments and sites of interest ranging from the Neolithic to the 20th Century:
The Brough of Birdsay is a tidal island off the northwest of the Mainland and is the site of both Pictish and Viking settlements. In the nearby village, the ruins of the 16th Century Earl’s Palace is a reminder of the more recent past.
The imposing 12th Century St. Magnus Cathedral
in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands, was built by
the Norse Earl Rognvald Kolson in honour of his murdered uncle
Earl Magnus Erlendson. It is one of few cathedrals continually
used as a place of worship from the 12th Century
to present day. The tombstones of Kirkwall’s more notable
citizens were given a place of honour in a wall of the St. Magnus
Cathedral including Merchant Burgess John Richan. Richan built a family
home in Kirkwall in 1670 which today is known as The Orkney Hotel.
NATURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Orkney also has a rich and interesting natural environment. The combination of fertile farmland with the various other habitats makes it a very good place for wildlife, and especially birds. There are cliffs, marshes, moors and maritime heath as well as sheltered bays, small islands and lochs, all of which attract a variety of species, depending on the season and weather.
Orkney is famous for its sunsets and for its long hours of daylight in summer. The Northern Lights are occasionally seen, usually on a dark moonless winter night.
Kirkwall, the ancient capital of the Orkney Islands, makes a good starting point for visitors. It is first mentioned in the sagas as the dwelling place of Earl Rognvald Brusison about 1035, who built a church dedicated to King Olav of Norway there. The town developed around the Cathedral and is notable for its picturesque streets and buildings. Kirkwall has a population of 7,000, and possesses all the amenities of a prosperous city, including an award-winning nightclub, cinema, lively restaurants, pubs and a health and fitness centre. The Highland Park Visitor Centre on the edge of town offers visits to the northernmost Scotch Whiskey distillery.
St Magnus Cathedral & Graveyard