Historical description of Orkney, Scotland

ORKNEY ISLANDS, a group forming, with that of SHETLAND, a maritime county, in the northern extremity of Scotland. They are bounded on the north by the waters which divide Orkney from Shetland; on the east by the North Sea; on the south by the Pentland Firth, which separates the isles from Caithness; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. They lie between 58° 44' and 59° 24' (N. Lat.) and 2° 25' and 3° 20' (W. Long.), and extend about fifty miles in length and nearly thirty miles in breadth; comprising an area of 235 square miles, or 150,000 acres; 6325 houses, of which 6181 are inhabited; and containing a population of 30,507, of whom 13,831 are males and 16,676 females. These islands, anciently the Orcades, most probably derived that name from Cape Orcas, opposite to which they are situated, and which is noticed by Ptolemy as a remarkable promontory on the Caithness coast: it is supposed that the isles were originally peopled from Caithness. The Orkney and the Shetland Islands appear to have been explored by the Romans, who, however, retained no permanent possession of either; and they were both subsequently occupied by the Picts, a Scandinavian tribe who, settling at first in the Western Isles, soon spread themselves over the greater portion of Scotland. Under the Picts, the islands of Orkney seem to have been governed by a succession of petty kings, that exercised a kind of independent sovereignty till the year 876. At that period Harold Harfager, King of Norway, landing here with a powerful force, reduced them to his dominion; and on his return to Norway, he appointed Ronald, a Norwegian earl, to be their governor, whom he invested with the title of Earl of Orkney, and under whose successors they remained for many generations, as an appendage of the crown of Norway, till the reign of James III., since which time they have formed part of the kingdom of Scotland.

The first Earls of Orkney under the kings of Scotland were the St. Clairs, from whom the earldom reverted to the crown; and the lands, for nearly a century, were leased to various tenants. Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1564, granted a charter of the crown territory to Lord Robert Stewart. On her marriage with the Earl of Bothwell, she revoked this gift in favour of the earl, whom she had engaged to create Duke of Orkney: he never, however, obtained possession; and the dukedom was forfeited, Lord Robert Stewart afterwards became Earl of Orkney, but on the second earl's being brought to the scaffold in 1615, the islands again came to the crown. In 1707 they were mortgaged to the Earl of Morton; and the mortgage being subsequently declared irredeemable, the rights of the islands were in 1766 sold by the then Earl of Morton to Sir Laurence Dundas, ancestor of the Earl of Zetland. In 1814 it was calculated that the family drew annually from the ancient earldom of Orkney £2187 in money and produce, in addition to their large private estates in the isles. For many ages, lands in these islands were held by what was called Udal tenure. They were exempt from all taxes to the crown, and the proprietor acknowledged no superior lord; at the death of the father, the property was equally divided among all the children; and no fines were levied on entrance. Under the later earls, however, this system of tenure, which was supposed to be adverse to their interest, was gradually discouraged; and on the last annexation to the crown, it was wholly discontinued.

Before the abolition of episcopacy, the islands were included in the diocese of Orkney, the precise date of the foundation of which is not accurately known. Christianity is, however, supposed to have heen introduced here by St. Columba, about the year 570, and again by Olaus, King of Norway, in the year 1000; and the cathedral church of St. Magnus, in Kirkwall, is thought to have been founded about 1138. The see flourished under a succession of at least twenty-nine prelates, including seven Protestant bishops, till the Revolution, since which it has constituted the synods of Orkney and Shetland; the former containing the presbyteries of Kirkwall, Cairston, and North Isles, and eighteen parishes. For civil purposes, Orkney, which was previously a county of itself, has, since the passing of the act for amending the representation, been united with Shetland, under the jurisdiction of one sheriff, by whom two sheriffs-substitute are appointed. One of these holds his courts weekly at Kirkwall. Here, also, the justice-of-peace courts are held on the first Wednesday, and at Stromness on the last Tuesday, in every month; and courts for the recovery of small debts occur several times a year, at Stromness, St. Margaret's Hope, and Sanda; but no particular days are fixed. The towns are, Kirkwall, which is a royal burgh and the county town, and Stromness, which is a burgh of barony; there are several villages, and some fishing-stations on the coast. Under the provisions of the act above mentioned, Shetland joins with Orkney in returning a member to the imperial parliament.

The ORKNEYS comprise a cluster of sixty-seven islands, of which twenty-nine are inhabited, and the remainder chiefly small holms affording pasturage for cattle. Of the inhabited islands the principal are Pomona or the Mainland, Rousay, Westray, Papa-Westray, Eday, Sanda, North Ronaldshay, Stronsay, Shapinshay, Hoy, Flotta, South Ronaldshay, Eagleshay, Burray, and the smaller islands of Faray, Gairsay, and Græmsay. Towards the east the surface is level, and of very moderate elevation above the sea; but the ground rises gradually towards the west, where the coasts are bounded by hills of considerable height. The lands are intersected by numerous streams, but none of them entitled to the appellation of rivers; and are diversified with numerous lakes, most of which are also of small extent, varying from a mile to four miles in circumference. That of Stennis, however, in the parish of Firth, in Pomona, is more than fourteen miles in circumference; and is divided into two parts by a peninsular projection, on which are some highly interesting Druidical remains. Of the lands, about 30,000 acres are arable, nearly an equal quantity in meadow and pasture, 4000 in freshwater lakes, and the remainder chiefly heath, peat-moss, and undivided common. Though destitute of timber, the scenery is pleasing from the alternation of hill and dale; many of the hills are covered with verdure to the summit, and others, for some distance above their bases, are under profitable cultivation. The soil in the plains is sandy; in some other parts, a clayey loam alternated with gravelly soil: there are several tracts of grass=land of luxuriant growth, and the mosses afford abundance of peat for fuel.

