History History

Orkney's History

People have called Orkney home for over 5,000 years.

The name "Orkney" is thought to date back to at least the 1st Century BC. First occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes and then by the Picts, Orkney was settled by Vikings during the eighth century, becoming a Norse Earldom in the ninth. Orkney was an important seat of power in the Viking Empire, a heritage best reflected by the magnificent 12th century catherdral of St Magnus in Kirkwall and through the islands' distinctly Scandinavian place names.

The islands remained under Norse rule until 1472, when they were annexed by the Scottish Crown following the failed payment of a dowry for James III's bride, Margaret of Denmark. Strong cultural links with Norway remain to this day.

And Orkney played a strategically vital role during two world wars, with the vast natural harbour of Scapa Flow acting as naval anchorage. You can see evidence of this all around Scapa Flow, from defences and lookouts to sunken block ships, the Churchill Barriers, the Italian Chapel (built by Italian prisoners of war) and the buoy which marks the tragic loss of the HMS Royal Oak.

In our more recent history, the islands have played a key part in the development of North Sea and Atlantic Ocean oil and gas fields and are now a global centre for marine energy developers.

Find out more about five thousand years of history in Orkney with our short film...

Inside History



People from Orkney have made their mark on communities and industries around the world for hundreds of years. From the cold and harsh Canadian winters, to the baking heat of Australia, there are traces of Orcadian history everywhere. Here are just some of our famous adventurers.

The Standing Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney


You may have heard the saying that if you scratch the surface of Orkney, it bleeds archaeology.

Robert Rendall

Literary Figures

Orkney has had more than its fair share of writers, who were either born or lived in the county. Many drew on Orkney’s landscape, history and people for inspiration and themes. Here, we explore some of our most famous literary figures.

Another aerial view, showing the scale of the site at the Ness of Brodgar

Ness of Brodgar

The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological site covering 2.5 hectares, sited between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

A depiction of St Magnus in St Magnus Cathedral

Norse Heritage

Orkney's glorious Viking past, with its warlike imagery and tales of saints and earls, remains a visible and important part of island life.

Orcadian writer Edwin Muir


When local residents leave the islands, whether for a short business trip, a longer holiday or for a permanent move, the chances are they will always run into another Orcadian at some point on their journey. People from Orkney have travelled and settled across the globe for thousands of years, and it's a practice that continues to this day.

A boy's ba' played out on a snowy Christmas morning

The Ba

If you arrive in Kirkwall in the days or even weeks leading up to Christmas you might wonder if the town is about to be besieged. Wooden barricades are erected to protect doors and windows as if from some sort of violent attack. The truth is that the barricades are put up to protect buildings from hundreds of bodies that surge through the streets in pursuit of a leather trophy; the Ba’.