Orkney Landscapes

The Orkney islands lie just to the north of Scottish Mainland, exposed to the full force of the Atlantic weather. This site looks at the physical landscape of the islands, the backdrop for enthralling natural, historical and cultural landscapes celebrated widely in song and verse. The geology is dominated by the Old Red Sandstone and the archipelago gives its name to Lake Orcadie, a vast former lake basin dating from around 380 million years ago. The hundreds of metres of sediment laid down on its floor point to rhythmic climate shifts, with dunes and mud cracks forming during arid phases. Mass mortality of shoals of primitive fish left superb fossil remains. The record of desert and flood, volcanoes and continental tectonics is inscribed in the stacked layers of sandstone forming the coastal cliffs.

The scenic framework certainly deserves attention. Controversy rumbles over the timing, pattern and effects of glaciation on the islands. The hill tops of Hoy display both fossil and active frost-generated features, landforms and sediments reminiscent of much more elevated Scottish mountain tops and of the Arctic lowlands. Orkney also one of the most active coastlines in the British Isles where a combination of sea level change, rapid erosion and localised deposition has created shorelines of immense variety, character and interest. The islands have been inhabited for at least 7000 years, an occupation that has brought profound changes in soils, vegetation and, increasingly, the landforms themselves.

Main photography Old man of Hoy: © Tristan Cameron-Harper

  • The rocks of Orkney are dominated by flagstones and sandstones deposited in a huge fresh water lake. They belong in time to the Devonian (Old Red Sandstone) period 416 – 359 million years ago). The sediments of Lake Orcadie are superbly exposed along the many cliffs and shore platforms and so Orkney gives us one of the best examples of a Devonian lake basin in the world. ...

  • The landforms of Orkney are special not only in terms of the magnificent diversity and quality of the island scenery. This is a sandstone landscape, with features similar to those found in many other parts of the world where sedimentary rocks lie just below the surface. And an Ice Age landscape, where glaciers cut corries and shelly boulder clay was dredged from the bed of the sea by ice sheets. Then there is the magnificent coast, retreating from Atlantic and North Sea storms but slowly building in sheltered firths. Orkney is all the while changing and fascinating.

  • Lake Orcadie is one of the best examples in the world of a Middle Devonian lacustrine environment with a high potential for preservation of its different faunal components. During the Middle Devonian (Middle Old Red Sandstone period) this area with one or probably more interconnected lakes was situated south of the equator. The fossil fish of Orkney will be highlighted here. ...

About this site

This site looks at the physical landscapes of Orkney. A great deal of material is available that deals with the natural history of the islands but the fascinating geology and geomorphology are often overlooked. A very good introduction is provided by the free SNH/BGS booklet on the Orkney and Shetland in the Landscapes Fashioned by Geology series ISBN 1 85397 220 7

The Orkney Landscapes site was first launched at the Orkney International Science Festival in 2005. It was originally developed by John Brown (geology), Jan den Blaauwen (fossils) and Adrian Hall (landforms). The air photos are courtesy of Alan Moar. The new site represents a major revision of the content by the authors and a much needed upgrade of the website design by Selena Kuzman. You can contact the team at admin@orkneylandscapes.org.

The shape of the coast

  • Significance: a coastline noted for its Devonian geology and coastal geomorphology

  • Significance: this bay lies adjacent to Skara Brae and provides evidence of the interaction between coastal processes and human disturbance between 6600 and 4400 radiocarbon years ago. The settlement first re-emerged from the dunes after a storm in 1850.

  • Significance: this site provides evidence for changing ice-flow conditions during the last ice sheet glaciation

  • Significance: the construction of the Churchill Barriers started in 1940 and led to a fundamental change in the pattern of tidal flow around Scapa Flow. A range of coastal landforms have been created subsequently which illustrate the fundamental control of coastal configuration on the transport and deposition of sand.

  • Significance: Rackwick lies at the southern end of two major glacial breaches on Hoy. Its well-developed moraines indicate that at the close of the last glaciation two lobes of ice retreated northwards at a time when the Pentland Firth was probably still occupied by ice.

  • Significance: The Old Man is the tallest sea stack in Britain, 137 m high

  • Significance: a superb corrie formed at an unusually low elevation that was last occupied by a small glacier only 11,000 years ago

  • Significance: Ward Hill provides examples of a range of active and fossil periglacial landforms. As the highest point on Orkney it also provides evidence of the thickness of the last ice sheet

  • Significance: the site of a former small corrie glacier on Hoy

  • Significance: the site of a small corrie glacier during the Loch Lomond Stadial

  • Significance: a raised beach deposit at 6-12 m asl buried by till

  • Significance: a possible Scandinavian erratic on Orkney.

  • Significance: a peat deposit with willow boles formed 6500 years ago and now lying below sea level

  • Significance: the Kilns of Brin-Novan is an excellent example of an interconnected series of caves, arches and blow-holes which illustrate the sequential development of these features.

  • Significance: this coastal section provides perhaps the best available exposure of the shelly till which is characteristic of the eastern part of Orkney

  • Significance: exceptional cliff scenery and dramatic cliff-top storm deposits