• Skara Brae, Orkney - image by VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Reconnect with Orkney's history

It's more important than ever for both locals and visitors to reconnect with Orkney. David Flanagan has been contemplating our history, and the role it plays in our future too.

Orkney’s history is about much more than ancient monuments, as magnificent as they are.

Our past unrolls across the island landscape like a 3D tapestry, providing us with a sense of continuity and context in a world that often wrestles with issues around identity.

We know where we came from and who we are as a community. And, because our history remains so tangible and present, it also continues to inform and inspire us. Whatever we do in Orkney, we try and do it well. That pride of purpose honours our homeland and, most importantly, our ancestors.

Up here we take it as a given that we can explore the sacred silence of a Neolithic tomb, walk within the walls of a Bronze Age broch or Viking settlement, and touch the cold concrete of a wartime-era gun emplacement, pretty much whenever the mood takes us.

And, perhaps most poignantly, we can touch the tumbled stones of the ruined crofts our great grandparents once called home. It’s all there, close at hand, presenting us with a multitude of options for time travelling and reflection.

Farmland and old crofts in Orkney's West Mainland

Naturally, our history is also a magnet for visitors who are often surprised at just how accessible it is. We love to share it too.

Of course, that all changed during the Covid-19 lockdown, with the restrictions suddenly preventing our regular wanders through Orkney’s past.

It was an oddly unsettling feeling to no longer be able to walk the aisles of St Magnus Cathedral, quietly marvelling at Viking architecture, or ponder life within the sophisticated Neolithic community of Skara Brae. Nor could we just pop into the museums in Stromness or Kirkwall, or watch archaeologists hard at work across key excavation sites, such as the Ness of Brodgar.

All that history wasn’t going anywhere, of course. Our land has survived many a troubled time, with our ancient monuments no doubt bearing witness to all manner of tragedies we will never know of.

During lockdown, our cathedral, our standing stones, our wartime defences - even our old family crofts - all took on iconic status, reminding us that others have lived through dark times and prevailed. And, while we couldn’t visit, it was comforting to know they were there, waiting.

Although restrictions on our movements are beginning to ease, some of our historical sites will remain out of reach for a little longer, but we’re patient in Orkney and can live with that.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy reconnecting with the places we can visit and maybe seize the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into some of the lesser known aspects of Orkney’s history.

There’s always something new we can discover.

We respect and protect our history in Orkney, not just because we recognise its academic or economic importance, but also because we believe we are its guardians. We’re duty bound to pass it on, intact, to future generations who might one day have to face their own challenges and look to the past for comfort, strength and inspiration.

If you're planning to reconnect with Orkney this year, take a look at our special COVID-19 section for all the information you need on travelling to the islands during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.

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