A glorious Viking past with its warlike imagery and tales of saints and earls is an important part of Orkney’s history that writers have chronicled. Many Orcadians are descended from the Norse people who settled in the islands in the late 8th century, a genetic study found. Orkney was part of a Scandinavian kingdom until 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 in 1468.
Before the Vikings arrived here Orkney was part of the Pictish Kingdom. Some academics argue that the Vikings slaughtered the Picts while others say the Vikings intermarried with the local population and the Viking culture took over. Despite heroic tales of King Harald Fairhair and his lineage and stories of conquest, murder and martyrdom, most of the settlers lived peacefully and farmed and fished.
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. Interpretation boards are at key locations of Viking events and places. The trail’s centre is at Orphir next to the Earl’s Bu, a farmstead where a murder took place, and a round church. Other key sites include St Magnus’ Kirk, Birsay, Dingieshowe, site of a Norse parliament and 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. Next door is the Bishop's Palace.
Other signs of the Norse presence remain in place names which are mainly Norse in origin. 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 craftspeople take inspiration from Viking carvings.