Orkney: ‘the most dangerous place of all Christendom’

  • Themes: History

Orkney's sense of difference from the Scottish mainland is rooted in the distant past and the archipelago's turbulent modern history.

Rough seas around Orkney.
Rough seas around Orkney. Credit: mark ferguson / Alamy Stock Photo

Storm’s Edge: Life, Death and Magic in the Islands of Orkney, Peter Marshall, Harper Collins, £25

In 1542, as Anglo-Scottish relations worsened, Henry VIII considered taking a new approach to his problematic northern neighbour. The proposed strategy involved invading the Northern Isles, and so he appointed a committee to investigate the viability of this plan. When the committee produced its report, it was extremely discouraging: Orkney was ‘very dangerous and full of rocks’, the Pentland Firth was ‘the most dangerous place of all Christendom’, and a raid would achieve only ‘danger and the loss of the ships’. The decisive battle was instead fought at Solway Moss, where the Scots suffered a disastrous defeat.

Other early modern descriptions of Orkney and its people were equally damning. In the late 1500s, the clergyman John Bonar described Orkney as a place of frequent shipwrecks and monstrous whales; the men were drunkards and the women were wanton: ‘I think on account of the abundance of fish.’ Two centuries later, the lay preacher James Haldane toured the islands, concluding that they were ‘as much in need of the Gospel of Christ… as any of the islands of the South Pacific’. And when Walter Scott visited in 1814, he was unimpressed, describing Kirkwall as ‘a base little borough, both dirty and mean’. Stromness was even worse.

Peter Marshall, the author of this engaging new history of early modern Orkney, takes a rather less jaundiced approach to the islands. As a Wolfson Prize-winning historian, who was born and raised in Orkney, he is well-placed to tell its story, and to explain why it has so often been seen (by both residents and outsiders) as a place apart from the mainland.

This sense of difference was, Marshall shows, rooted in Orkney’s distant past. Historically, its main ties were not with the British Isles, but with Scandinavia: for much of the Middle Ages, Orkney was a central hub in Norway’s maritime empire, and part of the diocese of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim). Only in 1468 did the islands pass into Scottish control, under the terms of the treaty that accompanied James III’s marriage to Margaret of Denmark. This transfer of ownership was intended to be a temporary one, and for the next two centuries the islands’ status was often under debate. Such political uncertainty, along with significant cultural differences (not least the fact that Norn, a form of Old Norse, was spoken as late as the 18th century), gave the islanders a distinct identity.

Orkney’s location was also significant, making it both the focus of invasion plots and a target for piracy by nations at war with the British. It also meant that the islands had little direct contact with their monarchs: James V was the only one to visit in person, when he came to assert his authority in 1540. For much of its history it was in the hands of a series of (often problematic) overlords, such as the notorious Patrick Stewart, whose cruelty, greed and ungodliness earned him the nickname ‘Black Patie’. When he was executed for treason in 1615, it was rumoured that his beheading had to be delayed for several days so that he could learn the Lord’s Prayer.

Yet despite its remoteness (which should not be exaggerated — news of the Restoration took only two days to reach South Ronaldsay), Orkney was often directly affected by external politics, and by placing it at the centre of his narrative Marshall allows us to see familiar events from a new perspective. The islands had a particularly difficult time during the Interregnum, when more than a thousand Orcadians (many of them conscripted) were involved in a disastrous attempt to invade Caithness on behalf of the exiled Charles II. He promised but failed to provide reinforcements, leading to a crushing defeat at the Battle of Carbisdale, which resulted in the deaths of more Orcadians than the First World War. From 1652, hundreds of English soldiers were garrisoned in the islands; their hostile attitudes and disruptive behaviour caused considerable hardship to the local people.

Orkney also experienced the religious turmoil that affected all of Europe during this period. Although outsiders frequently claimed that the islands were a spiritual backwater, all the evidence suggests that late medieval Orcadians were conventionally Catholic. In particular, they were devoted to St Magnus, a martyred 12th-century earl of Orkney, whose shrine in Kirkwall Cathedral was an important place of pilgrimage. When it came, in the 1560s, Orkney’s Reformation seems to have been a relatively slow one, for which there was little popular enthusiasm. Indeed, the secret preservation of saints’ statues and relics inside Kirkwall Cathedral suggests that some of the clergy were equally unimpressed.

