‘Beyond Britannia, where the endless ocean opens, lies Orkney.’
Orosius, fifth century AD
The Orkney Islands lie off the northern tip of Scotland, where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet.
Orkney is made up of 70, or so, islands — of which, only 16 are inhabited. Exact agreement as to the total number of islands is difficult as many are little more than skerries – small uninhabited islets.
Lying on latitude 59 degrees north – which is only 50 miles south of Greenland – Orkney is, at its widest, 30 miles from east to west and 53 miles north to south.
With a total coastline of approximately 570 miles, the islands cover an area of 974 square kilometres (376 square miles), more than half of which is taken up by the Mainland, the group’s largest island.
Orkney can be divided into three distinct regions – the North Isles, the South Isles and the Mainland.
Of the islands, less than one-third are inhabited, the islands having a total population of 19, 245 (2001 census). The majority of people live on the Mainland, with the greatest population concentrations being around the main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness.
The principal island is now simply referred to as “the Mainland” – a corruption of the Old Norse “Meginland”. The Norse originally referred to the island as “Hrossey”, meaning “Horse Island” in Old Norse. The erroneous name “Pomona” can still sometimes be seen on the occasional modern map, but this stems from a Latin mistranslation and has never been used by Orcadians.
The Mainland can be divided into two “sectors” by an invisible line that runs roughly between Kirkwall and Scapa. These are known locally as the East Mainland and West Mainland. The usual way to refer to a location within these areas is to refer to their parish.
The Mainland is sub-divided into 13 parishes, these being:
Firth, Rendall, Evie, Birsay, Harray, Sandwick, Stenness, Orphir, Stromness.
Holm*, St Andrews**, Deerness
The final parish, St Ola, surrounds the town of Kirkwall.