Orkney, Scotland Genealogy

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Orkney is a group of 67 islands forming a maritime county in the northern extremity of Scotland.  Twenty-nine islands are inhabited, and the remainder are chiefly used as pasture for cattle. They are bounded on the north by the waters which divide Orkney from Shetland, on the east by the North Sea, on the south by the Pentland Firth, which separates the isles from Caithness, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean.  They extend about 50 miles in length and nearly 30 miles in breadth, comprising an area of 235 square miles or 150,000 acres. 

At the time of the Roman occupation, northern Scotland, including the Orkneys,  was occupied by the Picts who had them until about the year 876, when the forces of the King of Norway took the isles.  They remained under Norwegian rule until 1472 following the marriage of James III of Scotland to Princess Margaret of Norway. When her father, Kristian I, could not pay her dowry, Norway forfeited both the Shetlands and the Orkneys to Scotland.

The county consists of 18 parishes, and it is united with Shetland under one sheriff with a sub-sheriff over each.  Kirkwall is a royal burgh and the county town, and Stromness is a burgh of barony.  There are several villages and some fishing stations on the coast. 

The surface of the county on the east is level but the ground rises gradually towards the west, where the coasts are bounded by hills of considerable height.  About 30,000 acres are arable, nearly an equal quantity is in meadow and pasture, 4000 in fresh-water lakes, and the remainder chiefly in heath, peat-moss, and undivided common.  The land is mostly destitute of timber (except modern plantations) but the scenery is pleasing.

The crops are barley, oats, rye, flax, and a moderate portion of wheat, potatoes and turnips.  Sheep, cattle, and horses are raised.  The manufactures are stockings, blankets, coarse woollen cloth for home use, spinning of yarn and weaving of linen, thread, platting of straw for bonnets, and kelp.  Beef, pork, salt, fish, butter, tallow, hides, oil, feathers, linen yarn and cloth, and kelp are exported.  Other products are imported, so the several ports are busy.  The building of boats and making of sails, nets, and cords are conducted.  Cod and herring fisheries are extensive.  Lobsters are also exported along with other sea-life and fresh-water fish. 

The population of the islands in 1851 was 30,507.

(Source:  Samuel Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 2nd ed., 1851.  Family Hisotry Library book 941 E5L.)


Here is a list of historic parishes for the county and island of Orkney.  Click on a parish name to see information about records.

Parish No. Parish No.
Birsay 13 Paplay 19
Burray -- see South Ronaldshay 29 Pharay -- see Eday 15
Deerness 14 Rendall -- see Evie 16
Eday & Pharay 15 Rousay & Egilsay 24
Egilsay -- see Rousay 24 St. Andrews 25
Evie & Rendall 16 Sanday 26
Firth & Stennes 17 Sandwick 27
Flotta -- see Walls 32 Shapinshay 28
Graemsay -- see Hoy 20 South Ronaldshay & Burray 29
Harray 18 Stennes -- see Firth 17
Holm & Paplay 19 Stromness 30
Hoy & Graemsay 20 Stronsay 31
Kirkwall & St. Ola 21 Walls (including Flotta) 32
North Ronaldshay 22 Westray (including Papa-Westray) 33
Orphir 23
Papa-Westray -- see Westray 33


The Family History Library has county-wide census indexes for Orkney for 1881.  

The library also has a collection of census surname indexes for different places within Orkney. Click here to see a table listing these other census surname indexes that are available at the library.


Click on the map at the right to see a larger version, and click again on the larger map. Next, click on the ‘Expand’ button when it appears in the lower right-hand corner of the map.

Orkney, c. 1845.jpg

Click here to see an outline map of the parishes of Orkney.

Poorhouse Records

Orkney Combination www.workhouses.org.uk/Orkney/

[Return to county list.]