Enforcing the new ideas was hard given that, as Marshall puts it, ‘God’s word was spread scrapingly thin in Reformation-era Orkney’. Its bishops were often absentees, and there was a chronic lack of clergy: in the late 1560s there were only seven ministers for a population of around 18,000, and some islands did not have resident priests until the mid-19th century. In the circumstances, it is easy to see how Burray managed to preserve its image of St Peter until the 1640s – although, by that time, Orkney was largely adhering to the new religion.

Conformity was encouraged by the growing influence of the Kirk, which intruded into almost every aspect of ordinary peoples’ lives. It provided both charity and education, and punished problematic behaviours, such as slander and sexual immorality. By the late 17th century, most parishes made couples pay a deposit when their engagement was announced – and kept it if the arrival of a baby suggested that they were guilty of antenuptial fornication. Inevitably, some clerics fell foul of their own rules: the Sanday minister Murdoch Mackenzie had to resign when his new wife gave birth just six months after their wedding.

Sabbath-breaking was another serious offence, to which teenagers were especially prone. In 1643 a group of young men and women were punished for ‘wading in the sea promiscuously and using lascivious gestures’; 15 years later some apprentices got in trouble for throwing snowballs. Even seemingly harmless pursuits could be prosecuted. One father was hauled before the sessions for taking his boat out to rescue his son’s model ship, and was punished even though he had acted ‘out of pity of the weeping child’. In early 18th-century Kirkwall, patrols were established to arrest anyone found ‘vaging’ (wandering aimlessly) after the Sunday sermon.

The authorities were also keen to eliminate the traditional superstitions with which the islands were strongly associated. There was, for example, a strong belief in fairies: women in labour held knives and Bibles to stop them stealing their babies, while Bishop Graham (1615-38) was rumoured to be advised by the ‘Brownie of Breckness’, who gave him business tips and informed on the local people. Orkney was also associated with more dangerous forms of magic: James VI (who viewed himself as something of an expert on the subject) suggested that witches were often found in ‘wild parts of the world’, such as the Northern Isles, because ‘where the Devil finds great ignorance and barbarity, there he assails the grossliest’.

Marshall (who argues convincingly that Orkney’s witch trials are not evidence of isolation, but further proof that they were affected by international events) has identified nearly 100 individuals named as witches between 1594 and 1708. Many of these cases concern female healers and soothsayers, such as Katherine Biglond (who was accused of transferring a wasting sickness from her master to his servant) and Bessie Skebister (who could foresee whether ships would return home safely, but was also blamed for wrecking them). Others were linked to political divisions: one particularly horrific case concerned a woman named Alison Balfour, who was executed after being implicated in a plot to kill Earl Patrick. Her whole family, including her seven-year-old daughter, was tortured.

By the 18th century, modernity was increasingly making itself felt in Orkney – a development which was not always welcomed by the islanders. The introduction of lighthouses, for example, led to fewer wrecks, but this deprived residents of a valuable source of income. The growth of the kelp industry was particularly controversial, and in 1741-2, following several years of famine, there were riots across the islands. It was widely believed that the bad harvests and livestock deaths had been caused by smoke from kelp production, and that the removal of seaweed was driving fish and limpets away from the shores. Nevertheless, the industry continued to grow, and the profits it generated led to higher standards of living for the islanders, including access to modern luxuries such as tea, muslin, and smallpox inoculation.

By 1785, when the future William IV made a brief stopover in Orkney, it was a very different place to the one visited by his distant royal ancestor 250 years earlier, yet it retained (and still retains) its own distinctive character. Marshall’s thoroughly researched account of how this transformation was wrought raises important questions about how nations and national identities are constructed – and reminds us that nowhere is marginal to the people who live there.


Katherine Harvey