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This chapter was last updated on 12th September 2008

A Relic Population of Picts

Flag of the Orkney Islands

A group of 70 islands, only 20 of which are populated.


Who Were They?

Where Did They Come From?

What Is Their History?

What Language Did They Speak?

What Happened To Them?

Who They Were

Part of the Ring of BrodgarIt is believed that Orkney has been inhabited for at least 5,500 years.  The first inhabitants were Neolithic tribes who originally came from the Iberian peninsula.

The Bronze age inhabitants were 'Beaker People", named after the peculiar clay pottery left in their burial chambers.  The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney.  The ring of stones stands on a small isthmus between the Loch of Stennes and Harray.  Originally there were 60 stones.

The centre of the circle has never been excavated or scientifically dated; the monument's age remains a mystery.  However, it is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.

The Iron Age  inhabitants of Albann north of the Firth of Forth were referred to as Picts by the Romans, evidence of which still exists in "weems" or underground houses, and "brochs" or round towers, such as the Broch of Gurness.  These structures indicate a Celtic influence.

Note:  Nes is an archaic Norse word meaning a headland or cape, and for that reason there are many places in Scotland that were once under Norse influence that include this word, i.e. Loch ness.

The Picts, similar to other emerging civilizations,  borrowed many words from other languages, and they used "nes" , by merely adding another "s" to double the consonant, and making it one of their own. 

Where They Came From

The first inhabitants, the Neolithic people, originally came from the Iberian peninsula.   Before that, they came from north Africa. 

The next inhabitants, the Beaker people, came from northern Europe.  How do we know this?  There are several clues; Language, Climate, Skin colour, Forced movement of peoples westward, DNA.

Language: The peculiar language of the northern Picts was unique in that it always doubled up on most consonants, such as "Nehhtonn" "Onnus" "Ness" and "Swinna".  This was not a Celtic characteristic but it was a Scandinavian characteristic (i.e. the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvasson).  Where else in Europe, do the inhabitants do this?  In Estonia, where their capital city is called "Tallinn" (i.e. Two other places there are called Naissaar and Hômme).

Interestingly, the very name of the excavation that gave the early Celts their cultural name is Hallstatt, which  doubles up on the most prominent consonants.  This coincidence suggests the Picts were influenced by both early Celts and Scandinavians, possibly being early Celts who became established in a Scandinavian area (or visa versa),  which suggests the "Cimbri" (northern Celt) origin is valid.  Also, The Welsh called themselves the "Cymri".

Climate:  In about 12,000 BC, the world suddenly turned warmer, and populations of northern Europe burgeoned.  Many people had to moved or starve.   Many trekked westwards, to relatively unsettled regions.

The northern peoples of Europe looked for places with a climate similar to that of their previous homelands.  They founded new settlements in North Britain, Ireland, Iceland, the Faroes, even Greenland.

Skin complexion:  We know the Greeks and Romans reported the Albiones/ Caledonians/ Picts were fair-skinned with red hair and long limbs.  These characteristics described northern Europeans, not southern Europeans.

Forced movement of peoples westward:  In the far east, the Chinese government built a huge wall along their northern border to keep out the Mongolian hordes.  Those Mongolian horsemen were fierce and unbeatable on their small ponies.  They turned westwards, and raided people who were not as ruthless as they.   A resultant ripple effect meant waves of people spreading westward ever pressing on the ones ahead.

Eventually, this effect caused the collapse of the Roman Empire as the Goths, Vandals, and Franks   poured over the eastern borders, created chaos, and the Vandals eventually captured Rome itself.

In south Britain, Germanic hordes rowed across the channel and settled England, driving many of the Celts into Wales, Brittany, and southern Scotland.  In north Britain, Norse and Danish Vikings raided, then settled.  

DNA Genome project: DNA furnishes an ever clearer picture of the multimillenial trek from Africa to every corner of the earth.  A recent genomic map of the world has clearly illustrated that native Orcadian (Pict) dna is closest to that of eastern Europeans, namely Russians, whose  founders were early Swedish Vikings.  These results definitely prove that Orcadians originated from the Baltic Sea area.  The most powerful Pict tribe were called "Caledonians" by the Romans.  Later, the population north of the Firth of Forth were referred to collectively as Picts.


They were the first people to live in Scotland, nomads who left little trace of their day-to-day lives. But the first evidence that early man built homes as far north as Orkney up to 10,000 years ago appears to have been uncovered by archaeologists. Tiny slivers of stone - combined with previously puzzling results from a geophysics survey - point to the presence of a settlement created by Mesolithic hunter gatherers.

The real evidence of Orkney's human history begins to appear at some point before the fourth millennium BC.  By this time the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic era had gradually evolved into an agricultural society, and small communities of farmers were making their way across the Pentland Firth from Caithness and western Scotland to settle in these fertile northern islands.

A charred hazelnut shell, recovered during the excavations at Longhowe in Tankerness in 2007, was  dated to 6820-6660 BC.  Apart from this, the earliest known settlement is at Knap of Howar, a Neolithic farmstead on the island of Papa Westray, and dates from 3500 BC. The village of Skara Brae, Europe's best-preserved Neolithic settlement, is believed to have been inhabited from around 3100 BC.

