Orkney 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,
landscape and climate through the ages
While Orkney is now largely treeless, it was not
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.
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.