The Iron Age - 800BC-500AD
The Iron Age in Orkney, as in the rest of Scotland,
seems to have been a time of change and unrest. At the time, the
people of Orkney were probably still arranged in
fragmented individual tribes, each likely to be under the
leadership of an
Climatic deterioration had begun in the Bronze
Age but around 600BC Orkney's climate deteriorated further. The
as peat and heather
the once-fertile high ground, upland cultivation became impossible,
forcing people down to the low-lying areas.
The shortage of good, fertile soil meant land
became precious and the competition for farmland may have led to
a more aggressive society. The construction of robust, fortified
dwellings in Orkney coincides with the expansion of the bronze industry
on the Scottish mainland - something that saw a marked increase
in the number of readily available weaponry.
began appearing from around 600BC, and by 100BC had evolved into
the massive, fortified stone towers we now know as brochs.
Although there is no denying their defensive
properties, it may be that the roundhouse and broch were as much
a visible symbol of
social status than a fortress or refuge.
Around 120 brochs have been recorded in Orkney,
but whether they were actually intended for defence, or were merely
a symbol of wealth and prestige, the popularity of the monumental
broch declined in importance around 100AD.
Orcadian society in
the Iron Age had formed into distinct social layers with an "aristocratic" ruling
class above the ordinary islander.
As in more recent history, a substantial and impressive dwelling
was a good way to mark territory and remind others of the individual's
standing in the community.
Throughout the Iron Age, metal goods were being
crafted in Orkney, with the metalworking at Minehowe in Tankerness
being hailed as one of one of the best assemblages
of Iron Age metalworking in Britain. Together with this industry,
there appears to have been an extensive series of trading
routes in operation.
During the Iron Age, Orkney was far from isolated,
with discoveries of Roman pottery and artefacts are a number of
broch sites as well as Minehowe
in Tankerness. The accounts of Pytheas
in 325BC shows that the islands were at least known in the Mediterranean.
The standard of life in Orkney seems to have been
quite high. Evidence shows that, by Iron Age standards, Orkney was
a prosperous and secure place.
This prosperity was the result of mixed farming
activities combined with fishing and hunting. Grain was grown
farming centred around the rearing of cattle - thus providing not
only meat and milk but also leather - pigs, sheep, hens and goats.
The broch builders also hunted, though this was not only through
but for leisure.
By the 4th and 5th centuries AD, patterns of farming
had changed in Orkney. Its Iron Age tribes had become part of the
Pictish nation. They lived in farmsteads across the Orcadian
landscape - one shamrock-shaped farm being built right next to the
Broch of Gurness.