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An Orkney Maid by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

To Americans Shapinsay has a peculiar interest


I said softly, and then I began to read what the _Times_ had to say about Kirkwall. The great point appeared to be that as a rendezvous for ships it had been placed fifty miles within the "made in Germany" danger zone, and was therefore useless to the British men-of-war. And I laughed inwardly a little, and began to consider if Kirkwall had ever been long outside of some danger zone or other.

All its myths and traditions are of the fighting Picts and Scots, and when history began to notice the existence of the Orkneys it was to chronicle the struggle between Harold, King of Norway, and his rebellious subjects who had fled to the Orkneys to escape his tyrannical control. And of the danger zones of every kind which followed--of storm and battle and bloody death--does not the Saga of Eglis give us a full account?

This fight for popular freedom was a failure. King Harold conquered his rebellious subjects, and incidentally took possession of the islands and the people who had sheltered them. Then their rulers became Norwegian jarls--or earls--and there is no question about the danger zones into which the Norwegian vikings carried the Orcadeans--quite in accord with their own desire and liking, no doubt. And the stirring story of these years--full of delightful dangers to the men who adventured them--may all be read today in the blood-stirring, blood-curdling Norwegian Sagas.


the middle of the fifteenth century, James the Third, King of Scotland, married Margaret of Denmark, and the Orcades were given to Scotland as a security for her dowry. The dowry was never paid, and after a lapse of a century and a half Denmark resigned all her Orcadean rights to Scotland. The later union of England and Scotland finally settled their destiny.

But until the last century England cared very little about the Orcades. Indeed Colonel Balfour, writing of these islands in A. D. 1861, says: "Orkney is a part of a British County, but probably there is no part of Europe which so few Englishmen visit." Colonel Balfour, of Balfour and Trenabie, possessed a noble estate on the little isle of Shapinsay. He enthused the Orcadeans with the modern spirit of improvement and progress; he introduced a proper system of agriculture, built mills of all kinds, got laws passed for reclaiming waste lands, and was in every respect a wise, generous, faithful father of his country. To Americans Shapinsay has a peculiar interest. In a little cottage there, called _Quholme_, the father and mother of Washington Irving lived, and their son Washington was born on board an American ship on its passage from Kirkwall to New York.

However, it is only since A. D. 1830, one year before I was born, that the old Norse life has been changed in Orkney. Up to that date agriculture could hardly be said to exist. The sheep and cattle of all towns, or communities, grazed together; but this plan, though it saved the labour of herding, was at the cost of abandoning the lambs to the eagles who circled over the flocks and selected their victims at will. In the late autumn all stock was brought to the "infield," which was then crowded with horses, cattle and sheep. In A. D. 1830, the Norwegian system of weights was changed to the standard weights and measures, and money, instead of barter, began to be used generally.

Then a great Scotch emigration set in, and brought careful methods of farming with it; and the Orcadean could not but notice results. The Scotch trader came also, and the slipshod Norse way of barter and bargaining had no chance with the Scotch steady prices and ready money. But even through all these domestic and civic changes Orkney was constantly in zones of danger. In the first half of the nineteenth century England was at war with France and Spain and Russia, and the Orcadeans have a fine inherited taste for a sea fight. The Vikings did not rule them through centuries for nothing: the Orcadean and his brother, the Shetlander, salt the British Navy, and they rather enjoy danger zones.

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