After the rugged Highland scenery of the North of Scotland, first impressions of Orkney are of greenness and fertility, combined with a feeling of space, where undulating, soft countryside merges with sky and sea into a soft confluence of nature. There is an overall feeling of the immensity of time, perhaps due to the proximity of so much history. Indeed, the Orkney Islands were described by our local author, George Mackay Brown, as being "like sleeping whales.....beside an ocean of time".
Although people first came here well over 6,000 years ago, leaving a wealth of archaeological sites and remains which allow much insight into the past, Orkney is far from being a museum. Within our islands there is a huge range of things to see and do in all seasons. With its diverse economy it is a busy place, and yet at the same time unspoilt, quiet and relaxing. The old and the new, the natural environment and the geographical location all merge to give the islands their uniquely attractive atmosphere.
As the Orcadian writer Edwin Muir said in his Scottish Journey (1935), "Orkney....has managed, as far as that is humanly possible, to have its cake and eat it. It has been saved by being just outside the circumference of the industrial world, near enough to know about it, but too far off to be drawn into it. Now it seems to me that this is the only way in which any community can achieve a partial salvation today and live a desirable life, surrounded by an industrial world."
This is even more true today. Orkney benefits from many of the good things of the early 21st century, whilst at the same time missing out on most of the less desirable aspects. However it is much more affected by the outside world than ever before, and Orcadians are going to have to work hard to maintain all that is special about Orkney.
Orkney is a group of over 70 islands and skerries, of which about 19 are presently inhabited. At approximately 59ºN and 3ºW, 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 19,245 people (2001 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 two main towns, Kirkwall (population 6,206), and Stromness (population 1,850).
Although apparently isolated, Orkney is very well served by transport links with Scotland. The MV Hamnavoe (8,600 tons, 600 passengers) runs daily between Stromness and Scrabster (several times per day), while MV Hjaltland and MV Hrossey (12,000 tons, 600 passengers) run between Orkney, Aberdeen and Shetland. There is a summer passenger ferry between John o'Groats and Burwick, and a year-round vehicle service between Gills Bay and St Margaret's Hope, as well as several freight services. Frequent daily air links with Wick, Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Shetland are operated by British Airways and Loganair.
The earliest written reference to Orkney is by the Greek explorer Pytheas, from Marseille, who may have circumnavigated Orkney about the year 325BC, 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 AD43, and Tacitus mentions that a Roman fleet "subdued" Orkney after the battle of Mons Graupius in AD83. 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 the islands have been visited by a large number of eminent people who have written in various terms about them. We also have a number of distinguished local authors, and for those wishing further reading, there is always a good selection of publications available in the local book shops.
For reference the Orkney Library also has an excellent "Orkney Room", which has a very wide range of local literature. Many books which are unfortunately "out of print" are available for consultation here. The Orkney Archives are also available for those researching family roots and original documents.
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. They are a friendly, hospitable people, mindful and respectful of their past, while 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 Orkney is "...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".