Northern Isles (Scots: Northern Isles; Scottish Gaelic: Na
h-Eileanan a Tuath; Old Norse: Norðreyjar) are a pair of archipelagos
off the north coast of mainland Scotland, comprising
Shetland. The climate is cool and temperate and much influenced by the
surrounding seas. There are a total of 26 inhabited islands with
landscapes of the fertile agricultural islands of
with the more rugged
Shetland islands to the north, where the economy
is more dependent on fishing and the oil wealth of the surrounding
seas. Both have a developing renewable energy industry. They also
share a common Pictish and Norse history. Both island groups were
absorbed into the Kingdom of
Scotland in the 15th century and remained
part of the country following the formation of the Kingdom of Great
Britain in 1707, and later the
United Kingdom after 1801. The islands
played a significant naval role during the world wars of the 20th
Tourism is important to both archipelagos, with their distinctive
prehistoric ruins playing a key part in their attraction, and there
are regular ferry and air connections with mainland Scotland. The
Scandinavian influence remains strong, especially in relation to local
folklore, and both island chains have strong, although distinct, local
cultures. The place names of the islands are dominated by their Norse
heritage, although some may retain pre-Celtic elements.
5 History, culture and politics
5.1 Pictish times
5.2 Norse era
5.3 Annexation by Scotland
5.4 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries
5.5 World Wars
6 Modern times
7 Island names
7.3 Uninhabited islands
8 See also
Main articles: List of
Orkney islands and List of
The phrase "Northern Isles" generally refers to the main islands of
Shetland archipelagos. Stroma, which lies between
Scotland and Orkney, is part of Caithness, and so falls under
Highland council area for local government purposes, not Orkney. It
is, however, clearly one of the "northern isles" of Scotland. Fair
Foula are outliers of Shetland, but would normally be
considered as part of
Shetland and thus the Northern Isles. Similarly,
Sule Skerry and Sule Stack, although distant from the main group, are
Orkney and technically amongst the Northern Isles. However,
the other small islands that lie off the north coast of
in Highland and thus not usually considered to be part of the Northern
Orkney is situated 16 kilometres (10 mi) north of the coast of
mainland Scotland, from which it is separated by the waters of the
Pentland Firth. The largest island, known as the "Mainland" has an
area of 523.25 square kilometres (202.03 sq mi), making it
the sixth largest Scottish island. The total population in 2001 was
19,245 and the largest town is Kirkwall.
Shetland is around 170
kilometres (110 mi) north of mainland Scotland, covers an area of
1,468 square kilometres (567 sq mi) and has a coastline
2,702 kilometres (1,679 mi) long. Lerwick, the capital and
largest settlement, has a population of around 7,500 and about half of
the archipelago's total population of 22,000 people live within 16
kilometres (10 mi) of the town.
Orkney has 20 inhabited
Shetland a total of 16.
Main article: Geology of Orkney
Geology of Orkney
The superficial rock of
Orkney is almost entirely Old Red Sandstone,
mostly of Middle
Devonian age. As in the neighbouring mainland
county of Caithness, this sandstone rests upon the metamorphic rocks
of the Moine series, as may be seen on the
Orkney Mainland, where a
narrow strip of the older rock is exposed between
Inganess, and again on the small island of Graemsay.
Devonian basaltic volcanic rocks are found on western Hoy, on
Deerness in eastern Mainland and on Shapinsay. Correlation between the
Hoy volcanics and the other two exposures has been proposed, but
differences in chemistry means this remains uncertain. Lamprophyre
dykes of Late
Permian age are found throughout Orkney. Glacial
striation and the presence of chalk and flint erratics that originated
from the bed of the North Sea demonstrate the influence of ice action
on the geomorphology of the islands. Boulder clay is also abundant and
moraines cover substantial areas.