The crops are barley, oats, rye, flax, and a moderate portion uf wheat, with potatoes and turnips, of which very fine crops are raised. The general system of agriculture, however, though gradually improving, is comparatively in a backward state. The farms, also, are mostly of very small extent, some not exceeding ten acres; but there are several exceptions, and an example of skill and a spirit of enterprise have been set forth by some of the proprietors of lands, which may soon produce important alterations. Though limestone is plentiful, the principal manure is the sea-weed obtained on the coasts. Both the sheep and the cattle are of the native breed, the horses are of the Shetland breed. From the roots and trunks of trees found in the tracts of peat-moss, it would appear that there were anciently extensive woods; yet very few trees are now to be seen, except such as are of modern plantation, and these only thrive in sheltered situations. They are chiefly the plane, common and mountain ash, elm, and willow. The substrata of the lands are mainly sandstone of various colours, schistose-clay, limestone, and in some parts breccia, and specimens of basaltic formation. Attempts have been made in search of iron-ore, and hæmatites of iron were discovered in tolerable plenty, and of rich quality; but similar attempts to discover lead-ore have not been attended with success. In Orkney the gentlemen's seats are Burness, Brugh, Burgar, Carrick, Cliffdale, Cairston, Woodwick, Holland, and Tankerness.

The manufactures pursued here are, those of stockings, blankets, and coarse woollen-cloth, for home use; the spinning of yarn and the weaving of linen, which are increasing; the manufacture of thread for the firms of Montrose; the platting of straw for bonnets, in which more than 2000 females are employed; and the manufacture of kelp, formerly much more extensive than at present, but still far from being inconsiderable. A profitable trade is carried on at the several ports on the coast, in the exportation of beef, pork, salt, fish, butter, tallow, hides, oil, feathers, linen yarn and cloth, and kelp; and in the importation of timber, iron, flax, coal, tobacco and snuff, wines, spirits, soap, leather, broad cloth, printed linens and cottons, groceries, and hardware. The building of boats, also, and the making of sails, nets, and cordage, are pursued in connexion with the shipping. In a late year there were registered, as belonging to Orkney, seventy-eight vessels of the aggregate burthen of 4050 tons. The cod and herring fisheries are extensive. In the former about twenty vessels are employed, and in the latter about 750 boats; and 500 tons of cod, and 50,000 barrels of herrings, upon the average, are annually shipped off from the several ports. The principal fishing-stations are Papa-Stronsay, Deer Sound, Holm, Burray, and St. Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldshay. Lobsters of very superior quality are found in great abundance, and sent in smacks to London: crabs, mackerel, grayling, trout, salmon, turbot, halibut, haddock, common and conger eels, and skate, are also found. The coasts are indented with numerous havens, in which the largest ships may anchor in safety. In some parts the shores are low and sandy; in others, rocky and precipitous, especially the shores on the west of Hoy island, which rise perpendicularly to a height of more than 1000 feet above the level of the sea, and are frequented by sea-fowl of every kind, that build their nests in the cliffs. Facility of communication throughout the Mainland and the other large islands is maintained by good roads; and intercourse with the smaller islands, on some of which, during the season, temporary huts are erected for the manufacture of kelp, is afforded by the tides in the several firths, which, though rapid and dangerous, are to those who know them an expeditious mode of communication. Between Kirkwall and Caithness is a ferry for the mail, and for passengers, across the Pentland Firth, here about twelve miles in breadth. A steam-packet sails weekly during the summer between Shetland and Leith, touching at the intermediate ports; and also sailing-packets monthly from Kirkwall and Stromness to the port of Leith. The annual value of the real property in Orkney is £22,858, of which £21,430 are returned for lands, and the remainder for houses.

There are numerous monuments of antiquity in the islands; the principal are the ancient Picts' houses, which are found in many places. In the island of Westray are a large number of graves, probably covered originally by tumuli or barrows, but now exposed to view by the drifting of the sand: some are formed of numerous small stones, others of four larger stones; aud in all have been found warlike instruments and other ancient relics. There are various remains of Druidical circles, the most interesting are those of Stennis, once consisting of thirty-five stones, thirteen of which remain, varying from ten to sixteen feet in height. In Kirkwall are the ancient cathedral, dedicated to St. Magnus, nearly entire, and now used as the parish church, the bishop's palace, near the cathedral, but a ruin; the remains of the palace erected in 1607 by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, which are considerable; and the ruins of King's Castle, erected in the fourteenth century by Earl St. Clair, of which little more than the site is remaining.

Transcribed from Samuel Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851