Orcadian Identity

Having recently returned from the Orkney Isles, one thing that struck me was the strength and uniqueness of Orcadian identity. The people on the island do not identify as Scottish, but rather relate their belonging to ‘the Mainland’. This is not the Scottish mainland, which is a mere fourteen miles away, but the most populated group of islands in the archipelago which are now connected by a series of barriers. The power of this identity is such that upon noting how the prehistoric village of Skara Brae was free to enter due to coronavirus to a B&B owner, she replied that she may visit having previously never done so. Her reasoning for this was that Orcadians should not have to pay Scottish Heritage to visit ‘their’ monuments. 

The cliffs at Marwick Head and the Kitchner Memorial tower on the west coast of the Orkney Islands. (Credit: Martin McCarthy, via Getty Images)

The rich history of Orkney is very tangible. As well as Neolithic archaeology, the islands had a strong Norse influence during the Middle Ages. The Orkneyinga Saga, similar to other Viking age sagas like Heimskringla which were produced at the same time, provided a comprehensive history and sense of nationalism to Orcadians. The story of the Earls of Orkney continues to have a cultural legacy on Orcadian identity today. The unprecedented conservation of sites relating to it, as well as other archaeology, as Basu (2001) correctly notes, results in a strong sense of belonging that is rooted almost exclusively in history. In Orkney, it is undeniable that ‘ancestral places… are part of the living fabric of the community’ as modern crofts sit on top of the brochs of previous settlers. The people of Orkney are therefore trapped in their history through a tangible connection to ancestors which is rare elsewhere.

This connection to the past provides a potential explanation for why the B&B owner was reluctant to buy a ticket to visit Skara Brae. If history is such an inextricable part of culture and identity, and this history does not come from Scotland, then it makes sense for an uneasiness around modern geography dictating conservation and custody of sites. This is particularly true when it is considered that the significance of many sites has only been identified relatively recently. Skara Brae for example, a Neolithic settlement older than Stonehenge, was left completely unprotected from its accidental discovery in 1850 to 1927, and it only gained UNESCO status in 1999. Prior to modern conservation schemes, Orcadians were free to explore and children used sites as playgrounds, attaching to it an emotional significance as well as a historical one. As many sites have been accessible almost exclusively to Orcadians for so long, it links that there is a difficulty in distancing and letting them be conserved by external agencies.

Finally, it is worth considering the implication that the existence of such a uniquely tangible past has on the future, particularly the identity of young Orcadians. In 1999, a ‘homecoming’ of 150 Canadians of Orcadian descent took place. Looking at the accounts of participants, the sense of excitement to visit the crofts still situated in the same place their families lived previously, and therefore the durability of Orcadian identity, is clear. The isolated nature of the islands means that beyond the growing tourist industry, very little has changed for crofters. For this reason, it can be said that for Orcadians whose families have lived on the island for generations particularly, the strong identity provided by the archaeology that surrounds them means they are trapped in history. How long this will continue for however I am not sure.

Isobel Hine

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