The landscape

Hoy Sound: 3D Graphics by Sigurd TowrieOrkney was honed to its present smooth contours by the action of the retreating Scandinavian ice sheets, which finally disappeared some 10,000 years ago.

Now, the islands are generally low, almost treeless, windswept and wet.

Orkney has no mountains – the highest elevation being Ward Hill, on Hoy, which reaches 1,560 feet. In fact, only Hoy, exceeds 1,000 feet.

The western, Atlantic-facing, coastlines of the islands are renowned for their dramatic sea-cliffs and awe-inspiring panoramic views, whereas the eastern coast are generally gentler with long, sandy beaches.

landscape and climate through the ages

While Orkney is now largely treeless, it was not always so.

Trees became established in Orkney in the early Mesolithic, where open forest and woodland consisting of hazel, birch and willow continued until the early Neolithic.

Mesolithic Orkney was covered by thick-forested areas on the lower levels, with open woodland, grassland and heath on the hillsides. The abundance of wood at this time is perhaps a factor in the lack of Mesolithic remains found, so far, in Orkney. Not only would the wood have perished, but any possible finds would now lie beneath sea level or thick banks of blanket peat.

By 3,500BC, Orkney had seen a decline in forest cover. This was due to human activity and aggravated by a deterioration in the climate. This loss of available wood for construction led to the increased use of stone as a building material – a fact that has left us with so many beautifully preserved prehistoric sites.

After the forests disappeared, heath and open woodland lasted through the Bronze Age (3,700 years ago), with pollen samples showing twice the current levels of woodland in Orkney. But during the Bronze Age, temperatures dropped and the rainfall levels increased – a change that made living and farming in the islands difficult. By the middle of the Bronze Age (around 1,500 BC) continued climatic deterioration saw the loss of woodland continue, with peat bog and heath becoming widespread.

Around 600BC, Orkney’s climate deteriorated further.

The islands became colder and wetter and, as peat and heather claimed the once-fertile high ground, upland cultivation became impossible. This forced people down to the low-lying areas, where the shortage of good, fertile soil meant land became precious and the competition for farmland may have led to a more aggressive society.

The climate and landscape of Orkney around this time was much as it is now – damp and windy.