The geology of
Shetland is quite different. It is extremely complex,
with numerous faults and fold axes. These islands are the northern
outpost of the
Caledonian orogeny and there are outcrops of Lewisian,
Dalriadan and Moine metamorphic rocks with similar histories to their
equivalents on the Scottish mainland. There are also small Old Red
Sandstone deposits and granite intrusions. The most distinctive
feature is the ultrabasic ophiolite, peridotite and gabbro on
Fetlar, which are remnants of the
Iapetus Ocean floor. Much of
Shetland's economy depends on the oil-bearing sediments in the
Geological evidence shows that at around 6100 BC a tsunami caused by
the Storegga Slides hit the Northern Isles, (as well as much of the
east coast of Scotland), and may have created a wave of up to 25
metres (82 ft) high in the voes of
Shetland where modern
populations are highest.
Orkney § Climate, and
Shetland § Climate
Northern Isles have a cool, temperate climate that is remarkably
mild and steady for such a northerly latitude, due to the influence of
the surrounding seas and the Gulf Stream. In
Shetland average peak
temperatures are 5 °C (41 °F) in February and 15 °C
(59 °F) in August and temperatures over 21 °C
(70 °F) are rare. The frost-free period may be as little
as 3 months.
The average annual rainfall is 982 millimetres (38.7 in) in
Orkney and 1,168 millimetres (46.0 in) in Shetland. Winds
are a key feature of the climate and even in summer there are almost
constant breezes. In winter, there are frequent strong winds, with an
average of 52 hours of gales being recorded annually in Orkney.
Burradale wind farm on Shetland, which operates with five
660 kW turbines, achieved a world record of 57.9% capacity over
the course of 2005 due to the persistent strong winds.
Snowfall is usually confined to the period November to February and
seldom lies on the ground for more than a day. Less rain falls from
April to August although no month receives less than an average of
50 mm (2.0 in). Annual bright sunshine averages
1082 hours in
Shetland and overcast days are common.
To tourists, one of the fascinations of the islands is their
"nightless" summers. On the longest day in
Shetland there are over 19
hours of daylight and complete darkness is unknown. This long twilight
is known in the
Northern Isles as the "simmer dim". Winter nights are
correspondingly long with less than six hours of daylight at
midwinter. At this time of year the aurora borealis can
occasionally be seen on the northern horizon during moderate auroral
Main articles: Prehistoric
Orkney and Prehistoric Shetland
Broch of Mousa
There are numerous important prehistoric remains in Orkney, especially
Neolithic period, four of which form the Heart of Neolithic
World Heritage Site
World Heritage Site that was inscribed in 1999: Skara
Brae; Maes Howe; the Stones of Stenness; and Ring of Brodgar. The
Knap of Howar
Knap of Howar
Neolithic farmstead situated on the island of Papa
Westray is probably the oldest preserved house in northern Europe.
This structure was inhabited for 900 years from 3700 BC but was
evidently built on the site of an even older settlement.
Shetland is also extremely rich in physical remains of the prehistoric
eras and there are over 5,000 archaeological sites all told.
Funzie Girt is a remarkable
Neolithic dividing wall that ran for 4
kilometres (2.5 mi) across the island of Fetlar, although
Iron Age has provided the most outstanding archaeology on
Shetland. Numerous brochs were erected at that time of which the Broch
of Mousa is the finest preserved example of these round towers. In
2011 the collective site, "The Crucible of
Iron Age Shetland"
Broch of Mousa,
Old Scatness and
Jarlshof joined the UK's
"Tentative List" of World Heritage Sites.
History, culture and politics
Orkney and Shetland
The culture that built the brochs is unknown, but by the late Iron Age
Northern Isles were part of the Pictish kingdom. The main
archaeological relics from these times are symbol stones. One of the
best examples is located on the Brough of Birsay; it shows three
warriors with spears and sword scabbards combined with traditional
Pictish symbols. The
St Ninian's Isle
St Ninian's Isle Treasure was discovered
in 1958. The silver bowls, jewellery and other pieces are believed to
date from approximately 800 AD. O'Dell (1959) stated that "the
treasure is the best survival of Scottish silver metalwork from the
period" and that "the brooches show a variety of typical Pictish
forms, with both animal-head and lobed geometrical forms of
Christianity probably arrived in
Orkney in the 6th century and
organised church authority emerged in the 8th century. The Buckquoy
spindle-whorl found at a Pictish site on
Birsay is an
Ogham–inscribed artefact whose interpretation has caused controversy
although it is now generally considered to be of Irish Christian
King Olav Tryggvason of Norway, who forcibly Christianised Orkney.
Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo.
The 8th century was also the time the
Viking invasions of the Scottish
seaboard commenced and with them came the arrival of a new culture and
language for the Northern Isles, the fate of the existing
indigenous population being uncertain. According to the Orkneyinga
Saga, Vikings then made the islands the headquarters of pirate
expeditions carried out against
Norway and the coasts of mainland
Scotland. In response, Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre ("Harald Fair
Hair") annexed the
Northern Isles in 875 and Rognvald Eysteinsson
Shetland from Harald as an earldom as reparation
for the death of his son in battle in Scotland. (Some scholars believe
that this story is apocryphal and based on the later voyages of Magnus
The islands were fully Christianised by Olav Tryggvasson in 995 when
he stopped at
South Walls on his way from
Ireland to Norway. The King
summoned the jarl
Sigurd the Stout
Sigurd the Stout and said, "I order you and all your
subjects to be baptised. If you refuse, I'll have you killed on the
spot and I swear I will ravage every island with fire and steel."
Unsurprisingly, Sigurd agreed and the islands became Christian at a
stroke, receiving their own bishop in the early 11th century.
Annexation by Scotland
James III and Margaret, whose betrothal led to
Shetland passing from
Norway to Scotland
In the 14th century
Shetland remained a Norwegian province,
but Scottish influence was growing. Jon Haraldsson, who was murdered
Thurso in 1231, was the last of an unbroken line of Norse
jarls, and thereafter the earls were Scots noblemen of the houses
of Angus and St. Clair. In 1468
Shetland was pledged by Christian
I, in his capacity as King of Norway, as security against the payment
of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III of
Scotland. As the money was never paid, the connection with the crown
Scotland became permanent. In 1470 William Sinclair, 1st
Caithness ceded his title to James III and the following year the
Northern Isles were directly annexed to Scotland.
17th, 18th and 19th Centuries
From the early 15th century on the Shetlanders had sold their goods
Hanseatic League of German merchantmen. This trade
with the North German towns lasted until the 1707 Act of Union when
high salt duties prohibited the German merchants from trading with
Shetland then went into an economic depression as the
Scottish and local traders were not as skilled in trading with salted
fish. However, some local merchant-lairds took up where the German
merchants had left off, and fitted out their own ships to export fish
Shetland to the Continent. For the independent farmer/fishermen
Shetland this had negative consequences, as they now had to fish
for these merchant-lairds.
Full-rigged ship Maella, of Oslo, in
Bressay Sound circa 1922
British rule came at a price for many ordinary people as well as
traders. The Shetlanders' nautical skills were sought by the Royal
Navy: some 3,000 served during the
Napoleonic Wars from 1800 to 1815
and press gangs were rife. During this period 120 men were taken from
Fetlar alone and only 20 of them returned home. By the late 19th
century 90% of all
Shetland was owned by just 32 people, and between
1861 and 1881 more than 8,000 Shetlanders emigrated. With the
passing of the Crofters' Act in 1886 the Liberal prime minister
William Gladstone emancipated crofters from the rule of the landlords.
The Act enabled those who had effectively been landowners' serfs to
become owner-occupiers of their own small farms.
The Orcadian experience was somewhat different. An influx of Scottish
entrepreneurs helped to create a diverse and independent community
that included farmers, fishermen and merchants that called themselves
comunitatis Orcadie and who proved themselves increasing able to
defend their rights against their feudal overlords. In the
17th century, Orcadians formed the overwhelming majority of employees
Hudson's Bay Company
Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. The harsh climate of
the Orcadian reputation for sobriety and their boat-handling skills
made them ideal candidates for the rigours of the Canadian north.
