Orkney History

The history of Orkney is a microcosm of much of what has happened in the British Isles following the retreat of the glaciers from the last (Late Devensian) expansion 32,000 years ago. This ice eventually retreated and thinned, with its final disappearance from Orkney about 15,000 years ago.

What makes it unique is the physical preservation of this history added to the individual quirks of geography, time and place that define Orkney's past in particular.

The cold snap was not quite over, and for the next 4000 years Arctic like conditions prevailed. Around 11,000 years ago, the climate changed abruptly to warmer conditions than the present time and sea water levels rose rapidly, setting the scene for the modern age.

It remains conjecture as to when people arrived; the following 3000 years are always going to be heavily shrowded, mainly due to coastal/sea level change.

Orkney is a drowned landscape; hunter-gatherers traditionally use coastal margins heavily as they are the best variety food source. These sites are now all under 10 metres or more of the North Sea or Atlantic Ocean. Little money is available to investigate these potential sites and we will probably have to wait for further advances in technology before any meaningful study can be done.

Fixed dates do start to appear, as in 2007 a charred hazelnut shell recovered during the excavations at Longhowe in Tankerness was carbon dated to 8820-8660 years old.

It pushes back the known dated settlement of Orkney by 3,000 years.

The hazelnut shell was found in a pocket of soil that had survived underneath the Bronze Age burial mound at Longhowe and provides a context for numerous stone arrowheads and other tools, which were found both in the soil below and in the mound.

Mesolithic archaeologist Caroline Wickham Jones explained: "This date relates to the earliest known period of settlement of Scotland when bands of nomadic hunters lived here. Remains from this time are scarce and few sites have been recognised by archaeologists, especially in the north. Longhowe is therefore important both for the light it can shed on this elusive period of Orkney’s past as well as for our understanding of the early settlement of Scotland as a whole."

These early inhabitants were semi-nomadic hunter gathers and left little mark on the land. Life continued in this vein for at least the next three thousand years. The next date of significance occurs with the discovery of the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray in the 1930's which are the oldest standing buildings in northern Europe.

These structures, two beautifully built oblong stone-built houses, date from approximately 5,600 years ago and signify the start of the neolithic age. Of course, they didn't know that, and our post-enlightenment craze for nomenclature is sometimes less than useful when trying to understand human development.

The better known village of Skara Brae is thought to be around 5200 years old. These people were not beginners at stone building. Both the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae exhibit assurance expertise and artistry that would guarantee prestige full time employment today and surely indicate a tradition of stone building that started long before.

What is true is that these buildings signify the important cultural change from nomadic hunting bushman lifestyle to permanent settlement and farming. It also signified the age of the megalithic monument builders. The Stones of Stenness are thought to be 5000 years old, with the Ring of Brodgar dated from around 4500 years. All the standing stones in Orkney were erected during this period, as were the extraordinarily impressive chambered Cairns of Maeshowe, Cuween and Wideford.

The learned interpretation of these places could (and does) fill volumes. It is only required that you make up your own mind and appreciate that these people had reached the highest level that pre-metalic, or lithic society ever attained in Northern Europe. At least not only contemporary with the Minoans of Knossos but in many ways just as impressive.

Then, around 4000 years ago, something happened. Curiously this co-incides with the generally accepted chronology of the Bronze Age, which supposedly should mean progress; but in Orkney it signifies the end of the megaliths and as far as physical evidence is concerned a seeming decline in cultural aspirations.

The Bronze age, from around 4000 to 3000 years ago is lesser understood here as a result. Spectacular sites are far fewer, although the Barrows of the Knowes of Trotty with the famous Gold discs found by Petrie in the 19th century is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

Recent work at this site actually shows that reality is always more confusing than classifications. It is apparent that the location was in use for thousands of years before the barrows and the site is in fact a complex merging of these eons of human habitation.

