The Orkney Islands, a group of British Islands north of Scotland, are considering the possibility of leaving the UK, shocking the country. Let’s take a deeper look into Orkney’s unique history and some possibilities for its future!

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  • Archipelago (n) – A group of small islands
    • The Hawaiian archipelago is made up of large and tiny islands.
  • Heritage (n) – The cultural, historical, or natural traditions passed down through generations.
    • It has been difficult for the region to preserve its cultural heritage.
  • Dowry (n) – in some societies, an amount of money or property that a woman’s parents give to the man she marries.
    • The princess’ dowry was paid in diamonds.
  • To ignore (v) – to intentionally not listen or give attention to.
    • How can the government ignore the wishes of the majority?
  • Let down (phrasal v) – To feel disappointed or betrayed by someone or something.
    • She doesn’t want to let her parents down.
  • Autonomous (adj) – an autonomous organization, country, or region is independent and has the freedom to govern itself.
    • The autonomous region can make its own tax rules.
  • Self-governing (adj) – A country or an area that is self-governing is controlled by the people living there.
    • Puerto Rico is a self-governing territory of the United States
  • Tax havens (n) – Countries or territories with favourable tax regulations.
    • The Channel Islands are well-known tax havens.

Headlines were made in British newspapers last month when the Orkney Islands announced they were going to explore the possibility of leaving the United Kingdom and joining Norway.

While this is unlikely, and just one of many options they are considering, it is a really interesting topic. Today I want to talk about Orkney, discuss the islands’ Viking history, and investigate the different possibilities for the future of the islands!

Let’s start with the history of the Orkney Islands.

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History of the Orkney Islands

Introduction to the Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands, often simply called Orkney, are a group of islands located off the northeastern coast of Scotland. They are between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 16 kilometres (10 miles) north of the Scottish mainland.

The Orkney archipelago comprises around 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited.

Early History of the Orkney Islands

The history of the Orkney Islands dates back thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the islands were first inhabited thousands of years ago, with evidence of nomadic hunter-gatherer communities.

One of the most notable sites in Orkney is Skara Brae, a remarkably well-preserved village that dates back over 5,000 years. Skara Brae demonstrates that the early people of Orkney has both advanced building techniques and a sophisticated level of social organization for its time.

The early residents of Orkney also built a series of impressive stone circles and burial tombs, such as the Ring of Brodgar and the Maeshowe chambered tomb.

Viking/Scandinavian Era

In the late 8th and early 9th centuries, the Orkney Islands came to the attention of Norse invaders. Viking chieftains and their followers settled in the islands and eventually established the Earldom of Orkney, which had its capital in Kirkwall on Mainland.

And they liked the islands so much that they stayed for around 500 years. The Orkneys were used as a base for Norse expeditions to other regions, and also as a place for farming.

In the 12th century, an Icelandic author wrote the Orkneyinga Saga, an account of the history of Viking Orkney.

The Vikings had a significant impact on the islands’ culture, language, and governance. They introduced the Old Norse language, which over time blended with the existing Pictish and Celtic languages spoken by the native population. Norse influence also extended to local customs, laws, and names of places that remain evident in Orkney to this day.

In fact, around 30% of the population of the Orkney Islands have Scandinavian ancestry – not surprising considering that the islands were Norse for far longer than they have been part of the United Kingdom.

So… How did they become part of Scotland?

Integration into Scotland

In the 15th century, the islands were still under the control of Norway (and Denmark), along with the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, and other islands in the region.

In 1468, King Christian I of Norway, who was also the king of Denmark, faced financial difficulties and debt issues. To alleviate his financial burden, he entered into negotiations with King James III of Scotland. The arrangement involved the marriage of Princess Margaret of Denmark, Christian I’s daughter, to King James III of Scotland.

As part of the marriage agreement, Orkney and Shetland were given to Scotland as security for Princess Margaret’s dowry. A dowry is an amount of money to be given by one family to the other during marriage – and as this was a royal wedding the dowry which was a substantial sum of money to be paid to the Scottish Crown.

However, the dowry was never fully paid, leading to a dispute between Norway and Scotland over the islands.

In 1472, the financial dispute was settled, and Orkney and Shetland were formally annexed to Scotland, becoming part of the Scottish realm. From that point on, the islands ceased to be under Norwegian control and became integrated into the Kingdom of Scotland.