These Neolithic settlers of Orkney left an indelible mark on the landscape, primarily through chambered tombs, standing stones, and stone circles.  The most famous of these monuments are Maes Howe passage grave, the stone Circles of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, and Midhowe chambered cairn. These sites are part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

In addition to these sites there are hundreds of other ancient monuments in various stages of repair scattered throughout the Orkneys. The Ring of Brodgar is worth special note; this circle of 60 stones, of which 27 remain, was one of the primary circles whose study led to the now generally accepted theory that the need for accurate astronomical observation was one of the main factors that led Neolithic peoples to construct these enigmatic monuments.

As farmers, a nomadic lifestyle had to cease as the raising of crops required permanent settlements in areas of good soil.  Despite the importance of agriculture, the people of the Neolithic still relied on hunting and fishing to survive.  The daily way of life of these early farmers can be gleaned from the remains of their houses, burial places and monuments, as well as the less grand, but equally important, materials such as pottery, tools and refuse.  Places on the western shores of Mainland island give clear insights into the domestic lives of these farming communities.   At the Knap o' Howar, for example, the bones of domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs were found alongside those of wild deer, whales and seals.

Their tradition of elaborate burials within chambered cairns such as Cuween, Wideford and Quanterness also gives tantalizing glimpses of these early Orcadians, their beliefs and customs.  Cairns were an essential part of life to the early farmers with men, women and children of all ages buried within the chambered tombs they erected throughout Orkney.  Analysis of the bones found within these tombs tells us of a population in which few people reached the age of 50 and in which those who survived childhood, usually died in their thirties.

Over the years, the small farming communities gradually developed into larger tribal units.  These communities were capable of constructing the major tribal monuments such as Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.  From around 2900BC the "heartland" of the Orkney Mainland - the area surrounding the lochs of Stenness and Harray - was a sacred ceremonial meeting place.  This sacred centre remained important to the people of Orkney for 2000 years until the once-common group burials were replaced by the individual interments common of the Bronze Age.

The Iron age and Early Medieval Era

WeemThe predominant feature of the Iron Age in Orkney was the broch, or round fortified tower house. Most brochs were built on the shores of lochs, or overlooking the coast, and would have served as a dwelling place and defensive structure for several families or an extended family group. Some impressive brochs remain on Orkney, the most imposing being Gurness, on Mainland, and Midhowe, on Rousay.

Before the coming of the Norse the inhabitants are known to have used Latin and Old Gaelic. The Romans were well aware of the islands, though they made no attempt to conquer them, and there is some suggestion that they traded with the inhabitants.

Around the beginning of the 6th century the Dál Riata Gaels briefly settled here.  They were pushed out by Pict soldiers under Brud Beli.  They were followed by Celtic Christian missionaries, who put considerable effort into establishing Christianity in the islands.  A cursory study of an atlas shows the legacy of the Celtic missionaries; the name 'Papa' applied to several of the Orkney islands (e.g. Papa Westray), indicates the presence of an early Christian settlement.  The Picts held sway until the 9th century, when the might of the Norse seafarers proved too much for them.

The Norwegian Era

In the 9th century, Norwegians annexed the islands to Norway, and dispossessed the Pict establishment.  Historians once believed that those Norsemen annihilated or largely replaced the original Pict male population on the islands.  However, contemporary DNA studies refute this, indicating a slight majority of Pict male genes at present.Norwegian King Olaf Triggvasson baptizing the local Governor in 995AD.

Vikings made the islands the headquarters of their buccaneering expeditions against the coasts and isles of Scotland, and also against Norway.  But they made too many raids against their homeland, and the Norse leader Harold Hårfagre ("Fair Hair") defeated them and took over both Orkney and Shetland in 875.

The islands were ruled by a succession of Norwegian 'jarls', or earls, until 1231.  It is estimated that nearly 1/3 of current Orcadians are descended from Norse stock.

Orkney's Norwegian aristocracy were christianized in a remarkable ceremony when Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvasson stopped by on his trip from Ireland to Norway, and forcibly baptized all the leading rulers in 995 AD.

When Orcadians speak of "Scotland", they are talking about the land to the immediate south of the Pentland Firth, Sutherland.  When Orcadians speak of "the mainland", they mean Mainland island, Orkney.  They are emphatic that tartan, clans, bagpipes and the like are foreign traditions from the Scottish Highlands, and are not a part of the islands' indigenous culture.

Their Language

The name of the islands: It was first recorded by the ancient Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (90 - 168AD), who called them 'Phôcades' (The islands of the seals - in Latin).  Later, this name  was commonly misspelled as "Orcades".  The Gaelic name for the islands was 'Insi Orc' which means the 'Islands of the Orcs'.  When Norwegian Vikings arrived on the islands, they interpreted the word 'Orc' to be orkn which was Old Norse for the common seal.  The suffix 'ey' means island.  The name became Orkneyjar which was later shortened to Orkney in English.

