Identification. The Orkney Islands constitute one of the three "Special Island Areas" of Scotland. Prior to the fifteenth century, the Norse were the majority of the population. After 1469, Scottish settlers arrived in increasing numbers and, in time, supplanted the older culture and Language. The Romans called the islands "Orcades." Early Irish writers called them "Insi Orc" or "Islands of the Boar."
Location. The Orkneys are located to the northeast of northern Scotland. They consist of 90 islands, of which only 23 are inhabited. They are separated from Scotland by the 10-kilometer-wide Pentland Firth and are 83 kilometers south of the Shetland Islands. They extend from 58°41′ to 59°24′ N and from 2°22′ to 3°26′ W. The largest island, Mainland, which makes up half the land area, is 39 kilometers long in an east-west direction. The northerly islands are Rousay, Shapinsay, Westray, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay, and the more remote island of North Ronaldsay. The southern Islands, separated from Mainland by the inland sea of Scapa Flow, are Hoy and South Ronaldsay. With the exception of high cliffs and hills on the western coasts, the treeless islands consist of broad lowlands and low-lying hills. The spectacular red sandstone sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy, is a famous landmark. The highest point is Ward Hill (549.5 meters) on Hoy.
A subarctic oceanic climate and vegetation pattern prevails. This is conditioned by the Gulf Stream, North Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. Severe winter gales occur at times. The January mean temperature is 4° C and the July mean is 13° C. The annual rainfall averages between 150 and 250 centimeters.
Demography. In 1981, the population of the Orkney Islands was 19,040, of which 14,900 lived on Mainland. The largest town and the administrative center is Kirkwall (Population 4,600 in 1971); Stromness (population 1,477 in 1961) is the only other large town. All other communities are very small. Since 1861, the population has slowly declined.
Linguistic Affiliation. The local dialect of English is derived from earlier forms of lowland Scottish English. It still retains many words of Norn, the former dialect of Norwegian, which died out in the seventeenth century.