Again recent analysis of cores drawn from peat bogs around the county indicate that the often quoted climate change is not necessarily the explanation for the cultural differences between these people and their immediate ancestors. Future finds may help to explain more. We move onto the next identifiable change, the emergence of the Broch Builders.

These people co-incide with the generally agreed dates for the development of the Iron Age. They are sometimes called Picts or Pictish but this name is at best a Romanic description of the inhabitants of the North of Scotland, and has no further meaning.

From around 3000 years ago to 1500 years ago this culture blossomed. Effectively lithic round houses the Broch builders were at least in part paying homage to their neolithic ancestors as some of these structure go well beyond practical causation. The Shaft at Minehowe will forever remain enigmatic and the defensive capabilities of the sites are either indicative of continuous internal strife, external threat or simply showing off. Its impossible to know for sure but possibly a mixture of all is the most likely explanation.

Brochs litter the countryside. Most remain unexcavated, some even unregistered. The best preserved can be seen at Gurness in Evie, the most evocative at Borwick on the west coast near Yesnaby. The most romantic the little visited unexcavated Weems Castle on the east coast of South Ronaldsay.

It was thought that Brochs were restricted to coastal margins but this is more likely due to their survival rather than original distribution. As they would have been built on prime locations it seems reasonable to assume that these locations are still being occupied, or rather built over with modern farms taking the place of long lost round houses.

Given the sensibility of stone builders it is probable than some of today's dwellings contain stone originally quarried by these peoples. In addition, Crannog sites have only just started to be looked at in Orkney. These loch/wetland dwellings undoubtedly played a significant role here as elsewhere in Scotland but due mainly to the lack of resources very little work has yet been done even identifying likely sites.

We now enter the historical age. Around 1300 years ago the Vikings start to appear, raiding the British Mainland. They would have started in Orkney considerably earlier and indeed their activities, or immediate predecessors activities, may have been one of the reasons for the Brochs defensive nature.

Around 1100 years ago these raids became invasion. Probably spread over a considerable period Orkney became a Norse province, the Earldom of Orkney.

Up until this time the demographic of Orkney can be seen as a continuum. The genetic ancestry of the 5th century Broch dweller may well have reached back to the original arrivals from 10,000 years ago. While some element of migration would have certainly occurred there is no evidence to suggest that this was not the case.

Not with the Vikings.

Recent attempts at political correctness have tried to suggest that the Norse takeover was at least partly peaceful, and they simply merged with the indigenous population. It is becoming accepted that this was simply not the case. Firstly all place names in Orkney are either entirely Norse or sometimes Scottish. No pre-Norse place names survive. Similarly with Orcadian family names. Further, recent genetic investigation shows that 60% of the current Orcadian population have very high correlation with Norway, and equally low correlation with Celtic or pre-Romanic British tribes.

The most likely scenario is that of a vanquished people, some girls and fertile Woman absorbed into the new order, the remaining population pushed into extinction or banished to Southern lands.

Orkney grew over the next 500 years into a major political hub of the Norse peoples. This period is very well understood with St.Magnus Catherdral being the largest physical evidence.

Around the middle of the 15th century it became expedient for the developing Scottish political elite to acquire this Earldom officially from The Norweigan Crown, making formal that which was already well advanced in practice through the Sinclair line having taken over the Earldom in the previous hundred years.

This take over by the Scottish is less glamerous perhaps than ownership by Vikings but the period of Scottish rule has now exceeded that of the Norse and seems likely to continue for some time to come. Although native Orcadians would far rather regard themselves as of Norse origin the reality is that the new Scottish elite would have had a similarly significant impact on genetic ancestry, if less bloody.

Today Orkney has once again become a melting pot, with immigration to the county moving from dribs and drabs in the sixties up to a full blown stampede in the 21st Century. The new colonisers are on the whole the English and at the next Census in 2011 English may well be 20% or more of the population. Whether or not this is a good thing time will tell, but eventually, after a few generations perhaps, all will be Orcadian once again.