Norse Kingdom - Orkney

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  • Bishop's Palace and St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
    Bishop's Palace and St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
  • Earl's Palace, Kirkwall
    Earl's Palace, Kirkwall
  • A woman makes her way into Maeshowe
  • St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney
    St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney
  • A whalebone plaque from a Viking ship burial, Orkney Museum
    A whalebone plaque from a Viking ship burial, Orkney Museum

By the end of the 13th century, Orkney was very much a part of Norway. Scandinavian warriors, settlers and poets crossed the seas from the eighth century onwards, bringing with them the language and faith which is still evident on the isles today.

Warriors, settlers and poets crossed the seas not just to Orkney but to Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and Scotland, weaving Orkney in to a rich Norse culture. Although little is known about the Norse arrivals - whether the archipelago was deserted at this time or there was a violent conquest - a heritage was left behind that cannot be ignored.

Evidence of the Norsemen is everywhere. Almost every placename goes back to the Viking age, as do many personal names and dozens of words used in daily conversation. These words are still kept alive, over 500 years since Orkney officially became Scottish.

Another story which has carried through the years, is the tale behind St Magnus Cathedral, which was founded by Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle St Magnus and still stands as a beautiful reminder of the past.

Troubled times lay ahead for Orkney when early Scots rulers, most notoriously the Stewart earls, took control. A marriage dowry in 1468 meant that the isles transferred to the Scottish Crown, leading to a period of cruelty for the islanders. The early Scots rulers, most notoriously the Stewart family, were remarkable for their cruelty, but also their fine Renaissance buildings.

Patrick and Robert Stewart were both eventually killed but not before leaving a legacy of magnificent Renaissance architecture, including the Earls’ Palace in Kirkwall. This palace sits next to the earlier Bishop’s Palace, which is thought to have been built for Bishop William the Old, a friend of Earl Rognvald. The 19th century also saw the fine Baronial castles of Trumland on Rousay and Balfour on Shapinsay, which is now the world's most northerly castle hotel, but also more controversial clearances of crofters on those same islands.

Orkney still honours its past links with Norway by celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day on 17 May with parades and events, and by lighting a Norwegian tree outside the cathedral at Christmas.

Norse attractions

Visit the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island where you can explore the remains of both Pictish and Norse settlements. The concrete path takes you into a Norse settlement at the top of the cliff with a Historic Scotland visitor centre, which tells you more about the remains of a church, Viking houses and barns.

Maeshowe dates back 5,000 years but it’s believed it was broken into during the 12th century by Viking crusaders, who left their light-hearted mark in runes on the walls of the main chamber. This “graffiti” is the largest collection of runic inscriptions that survive outside of Scandinavia.

Learn more about Orkney's Viking heritage on a Stromness Heritage Walk. Wander through the island's second largest town and discover more about the Orcadians' nordic ancestors.