Orkney Islands

   ORKNEY ISLANDS, a group forming, with that of Shetland, a maritime county, in the northern extremity of Scotland; and 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 Frith, 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 for 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 coast of Caithness, by the inhabitants of which district it is supposed the isles were originally peopled. The Orkney and the Shetland Islands appear to have been both 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, who 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, but, on her marriage with the Earl of Bothwell, 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 becoming forfeited, the lands again reverted to the crown. After various other grants of the property to different earls, and their ultimate reversion to the crown, they were in 1707 mortgaged to the Earl of Morton; and the mortage being subsequently declared irredeemable, the lands were in 1766 sold by his successor to Sir Laurence Dundas, ancestor of the Earl of Zetland, the present chief proprietor. 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 final annexation to the crown, it was wholly discontinued.
   Previously to the Reformation, 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 been first 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 continued to flourish under a succession of more than twenty-seven prelates, including seven Protestantbishops, till the Revolution, since which it has constituted the synods of Orkney and Shetland, whereof the former contains 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 whom 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 in the year, at Stromness, St. Margaret's Hope, and Sanda; but no particular days are fixed. The two principal towns are, Kirkwall, which is a royal burgh, and the county town, and Stromness, which is a burgh of barony; there are also several villages, and fishing-stations on the coast. Under the provisions of the act of the 2nd of William IV., Shetland has been joined in returning a member to the imperial parliament with Orkney, which previously returned a member of itself.
   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. The surface towards the east 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 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 nearly equal 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 fresh-water lakes, and the remainder chiefly heath, peat-moss, and undivided common. The scenery, though destitute of fine timber, 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 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 of 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. The sheep and cattle are both of the native breeds, and the cows, though small, afford great quantities of milk; the horses are of the Shetland breed. From the roots and trunks of trees found in the tracts of peat-moss, there is every reason to conclude that there were anciently extensive woods; yet very few trees are now 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 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 equal success. The gentlemen's seats are, Burness, Brugh, Burgar, Carrick, Cliffdale, Cairston, Woodwick, Holland, and Tankerness.
   The manufactures carried on 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; that of thread for the manufacturers 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, though still far from being inconsiderable. A profitable trade is also 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, too, and the making of sails, nets, and cordage, are pursued in connexion with the shipping, of which, 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. The shores in some parts are low and sandy; in others, rocky and precipitous, especially those on the west of Hoy island, which rise perpendicularly to the 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 larger 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 friths, 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 Frith, here about twelve miles in breadth. A steam-packet sails weekly during the summer between Shetland and Leith, touching at all the intermediate ports; and also sailing-packets monthly from Kirkwall and Stromness to the port of Leith. There are numerous monuments of antiquity in the various 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, and others of four larger stones; 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, whereof thirteen are remaining, which vary from ten to sixteen feet in height. In Orkney are also 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 1660 by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, which are considerable; and the ruins of King's Castle, erected in the 14th century by Earl St. Clair, of which little more than the site is remaining.

A Topographical dictionary of Scotland. . 1856.

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  • Orkney Islands — geographical name islands N Scotland constituting an administrative area capital Kirkwall (on Mainland Island) area 376 square miles (978 square kilometers), population 19,570 • Orkneyan adjective or noun …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • ORKNEY ISLANDS —    (30), an archipelago of 90 islands, Pomona the largest, lying north of the Scottish mainland, from which they are separated by the Pentland Firth, 7 m. broad. The scenery is tame, the climate is mild and moist; there are no trees, crops are… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

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