Orkney has a long history, starting in the Mesolithic Age, when huntergatherers lived on the islands. The Neolithic settlers, who arrived later (seemingly from Caithness), remain mysterious, but are well known archaeologically due to their stone circles, villages, and tombs. During the Iron Age, the people of Orkney constructed stone roundhouses, and then larger round dwellings known as brochs, which can still be visited today, and later, around the fourth century AD, Orkney became part of Pictish territory, a Celtic culture that had arisen in northern Scotland.
From the ninth century, Orkney increasingly fell under the control of Norse Vikings, who built settlements and used the islands as launch pads for raids further south. Perhaps the most impressive monument from the Norse period of rule is St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, built in 1137 under Earl Rognvald. The remains of a Norse settlement can still be seen on the Brough of Birsay, an island off Mainland that can only be visited at low tide, when a walkway becomes accessible.
By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Orkney’s ties with Scotland had strengthened – in the fourteenth century, for example, though still technically owned by the King of Norway, Orkney was ruled by the Sinclairs of Roslin. Orkney officially became a Scottish earldom in the fifteenth century. Artefacts from across Orkney’s long history can today be viewed in The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall.