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.
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