The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Ancient landscape and the first settlement of Orkney

The first people to arrive in Orkney after the last Ice Age came in boats.  They found a single large island, not the archipelago that we know today.  To the south Scapa Flow formed a wide, land-locked bay, further inland there were hills and moors, while lower lands stretched to the north and east.  This was a land that had plenty to offer for those who knew how to live off it.

Hazelnuts were part of the diet and have been found on Mesolithic sites.  (c) SFLPS

The rich waters and relatively easy access to the sea meant that they were able to make use of a wide variety of marine resources including inshore and offshore fish, seabirds, mammals, and shellfish.  In Orkney archaeological remains from sites of this period are rare because most lie submerged in the waters between the islands.  Elsewhere in Scotland evidence shows that settlement tended to focus along the shore and people made great use of coastal resources.  Inland sites do exist, however, mostly from the remains of hunting camps.  Red deer and wild boar would have been common in Orkney at this period as well as a range of smaller animals and of course birds.  Studies show that Orkney at this time was covered with low woodland of birch and hazel. There were also stands of taller trees as well as open grassland.

These people (known archaeologically as Mesolithic), were hunter-fisher-gatherers.  They did not practise farming, nor did they build permanent houses and monuments of stone.  Their life was largely nomadic, moving from place to place to harvest different resources at different times of the year.  Their culture and tool kit were geared to mobility with items that were easily obtained and transported and not easily broken.  Tools were made of bone, antler and stone.  Nothing was wasted. A successful deer hunt could provide a rich source of materials such as hide, sinew, bone and antler as well as meat for the pot. 

Analysis indicates that the earliest settlers had links to the north and east as well as to the south.  There are parallels between their stone points and those of similar groups in central Scandinavia (southern Norway and Sweden).  Lower sea-levels meant that the geography of northern Europe was very different. Britain was still joined to the Continent by the land mass known today as Doggerland.  Nevertheless, this was not a stable landscape. The relative rapid change in sea level meant that the earliest settlers would have been aware of the rising sea-levels and the changes in the landscape it caused.  As  the sea encroached on the lower lands, the islands in Orkney began to separate into their present familiar pattern. 

Caroline Wickham-Jones