Norse Heritage Norse Heritage

Orkney's 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.

Genetic studies have found that many Orcadians are descended from the Norse people who settled the islands in the late 8th century. Prior to the arrival of the Vikings, Orkney was part of the Pictish Kingdom. Historians and academics continue to debate whether the Vikings slaughtered the local Picts, or intermarried with them before gradually spreading Norse culture throughout the islands. Either way, there's no doubting Orkney was a vitally important location in the Viking world, serving as a focus for trade, a strategic base and a launching off point for voyages and raids.

Orkney remained part of a Scandinavian kingdom until 1468 when the islands were pawned to the Scottish Crown by Christian I of Denmark as a dowry for his daughter’s marriage to James III of Scotland.

The great story of Orkney’s Viking Age is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, written in Iceland in the 12th century. You can follow in the footsteps of the Norse through the Orkneyinga Saga Trail, with interpretation boards marking key Viking events and places. The trail’s centre can be found in Orphir, next to the Earl’s Bu - a farmstead where a murder took place - and a round church. Other key Viking sites include St Magnus’ Kirk in Birsay, Dingieshowe - site of a Norse parliament - and the island of Egilsay, where St Magnus was martyred. The most glorious memorial to the age is St Magnus Cathedral, a splendid medieval building which was at the heart of the powerful Earldom of Orkney. Close by lies the Bishop's Palace, thought to have been built around the same time as the cathedral by Bishop William "the old".

Orkney's place names, most of which are Norse in origin, remain one of the most visible signs of the islands' Viking past. Indeed, the suffix 'ay' in many Orkney island names comes from the Old Norse name for island. And Orkney’s unofficial language, spoken by country people for nearly 1000 years, was Norn - derived from Old Norse. Today, jewellers and other local craftspeople take much inspiration from Viking carvings and culture.

Inside History

Norse Heritage

Adventurers

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.

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The Standing Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Archaeology

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

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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.

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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.

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Orcadian writer Edwin Muir

People

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.

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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’.

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