Gaelic nameArcaibh
Norse nameOrkneyjar
Meaning of name"Ork" possibly originally from a Pictish tribal name meaning ‘young pig’.[1]
Orkney Islands Arms.jpg
Coat of arms
Orkney Islands UK relief location map.jpg
Orkney is located in Scotland
Orkney shown within Scotland
Coordinates59°0′N 3°2′W / 59°0′N 3°2′W / 59.000; -3.033
Physical geography
Island groupNorthern Isles
Area990 km2 (380 sq mi)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaOrkney Islands Council
Population22,100 (2017)
Population density20/km2 (52/sq mi)
Largest settlementKirkwall

Orkney i/ (Old Norse: Orkneyjar), also known as the Orkney Islands,[Notes 1] is an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, situated off the north coast of the island of Great Britain. Orkney is 10 miles (16 km) north of the coast of Caithness and has about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited.[3][4][5] The largest island, Mainland, is often referred to as "the Mainland", and has an area of 523 square kilometres (202 sq mi), making it the sixth-largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles.[6] The largest settlement and administrative centre is Kirkwall.[7]

Orkney is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland, a constituency of the Scottish Parliament, a lieutenancy area, and a historic county. The local council is Orkney Islands Council, one of only three Councils in Scotland with a majority of elected members who are independents.[Notes 2]

A form of the name dates to the pre-Roman era. The islands have been inhabited for at least 8,500 years, originally occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes and then by the Picts. Orkney was colonised and later annexed by Norway in 875 and settled by the Norse. The Scottish Parliament then annexed the earldom to the Scottish Crown in 1472, following the failed payment of a dowry for James III's bride Margaret of Denmark.[10]

In addition to the Mainland, most of the remaining islands are in two groups, the North and South Isles, all of which have an underlying geological base of Old Red Sandstone. The climate is mild and the soils are extremely fertile, most of the land being farmed. Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy. The significant wind and marine energy resources are of growing importance, and the island[which?] generates more than its total yearly electricity demand using renewables. The local people are known as Orcadians and have a distinctive dialect of the Scots language and a rich inheritance of folklore. Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, and the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is an abundance of marine and avian wildlife.


An old map of two island groups with the "Orcades" at left and "Schetlandia" at right. A coat of arms at top left shows a red lion rampant on a yellow shield flanked by two white unicorns. A second heraldic device is shown at bottom right below the "Oceanus Germanicus". This has two mermaids surrounding a tabula containing very small writing, topped by a yellow and blue shield.
Blaeu's 1654 map of Orkney and Shetland. Map makers at this time continued to use the original Latin name "Orcades" .

Pytheas of Massilia visited Britain – probably sometime between 322 and 285 BC – and described it as triangular in shape, with a northern tip called Orcas.[11] This may have referred to Dunnet Head, from which Orkney is visible.[12] Writing in the 1st century AD, the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela called the islands Orcades, as did Tacitus in 98 AD, claiming that his father-in-law Agricola had "discovered and subjugated the Orcades hitherto unknown"[12][13] (although both Mela and Pliny had previously referred to the islands[11]). Etymologists usually interpret the element orc- as a Pictish tribal name meaning "young pig" or "young boar".[Notes 3][1] Speakers of Old Irish referred to the islands as Insi Orc "island of the pigs".[15][16] The archipelago is known as Ynysoedd Erch in modern Welsh and Arcaibh in modern Scottish Gaelic, the -aibh representing a fossilized prepositional case ending.

Some earlier sources alternately hypothesise that Orkney comes from the Latin "orca", whale.[17][18]

The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede refers to the islands as Orcades insulae in Ecclesiastical History of the English People.[19]

Norwegian settlers arriving from the late ninth century reinterpreted orc as the Old Norse orkn "seal" and added eyjar "islands" to the end,[20] so the name became Orkneyjar "Seal Islands". The plural suffix -jar was later removed in English leaving the modern name "Orkney". According to the Historia Norwegiæ, Orkney was named after an earl called Orkan.[21]

The Norse knew Mainland, Orkney as Megenland "Mainland" or as Hrossey "Horse Island".[22] The island is sometimes referred to as Pomona (or Pomonia), a name that stems from a sixteenth-century mistranslation by George Buchanan, which has rarely been used locally.[23][24]