During this period, burning kelp briefly became a mainstay of the
islands' economy. For example, on
Shapinsay over 3,048 tonnes (3,000
long tons) of burned seaweed were produced per annum to make soda ash,
bringing in £20,000 to the local economy. Agricultural
improvements beginning in the 17th century coincided with the
enclosure of the commons and in the Victoria era the emergence of
large and well-managed farms using a five-shift rotation system and
producing high quality beef cattle. There is little evidence of an
Orcadian fishing fleet until the 19th century but it grew rapidly and
700 boats were involved by the 1840s with
Stronsay and then later
Stromness becoming leading centres of development.[Note 1] Many
Orcadian seamen became involved in whaling in
Arctic waters during the
19th century, although the boats were generally based elsewhere in
Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, built by POWs
Orkney was the site of a navy base at Scapa Flow, which played a major
role in World War I. After the
Armistice in 1918, the German High Seas
Fleet was transferred in its entirety to
Scapa Flow while a decision
was to be made on its future; however, the German sailors opened their
sea-cocks and scuttled all the ships. During
World War I
World War I the 10th
Cruiser Squadron was stationed at Swarbacks Minn in
during a single year from March 1917 more than 4,500 ships sailed from
Lerwick as part of an escorted convoy system. In total,
more than 500 men, a higher proportion than any other part of Britain,
and there were waves of emigration in the 1920s and 1930s.
One month into World War II, the
Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak
was sunk by a German
U-boat in Scapa Flow. As a result barriers were
built to close most of the access channels; these had the additional
advantage of creating causeways enabling travellers to go from island
to island by road instead of being obliged to rely on ferries. The
causeways were constructed by Italian prisoners of war, who also
constructed the ornate Italian Chapel. The
Scapa Flow base was run
down after the war, eventually closing in 1957.
World War II
World War II a Norwegian naval unit nicknamed the "Shetland
Bus" was established by the
Special Operations Executive
Special Operations Executive in the autumn
of 1940 with a base first at Lunna and later in
Scalloway to conduct
operations around the coast of Norway. About 30 fishing vessels used
by Norwegian refugees were gathered and the
Shetland Bus conducted
covert operations, carrying intelligence agents, refugees, instructors
for the resistance, and military supplies. It made over 200 trips
across the sea with Leif Larsen, the most highly decorated allied
naval officer of the war, making 52 of them.
The problem of a declining population was significant in the post-war
years, although in the last decades of the 20th century there was a
recovery and life in the islands focused on growing prosperity and the
emergence of a relatively classless society.
Orkney and Shetland
Due to their history, the islands have a Norse, rather than a Gaelic
flavour, and have historic links with the Faroes, Iceland, and Norway.
The similarities of both geography and history are matched by some
elements of the current political process. Both
Orkney and Shetland
are represented in the House of Commons as constituting the
Shetland constituency, which elects one
Member of Parliament (MP), the
current incumbent being Alistair Carmichael. Both are also
within the Highlands and Islands electoral region for the Scottish
However there are also two separate constituencies that elect one
Member of the
Scottish Parliament each for
Shetland by the
first past the post system.
Shetland also have
separate local Councils which are dominated by independents, that is
they are not members of a political party.
Orkney Movement, a political party that supported devolution for
Orkney from the rest of Scotland, contested the 1987 general election
Shetland Movement (a coalition of the Orkney
movement and its equivalent for Shetland). Their candidate, John
Goodlad, came 4th with 3,095 votes, 14.5% of those cast, but the
experiment has not been repeated.
MV Hamnavoe at
Ferry services link
Shetland to the rest of Scotland, the
main routes being
Stromness and Aberdeen
to Lerwick, both operated by NorthLink Ferries. Inter-island
ferry services are operated by
Orkney Ferries and SIC Ferries, which
are operated by the respective local authorities and Northlink also
Kirkwall service. The archipelago is exposed
to wind and tide, and there are numerous sites of wrecked ships.
Lighthouses are sited as an aid to navigation at various
BN2 Islander being loaded with luggage at
Papa Westray Airport
The main airport in
Orkney is at Kirkwall, operated by Highland and
Islands Airports. Loganair, a franchise of Flybe, provides services to
the Scottish mainland (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness), as
well as to
Sumburgh Airport in Shetland. Similar services fly from
Sumburgh to the Scottish mainland.
