The Orkney Islands lie above the north-east tip of Scotland. In total there are about 70 islands, many of which are uninhabited. The Mainland, Orkney’s largest island, houses the majority of the population. St Magnus Cathedral, in Kirkwall, the main town, was founded by the Viking Rognvald Kolson in 1137. Norse influences are evident in buildings, place names and language throughout the islands. It was not until 1468 that Orkney formally came under Scottish rule.
There are many inhabited Orkney islands which are easy to visit by boat, or even plane from the Mainland. They include Eday, Hoy, North Ronaldsay, Papa Wrestray, Rousay, Sanday, Shapinsay and Westray. Many of these islands have prehistoric monuments, some of which are open to the public.
The location of the Orkney Islands meant that they became a key player in defence of the British realm in the first and second world wars. The harbour Scapa Flow hosted British fleets in both wars. The loss of the lives of hundreds of men when the HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed by the Germans in 1939 resulted in the building of the Churchill Barriers, linking Mainland and some of the nearby islands, thus blocking enemy access to the harbour at Scapa Flow. Italian prisoners of war helped build the Churchill Barriers; their legacy, the Italian Chapel, has become one of the premiere tourist attractions in Orkney.
The prime reason many people visit the Orkney Islands is to explore prehistoric sites. Orkney has an abundance of historical sites, from the Neolithic village of Skara Brae to the Ring of Brodgar – a huge stone circle in Stenness. Other iconic landmarks include the Old Man Of Hoy – a towering sea stack first conquered by the climber Chris Bonington in 1966 and the Broch of Gurness. Brochs – often defensive structures - proliferated in northern Scotland – round buildings with one entrance and staircases sandwiched between inner and outer walls, leaving space for people and animals at the centre.
Orkney’s proximity to the Gulf Stream means that the islands have a relatively temperate climate, though the wind can be fierce. Many of the inhabited islands are relatively flat with fertile soil for farming, a major industry in the Orkneys.
Orkney has a rich cultural heritage and hosts festivals such as the Orkney Folk Festival that draw visitors from all over the world. Poets Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown were born in Orkney.