The past is a real living presence in Orkney. Every era – from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age, to the Viking years and beyond – has left its indelible mark on the landscape. Take a look from any hill or harbour: you’ll see evidence of our ancestors from standing stones to boat nousts to gun batteries.
The concrete bunkers and watchtowers that surround Scapa Flow are little visited, but real history nonetheless. As HQ for the north Atlantic naval fleet in both world wars, the Flow teemed with hundreds of ships and thousands of service personnel. Gun emplacements and airfields protected them from the land and air, the Churchill Barriers from seaborne attacks. At the south end of the first barrier, on the tiny island of Lamb Holm, lies a genuinely moving wartime relic, the Italian Chapel. Built by prisoners of war, it is a beacon of peace and hope from an age of conflict.
Almost as troubled were the days of the Stewart earls of Orkney, who ruled Orkney from 1564 to 1615. First of all Robert, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, imposed his imperious will on the isles. Later, his even more detested son Patrick – universally known as Black Patie – ruled the roost. Infamous for their cruel treatment of the islanders, the Stewarts did not end well: Patrick hung for treason, and his son, another Robert, beheaded. Their one positive legacy was the magnificent buildings they built, or added to, including the two Earl’s Palaces in Birsay and Kirkwall. They are masterpieces of Renaissance architecture, from a turbulent chapter in Orkney’s long story.
Little wonder that the majority of islanders have, ever since, looked back on the centuries of Norse rule as a Golden Age in the islands’ long history. No doubt the Viking years had their own share of bloody rivalry and plunder. But the remains that come down to us speak of more humane values too: the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral, established in 1137, is still the spiritual heart of the islands. The Orkneyinga Saga is not the first written reference to the islands – the ancient Roman geographer Diodorus Siculusin mentioned them as far back as 56BC – but it is the first book-length record. A priceless and vivid account of history, legend and daily life in the Golden Age, it is surprisingly readable, with many present day names and places immediately recognisable.
Back in time again, and we find a more enigmatic era, the age of the Picts. Their remains are striking – from striking circular mini-forts called brochs, to the earliest Christian chapels, to the beautiful stone-carved symbols such as the eagle found at the Knowe o’ Burrian, now in the Orkney Museum. But they left no written records, and debate rages over who they were, where they and their culture came from, and the meaning of their symbol stones.
Even more mystery surrounds the standing stones of a much earlier era, the Neolithic, usually used to describe a period of about two millennia from 4000 BC. It was during this period that Orkney’s grandest ancient monuments were built. There are great individual monoliths, from the Setter Stone of Eday, to the Yetnasteen of Rousay and North Ronaldsay’s Stan Stane. And there are atmospheric chambered burial cairns, such as Maeshowe, Cuween and the Tomb of the Eagles. To see 3D views of the impressive Maeshowe Chambered Cairn - click here. Most awe-inspiring of all are the great stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar, in the heart of Neolithic Orkney – a complex of monuments, settlements and tombs that was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999.
Just to the north and west lies Skara Brae, an astonishingly well-preserved Neolithic village on the edge of the bay of Skaill. Covered up for thousands of years by shifting sand, it was only in 1850 that a storm revealed the honeycomb of houses, complete with stone cupboards, beds and cooking hearths. So it is in Orkney: history is sometimes hidden, but is always lying just below the surface, waiting to be discovered.
To see an overview of Orkney's history see the timeline below.