Orkney Guide Book:

References: Countryside Code - Maps

Orkney consists of a group of over 70 islands and skerries, of which about 20 are presently inhabited. Lying at approximately 59°N and 3°W, the islands lie just north of Scotland, the shortest distance being about 10km (6 miles) from Caithness, and cover an area of 974 km2 (376 miles2), of which the Mainland comprises about half.

Inhabited by 21,350 people (1991 census), the islands are about 85km (53 miles) from north to south and 37km (23 miles) from east to west. The main island is known as the "Mainland", and has three-quarters of the population, as well as the main towns, Kirkwall (population 7,445), and Stromness (population 2,175).

Although apparently isolated, the islands are very well served for communications with Scotland. The MV St Ola (3,039 tons, 500 passengers, 180 cars) runs daily between Stromness and Scrabster (often several times per day), while MV St Sunniva (4,211 tons, 407 passengers, 120 cars) runs between Orkney, Aberdeen and Shetland. There is also a summer passenger ferry between John O'Groats and Burwick, as well as several freight services. There are frequent daily air links with Wick, Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh, as well as with Shetland by British Airways Express (Loganair).

The earliest written reference to Orkney is by the Greek explorer, Pytheas, from Marseilles, who may have circumnavigated Orkney about the year 325 BC, and claimed to have sighted the edge of the world, or Ultima Thule. He was probably seeing Foula, or another part of Shetland to the North. Claudius' fleet is said to have formed a treaty with the Orcadians in AD 43, and Tacitus mentions that a Roman fleet subdued Orkney after the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83. These references are interesting, but probably not very reliable.

Orkney is referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Irish Annals and by various writers such as Adomnan, but it is not until the Norse sagas, written in the 12th century, that we find more recent history. These sagas were written some time after the events so colourfully described, and thus may be of dubious historical accuracy in parts, but nevertheless they give a vivid and graphic account of the Norse age. Being so fertile, and so near to Norway, Orkney was an obvious base for Viking expansion, particularly in a time when the latest technology was sea transport in Viking longships.

In more recent times Orkney has been visited by a large number of eminent people many of whom have written in various terms about our islands. We also have a number of distinguished local authors, and for those wishing further reading, there is always a good selection of books available in the local book shops. For reference the Orkney Library also has an excellent "Orkney Room", which has a very wide range of literature on Orkney. Many books which are unfortunately "out of print" are available for consultation in this room.

The purpose of this Guide is to help visitors to our islands appreciate Orkney and enjoy their time here to the full. The idea is that the reader can assimilate information without effort and yet rapidly find out what he or she would most like to see and do, depending on interest, season or weather. There are so many things to see and do in Orkney that a lifetime is not long enough!

Although we have a beautiful landscape, history everywhere, and wildlife to rival anywhere on Earth, there is another aspect of Orkney which is perhaps the most important and rewarding to get to know - the Orcadians themselves. The Orcadians are a friendly, hospitable people, mindful and respectful of their past and at the same time very go-ahead and industrious. Do not hesitate to ask the way, or about things - you are sure to get a courteous reply, and if you are lucky you might get a few good stories as well!

George Mackay Brown summed things up very well when he said of Orkney, "..a microcosm of the world. Orkney has been continuously inhabited for about 6,000 years and the layers of cultures and races are inescapable and unavoidable wherever you go. There are stories in the air here. If I lived to be 500, there would still be more to write"