Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Orkney economy was and still is based on farming; fishing is of minor importance. Fifty-two percent of the land is classified as arable land. In earlier centuries, black oats and bere barley were the staple grains. Kale and (later) potatoes were also Important. Every family had a pig, a cow, and a few hens and geese. Because of the cool and rainy growing season, the oats and barley had to be dried in small home kilns. In 1830, and especially after 1850, the estate owners began programs of "agricultural improvements." Fragmented small fields were consolidated, commons were enclosed, soil liming was used to enrich the soil, new grasses for hay were seeded, silage making was encouraged, and beef-cattle raising was encouraged. New, larger breeds of sheep and cattle replaced the smaller, older breeds. Sheep numbers declined, although the ancient sheep still survive on North Ronaldsay. Kelp burning for ash, which was sold to glass makers, ended, and the kelp was used to enrich the soil. Beef, mutton, and other farm products found a ready market in the growing industrial cities of Scotland and England. In the twentieth century, farm mechanization furthered this change to the extent that farming became a business rather than a way of life.
Other sources of livelihood include some fishing and fish processing, a whiskey distillery, cheese making, tourism (in the summer), and the development of the nearby North Sea oil fields (since 1970). Recently, crab and lobster fishing have been developed. Peat, the traditional local fuel, has to a great extent been supplemented by coal, electric power, and now petroleum products.
Industrial Arts. Industrial growth has been inhibited Because of the lack of trees, metallic ores, and coal on the Islands. Island crafts include some wooden fishing-boat building, a tweed mill, the making of silver jewelry using ancient Celtic and Norse designs, home knitting, and straw-backed chair making.
Trade. Trade in beef cattle, mutton, and frozen and processed fish link Kirkwall and Stromness with the major ports in Scotland. Shops and businesses such as bakeries, printers, food markets, hardware, clothing, and furniture are concentrated in Kirkwall and Stromness, the only towns of any size and importance.
Division of Labor. On the farms and crofts, women did the cooking, baking, dairying, and washing. Between 1900 and 1960, when poultry and egg production was important, women cared for the chickens and controlled the monies from them and the eggs. Men cared for the beef cattle, did the heavy agricultural fieldwork, and fished.
Land Tenure. The land-tenure system is a complex mixture that has evolved from the old Norse Udal system, Scottish feudalism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Crofters' Holdings Act, and modern individually owned farms. In the Udal system, each legitimate child inherited part of the land and other property. After the Scottish earls arrived, they gained control of much of the land and became large estate owners. The farmers and others became tenants who paid rents in kind. After the Crofters' Holdings Act of 1886, the rents were fixed and land security was protected. In the twentieth century, the estates were broken up and private use and titles became more important.