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Kirkwall Orkney Isles Cruises

Northern Isles

The seventy or so Orcadian isles apart from rugged rock of Hoy - are low-lying and richly fertile. First inhabited by late Stone Age settlers, followed by broch-builders and Picts, fromthe 15th centuries Orkney was ruled as a Norse kingdom, passing to the Scottish crown in 1471. Mainland Kirkwall is the capital.

The Orkney Islands are politically a part of Britain, yet seem quite different in many ways. Numerous place names have non-English sounds, reflecting the original Viking settlement of the 9th century. Norse crafts and traditions are obvious everywhere. These islands were ruled from Norway and Denmark until 1468, when a Norwegian king gave them to Scotland in lieu of a dowry for his daughter's marriage to King James III. In addition to the Norse heritage there are numerous remains of prehistoric monuments such as the Stenness Standing Stones at Finstown.

The archipelago is located at the same latitude as southern Greenland; the Gulfstream accounts for the islands' temperate climate. Approximately half of the 60 islands are inhabited; the rest are home only to seals and sea birds. Most of the inhabitants, who draw their livelihood from the fertile hills rather than the sea, live on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands.

Kirkwall, located on Mainland, is the principal harbor and capital of the Orkneys. Steep-roofed stone houses line streets that wind around the medieval St. Magnus Cathedral. A museum featuring Orkney historical artifacts is housed in the 16th-century Tankerness House. Other attractions around the island include Maes Howe, the site of Britain's best-preserved megalithic tomb, and the stone-age village of Skara Brae. Scapa Flow serves as a reminder of more recent times when, during both World Wars, Britain's naval base was located here.

The islands are virtually a museum of prehistoric times. Rock circles, cairns, standing stones, ancient tombs and prehistoric villages are scattered about, gaining these islands international recognition. The Orkney Islands are a bird-watcher's paradise, with a myriad of puffins, eider ducks, whooper swans and arctic terns. These birds, as well as many other species, nest here during the summer months.