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"The Orkney Islands. Lying off the northern coast of Scotland, Orkney consists of a group of almost treeless, gently rolling islands separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth. The islands lie between the North Sea to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west and cover an area of 376 square miles. There are roughly 70 islands but only 17 are inhabited. Kirkwall, the county's main town, is on the largest island, The Mainland. The town is the site of the magnificent 12th century cathedral of St. Magnus and the ruins of the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces. The next largest islands are Hoy, Westray, Sanday, and Stronsay. Warm ocean currents give the islands the mild climate that makes them one of Scotland's most productive farming areas, with beef cattle being the main product. Fishing is also a highly significant industry but recently tourism has overtaken both it and farming in terms of earnings. The discovery of oil beneath the North Sea led to the construction of a pipeline terminal on Flotta, one of the islands that surround the sheltered harbour of Scapa Flow. A causeway links the southern islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay to the Mainland of Orkney. Remains of prehistoric origin are to be found in abundance. They include burial chambers and rings of standing stones as well as the Stone Age village of Skara Brae which has been designated a World Heritage Site. Viking raiders arrived from Norway 1200 years ago and colonized the islands but they came under Scottish rule in 1472 when, along with Shetland, they were ceded to Scotland in lieu of a wedding dowry." From "Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia", 1996.


Orkney Map

To reach the Orkney parish pages click the Towns and Parishes icon at the top of this page.

Archives and Libraries

The Orkney Library and Archive
44 Junction Road,
Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1AG

Be sure to include return postage or international reply coupons when writing to the Archives, or to any other agency for that matter.

FAMILIA (Family History Resources in Public Libraries in Britain and Ireland), has a web page devoted to Orkney.

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The following are "popular" books and guides on Orkney which are currently "in print". Each addresses the local prehistory, history, topography and customs, and include at least one map.

See also a Bibliography of older Books and Guides on Orkney. More specialist bibliographies are listed on other pages of this site, including the individual pages for Orkney Parishes and Islands.

All these bibliographies list selections made by James Irvine from the numerous publications on various aspects of Orkney life and history. They are listed in reverse order of publication, to reflect the generally increasing difficulty in obtaining copies and lessening historical accuracy.

Most of the publications listed can be viewed in The Orkney Room of Kirkwall Library and in national libraries, and many in good city and university libraries.

The Orcadian Bookshop stocks a large selection of books about Orkney.

Amazon also offers a selection of books about Orkney.

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Some of the cemeteries of Orkney have had their records extracted and made available in the Archives in Kirkwall. The cemetery records of Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre are available on this website from the Rousay page.

Orkney's Gravestones:
by James M. Irvine
Published: In Sib Folk News (magazine of the Orkney Family History Society) No. 17: Updated in SFN No. 19 and Trace Your Orkney Ancestors, Appendix N.
This is a record of where gravestone inscriptions, if recorded, are to be found.

The Orkney Family History Society has plans to research all of the tombstones in all of Orkney's cemeteries. Each parish has one or two so it will take a long time to complete. Those interested in helping should contact the Society.

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Church History

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Church Records

A special page has been created to display information about Orkney Church Records.

Civil Registration

The Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths became compulsory by law in Orkney, as in all of Scotland, on 1st January 1855. These records are known as the Stautory Registers. Access to the information in the registers can be obtained by several methods:-
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Court Records

The Court Book of Orkney and Shetland, 1612-1613
Editor: Robert S. Barclay
Published: Kirkwall: Kirkwall Press, 1962, 103 p.
Available on microfilm at LDS Family History Centers, Film #0973253
The Court Book of Orkney and Shetland, 1614-1615
Editor: Robert S. Barclay
Published: Edinburgh: Scottish History Soc., 1967. (Scottish History Society, 4th series, volume 4), 146 p.

Records of testaments, inventories etc. are held at the The National Archives of Scotland.

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Description and Travel

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Emigration and Immigration

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There are many organisations and individuals who are able and willing to help people to research their Orkney ancestry. Here is a list of some of them. Also listed are a number of written resources, online, which will be of help in family history research.
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Historical Geography

See Names, Geographical.


Orkney's pre-history, of the megalithic, bronze and Pictish ages, provides a colourful backdrop but has little genealogical relevance. In contrast, much of Orkney's recorded history, whether it concerns the earls, the clergy, lairds, townsfolk, udallers (see Land and its Ownership ), or tenants, is full of genealogical interest. The Norse arrived towards the end of the 8th century and the islands were ruled from Norway, and later Denmark, until 1468, when sovereignty passed to Scotland. Scots had started to settle in Orkney in the previous century, but it remained a semi-autonomous Earldom until 1614. The union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707 saw political control pass to London, but many powers were devolved back to Scotland in 1999 with the restoration of the Scottish Parliament.

Orkney is blessed with a wealth of records which are of use to both historians and genealogists.

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Land and Ownership

Many documents dealing with Land and its Ownership , such as deeds, land registry records, and annual rentals of Orkney lands include the names of both owners and tenants, and consequently can be of considerable genealogical interest.

