1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Orkney Islands

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ORKNEY ISLANDS, a group of islands, forming a county, off the north coast of Scotland. The islands are separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth, which is 61/4 m. wide between Brough Ness in the island of South Ronaldshay and Duncansbay Head in Caithness-shire. The group is commonly estimated to consist of 67 islands, of which 30 are inhabited (though in the case of four of them the population comprises only the lighthouse attendants), but the number may be increased to as many as 90 by including rocky islets more usually counted with the islands of which they probably once formed part. The Orkneys lie between 58° 41′ and 59° 24′ N., and 2° 22′ and 3° 26′ W., measure 50 m. from N.E. to S.W. and 29 m. from E. to W., and cover 240,476 acres or 375.5 sq. m. Excepting on the west coasts of the larger islands, which present rugged cliff scenery remarkable both for beauty and for colouring, the group lies somewhat low and is of bleak aspect, owing to the absence of trees. The highest hills are found in Hoy. The only other islands containing heights of any importance are Pomona, with Ward Hill (880 ft.), and Wideford (740 ft.) and Rousay. Nearly all of the islands possess lakes, and Loch Harray and Loch Stenness in Pomona attain noteworthy proportions. The rivers are merely streams draining the high land. Excepting on the west fronts of Pomona, Hoy and Rousay, the coast-line of the islands is deeply indented, and the islands themselves are divided from each other by straits generally called sounds or firths, though off the north-east of Hoy the designation Bring Deeps is used, south of Pomona is Scapa Flow and to the south-west of Eday is found the Fall of Warness. The very names of the islands indicate their nature, for the terminal a or ay is the Norse ey, meaning " island," which is scarcely disguised even in the words Pomona and Hoy. The islets are usually styled liolms and the isolated rocks skerries. The tidal currents, or races, or roosl (as some of them are called locally, from the Icelandic) off many of the isles run with enormous velocity, and whirlpools are of frequent occurrence, and strong enough at times to prove a source of danger to small craft. The charm of the Orkneys does not lie in their ordinary physical features, so much as in beautiful atmospheric effects, extraordinary examples of light and shade, and rich coloration of cliff and sea.

Geology.—All the islands of this group are built up entirely of Old Red Sandstone. As in the neighbouring mainland of Caithness, these rocks rest upon the metamorphic rocks of the eastern schists, as may be seen on Pomona, where a narrow strip is exposed between Stromness and Inganess, and again in the small island of Graemsay; they are represented by grey gneiss and granite. The upper division of the Old Red Sandstone is found only in Hoy, where it forms the Old Man and neighbouring cliffs on the N.W. coast. The Old Man presents a characteristic section, for it exhibits a thick pile of massive, current-bedded red sandstones, resting, near the foot of the pinnacle, upon a thin bed of amygdaloidal porphyrite, which in its turn lies unconformable upon steeply inclined flagstones. This bed of volcanic rock may be followed northward in the cliffs, and it may be noticed that it thickens considerably in that direction. The Lower Old Red Sandstone is represented by well-bedded flagstones over most of the islands; in the south of Pomona these are faulted against an overlying series of massive red sandstones, but a gradual passage from the flagstones to the sandstones may be followed from Westray S.E. into Eday. A strong synclinal fold traverses Eday and Shapinsay, the axis being N. and S. Near Haco's Ness in Shapinsay there is a small exposure of amygdaloidal diabase which is of course older than that in Hoy. Many indications of ice action are found in these islands; striated surfaces are to be seen on the cliffs in Eday and Westray, in Kirkwall Bay and on Stennie Hill in Eday; boulder clay, with marine shells, and with many boulders of rocks foreign to the islands (chalk, oolitic limestone, flint, &c.), which must have been brought up from the region of Moray Firth, rests upon the old strata in many places. Local moraines are found in some of the valleys in Pomona and Hoy.

