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Frequently Asked Questions

Why don’t Orcadians like to hear the islands referred to as "the Orkneys"?

In the same way you wouldn’t refer to "the Irelands", "the New Zealands" or "the Hawaiis", Orcadians don't refer to the islands as "the Orkneys". However it is a common mistake made by visitors and the national, and international, media.

It is just "Orkney".

Strictly speaking the name is already plural as "Orkney" is simply a shortened version of the Old Norse "Orkneyjar", meaning "Seal Islands"

(See also: Is 'The Orkneys' ever right? by Dr Peter Anderson)

What about the main island - what's it called?

Orcadians simply refer to it as the Mainland.

It is becoming more common to hear visitors and incomers calling it "Mainland" and talking about "their trip around Mainland" or "we spent three days on Mainland".

This is something an Orcadian will never say.

It's a trip around "the Mainland" or "we spent three days on the Mainland."

But I've heard the Mainland is also called "Pomona"

This name, which is never used by Orcadians, stems from a mistranslation of an early Roman passage. Click here for full details.

Do the people of Orkney speak Gaelic?

No. Gaelic was never spoken in Orkney, unless the language of the Picts - the inhabitants of the islands before the Norsemen took them - was an early form of Gaelic. This is itself highly debatable.

The Norse settled the isles from the 8th century onwards and brought with them their own language, Old Norse, which replaced the Pictish language.

Old Norse adapted over the years into the language known as Norn, which remained the language of the rural Orcadians until finally dying out in the 18th century.

Orkney’s placenames are more or less completely derived from Old Norse with only handful of possible Gaelic "borrowed" words.

So can I learn Orkney Norn?

No. Only a few scraps of the language remains.

Few Orcadian speakers of Norn had the inclination, or the ability, to write. So, when the language was finally overtaken by Scots, it simply vanished. On saying that however, elements of Norn still exist within Orcadian dialect.

For more details on Norn, click here.

My family are from Orkney.
Why don’t they have a tartan or belong to a clan?

Quite simply tartan, clans, bagpipes et al, are traditions from the Scottish Highlands.

Orkney and Shetland never operated under the clan system, with surnames either being patronymic - i.e. Sigurd Erlendson - or changeable until the eighteenth century.

As an example, surnames more commonly came from where the person was actually from. To a certain extent this still exists today.

David Towrie of Clickimin, for example, would generally be referred to locally only as David o’ Clickimin.This was more common in early years, so a person's surname might change over a period of years as he moved from dwelling to dwelling. However, Jimmy Leonard of Langskaill might leave Langskaill after many years but would always be referred to thereafter as "Cheemy o' Langskaill".

Using the fictional character, John, who moved from the Orkney Mainland onto one of the islands, say Rousay. There he might be referred to as John Mainland. Moving back to the Mainland a few years later he may become John Rousay etc etc.

As such tartans, clans and all the associated trappings are not a part of the islands' indigenous culture.

Orkney Flag
The unofficial flag of Orkney
Orkney Flag
The new - and approved - Orkney flag.

Does Orkney have a flag?

It does....

For years, Orcadians flew the "Cross of St Magnus" as pictured top right.

However, this flag was not recognised by the Scotland's heraldic authority, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who decreed it could not be sanctioned for official use.

The reason? The design, he said, was too similar to a number of coat-of-arms, in particular the old arms of the Kingdom of Ulster.

However, some supporters insisted that Orkney has a right to use the flag, the design of which, say some, was that of the flag of the Kalmar Union -- a union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark from 1397 until 1512. Click here for more details.

The protests were in vain, however, and, in April 2007, a new design was chosen from a number submitted by members of the public.

The favoured design was submitted by Duncan Tullock, from Birsay, and featured a blue and yellow Nordic cross on a red background.

Is it true it never gets dark in the summer?

More or less. At midsummer, June 21, the sun only sets around 10.30pm, but even then barely dips below the western horizon. As a result, there are no real hours of darkness, merely an extended twilight period.

At this time it is perfectly possible to read outdoors at midnight.

Click here for more on the summer and winter solstice.

What is Udal Law?

There has been some concern in the Northern Isles recently that the traditional rights afforded to people in Orkney and Shetland under the ancient Norse system of udal law will be scrapped as a result of proposals being considered by the Scottish Law Commission.

The subject of Udal Law, as applies to Orkney, remains a contentious subject – over 1,000 years since Norse settlers first introduced it to the islands.

But what exactly is Udal Law?

At the root of Udal law was the principle of the bonder – farmers who owned their properties outright and owed fealty to no superior.

But although the udal system meant the bonder had no immediate superior, there were still obligations to the Norwegian Crown. Not only was a udaller expected to take up arms for the Norwegian King if required, but he also paid scat – a form of tax to the crown.

The other main distinction between udal and feudal law was the manner in which land was passed on. In Udal Law no written deed was required to transfer udal land and agreements were concluded verbally.

This meant a lack of written deeds, a fact that led to problems after Orkney was annexed to Scotland. Not only did the system baffle the Scots, but it was also extensively abused and Scottish landowners used the lack of deeds to appropriate land from udallers.

After death, udal property was passed to the udaller’s offspring – daughters receiving half as much as the sons. Inevitably, this practice led to fragmentation of land.

Udal Law also included, and still includes, ownership of the foreshore. This extended to the lowest point of the ebb, and also the ground further out, or marebakke, which is where the foreshore becomes steep at a depth of from two to five metres at the ebb tide.

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