Orkney's History, Heritage & Archaeology
In Orkney the past is all around you.
Ancient stone structures share the landscape with wartime relics, archaeological excavations continue to reveal thousands of years of Orcadian history and the sandstone Cathedral of St Magnus proudly marks the Norse heritage of the islands.
Binding it all together is a rich tradition of cultural events and stories, celebrating the land, the sea, the people and places.
2017 is the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, and there is nowhere better to mark it than Orkney.
We’ve compiled just some of the things you can see and do in Orkney during the next twelve months, from exploring our ancient sites to soaking up the atmosphere at our festivals and events. We’d love to hear from you too so share your suggestions and experiences with us via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Orkney’s history stretches back for thousands of years and is woven into the fabric of life in the islands. Our communities are full of reminders of what has gone before – now all you have to do is discover it for yourself.
- The beautiful St Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137 and remains the centrepiece of the town of Kirkwall. Head inside to explore the Viking-era building, including special guided tours of its upper levels with spectacular views over the town.
- The story of St Magnus is central to Orkney’s history. 2017 will see a series of events held to celebrate the Viking Earl, 900 years after his death. From the St Magnus Marathon to music, arts and cultural activities, the programme will have something for everyone.
- The town of Stromness has a rich maritime history and its flagstone streets and lanes are the perfect place to let time to drift away. Visit the local museum for a real insight into the history of the town. This year is also the 200th anniversary of Stromness becoming a Burgh and a series of celebrations are being planned throughout 2017 to mark the occasion.
- Orkney played a vital role in the First and Second World Wars, becoming the home of the Royal Navy and hosting thousands of military personnel. Visit the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum to see the impact both wars had on the islands. We’d also recommend a trip to the island of Flotta which is covered in fascinating wartime remains.
After 5,000 years worth of history, threaded with a rich storytelling culture and vibrant communities, Orcadians are rightly proud of their heritage. For visitors it provides a year-long series of events and activities, unique to our archipelago.
- Orkney’s landscape is green, flat and fertile – perfect farming country. During the summer our farmers come together to celebrate at the annual agricultural shows. Expect the best livestock, the finest food and drink and plenty of activities for all the family at our six shows, stretching from Sanday in the north to South Ronaldsay at the opposite end of the islands.
- Festivals play a major part in showcasing Orkney’s heritage. The Orkney Folk Festival in May highlights folk music at its very best, with a mixture of local and visiting musicians. The St Magnus Festival at midsummer is a celebration of the arts with a distinctly Orcadian theme and the Orkney Storytelling Festival explores local folklore and sagas.
- For generations Orcadians have been working with their hands, using local materials and taking inspiration from the colours, sights and sounds of the islands. This practice continues today with an incredible array of talented makers, producing quality jewellery, knitwear, furniture and much more. Explore the Orkney Craft Trail to see some of these artisans at work.
- Why not visit North Ronaldsay this summer and celebrate a very unique part of Orkney’s heritage? The island’s Sheep Festival marks the iconic seaweed-eating sheep that live on the shoreline. Get involved in rebuilding the sheep dyke that surrounds the island, help gather the sheep ready for shearing and sample island hospitality into the early hours.
There is a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it will bleed archaeology. All around the islands you’ll find excavations, megaliths and evidence of ancient settlements and civilisations.
- Visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, our UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tour the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness with the local Ranger Service, visit the stone-age village at Skara Brae and clamber inside the awe-inspiring Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe to experience ancient Orkney at its best.
- If you want to see the past uncovered right in front of you then a trip to the Ness of Brodgar excavation is a must. Sprawled over 2.5 hectares, the dig continues to astound archaeologists and visitors alike. The site is usually open for tours during July and August, weather permitting.
- One of the most spectacular stretches of archaeology in the UK can be found on the island of Rousay. It features more than one hundred sites, many within a mile of coastline. Take the Westness Heritage Walk for archaeology from the Neolithic era, though the Iron and Viking age to the clearances of the early 1800s.
- There are archaeological projects to visit right around the islands (note - the dates in this link are for 2016, the 2017 dates are yet to be announced). Digs in Westray, Rousay and South Ronaldsay will be open to the public, with other events and activities planned throughout the summer months too. Come and get up close with archaeology in Orkney!
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