Climate and Industries.—The climate is remarkably temperate and equable for so northerly a latitude. The average temperature for the year is 46° F., for winter 39° F. and for summer 54° 3′ F. The winter months are January, February and March, the last being the coldest. Spring never begins till April, and it is the middle of June before the heat grows genial. September is frequently the finest month, and at the end of October or beginning of November occurs the peerie (or little) summer, the counterpart of the St Martin's summer of more southerly climes. The average annual rainfall varies from 33.4 in. to 37 in. Fogs occur during summer and early autumn, and furious gales may be expected four or five times in the year, when the crash of the Atlantic waves is audible for 20 m. To tourists one of the fascinations of the islands is their “nightless summers.” On the longest day the sun rises at 3 o'clock A.M. and sets at 9.25 p.m., and darkness is unknown, it being possible to read at midnight. Winter, however, is long and depressing. On the shortest day the sun rises at 9.10 a.m. and sets at 3.17 p.m. The soil generally is a sandy loam or a strong but friable clay, and very fertile. Large quantities of seaweed as well as lime and marl are available for manure. Until the middle of the 19th century the methods of agriculture were of a primitive character, but since then they have been entirely transformed, and Orcadian farming is now not below the average standard of the Scottish lowlands. The crofters' houses have been rebuilt of stone and lime, and are superior to those in most parts of the Highlands. The holdings run fairly small, the average being between 30 and 40 acres. Practically the only grain crops that are cultivated are oats (which greatly predominate) and barley, while the favoured root crops are turnips (much the most extensively grown) and potatoes. Not half of the area has been brought under cultivation, and the acreage under wood is insignificant. The raising of live stock is rigorously pursued. Shorthorns and polled Angus are the commonest breeds of cattle; the sheep are mostly Cheviots and a Cheviot-Leicester cross, but the native sheep are still reared in considerable numbers in Hoy and South Ronaldshay, pigs are also kept on several of the islands, and the horses—as a rule hardy, active and small, though larger than the famous Shetland ponies—are very numerous, but mainly employed in connexion with agricultural work. The woollen trade once promised to reach considerable dimensions, but towards the end of the 18th century was superseded by the linen (for which flax came to be largely grown); and when this in turn collapsed before the products of the mills of Dundee, Dunfermline and Glasgow, straw-plaiting was taken up, though only to be killed in due time by the competition of the south. The kelp industry, formerly of at least minor importance, has ceased. Sandstone is quarried on several islands, and distilleries are found in Pomona (near Kirkwall and Stromness). But apart from agriculture the principal industry is fishing. For several centuries the Dutch practically monopolized the herring fishery, but when their supremacy was destroyed by the salt duty, the Orcadians failed to seize the opportunity thus presented, and George Barry (d. 1805) says that in his day the fisheries were almost totally neglected. The industry, however, has now been organized, and over 2000 persons are employed in the various branches of it. The great catches are herring, cod and ling, but lobsters and crabs are also exported in large quantities. There is a regular communication by steamer becween Stromness and Kirkwall, and Thurso, Wick, Aberdeen and Leith, and also between Kirkwall and Lerwick and other points of the Shetlands.

Population and Administration.—In 1891 the population numbered 30,453, and in 1901 it was 28,699, or 67 persons to the sq. m. In 1901 there were 70 persons who spoke Gaelic and English, but none who spoke Gaelic only. Orkney unites with Shetland to send one member to parliament, and Kirkwall, the county town and the only royal burgh, is one of the Wick district groups of parliamentary burghs. There is a combination poorhouse at Kirkwall, where there are also two hospitals. Orkney forms a sheriffdom with Shetland and Caithness, and a resident sheriff-substitute sits at Kirkwall. The county is under the school-board jurisdiction, but at Kirkwall and Stromness there are public schools giving secondary education.

The Inhabited Islands.—Premising that they are more or less scattered, and that several lie on the same plane, the following list gives the majority of the inhabited islands from south to north, the number within brackets indicating the population. Sule Skerry (3) and the Pentland Skerries (8) lie at the eastern entrance of the Portland Firth; Swona (23), 15 m. from the mainland, belongs to Caithness and is situated in the parish of Canisbay; South Ronaldshay (1991) is the best cultivated and most fertile of the southern isles of the group. On Hoxa Head, to the west of the large village of St Margaret's Hope, is a broch, or round tower, and the island contains, besides, examples of Picts' houses and standing stones. Hoy (q.v.; 1216) is the southernmost of the larger islands. Flotta (372), east of Hoy, was the home for a long time of the Scandinavian compiler of the Codex Flotticensis, which furnished Thormodr Torfaaus (1636–1719), the Icelandic antiquary, with many of the facts for his History of Norway, more particularly with reference to the Norse occupation of Orkney. Pharay (59) also lies E. of Hoy. Burray (677) is famous for the broch from which the island takes its name (Borgarey, Norse, “island of the broch”). The tower stands on the north-western shore, is 15 ft. high, has walls from 15 to 20 ft. thick, built of layers of flat stones without cement or mortar, and an interior diameter of 40 ft. It is entered from the east by a passage, on each side of which there is a small chamber constructed within the thickness of the wall. Similar chambers occur on the west, north and south sides, accessible only from the interior. Adjoining the southern chamber is the inside stair conducting to the top of the broch; of this stair some twenty steps remain. Between Hoy and Pomona are Hunda (8), Cava (17), and Graemsay (195), which has excellent soil and is mostly under cultivation. The isle is surrounded by shoals, and high-level and low-level lighthouses have been erected, the one at the north-west and the other at the north-east corner. The cliffs of Copinshay (10) are a favourite haunt of sea-birds, which are captured by the cragsmen for their feathers and eggs. Half a mile to the N.E. is the great rock which, from a fancied resemblance to a horse rearing its head from the sea, is called the Horse of Copinshay. Pomona (q.v.; 16,235) is the principal island, and as such is known also as Mainland. Shapinshay (765) was the birthplace of William Irving, father of Washington Irving. It possesses several examples of Pictish and Scandinavian antiquities, such as the “Odin stone” and the broch of Burrowstone. Balfour Castle, a mansion in the Scottish Baronial style built in 1848, is situated near the south-western extremity of the island. The island takes its name from Hjalpand, a Norse viking. Gairsay (33) was the residence of Sweyn Asleifson, the rover, celebrated in the Orkneyinga Saga for his exploits as a trencherman and his feats in battle. Stronsay (1159) is a busy station of the herring fishery, and is also largely under cultivation. At Lamb Head, its south-easterly point, is a broch and Pictish pier, and about 2 m. farther north, on Odin Bay, is a round pit in the rocks called the Vat of Kirbuster. The well of Kildinguie was once resorted to as a specific for leprosy. Papa Stronsay (16) commemorates in its name, as others of both the Orkneys and Shetlands do, the labours of the Celtic papae, or missionaries, who preached the Christian gospel before the arrival of the Northmen. The adjacent Veira or Wire has a population of 60. Egilshay (142) is the island on which St Magnus was murdered by his cousin Hacco in 115. It derives its name—Church (ecclesia) Island—from the little church of St Magnus, now in ruins, consisting of a chancel 15 ft. long, and nave 30 ft. long. The building has a round tower at the west end of the nave. The tower resembles similar constructions found beside Irish churches of the 7th and 8th centuries and has walls 3 ft. thick. It is doubtful whether it must be ascribed to the Celtic evangelists or to a much later period—not earlier than the 12th century. On Rousay (627) the cairn of Blotchnie Fiold (811 ft.), the highest point of the island, commands a beautiful survey of the northern isles of the archipelago. At the southern base of the hill stands the fine mansion of Trumbland House. Eday (596) contains several specimens of weems, mounds and standing stones. It affords good pasturage and has sandstone quarries. Carrick village, once a burgh of barony, with salt pans and other manufactures, was named after the earl of Carrick, brother of Patrick Stewart, 2nd earl of Orkney (d. 1614). It was off this island that John Gow, the pirate, was taken in 1725. Sanday (1727), with an area of 19 sq. m., is one of the largest of the northern isles, and yields excellent crops of potatoes and grain. It has safe harbours, in the north at Otterswick and in the south at Kettletoft. The antiquities include a broch in Elsness. Pharay (47) lies W. of Edey. Westray (1956), one of the seats of the cod fishery, has a good harbour at Pier-o'-wall. Noltland Castle, in the vicinity, is interesting as having been proposed as the refuge of Queen Mary after her flight from Loch Leven. It dates from the 15th century or even earlier, and was at one time the property of Sir Gilbert Balfour, the Master of Queen Mary’s Household. The building, now in ruins, was never completed. On one side of the inner court, to which a finely ornamental doorway gives access, is a large hall with a vaulted ceiling of stone, 20 ft. high. The cliffs and overhanging crags at Noup Head (250 ft.), the most westerly point, are remarkably picturesque. An isolated portion, divided from the headland by a narrow chasm, is known as the Stack of Noup. Gentleman's Cave, 1 m. to the south, was so called from the circumstance that it afforded shelter to five of the leading followers of Prince Charles Edward, who lay here during the winter of 1745–1746. Papa Westray (295) and North Ronaldshay (442) are the most northerly islands of the group. The latter is only reached from Sanday, from which it is separated by a dangerous firth 21/2 m. wide. The monumental stone with Ogham inscription, which was discovered in the broch of Burrian, must date from the days of the early Christian missionaries.

History.—The Orkneys were the Orcades of classical writers, and the word is probably derived from the Norse Orkn, seal, and ey, island. The original inhabitants were Picts, evidence of whose occupation still exists in numerous weems or underground houses, chambered mounds, barrows or burial mounds, brochs or round towers, and stone circles and standing stones. Such implements as have survived are of the rudest description, and include querns or stone handmills for grinding corn, stone worls and bone combs employed in primitive forms of woollen manufacture, and specimens of simple pottery ware. If, as seems likely, the Dalriadic Scots towards the beginning of the 6th century established a footing in the islands, their success was short-lived, and the Picts regained power and kept it until dispossessed by the Norsemen in the 9th century. In the wake of the Scots incursionists followed the Celtic missionaries about 565. They were companions of St Columba and their efforts to convert the folk to Christianity seem to have impressed the popular imagination, for several islands bear the epithet “Papa” in commemoration of the preachers. Norse pirates having made the islands the headquarters of their buccaneering expeditions indifferently against their own Norway and the coasts and isles of Scotland, Harold Haarfager (“Fair Hair”) subdued the rovers in 875 and both the Orkneys and Shetlands to Norway. They remained under the rule of Norse earls until 1231, when the line of the jarls became extinct. In that year the earldom of Caithness was granted to Magnus, second son of the earl of Angus, whom the king of Norway apparently confirmed in the title. In 1468 the Orkneys and Shetlands were pledged by Christian I. of Denmark for the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III. of Scotland, and as the money was never paid, their connexion with the crown of Scotland has been perpetual. In 1471 James bestowed the castle and lands of Ravenscraig in Fife on William, earl of Orkney, in exchange for all his rights to the earldom of Orkney, which, by act of parliament passed on the 20th of February of the same year, was annexed to the Scottish crown. In 1564 Lord Robert Stewart, natural son of James V., who had visited Kirkwall twenty-four years before, was made sheriff of the Orkneys and Shetlands, and received possession of the estates of the udallers; in 1581 he was created earl of Orkney by James IV., the charter being ratified ten years later to his son Patrick, but in 1615 the earldom was again annexed to the crown. The islands were the rendezvous of Montrose's expedition in 1650 which culminated in his imprisonment and death. During the Protectorate they were visited by a detachment of Cromwell's troops, who initiated the inhabitants into various industrial arts and new methods of agriculture. In 1707 the islands were granted to the earl of Morton in mortgage, redeemable by the Crown on payment of £30,000, and subject to an annual feu-duty of £500; but in 1766 his estates were sold to Sir Lawrence Dundas, ancestor of the earls of Zetland. In early times both the archbishop of Hamburg and the archbishop of York disputed with the Norwegians ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Orkneys and the right of consecrating bishops; but ultimately the Norwegian bishops, the first of whom was William the Old, consecrated in 1102, continued the canonical succession. The see remained vacant from 1580 to 1606, and from 1638 till the Restoration, and, after the accession of William II., the episcopacy was finally abolished (1697), although many of the clergy refused to conform. The topography of the Orkneys is wholly Norse, and the Norse tongue, at last extinguished by the constant influx of settlers from Scotland, lingered until the end of the i8th century. Readers of Scott's P;Va/e will remember the frank contempt which Magnus Troil expressed for the Scots, and his opinions probably accurately reflected the general Norse feeling on the subject. When the islands were given as security for the princess's dowry, there seems reason to believe that it was intended to redeem the pledge, because it was then stipulated that the Norse system of government and the law of St Olaf should continue to be observed in Orkney and Shetland. Thus the udal succession and mode of land tenure (or, that is, absolute freehold as distinguished from feudal tenure) still obtain to some extent, and the remaining udallers hold their lands and pass them on without written title. Among well-known Orcadians may be mentioned James Atkine (1613–1687), bishop first of Moray and afterwards of Galloway, Murdoch McKenzie (d. 1797), the hydrographer; Malcolm Laing (1762–1818), author of the History of Scotland from the Union of the Crowns to the Union of the Kingdoms; Mary Brunton (1778–1818), author of Self-Control, Discipline and other novels; Samuel Laing (1788–1868), author of A Residence in Norway, and translator of the Heimskringla, the Icelandic chronicle of the kings of Norway; Thomas Stewart Traill (1781–1862), professor of medical jurisprudence in Edinburgh University and editor of the 8th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; Samuel Laing (1812–1897), chairman of the London, Brighton & South Coast railway, and introduce of the system of " parliamentary " trains with fares of one penny a mile; Dr John Rae (1813–1893), the Arctic explorer; and William Balfour Baikie (1825–1864), the African traveller.

Bibliography.—The Orkneyinga Saga, ed. G. Vigfusson, translated by Sir George Dasent (1887–1894), and the edition of Dr Joseph Anderson (1873); James Wallace, Account of the Islands of Orkney (1700; new ed., 1884); George Low, Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland in 1774 (1879); G. Barry, History of Orkney (1805, 1867); Daniel Gorrie, Summers and Winters in the Orkneys (1868); D. Balfour, Odal Rights and Feudal Wrongs (1860); J. Fergusson, The Brochs and Rude Stone Monuments of the Orkney Islands (1877); J. B. Craven, History of the Episcopal Church in Orkney (1883); J. R. Tudor, Orkney and Shetland (1883).