Inter-Island flights are available from
Kirkwall to several Orkney
islands and from the
Shetland Mainland to most of the inhabited
islands including those from Tingwall Airport. There are frequent
charter flights from
Scatsta near Sullom Voe, which are
used to transport oilfield workers and this small terminal has the
fifth largest number of international passengers in Scotland. The
scheduled air service between
Papa Westray is reputedly
the shortest in the world at two minutes' duration.
The very different geologies of the two archipelagos have resulted in
dissimilar local economies. In Shetland, the main revenue producers in
Shetland are agriculture, aquaculture, fishing, renewable energy, the
petroleum industry (offshore crude oil and natural gas production),
the creative industries and tourism. Oil and gas was first landed
Sullom Voe in 1978, and it has subsequently become one of the
largest oil terminals in Europe. Taxes from the oil have increased
public sector spending in
Shetland on social welfare, art, sport,
environmental measures and financial development. Three quarters of
the islands' work force is employed in the service sector and
Shetland Islands Council alone accounted for 27.9% of output in
Fishing remains central to the islands' economy today,
with the total catch being 75,767 tonnes (74,570 long tons; 83,519
short tons) in 2009, valued at over £73.2 million.
ExxonMobil's Beryl alpha oil platform in the East
By contrast, fishing has declined in
Orkney since the 19th century and
the impact of the oil industry has been much less significant.
However, the soil of
Orkney is generally very fertile and most of the
land is taken up by farms, agriculture being by far the most important
sector of the economy and providing employment for a quarter of the
workforce. More than 90% of agricultural land is used for grazing
for sheep and cattle, with cereal production utilising about 4% (4,200
hectares (10,000 acres)), although woodland occupies only 134 hectares
Shetland have significant wind and marine energy resources,
and renewable energy has recently come into prominence. The European
Marine Energy Centre is a Scottish Government-backed research facility
that has installed a wave testing system at Billia Croo on the Orkney
Mainland and a tidal power testing station on the island of Eday.
This has been described as "the first of its kind in the world set up
to provide developers of wave and tidal energy devices with a
purpose-built performance testing facility."
Northern Isles have a rich folklore. For example, there are many
Orcadian tales concerning trows, a form of troll that draws on the
islands' Scandinavian connections. Local customs in the past
included marriage ceremonies at the Odin Stone that forms part of the
Stones of Stenness. The best known literary figures from modern
Orkney are the poet Edwin Muir, the poet and novelist George Mackay
Brown and the novelist Eric Linklater.
Shetland has a strong tradition of local music.
The Forty Fiddlers was
formed in the 1950s to promote the traditional fiddle style, which is
a vibrant part of local culture today. Notable exponents of
Shetland folk music include
Aly Bain and the late Tom Anderson and
Peerie Willie Johnson. Thomas Fraser was a country musician who never
released a commercial recording during his life, but whose work has
become popular more than 20 years after his untimely death in
Norn language formerly spoken in the islands, a descendant of the
Old Norse of the Vikings, became extinct in the 18th or 19th
century. The local dialects of the Scots language,
collectively known as Insular Scots, are highly distinctive and retain
strong Norn influences.
The etymology of the island names is dominated by Norse influence.
There follows a listing of the derivation of all the inhabited islands
in the Northern Isles.
The oldest version of the modern name
Shetland is Hetlandensis
recorded in 1190 becoming Hetland in 1431 after various intermediate
transformations. This then became Hjaltland in the 16th
century. As Shetlandic Norn was gradually replaced by Scots
Hjaltland became Ȝetland. When use of the letter yogh was
discontinued, it was often replaced by the similar-looking letter z,
hence Zetland, the mispronounced form used to describe the pre-1975
county council. However the earlier name is Innse Chat – the island
of the cats (or the cat tribe) as referred to in early Irish
literature and it is just possible that this forms part of the Norse
name. The Cat tribe also occupied parts of the northern
Scottish mainland – hence the name of
Caithness via the Norse
Katanes ("headland of the cat"), and the Gaelic name for Sutherland,
Cataibh, meaning "among the Cats".
The location of "Thule", first mentioned by
he visited Britain sometime between 322 and 285 BC is not known
for certain. When
Tacitus mentioned it in AD 98 it is clear he was
referring to Shetland.
