Feb 202016


On this date in 1472 Orkney and Shetland were “pawned” to Scotland because Norway, which controlled the islands at the time, was late in paying the dowry of Margaret of Denmark on her betrothal to James III of Scotland. Norway never paid the dowry, so the islands passed permanently to Scotland.

The marriage was arranged by recommendation of the king of France to end the feud between Denmark and Scotland about the taxation of the Hebrides islands, a conflict that raged between 1426 and 1460. Margaret married James in July 1469 (at age 13), at Holyrood Abbey. Her father, King Christian I of Denmark and Norway (the two realms being united at the time under the Kalmar Union), agreed to a considerable dowry. He was in need of cash, however, so eventually he pledged the islands of Orkney and Shetland, which at the time were possessions of the Norwegian crown, as security until the dowry was paid.


Margaret became a popular queen in Scotland and was described as beautiful, gentle, and sensible. Many later historians called her far better qualified to rule than her husband. A story given by her son claims that Margaret was killed by poison given to her by John Ramsay, 1st Lord Bothwell, leader of one of the political factions. However, as Ramsay was favored by the royal family also after the death of the queen, this is considered doubtful and may have been slander, although he did have some knowledge of poisons. During the crisis of 1482 when her husband was deprived of power for several months, Margaret was said to have shown more interest in the welfare of her children than her husband, and this apparently led to an estrangement. Despite later rumors, however, there is no reason to think that the King wished for her death. She died at Stirling Castle on 14 July 1486, and is buried in Cambuskenneth Abbey.


By contrast James III (1451 – 1488), king of Scots from 1460 to 1488 was an unpopular and ineffective monarch owing to his unwillingness to administer justice fairly, a policy of pursuing alliance with the kingdom of England, and a disastrous relationship with nearly all his extended family. His reputation as the first Renaissance monarch in Scotland has sometimes been exaggerated, based on attacks on him in later chronicles for being more interested in such unmanly pursuits as music than hunting, riding and leading his kingdom into war. In fact, the artistic legacy of his reign is slight, especially when compared to that of his successors, James IV and James V. Such evidence as there is consists of portrait coins produced during his reign that display the king in three-quarter profile wearing an imperial crown, the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which was probably not commissioned by the king, and an unusual hexagonal chapel at Restalrig near Edinburgh, perhaps inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


Interestingly, Denmark still has a (dubious) claim to Orkney and Shetland given that the islands were pawned and not given or sold to Scotland.  This claim resurfaced when Scotland was voting recently whether to separate from the United Kingdom, and islanders floated the idea that, should separation occur, they might apply to become part of Denmark.

At the beginning of recorded history the Orkney islands were inhabited by the Picts, whose language was Brythonic (related to Welsh and Cornish). The Ogham script on the Buckquoy spindle-whorl is cited as evidence for the pre-Norse existence of Old Irish in Orkney.

After the Norse occupation in the 8th century the place names of Orkney became almost wholly West Norse. The Norse language evolved into the local Norn, which lingered until the end of the 18th century, when it finally died out. Norn was slowly replaced by the Orcadian dialect of Insular Scots as Orkney passed from Scandinavian to Scottish influence. This dialect is at a low ebb due to the pervasive influences of television, education and the influx of a large number of outsiders. However, attempts are being made by some writers and radio presenters to revitalize it, and the distinctive accent and many dialect words of Norse origin remain in use.

Orkney has a rich folklore and many of the former tales concern trows, an Orcadian form of troll that draws on the islands’ Scandinavian connections. Local customs in the past included marriage ceremonies at the Odin Stone that formed part of the Stones of Stenness.