The La-Tene Celts, who brought Iron age technology to Britain, originally came from central Germany.  They arrived about 700 BC.  How do we know this?  We know that the Pict language had north Germanic characteristics (English is a Germanic language), because they pronounced UU as FE, as many people in Buchan still do, and modern Germans do also.

These Celts influenced the native inhabitants, and their language.  P-Celtic, assimilated the previous Orcadian, and overwhelmed the Shetland islands dialect of Orcadian by 300 AD.  However, several unique characteristics of Orcadian persisted, especially in the far north. 

What Happened To Them

Recent genome research which has jibed with previous research from anthropology, archaeology, linguistic and biology (including previous mitochondrial and Y DNA studies) has proved that several previously accepted theories are not valid.

i.e.  DNA tests on corpses in archaic burial sites in southern England show that present day inhabitants in those areas are absolutely identical to those buried 2,000 years ago.  In other words, the incursions of Germanic Angles, Jutes and Saxons did not entirely displace the Celtic population as was previously assumed.Hoy Lighthouse on Graemsay

i.e. Archaeological findings proved that agriculture was developed in ancient Britain independent from that of continental Europe and/or elsewhere.

i.e.  DNA tests on present day inhabitants of Orkney has shown the majority of males there today are of Pict ancestry.

These findings strongly indicate that incursions by conquerors in any general area almost always leaves a superficial population impression, and that the original inhabitants continue to bear a strong presence, especially in the rural countryside.  The only exceptions would be in populated areas of devastating natural disasters that forced a complete human exodus, a total genocide, or where a large scale forced expulsion took place.  None of those events were/are evident in the Orkneys.

This result tells us that the present day gene pool of the Orkneys most probably reflects the mixture of all preceding haplotypes, including the Neolithic peoples.

Although their gene pool has been modified to some extent by immigrants, it suggests the Orcadians represent the remains of a relict population, in the same way as, but different from, those of Gaelic fringe areas (of the Scottish highlands and Ireland).

So, to answer the question - What happened to those ancient peoples?  They are still there!  Where people have a strong connection to the land, their descendants remain.  Neolithic, Pict, and Norse settlers have all, in turn,  contributed to the existing Orcadian gene pool, although Pict bloodlines are predominant.

Although the Picts experienced a different recent history than the Norse, they were also Nordic.  This fact no doubt helped reconcile and assimilate the two resident peoples into a coherent society, united in their ambivalence towards the Irish/Scot visitants.


Similar to many farmers worldwide, Orkney farmers prefer Aberdeen Angus cattle.  The mild, wet  winters allow reduced housing requirements year round, and produces healthier animals.

Orkney has a vast array of wildlife; what else would you expect from an archipelago with a wider range of bird habitats than anywhere of a comparable size in Britain?

Bird-watching is rewarding at any time of year here.  You don't have to be an expert to see all sorts of birds which are usually shy of humans.  In Orkney, crowds of curlew, slow-flying day-hunting Owls, and tribes of musical Whooper swans are part of the scenery.

In winter, the fields and water-margins echo to the thousands of Geese, Waterfowl, Whooper swans, and other visitors.  In spring and early summer, the large numbers of Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Gannet, Shag, and Fulmar populate the islands' cliffs, creating vast bird cities.

All wild animals here have a unique Orkney name - can you guess which bird is the Mallimak, or Scootie-alan?  In the fields and wetlands, hundreds of Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank, and other small waders congregate to raise their young.  Rarer breeding visitors on the hill lochans and in the less cultivated parts include the Rain-goose (Red-throated diver), and the Corncrake. 

Find yourself watching curious Grey and Common seals, lying still on a lonely shore to wait for a shy Sea Otter, hearing the rustle of the unique Orkney Vole, surprising a Drumming snipe in the wetlands, or seeing a pair of handsome Hares boxing and gambolling in the Spring.

Orkney's wildlife enjoys the unspoilt environment, the relative lack of disturbance, and ample feeding grounds. Stand on any shore, and it is likely that a Seal will find you irresistably interesting... if you whistle or walk on it may very well swim along in time with you.  Or see them hauled out on pleasant days wherever rocky skerries provide them with space to bask lazily.


A Brief Timeline of Orkney History

1940  Building of the Churchill Barriers begun
1919  German fleet scuttled in Scapa Flow
1916  HMS Hampshire sunk off Birsay
1850  Skara Brae settlement discovered
1813  The last Auk killed on Papa Westray
1468  Orkney is ceded to Scotland
1290  Margaret, the Maid of Norway dies off Orkney
1231  Death of the last Viking Earl
1137  St Magnus Cathedral begun
1115  St Magnus martryred
793 Viking raids begin
682 Brud Beli reconquers Orkney & Shetlands
600  Norse settlers begin arriving in Orkney
580 Aed of Dalriada attacks Orkney pirates
560 Brud Maelgwyn conquers Orkney & Shetlands
300  - 800 Pict culture dominates Orkney
100 BC  Broch of Gurness built
600 BC  The first brochs appear
2500 BC  Skara Brae abandonned
2750 BC  Maeshowe tomb constructed
3000 BC  The Ring of Brodgar built
3200 BC  Skara Brae occupied
3600 BC  Oldest remains at the Knap of Howar
3900 BC  The first human settlers are present