Norse: bruarøy – bridge island"
east broch island
Norse: feoerøy – "far-off isle".
Norse: fetill – "shoulder-straps" or "fat land". See also
island of the cat people?
Perhaps originally from Gaelic: Innse Chat – see above
big red island
big island of the priests
Norse: "Þrondr's isle" or "Þraendir's isle". The first is a personal
name, the second a tribal name from the
Norse: omstr – "corn-stack" or ørn-vist – "home of the
Norse: "horse island", "battlefield island" or "round island"
west broch island
Norse: í Ála – "deep furrow" or Jala – "white island"
Great Britain as being triangular in shape, with a
northern tip called Orcas. This may have referred to Dunnet Head,
Orkney is visible. Writing in the 1st century AD, the
Pomponius Mela called the
Orkney islands Orcades, as
Tacitus in AD 98 "Orc" is usually interpreted as a
Pictish tribal name meaning "young pig" or "young boar". The old
Irish Gaelic name for the islands was Insi Orc ("island of the
pigs").[Note 2] The ogham script on the Buckquoy
spindle-whorl is also cited as evidence for the pre-Norse existence of
Old Irish in Orkney. The Pictish association with
Orkney is leant
weight by the Norse name for the
Pentland Firth – Pettaland-fjörðr
i.e "Pictland Firth.
The Norse retained the earlier root but changed the meaning, providing
the only definite example of an adaption of a pre-Norse place name in
the Northern Isles. The islands became Orkneyar meaning "seal
islands". An alternative name for
Orkney is recorded in
1300—Hrossey, meaning "horse isle" and this may also contain a
Pictish element of ros meaning "moor" or "plain".
Unlike most of the larger
Orkney islands, the derivation of the name
"Shapinsay" is not obvious. The final 'ay' is from the
Old Norse for
island, but the first two syllables are more difficult to interpret.
Haswell-Smith (2004) suggests the root may be hjalpandis-øy (helpful
island) due to the presence of a good harbour, although anchorages are
plentiful in the archipelago. The first written record dates from
1375 in a reference to Scalpandisay, which may suggest a derivation
from "judge's island". Another suggestion is "Hyalpandi's island",
although no one of that name is known to have been associated with
Norse or Gaelic
Possibly from Gaelic eaglais" – church island
flat, grassy isle
Holm of Grimbister
Small and rounded islet of Grim's farm
inner rounded islet
Uncertain – possibly "Ringa's isle"
isle(s) of the young pig
priest isle of Stronsay
The Norse name is literally "little priest isle"
priest isle of Westray
The Norse name is literally "big priest isle"
Possibly "helpful island"
"Voe" means fjord. Possibly "south bays".
good fishing and farming island
Stroma, from the Norse Straumøy means "current island" or
"island in the tidal stream", a reference to the strong currents
in the Pentland Firth. The Norse often gave animal names to islands
and these have been transferred into English in for example, the Calf
Flotta and Horse of Copinsay.
Brother Isle is an anglicisation of
the Norse breiðareøy meaning "broad beach island". The Norse
holmr, meaning "a small islet" has become "Holm" in English and there
are numerous examples of this use including Corn Holm, Thieves Holm
and Little Holm. "Muckle" meaning large or big is one of few Scots
words in the island names of the Nordreyar and appears in Muckle Roe
Muckle Flugga in
Muckle Green Holm
Muckle Green Holm and Muckle Skerry
in Orkney. Many small islets and skerries have Scots or Insular Scots
names such as Da Skerries o da Rokness and Da Buddle Stane in
Shetland, and Kirk Rocks in Orkney.
Kingdom of the Isles
^ Coull (2003) quotes the old saying that an Orcadian is a farmer with
a boat, in contrast to a Shetlander, who is a fisherman with a
^ The proto-Celtic root *φorko-, can mean either pig or salmon, thus
giving an alternative of "island(s) of (the) salmon".
^ General Register Office for
Scotland (28 November 2003) Scotland's
Census 2001 – Occasional Paper No 10: Statistics for Inhabited
Islands. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
^ National Records of
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Scotland - Release 1C (Part Two). "Appendix 2:
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^ General Register Office for
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