When Scotland joined with England to form the United Kingdom, the Orkney Islands joined as well.

Modern History

Since the 15th century, the Orkney Islands have remained part of Scotland, though their isolation from the mainland meant that they retained their distinct cultural identity. Agriculture and fishing were vital to the islands’ economy.

During the two World Wars, Orkney’s strategic location was of great importance. The British Royal Navy established a substantial presence in the island’s natural harbours, serving as a base for the British Fleet during World War I and World War II.

As the 20th century progressed, Orkney experienced changes in its economy. There has been a decline in traditional industries like fishing and agriculture and a rise in tourism. The islands’ rich historical heritage, stunning landscapes, and wildlife attracted visitors from around the world.

Renewable energy, particularly wind and marine energy, has become a major industry in Orkney, with innovative projects aiming to make the islands energy self-sufficient and even export energy to the Scottish mainland.

Orkney Wants to Leave Scotland?

You have probably heard that Scotland, one of the four nations of the United Kingdom, held a referendum a few years ago on whether or not Scotland should leave the UK. Despite choosing to stay united with England in that vote, there are still politicians in the country pushing for independence.

Orkney is also not happy with the United Kingdom. In fact, Orkney is not happy with Scotland. They are considering the possibility of leaving the United Kingdom and Scotland!

At least, this is what was reported in newspapers across the UK (and in other parts of the world) last month. It is obviously big news when any region considers the possibility of leaving a country, and can often result in violence, protests, and massive controversy.

The truth is somewhat different to the attention-grabbing headlines.

According to the Orkney Islands council, they want to explore “alternative forms of governance” which could include changing its legal status within the UK.


Why would Orkney want to change its status?

It is not happy with the levels of support and resources it receives from the two different governments that support the islands. That’s right – due to the UK’s political system, the Orkney islands are actually under the control of two different governments: the UK government is London and the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh.

Many people don’t realise the Scotland, Northern Ireland, and (to a lesser extent) Wales have their own governments with their own laws and powers: this is why University in Scotland is cheaper for Scottish students than English students and the Scottish school system has different exams.

However, Orkney is dissatisfied with both governments. They believe that both London and, especially, Edinburgh, have not been supportive of developing the islands. Many people in Orkney feel left out and ignored, especially compared to other Scottish Islands like the Shetland Islands and the Western Isles.

The recent anger is partly due to an argument about ferries and transport between the islands and the Scottish mainland, with Orkney once again feeling let down by Scotland.

By changing the relationship with the UK, perhaps even leaving the UK, Orkney believes they would be able to find more economic opportunities.

For this reason, the Orkney council is going to explore a number of different proposals for the future of the islands!

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What are the Proposals?

The much-reported proposal is that Orkney could leave the UK and seek to re-join Norway (the country it once belonged too). But this is not the only option – they are also going to explore the possibility of becoming a Crown Dependency or even an overseas territory.

Re-join Norway

As mentioned earlier, the Orkney Islands were under Norwegian control for several centuries, from the late 8th to the late 15th century, before becoming part of Scotland in 1472. This potential arrangement would involve Orkney seeking to reunite with Norway.


  1. History and Culture: Re-joining Norway may provide Orkney with more opportunities and resources to preserve and promote its unique Norse heritage, language, and traditions.
  2. Economic Reasons: Norway is known for its strong economy, particularly in sectors such as oil and gas, renewable energy, and fisheries. Re-joining Norway could potentially lead to increased economic cooperation and benefits for the Orkney Islands.
  3. Autonomy and Representation: While part of Norway, Orkney may be granted a level of autonomy in local affairs, and its interests could be represented at a national level in Norway.
  4. Maritime Resources: Norway and Orkney share maritime boundaries, and being part of Norway could provide Orkney with more influence over its territorial waters

Crown Dependency

A Crown Dependency is a type of political and constitutional relationship between certain territories and the United Kingdom. While Crown Dependencies are under the sovereignty of the British Crown, they are not part of the UK itself and have their own separate legal and administrative systems.

The three current Crown Dependencies are: Jersey ( Located in the English Channel near the coast of France), Guernsey (Also situated in the English Channel), Isle of Man (Located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland).

