By Corey Sandler
Kirkwall is the capital and largest settlement of Orkney, between the Shetland Islands above and the top of Scotland below.
Like the Shetland and Faroe islands, Iceland, and much of the far north, its recorded history begins with Norse settlers.
There are about 70 islands, 20 inhabited. The largest island is called Mainland or, confusingly, “The Mainland”, while the country that lies about 16 kilometers or 10 miles below is referred to as “Scotland.”
Some elements of Scotland, like tartan, clans, and bagpipes have made their way to the islands but they are not indigenous to the local culture.
The islands have been inhabited for at least 8500 years, originally by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes and then by the Picts, believed to be a Celtic tribe that inhabited northern and eastern Scotland. A charred hazelnut shell recovered in 2007 in Tankerness on the Mainland has been dated to 6820–6660 BC.
The village of Skara Brae, Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement, is believed to have been inhabited from around 3100 BCE. The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge or earthworks, a stone circle about six miles northeast of Stromness on the Mainland island in Orkney.
In the heart of Kirkwall is Saint Magnus Cathedral, dating back more than a thousand years and including elements of Catholic and Protestant elements with Viking and Nordic overtones.
The southern group of islands surrounds Scapa Flow, a place used for centuries as a safe naval roadstead or road, a sheltered stretch of water where ships could ride at anchor.
Scapa Flow was a Royal Navy base that played a major role in both World Wars. It was the staging point for the major sea battle of World War I, the Battle of Jutland at the end of May 1916.
After the Armistice in 1918, what remained of the German High Seas Fleet was brought to Scapa Flow while the Allies tried to decide how to parcel them out to the victors. On November 28, German sailors opened the sea-cocks and scuttled all the ships. Most of the ships were later salvaged, but the remaining wrecks are now regularly visited by divers.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Royal Navy once again used Scapa Flow as a gathering place for many of its ships. One month into World War II, a German U-boat entered Scapa Flow and sank the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak.
As a result, it was decided to erect barriers across the gaps between some of the islands, limiting access to Scapa Flow to allow for better defense. They became known as Churchill Barriers. Four were built, with a total length of 1.5 miles or 2.4 kilometers, and they are still in use.
The barriers were partly constructed by 1,200 Italian prisoners of war who were brought from North Africa to Orkney during the war. One poignant side story of the POW camp was the construction of what is known as the Italian Chapel by the prisoners; it was built from scavenged military huts and bits and pieces of equipment and supplies.
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