By Fiona Grahame
This article first appeared in the September issue of iScot Magazine
Scotland is a nation of islands. Although today most of our population lives in an urban mainland setting, no one is ever far from the sea. In the past the sea was the main transport system being the quickest way to move around the land mass.
The earliest settlers came to Orkney by sea routes in boats crammed with their livestock, grains and peedie rodent stowaways. The closest ‘relative’ to the unique Orkney vole is found in Northern Europe, round about Belgium. The islands of Orkney were fertile, abundant in wildlife sheltering in woodland. The warmer climate, 3 to 4 degrees warmer than the summer highs of 16C that we experience now, allowed the inhabitants to prosper. The ancient Devonian sandstone was ideal for the construction of massive buildings and stone circles. Today we have the architectural skeletal remains of what must have been an impressive civilisation.
The Iron Age saw the Broch builders guarding their farms and trading routes with towering homes where in time of danger villagers could find refuge hunkering down with a few prize animals. The brochs, found in the North of Scotland and the Northern Isles, have modern builders entranced by the skill of their construction and still puzzled at how the roof was designed. Internally, multiple floors and compartments divide up the living space but the overall impression is one of defence from a danger brought by the sea.
Orkney was part of the Pictish Kingdoms. The Picts held the line against the advance of the Roman Empire. Branded as ‘blue barbarians’ by the invader, Pictish art work tells us a different story than the one written by the Latin scholars. The picture painted then of a vicious warrior people battling naked except for their many tattoos is one that has remained in many of the history books. The Picts in Orkney were a successful culture with excellent sea trading routes. They have left only a few place names in the islands, Papay being one of them, of this once great Celtic People. The Christianised Picts of Orkney who had used the sea to their great advantage were obliterated by the men from the North who were masters of the seas.
The term Viking is misused by many as it encompasses a diverse group of invaders who came from Northern Europe. For Orkney the sea brought men from Norway, perhaps first as traders, quickly followed by invasion and settlement. No one knows if there was wholesale genocide of the native inhabitants but the few Norse who first came would require labourers and slaves were a valuable commodity not to be wasted with a killing spree. The culture of the Orcadian Picts was destroyed and replaced by the new settlers who used the sea routes as those who had done before them, reaching down the West Coast, across to Scotland or back to their links with their historic homeland.
The Orkney Earls retained their Norse heritage but Christianisation and the close proximity of the growing nation of Scotland began to erode those ancient Viking links. The Pentland Firth is a treacherous piece of sea to cross but is a few hours in a sailing vessel as opposed to some days journey to the coastline of Norway. It was another trading deal, this one done with Royal lives, and repayment of default on a debt that saw the islands of Orkney being transferred to the increasingly confident nation of Scotland in 1472.
In the 21st century the sea brings cruise ships, floating tower blocks containing more people than most of our small towns. The power of the waves and the tides is harnessed by machines generating electricity to be transported south whilst our households struggle with the highest fuel poverty rates in Scotland.
Today the virtually treeless landscape of Orkney with its ever changing wide skies is amongst the bonniest in a Scotland where natural beauty abounds. But it is always to the sea that the eyes are drawn. The sea from which we were born, where our past inhabits and where our future lies.