Orkney Islands (Norse, Orkneyar, from ork. "whale," and eyar, "islands;" Latin, Orcades), a compact group, separated from Caithness by the Pentland Firth, and counted a Scottish possession, are situated between 58° 41' 24" and 59° 23' 2' N. lat., and-between 2° 22' 2"; and 3° 25' 10" W. long.; and cover an area of 244.8 square miles, or 156,672 acres. The surface is very irregular, and the land is indented by numerous arms of the sea. Previous to the middle of the last century the agriculture of Orkney was, in more than an ordinary degree for the time, in a primitive state. There was little communication then with the mainland, and improvements were slowly adopted. The spinning-wheel for instance, was not introduced there for half a century after it was in use elsewhere. Until towards the end of last century, little advance seems to have been made in the management of the land, the inhabitants deeming it more important and profitable to direct their attention to the manufacture of kelp. They suffered periodically from bad seasons and violent storms, when less help could be afforded to them from without. In recent times the agricultural and mechanical industries have been in a more healthy state, and their exports, which in 1848 amounted only to £49,308, now run up to £200,000 annually. The temperature of the Orkneys is comparatively mild, considering their northern latitude. This arises partly from the surrounding sea, but chiefly from the neighborhood of the Gulf Stream to the western ssres. the mean temperature in February, the coldest month, taking a series of thirty-three years from 1826, was 380, and in July 55.140. Only twice during that period did the mean monthly temperature fall below the freezing-point, in February, 1838 and 1855, when it fell to 310 and 31.640; and during the same period it was never so high as 600, except in 1852, when it reached 60.640. Of the 67 islands, only about 30 are inhabited, by 32,395 (in 1885) people. The principal of these inhabited islands are Pomona, or Mainland, Hoy, North and South Ronaldshay, Westray, Salida, Eday, Stronsay, Rorgsay, Ind Shapinshay. The chief towns are Kirkwall, the capital, and Stromness.
History.—The Orkneys, under the name Orcades (whence the modern adjective Orcadian), are mentioned by the ancient geographers, Pliny, Ptolemy; Mela, and by other classical writers, but of their inhabitants we know almost nothing till the dawn of the Middle Ages. They were most probably of the same stock as the British Celts. From an early period, however, the Norsemen resorted to these islands, as a convenient spot from which to make a descent on the Scotch and English coasts. In 876 Harald Haarfager conquered both them and the Hebrides. During the greater part of the 10th century they were ruled by independent Scandinavian jarls (earls), but in 1098 they became formally subject to the Norwegian crown. Thus they remain till 1488, when they were given to James III of Scotland as a security for the dowry of his wife, Margaret of Denmark. The islands were never redeemed from this pledge; and in 1590, on the marriage of James I with the Danish princess Anne, Denmark formally resigned all pretensions to the sovereignty of the Orkneys. During their long connection, however, with Norway and Denmark, all traces of the primitive Celtic population disappeared, and the present inhabitants are of the pure Scandinavian stock.
Religion. — Christianity was introduced into the Orkneys by the Norsemen in the beginning of the 11th century. Down to the time of the Reformation the Orkneys and Shetland Isles formed a separate bishopric, under the archbishop of Trondhjem, and the bishop's seat was Kirkevaag, the present Kirkwall. After the establishment of Presbyterianism Orkney was divided into 32 parishes, having 8 parishes of the Church of Scotland. At present, however, the -Orkneys are divided into 22 parishes, forming 3 presbyteries and 1 synod. There are also about 30 congregations belonging to the Free and United Presbyterian churches, besides 3 Independent, and one or two others. See Orkneyinga Saga; Munch, Det norske Folks Historie.