History of Orkney

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Orkney is home to remarkable attractions, none more significant than the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The islands of Orkney have been populated for thousands of years, and West Mainland contains Neolithic relics which are unsurpassed in Europe, dating back 5,500 years. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney encompasses the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, the Maeshowe tomb and Skara Brae, along with other local excavated and unexcavated sites. 

Maeshowe was also built using extraordinary Stone Age construction skills, and is the grandest chambered tomb on Orkney. Viking raiders left their mark on Maeshowe in the 12th century, and you can still see their remarkable runic graffiti.

After the Neolithic time in Orkney, settlers began to arrive from Scandinavia from the eighth century onwards and played a big part in Orkney for hundreds of years, leaving behind a Norse culture and language which is still visible today. Orkney was passed on to Scotland as part of a marriage dowry in 1468 and has been part of the country ever since.

More recently, in the last 100 years, Orkney has played a major role in both World Wars with Scapa Flow acting as a temporary naval base.

The isles have now become a leader in developing renewable energy such as wind, tidal and wave technologies, and the isles are recognised as having some of the best resources in Europe.

  • Girl going into the Tomb of the Eagles, South Ronaldsay
    Tomb of the Eagles, South Ronaldsay
  • People admiring the Broch of Gurness, Evie
    Broch of Gurness, Evie
  • Looking onto Skara Brae at the beach of the Bay of Skaill
    Skara Brae
  • St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
    St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
  • Inside the Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm
    Inside the Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm
Visitors at the Ring of Brodgar, Mainland

Timeline

Follow Orkney's timeline back through history and see what happened on the islands over the last 6,000 years.

Visitors at the Tomb of the Eagles, South Ronaldsay

Archaeology

The Orkney Islands are rich in archaeological history with more than 160 sites to explore.

The Stones of Stenness, Loch Harray

Ancestry

Trace your ancestors in Orkney. You could learn if you share your surname with the locals or uncover hidden stories.

Ring of Brodgar

Neolithic

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be found on the West Mainland and dates back 5,500 years.

The ruins of the Bishops Palace, Kirkwall

Norse Kingdom

Orkney was very much a part of Norway from the eighth century until it was handed to Scotland in a marriage dowry in 1468.

A shipwreck at Scapa Flow

Wartime history

Orkney had an important role in both World Wars during the 20th century and there are still structures you can see today.

Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Kirkwall

Historic attractions

Orkney is home to remarkable attractions, none more significant than the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With highlights including Skara Brae and the Stones of Stenness, Orkney provides a glimpse into the past.