The Orkney Islands

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The Orkney Islands Travel Guide

About 32 km north of Scotland, separated from the mainland by the strait of Pentland Firth lie the Orkneys , - a group of more than 70 small islands, largely uninhabited. The largest island in the Orkneys is Mainland (also called Pomona), and it is Mainland that the two main settlements of the Orkney Islands are situated - Stromness and Kirkwall, both with picturesque streets, old churches and a long and interesting history.

The Orkneys, thanks to their inhospitable climate (it’s extremely windy and cold this far north), are virtually treeless, but agriculture has nevertheless become one of the main sectors of the region’s economy. Gradually, however, another sector is growing in importance- that of tourism. Although still not as popular as the neighbouring Shetlands, the Orkneys too are rapidly becoming known for their wild beauty, their historic monuments and their cultural traditions.

Once known in classical literature as the Orcades, the Orkneys were occupied as far back as the Stone Age (evidences still remain, in the form of standing stones, circles and houses made of earth). Sometime in the 8th century, the Norsemen arrived from continental Europe in their longboats, and within a century or so, had occupied the islands completely. Celtic missionaries arrived soon after, but the Norsemen did not convert to Christianity till much later.

The Norsemen (or rather, their countries- Norway and Denmark) continued to rule the Orkneys for a good six centuries; but in 1472, they were forced to cede the islands to Scotland (along with the Shetland Islands) as compensation for non-payment of the dowry of Margaret, the Danish Queen of King James III. Ever since the Orkneys came into British hands, they’ve been fairly quiet and uneventful; except for the important role they played during World War II- within the islands is Scapa Flow, among the most vital coastal areas of the UK, and an important naval base.

Westray and Papa Westray, two of the Orkney Islands with a population of 700 and 85 respectively, have the shortest scheduled air route in the world. The flight time between the two islands is just 1.5 minutes!

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