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A group of islands situated between 58° 41' and 59° 24' N. lat. and 2° 22' and 3° 25' W. long., and lying to the north of Scotland, from which they are separated by Pentland Firth. They include Holme and Klippen, the most important, however, being Pomona or Mainland. The total area is over three hundred and seventy-five square miles and the population (of Norse descent), almost exclusively Calvinist and English speaking, numbers 30,000. These islands, for the most part level (the greatest altitude being 1541 feet, on Hoy), rocky, barren, treeless, partly covered by swampland, produce only barley, oats, potatoes, and beets. Stock raising is an important industry, the yearly production being 30,000 cattle, 40,000 sheep, 5000 pigs, and 6000 horses of a small but sturdy breed. The hunting of birds, seal, and whales, and the deep-sea fisheries (herring, cod, and lobsters) furnish the inhabitants with further means of sustenance. Excellent trout are to be caught in the numerous fiords and small lakes. Mining for iron, tin, and silver is also carried on successfully. The exportation of down and woven stuffs, (shawls, etc.) forms a lucrative source of income. Politically, the Orkneys form, with the Shetlands, a county, the capital being Kirkwall (a town of 5000 inhabitants), important as a trading centre, with a good harbour.


Among the ancients the Orkades nesoi , also called Orcades insulœ , are the Orkneys, mentioned by Pliny, Mela, and Tacitus. Julius Agricola, as commander of the troops garrisoned in Britain, in A. D. 69, had the coast of England explored by his ships of war, and took back more trustworthy information concerning these mythical territories, which he brought under the sceptre of Rome for the time being. Nothing is known of the inhabitants at that time, but they were probably Celts. About 872 the rulers of the separate islands were forced to submit to the rule of Harold Haarfager, King of Norway, who also subjugated the Hebrides, Isle of Man, and Ireland. Later Eric Blodsee sought refuge on the Orkneys from his victorious adversaries. From these islands also Olaf Trygvesson undertook the conquest of his ancestral kingdom (995), and Harold Hardrada set forth on his last campaign against England (1066). Thence also Olaf Kyrre returned to his native land (1067) and Hakon IV began his military expedition against Scotland (1263). In 1271 Magnus IV of Norway ceded to King Alexander III of Scotland all Scottish islands "with the exception of the Orkneys", in return for a yearly tribute, a condition which was renewed in later documents. Instead of being under the direct government of the monarchs of Norway, the Orkneys were now ruled by jarls , appointed by them from the houses of Strathearn and Sinclair. After the marriage of James III of Scotland to the daughter of Christian I, King of the united countries, the latter mortgaged the Orkneys to Scotland as security for his daughter's dowry (6 Sept., 1468), which he had not paid, and later attempts at redemption proved fruitless. Thus it was that Scottish ways and the English language gradually found access into the Orkneys and then became predominant. But many Norse customs and many Scandinavian forms of expression still persist, as though the nation preserved a certain attachment for the mother-country, with which tradition says it will be one day reunited.


Although the monks from Iona were active in the Orkneys at a very early period, the exact date when the Gospel was first preached and the nationality of the first missionaries are unknown. The early Christian communities probably succumbed during the disturbances of the migratory movements, and the later Norse settlers were pagans. Christianity first attained predominance, however, under Olaf Trygvesson. About the middle of the eleventh century Kirkwall ( Kirkevaag ) was made the seat of a diocese ( diœcesis Orcadensis ), in connexion with which a cathedral chapter was later established, and the Shetland Islands were assigned it as an archidiaconate. The prelates (at first prevailingly Norse, and later of Scotch extraction) were suffragans of the Archbishop of Lund, were later under Trondhjem (Nidaros), and after 1472 under St. Andrews. Practically nothing is known as to their names and the dates of their episcopates, and the documentary sources show important discrepancies. Some bishops received academic honours, which would indicate that they were not ignorant men for their times. This is especially true of the last Catholic bishop, Robert Reid (died 14 Sept., 1558), who is described as "vir omni literatura cultus et in rebus gerendis peritissimus", and who in 1540 brought to completion the magnificent cathedral of St. Magnus, which had been begun by his predecessors. His successor, Adam Bothwell, died (23 Aug., 1593) an apostate. At this time the last sparks of Catholicism were extinguished on the Orkneys under the fury of Calvinistic fanaticism which had been raging for decades, laying waste churches and employing both craft and force to draw the inhabitants from the faith of their fathers.


Burial chambers and stone circles (at Stenness on Mainland) testify to the primitive artistic sense of the original Celtic inhabitants. The earliest traces of the Norse occupation are to be found on Sandey, — burial mounds such as those in Scandinavia and great stone walls as ramparts about the houses of warriors. The settlements were copies, on a more modest scale, of the native places of the founders, Osko, Nidaros etc. No secular buildings of the Middle Ages have survived. Only the ruins of the episcopal residence at Kirkwall, where King Hakon IV died (15 December, 1263), are to be seen. The first Christian temple at Birgsay has completely disappeared. Of two churches at Deer Ness and Broch of Birsay on Mainland (remarkable for their double towers between nave and choir) only sketches are extant. It is over a hundred years since the first disappeared, but considerable ruins of the second are still to be seen. There are also traces of the church of St. Magnus at Egilsay and of the round apsidal church on Orphir. The great monumental, architectural work of the whole archipelago, however, is the cathedral of St. Magnus at Kirkwall ( Kirkevaag ), which is surpassed but slightly by the celebrated cathedral of Trondhjem. It was begun in 1137 by St. Ragnvald ( canonized 1192), prince ( jarl ) and crusader, and represents the artistic ideas of generations. Laid out originally according to Norman-Roman style, it seems to have been strongly influenced by the Gothic, and shows a harmonious combination of the two elements. The central nave is supported by twenty-eight columns of surpassing beauty. Above the intersection of the nave and transept rises an imposing square tower, the dome of which was unfortunately ruined by fire in the seventeenth century and was replaced by another which is too low. Doors made of stones of many colours fitted together open into the interior of the temple. Since the introduction of Calvinism altars, statues of the saints, and sacred vessels have disappeared; even the relics of the founder were scattered to the winds. The burial sites of the jarls have likewise been forgotten.

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