earliest surviving mention of the Orkney Islands is found in the accounts of the Roman geographer
Writing around 56BC, Diodorous set
out to record an account of, what was then, the known world.
Diodorous's account is based on a report by the Greek sailor
Pytheas of Massilia, who is thought to have sailed around Britain
in 325 BC.
Pytheas' account of this journey, Concerning the Ocean, has since been lost, but his work was extensively quoted from over the following centuries.
Diodorus described Britain as triangular. The three points
of this triangle, he wrote, were Cantium, Belerium and, jutting out
into the open sea, Orkas - a place of immense waves.
"Britain is triangular in shape, much as is Sicily, but its sides are not equal. The island stretches obliquely along the coast of Europe, and the point where it is least distant from the continent, we are told, is the promontory which men call Kantion and thus is about one hundred stades from the mainland, at the place where the sea has its outlet, whereas the second promontory, known as Belerion, is said to be a voyage of four days from the mainland, and the last, writers tell us, extends out into the open sea and is named Orkas."
This promontory, Orkas or Orcas, is generally thought to be Dunnett Head in Caithness - the most northerly point of mainland Scotland. From here, Orkney is clearly visible across the Pentland Firth.
By the first century
AD, the islands were being referred to by their Latin name "Orcades" - the maps of the Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, being the earliest surviving record
of this name.
Later, around 98 AD, the Roman writer
Tacitus, while documenting the campaigns of his father-in-law, the Roman general Agricola,
states that after the defeat of the Picts
at the battle of Mons Graupius, Agricola despatched a force to sail around
the northern tip of Britain.
This expedition, which took place around 84AD, saw the explorers experience favourable weather and return unscathed after having first "discovered
and subjugated the Orcades hitherto unknown".
According to Tacitus, these islands
were "beaten by a wild and open sea".
He then goes on to tell
how the explorers sighted the island of Thule before being forced
southwards by the onset of winter.
The position of Thule has been
long debated but it is generally thought that the Roman seamen sighted
Shetland. Some scholars believe Agricola actually reached and landed in Shetland.
For more on alleged Roman contact with Orkney, click
Around 140 AD, the Greek geographer
Ptolemy of Alexandria produced an early map of Britain. Again using earlier
named three headlands - Tarvedrum quod [est] Orcas, Viruedrum and Veruvium.
The interpretations of these named headlands vary
but, regardless of opinion, it shows an early mention of Orkney being
used as a reference point.
By 1541, the name "Orcades"
was appearing on globes, earlier maps and charts usually having
very crude representations of Scotland.
For an example of a 17th century
map of Orkney, click here.
But although the Latin name continued in use on documents and maps, the islands' common name, Orkney, was in widespread use elsewhere.
For more on the Orkney placename, click here.