Key Features of Crown Dependencies:

  1. Self-Governance: Crown Dependencies have their own governments and legal systems allowing them a degree of autonomy.
  2. The Crown: The ultimate authority in a Crown Dependency is the British monarch,
  3. No Representation in the UK Parliament: Crown Dependencies do not elect Members of Parliament (MPs) to the UK Parliament, and they are not represented in the House of Commons or the House of Lords.
  4. Financial Independence: They have power over their own taxes and manage their finances independently. They also maintain their own legal systems, including their own courts of law.

Potential Benefits for Orkney as a Crown Dependency:

  1. Increased Autonomy: By becoming a Crown Dependency, Orkney could gain increased control over its own affairs. This could allow the islands to make decisions that better suit their specific needs and priorities.
  2. Financial Benefits: Crown Dependencies can raise their own taxes and manage their finances – the current 3 are famous tax havens and home to many large companies.
  3. Distinct Identity: Crown Dependencies retain their own unique cultural and historical identities while benefiting from the protection and security of the British Crown.
  4. Strategic Positioning: As a Crown Dependency, Orkney may gain recognition on the international stage, leading to potential economic opportunities and partnerships.
  5. Preserving Heritage: as a Crown Dependency, it could have more autonomy in preserving and promoting its cultural and historical assets.

Overseas Territory

An Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom is a political relationship between certain territories and the UK. Overseas territories are self-governing and not part of the UK itself.

The status of an overseas territory is distinct from that of a Crown Dependency (like Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man). It is a little complicated, but Crown Dependencies are self-governing territories with the King as their head of state (they are basically completely independent apart from the UK being responsibly for defence). Overseas territories, however, usually have a governor or leader chosen by the UK government.

Despite this, many of the features of being a Crown Dependency and Overseas territory are the same – some level of self-governance, no representation in parliament, financial freedom etc.

Potential Benefits for Orkney as an Overseas Territory:

  1. Increased Autonomy: By becoming an overseas territory, Orkney could gain even greater control over its own affairs compared to the current arrangements as part of Scotland and the UK.
  2. Financial Benefits: As an overseas territory, Orkney may have more control over its financial matters, including tax policies and budget allocation.
  3. International Representation: Overseas territories have a recognized status on the international stage. This could provide Orkney with greater opportunities for international partnerships, trade agreements, and cooperation.
  4. Maritime Resources: Given Orkney’s strategic location and rich maritime resources, the status of an overseas territory could potentially offer more control and opportunities in managing its territorial waters and marine resources.

Self-Governing Territory

An example of a self-governing territory is the Faroe Islands, which are part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Faroe Islands have their own parliament (Løgting), government, and legal system, and they manage many internal affairs independently from Denmark. However, Denmark retains control over areas like defence and foreign affairs.

Potential Benefits for Orkney as a Self-Governing Territory:

  1. Greater Autonomy: As with the previous options, becoming a self-governing territory would grant Orkney a higher degree of autonomy and the authority to make decisions that directly impact the islands.
  2. Resource Management: As a self-governing territory, Orkney could have more control over the management of its natural resources, such as fishing and renewable energy.
  3. Economic Development: With more control over economic policies and development initiatives, Orkney could have the flexibility to attract investments, support local businesses, and focus on sustainable economic growth.
  4. Representation: A self-governing status could provide Orkney with a more distinct and recognized international representation, potentially leading to enhanced diplomatic and economic opportunities.
  5. Collaboration with the UK: While enjoying a higher level of autonomy, Orkney would still be part of the UK, allowing for continued collaboration on matters of national importance, such as defence and foreign affairs.

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Final Thought

What is the future of the Orkney Islands?

Well, to be completely honest, I think their future will be as part of Scotland, with not much changing. While it is interesting to consider the possibility of leaving the UK or renegotiating the relationship with the UK, it is quite unlikely.

However, this situation may highlight to the governments in Edinburgh and London that they need to remember and consider the Orkney Islands and other small communities around the country. These regions, with only a few thousand people, are not powerful in terms of population or political power and are often ignored or forgotten by those at the centre of power.

Orkney is fed up with this situation and aiming to demonstrate this by exploring possibilities for its future.

What do you think? Does your country have any regions or areas that could consider leaving?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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