Language and Languages

Orkney Dictionary
Authors: Margaret Flaws and Gregor Lamb
Published Kirkwall 1996
ISBN 0 9529324 0 7
The Orkney Norn
Author: Hugh Marwick
Originally published in 1929, reprinted by Brinnoven Publishing, 207 p., ISBN: 0-899851-02-X.
The Orkney Norn is the most authoritative work ever published on the Orcadian language. In addition to a dictionary of Norn words this book also contains a history of the Orkney Norn tracing its phonological development from Old Norse, fragments of old rhymes and riddles, an examination of the 12th-century Maeshow runes and printed specimens of Orkney Norn from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Orcadian Sketch Book:
Author: Walter T Dennison. Published 1880.
First publication in Orkney dialect, and an excellent authority on folklore and customs.
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UK Ordnance Survey maps contain a vast wealth of information, showing position and place names for cities, towns, villages, hamlets, farms and even individual houses. Their "getamap" page provides online access to sections of their current Landranger (1:50,000) and Pathfiner (1:25,000) maps. The northern isles are covered in the Landranger 5 map, Mainland in Landranger 6, and the southern isles in Landranger 7. They are an invaluable aid for serious Orkney genealogists.

Caledonian Books has reprinted four Ordnance Survey maps of Orkney, dating from about 1890. These are available from Caledonian Books, Collieston, Ellon, Aberdeenshire, AB41 8RT, Scotland. Ask for sheets 117-120.

For an online gazetteer and the 1882 edition of Ordnance Survey see the Old Maps website.

For online copies of older maps of Orkney see the National Library of Scotland Map Library.

The online History of Orkney Maps by John K Chesters includes details of forty maps of Orkney dating from 1573 to 1883.

James Irvine's book The Orkneys and Schetland in Blaeu's Atlas Novus, 1654 looks at the fifth volume of Joanne Blaeu's Atlas Novus, the first comprehensive atlas of Scotland. Published in 1654, it contains the well-known map of Orkney and Shetland by Timothy Pont that includes more place-names than any subsequent map until the Ordnance Survey of the 19th century. This volume reproduces the map and the translated descriptions of Orkney and Shetland with editorial footnotes. The book (with colour illustrations and laminated case board cover) may be obtained direct from the editor at 11 Agates Lane, Ashtead, Surrey KT21 2NG or by email from: Cost: £14.95 + postage.

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Military History

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Names, Geographical

Names, Personal

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The Orcadian
Hell's Half Acre, Hatston, Kirkwall, Orkney
Published since 1854, this weekly newspaper contains news and advertisements of Orkney, as well as notices of births, marriages and deaths (infrequent in 19th.and early 20th. centuries), and a "Postbag" section that sometimes contains genealogical queries. Write to the Orcadian to have your letter printed.
The Orcadian Bookshop stocks a large selection of books about Orkney.
Orkney Today is the county's first new weekly newspaper in 42 years, and was launched in October 2003. The Visitor Downloads section of their website includes some useful tips for genealogists planning a visit Orkney.
Another paper, The Orkney Herald, was published from 1860-1961. The Orkney Archives have a card index for this paper covering the period 1919-1933. They also have microfilms available of these two newspapers, and of The Orkney Blast (a newspaper for the Forces, 1941-1940), Orkney & Shetland American (1887-1895), The Northman (1875-1895), Orkney & Shetland Journal (1838-1839), The John O'Groats Journal (1836-1855) and Orkney and Zetland Chronicle (1824-1826). For a brief period there was also a newspaper entitled the Stromness News (29 Feb. - 1 Aug. 1884).


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1755 = 23,381 [Source: Webster; Kyd, Scottish Historical Society 1952, iii, pp65-66]
1790s = 23,555 [Source: Thomson, 1978]
1801 = 24,445 [Source: Census]
1811 = 23,238 [Source: Census]
1821 = 26,979 [Source: Census]
1831 = 28,847 [Source: Census]
1841 = 30,451 [Source: Census]
1851 = 31,318 [Source: Census]
1861 = 32,225 [Source: Census]
1871 = 31,256 [Source: Census]
1881 = 31,884 [Source: Census]
1891 = 30,244 [Source: Census]
1901 = 27,763 [Source: Census]
1911 = 25,791 [Source: Census]
1921 = 23,933 [Source: Census]
1931 = 21,993 [Source: Census]
1951 = 21,173 [Source: Census]
1961 = 18,747 [Source: Census]
1971 = 17,077 [Source: Census]
1981 = 19,039 [Source: Census]
1991 = 19,325 [Source: Census]
2001 = 19,222 [Source: Census]
2002 = 20,000 [Source: Orkney Islands Council website.]

The Population of Orkney 1755-1961: by Robert S Barclay. Published Kirkwall 1965. 28pp.
Includes population data for individual parishes and discusses reasons for trends.

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Probate Records

Public Records

A list of resources can be viewed on the Public Records page.


The Orkney Family History Society was formed in 1997.
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"Statistical accounts" were written on nearly every parish in Scotland on three occasions - in the 1790s (the "Old Account"), in the 1840s (the "New Account") and in the 1950s (the "Third Account"). The author was usually the parish minister. They give fascinating insights into the local topography and history, social and economic conditions, and even the daily lives of people of those times. Published versions include:

The Old Statistical Account

The New Statistical Account
The Third Statistical Account
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Page created by Dave Annal, Robert C. Marwick and Bill Teschek
[Last updated: 3 December 2006 - Dave Annal]