Nordic Orkney: jewellery inspired by our Scottish and Scandi roots

For a few days at the start of July, Orkney was at the top of the news agenda across the UK, and mentioned in reportage everywhere from the USA to Australia. For once, our fifteen minutes of fame was not due to a stunning new archaeological discovery, but contemporary politics – though history played its part too.

The headlines gasped in astonishment:
  • ‘Revolutionary’: Orkney independence vote
  • Why Orkney decided to ‘join Norway’
  • Rishi Sunak says 'Norway' to Orkney ‘Brexit-style’ breakaway bid

A new word even entered the vocabulary of journalists around the world: Orkxit. So what’s all the fuss about? To answer that question, we need to go back more than a thousand years.

Birsay, Orkney 

If you’ve spent any time browsing Ola’s jewellery, you’ll know that many of her collections have a Scandinavian inspiration: Finnish Beast, Odin’s Bird, Valhalla, Sjusta and more. Even the name of our shop here in Kirkwall, The Longship, is a nod to the Vikings’ prowess as seafarers. Why the fascination with foreign countries on the far side of the North Sea?

The answer is that for hundreds of years Norway was not a foreign country. Vikings had been visiting our shores for decades and even settling here when, in 875 CE, King Harald Fairhair officially claimed the Orkney and Shetland Islands as part of Norway. (It may seem surprising now, but it was easier for skilled sailors to cross from Bergen to Orkney and back than it was to travel on land from southern Scotland.) We became a western outpost of Norway and stayed that way for nearly six hundred years.

In 1468, Margaret, daughter of King Christian I of Norway, was due to marry King James III of Scotland. Christian had some trouble in getting the money for a dowry payment together, so pledged Orkney and Shetland as a temporary IOU. Four years later, the requisite 210kg of gold or 2,310kg of silver never having been paid in its place, Orkney was ‘absorbed’ by Scotland.

Margaret of Denmark, Queen of Scotland

And that’s where we’ve been ever since. Though as the original IOU has never officially been cancelled, some think that we’re really still part of Norway – or would be, if they asked for us back! In fact they did do just that, for centuries. Various Norwegian kings and diplomats voyaged back and forth trying to reclaim these islands through negotiation, threats or hard cash. To no avail: Scotland ignored all entreaties.

The final attempt to claim the isles for Scandinavia came in 1667, in the Dutch city of Breda, as part of negotiations to end the Anglo-Dutch war. The English ambassador refused to countenance the idea, and his opposite number caved in. Though he did insist on having it recorded that the Danish claim should ‘remain whole and entire until a more favourable occasion.’

(Why Danish rather than Norwegian? Because Norway had been ruled by Denmark since 1523. And the crowns of Scotland and England had been joined since 1606. Political marriage was to follow with the Union of the Parliaments in 1707.)

Rackwick Bay, Orkney 

What happened in the first week of July this year was that Orkney Islands Council, frustrated by a perceived lack of recognition and support from governments in both Edinburgh and London, passed a motion to ‘explore options for alternative models of governance.’ This could include looking to the set-ups of other islands groups such as the Faroe Islands and the Channel Islands. And also to establishing stronger ties with Scandinavian countries like our old friend Norway.

There’s no denying the strong cultural bonds many Orcadians feel with the Nordic countries. Almost all our placenames have Old Norse origins, for instance, as do many personal and family names – including both ‘Ola’ and ‘Gorie’. And Orkney is scattered with remains of our Norse era, from Rousay to St Magnus Cathedral.

Whatever happens in the future, we’re proud of our Nordic past, and happy to celebrate it in our gold and silver jewellery – though we doubt we’ll ever make the 210kg of gold or 2,310kg of silver necessary to buy Orkney back from Scotland!

You can read more about Orkney’s political history – including the recent shenanigans – in this article by Mathew Nicolson of the University of Edinburgh.

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