The climate is mild, windy, and wet. The Orkneys are one of Scotland's richest farming regions. Beef cattle and eggs are the most important produce. Sheep and pigs are also raised. Some fishing, mainly for lobster, is carried on. The discovery of North Sea oil in the early 1970s provided employment for many inhabitants.
The first known Neolithic settlements on the Orkney Islands date to about 3600 BC; by the mid-6th cent. AD the islands were part of the Pictish kingdom (see Picts) in Scotland. Vikings invaded in the 8th cent. From 875 to 1231 it was a Viking earldom under the Norwegian crown. Details of this period are recounted in the Orkneyinga Saga, a Norse epic. In 1231, the islands passed to the Scottish earls of Angus on the death of the last Viking earl. It became a possession of the Scottish crown in 1472 in trust for the undelivered dowry of Margaret of Norway on her marriage to James III (1469), but the Norse occupation left marked Scandinavian traces; islanders spoke Norn (a form of Norse) until the 18th cent. James V visited Kirkwall in 1540 and made the Orkney Islands a county. Scapa Flow, S of Mainland, was Britain's major naval base in World Wars I and II.
The islands have many prehistoric relics. Stone Age settlements have been unearthed at Skara Brae and Barnhouse Village on Mainland and a broch (prehistoric fort) at Rinyo on Rousay. Other relics include the burial chambers at Maeshowe, the rings of standing stones at Stenness and Brodgar, and the complex at the Ness of Brodgar, all on Mainland. The islands have become increasingly popular with tourists and are home to the St. Magnus music festival, founded by the composer Peter Maxwell Davies.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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