Orkney history of human life dates back 12,000 years. This remote Unesco World Heritage site offers a fascinating insight into human development through the ages.
Wilderness Guide and Orkney expert, Lorraine Mccall reveals the basics of ancient Orkney history throughout the Neolithic period.
- Check out our itinerary for a guided walking adventure in Orkney.
- Read Lorraine’s follow-up article; Neolithic Orkney – an Essential Guide
The Orkney archipelago is a unique mixture of ancient and modern. These magical islands are a dream for archaeologists, birdwatchers, historians, divers, storytellers, and those who love beaches and wild open spaces. They played an important part in both the first and second world wars and more recently have been at the forefront of developments in wave and tidal power.
The Neolithic Heart of Orkney is a Unesco World Heritage site and it is this great heritage that we are going to look at in more detail:
12000 years ago the last ice age was in retreat. With the retreat of the ice came the arrival of the Hunter Gatherers from the south. It may have been possible to walk from the British Mainland on to Orkney during this process. At this time Orkney was not an archipelago but one island. Sea levels have been gradually rising since.
Dwellings were found close to the sea but data is sparse as the rising seas have hidden evidence. There are signs of ‘middens’ or dumps that were the result of the waste from eating nuts and shellfish and remnants of bone from fishing and hunting sea and land mammals.
Middens and tools have been discovered in places like Stenness on the mainland and in other islands including Stronsay and Papa Westray. Museums in Kirkwall and Stromness show early tools like arrowheads. The island must have been a good place for hunting and fishing because what is now known as the Mesolithic, mid-stone age, lasted for some 3000 years.
Sometime around 6000BC a great tidal wave, the Storegga Tsunami came from the North almost submerging the island and causing devastation to the land, the animals and people. This was the beginning of the end of the Mesolithic age.
What happened to the Hunter Gatherers?
By 3,300 BC there was no longer any evidence of these people. Did they move on or were they slowly integrated into the new way of life? The fact that there is no written language leaves a lot to circumspection and archaeologists have no definitive answers.