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  A Brief History of Orkney

The Picts - 300-800AD

Pictish Man: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieFrom the writings of the classical authors who mention northern Britain, we know that by the fourth century AD the Picts - known to the Romans as "Picti" or "Painted People" - were the predominant force in northern Scotland.

Orkney was, at least for a time, part of this Pictish Kingdom, probably with its own local ruler, but owing fealty to a central High King.

Adomnan, the biographer of St Columbus, states that there were Orcadians at the court of the Pictish High King, Bridei, in 565 AD. These Orcadians were described as "hostages" which could imply that relations between Orkney and Pictish King was perhaps strained - the hostages being Bridei's insurance policy to keep Orkney on a tight leash. Some historians, however, have pointed out that these 'hostages' could have an altogether less hostile interpretation and that they were merely guests at the King's court.

Although we now think they were simply the descendants of the original broch builders, surprisingly little is known about the Pictish Orcadians. This lack of evidence is due in part to the fact that the Romans, the major chroniclers of early British History, did not make it this far north in any great number. And we must remember that the Romans regarded the northern Picts as little more than savages.

The most typically Pictish items that can still be seen today are the numerous ornately carved symbol stones dotted across northern Scotland. The meaning of these symbol stones is still debated today. Orkney only boasts a handful of these symbol stones, the most famous being the one found on the The Brough of Birsay, an offshore island settlement on the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. The Brough is known to have been a Pictish site before the Norsemen claimed it for their own.

Orkney's first contact with the new religion of Christianity was more than likely in the sixth century but the islands can not said to have been under church authority until the eighth century.

It was at an even later date that the islands could be said to be totally "Christianised" - we must remember that the successors to the Picts were the pagan Norsemen - some of whom were reluctant to give up the ways of their forefathers.

The fate of Orkney's Picts remains a controversial question to this day. Were they completely obliterated by the settling Vikings or did the two live together in peaceful co-existence.

There are supporters in both camps and the question remains hotly debated. Click here for more details.

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