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Orkney (Orkneys or Orkney Islands) is an archipelago in northern Scotland, situated 10 miles (16 km) north of the coast of Caithness. Orkney comprises over 70 islands; around 20 are inhabited. The largest island, known as "Mainland," has an area of 202 sq mi (523 km²), making it the sixth-largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles. The largest settlement and administrative centre is Kirkwall.

Orkney is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland, a constituency of the Scottish Parliament, a lieutenancy area, and a former county.

Orkney has been inhabited for at least 5,500 years. Originally inhabited by neolithic tribes and then by the Picts, Orkney was invaded and finally annexed by Norway in 875 and settled by the Norse. It was subsequently re-annexed to the Scottish Crown in 1472, following the failed payment of a dowry agreement.

Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, and the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The name of the islands is first recorded by the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (born AD 90, died AD 168), who called them Orcades. The old Gaelic name for the islands was Insi Orc which means the "Island of the Orcs". An orc is a young pig or boar. When the Norwegian Vikings arrived on the islands they interpreted the word orc to be orkn which is Old Norse for pinnipeds or common seal. The suffix ey means island. Thus the name became Orkneyjar which was shortened to Orkney in English.

The Pentland Firth is a seaway which separates Orkney from the mainland of Scotland. The firth is 6.8 miles (11 km) wide between Brough Ness on the island of South Ronaldsay and Duncansby Head in Caithness.

Orkney lies between 58° 41' and 59° 24' North, and 2° 22' and 3° 26' West, measuring 50 miles (80 km) from northeast to southwest and 29 miles (47 km) from east to west, and covers 375 square miles (971 km²). Except for some sharply rising sandstone hills and rugged cliffs on the west of the larger ones, the islands are mainly lowlying.

The hilliest island is Hoy; the highest point in Orkney, Ward Hill, is to be found there. The only other islands containing heights of any importance are the Mainland, with (another) Ward Hill (879 ft/268 m) and Wideford Hill; and Rousay. Nearly all of the islands have lochs (lakes): The Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness on the Mainland attain noteworthy proportions. The rivers are merely streams draining the high land. Excepting on the west fronts of the Mainland, Hoy and Rousay, the coastline of the islands is deeply indented, and the islands themselves are divided from each other by straits generally called "sounds" or "firths". However, off the northeast of Hoy the designation "Bring Deeps" is used. South of the Mainland is Scapa Flow and to the southwest of Eday is found the Fall of Warness.

The names of the islands indicate their nature: the terminal "a" or "ay" represents the Norse ey, meaning "island". The islets are usually styled "holms" and the isolated rocks "skerries".

The tidal currents, or races, or "roosts" (as some of them are called locally, from the Norn) off many of the isles run with high velocity, and whirlpools are of frequent occurrence, occasionally strong enough to prove a source of danger to small craft.

The islands are notable for the absence of trees, which is partly accounted for by the amount of wind. The formation of peat is evidence that this was not always the case, and deliberate deforestation is believed to have taken place at some stage prior to the Neolithic, the use of stone in settlements such as Skara Brae being evidence of the lack of availability of timber for building.

Most of the land is taken up by farms, and agriculture is by far the most important sector of the economy, with fishing also being a major occupation. Orkney exports beef, cheese, whisky, beer, fish and seafood.

The climate is remarkably temperate and steady for such a northerly latitude. The average temperature for the year is 8 °C (46 °F), for winter 4 °C (39 °F) and for summer 12 °C (54 °F).

The average annual rainfall varies from 850 mm (33 in) to 940 mm (37 in). Fogs occur during summer and early autumn, and furious gales may be expected four or five times in the year.

To tourists, one of the fascinations of the islands is their nightless summers. On the longest day, the sun rises at 03:00 and sets at 21:29 GMT and darkness is unknown. It is possible to read at midnight and very few stars can be seen in the night sky. Winter, however, is long. On the shortest day the sun rises at 09:05 and sets at 15:16.

The soil generally is a sandy loam or a strong but friable clay, and very fertile. Large quantities of seaweed as well as lime and marl are available for manure.

Located in West Mainland is the 'Heart of Neolithic Orkney', a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. This comprises a group of Neolithic monuments which consist of a large chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites. The group constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which gives a graphic depiction of life in this remote archipelago in the far north of Scotland some 5,000 years ago.

Viking settlers comprehensively occupied Orkney, and the islands became a possession of Norway until being given to Scotland during the 15th century as part of a dowry settlement. Evidence of the Viking presence is widespread, and includes the settlement at the Brough of Birsay, the vast majority of place names, and runic inscriptions at Maeshowe and other ancient sites.

Wording courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org/

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