Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654

Name: Blaeu, Joan, 1596-1673  
Title: Nova Orcadvm Descriptio Chorographica  
Pagination: 134-135
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Translation of text:

with as it were the Ocean sounding the retreat to the storms and the twisting masses of the disturbed deep retiring to their camp.

About the number also of the Orkneys there is no agreement among writers. For Pliny there are forty islands, for the others about thirty. Paulus Orosius came closest to the truth, telling of thirty three, of which thirteen are inhabited, the rest deserted and left to the grazing of animals. For most are low and of such small extent that they could scarcely maintain one or two settlers, if they were inhabited. Others are rough with bare or moss-covered rocks. The largest of the Orkneys is called Pomona by many of the ancients. Today they call it the Mainland, because it far exceeds the others in size. For it stretches in length thirty miles. It is quite fully inhabited. For it has twelve churches or rural parishes. In addition there is one town, which the Danes, in whose control the Orkneys were for a long time, called Cracoviaca: now the name is corrupted to Kirkwall by the Scots. In this there are two fairly modest castles close to each other, one the Kings, the other the Bishops. Between them is sited the church, quite magnificent for these parts. Between the church and the castles on each side are a good number of buildings, which the inhabitants call the two cities: one Royal, the other Episcopal. The whole island extends into promontories; gulfs of the sea coming between these make safe anchorages for ships and sometimes harbours. At six different places on this island there are mines of tin and of lead as good as is to be found anywhere in Britain. This island is about twenty four miles from Caithness, with the Pictish strait between, of whose nature we have already spoken. In that strait are dispersed several islands, of which Stroma is four miles from Caithness, not unproductive for its size. But on account of its proximity to the land of Britain and because the Earls of Caithness have always held it, it is not counted among the Orkneys. From this sailing north the first of the Orkneys one meets is South Ronaldsay, which is sixteen miles from Duncans bay (or more correctly Dunachs): small ships cover this distance in two hours with the tide favourable and also the winds calm: so great is the violence of this strait. This island is five miles long, and has quite a convenient harbour named from St Margaret. A little to the east of it two small and uncultivated islands stick out, left for the pasturing of animals. They call them with a local word, holms, that is grassy plains set on the water. To the north is the island of Burray, and two holms between it and the Mainland. From Burray to the west lie three islands, in order Swona, Flotta and Fara: and beyond them Hoy and Walls, which some call two islands, others one: because about the equinoxes (when the seas are most violently stirred up and boil) when the tide goes out and sands are bared, they are joined at a narrow strip and make one island; when the tide comes in and the sea is again interposed, they give the appearance of two islands. In this island are the highest mountains of all that the Orkneys have. Hoy and Walls stretch ten miles in length; they are eight from Ronaldsay, more than twenty from Dunnet Church in Caithness; to the north is the island Graemsay, situated in quite a narrow strait. For Hoy is only two miles from the nearest promontory of the Mainland, that is of Pomona. These are the islands between the Mainland and Caithness situated in the actual strait. The western side of the Mainland faces the open sea, with no islands or rocks appearing in it. From its eastern promontory it projects a little. Copinsay hides it as it were on the north. Nearer the coast is Shapinsay, turning a little to the east, situated two miles opposite Kirkwall, itself six miles long. On the western (3) side of the Mainland lies Rousay, six miles long. Farther east from it is situated Egilsay, where the story is that St Magnus is buried. From here to the south lie Viera and Gairsay; and not far from there Westray, from which Shetland is 80 miles distant. Papa Stronsay is 80 miles from Shetland.

FAIR ISLE (Section Note)

Almost in the middle of this passage lies Fair Isle, that is beautiful island, visible from both Orkneys and Shetland. For it rises into three very high promontories, girded with lofty cliffs, and is inaccessible on all sides, except that it goes down a little on the north east and offers a safe anchorage to ships. It has by far the poorest inhabitants. For the fishermen from England, Holland and the other regions near the Ocean, who sail past each year to fish in these seas, seize and carry off everything at will.


All these islands are called by the one general name of Orkneys; on this appellation there is reasonable agreement among ancient and modern writers; but no-one (as far as is known) has clearly explained the meaning of the name. Possibly from the Greek word ‘eirgo’ (4), I include, because they are as it were included among themselves, excluded from the other parts of the whole world; or from ‘orca’, that is a type of jar, to which all if looked at as one seem to bear a resemblance: accordingly, because nothing is stated with certainty on this matter, either by the inhabitants of these islands themselves or by strangers who have written about them, it seems that it should be left in doubt.

On the number of the Orkney islands there is no real agreement among the ancient writers: Pliny, for whom there are forty, Paulus Orosius (who is said to have come closest to the truth on this matter) counting thirty three, and others deciding on approximately thirty. Yet today there are many who have visited all these island and seen them with their own eyes; they are both more recent and much more reliable, and the number and the names of all these islands are quite certainly known. In total there are twenty seven islands, along with the Mainland, which makes the twenty eighth.

Now the whole land of the Orkneys is divided into three parts by reason of their names, viz. largest, smaller, and smallest. The largest parts are called islands, which are inhabited and cultivated. The smaller parts are called holms, a local word, that is, grassy plains set in water, most of such small extent that they would scarcely maintain one or two settlers, if they were cultivated; and because they produce only grass, they are deserted and left for pasturing animals. The smallest parts are called Rocks (with the vernacular name of Skerries among the inhabitants of the Orkneys), in which nothing grows, even grass, with the exception of one Rock, viz. Pentland Skerry (for so it is named) which is worthy of the name of Holm rather than Skerry: for it equals any holm in size, and is very productive of grass for pasturing animals (from which much profit returns yearly to the Lord of Halcro, its owner). Now the reason for these rocks producing no grass is that, when the tide reaches its full height, they are either totally covered with sea-water or are so splashed by the waves, stirred up and driven in generally by wind, tide or both, that grass (if any were to grow on them) because of the saltness of the sea-water would either die or be rendered useless for nourishing beasts.

The islands of the Orkneys are again divided into two classes by reason of their location, viz. into the Southern islands and the Northern.

The Southern islands are twelve in number, scil. Swona, Switha, South Ronaldsay, Walls, Hoy, Graemsay, Cava, South Fara, Risa, Flotta, Burray, Copinsay.

Between the Southern and Northern islands the Mainland is situated.

The Northern islands are fifteen in number, viz. Damsay, Shapinsay, Gairsay, Viera, Egilsay, Rousay, Westray, Papa Westray, North Fara, Eday, Einhallow, Stronsay, Papa Stronsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay.

First of the southern islands is Swona, at most about ten miles from Caithness, the northern province of Scotland, and three from South Ronaldsay: small indeed, so as to keep one or two settlers, with their household and a few other serfs living in small houses; rising to high cliffs towards the east, but lower towards the west; producing barley and oats in some parts; and quite suited to catching various fish, from whose intestines and livers in particular (as too in all the other islands of the Orkneys) oil is produced, which is burnt at night in place of candles. In it are quarries, from which excellent shingles most adapted for roofing houses are extracted.

At the eastern part of this island, when the tide flows from the Deucaledonian or Western Ocean, the sea-water twists round in a dreadful manner, so that if ever a larger ship falls into these whirlpools of Swona (in Scots, ‘the welles of Suna’), it is driven round like a hoop hit by a boy with a whip.

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