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Qui genus jactat suum, aliena laudat.

Sandwick is a fertile parish in West Mainland, Orkney with limited access to the sea and no peat. The archeological record shows Orkney to have been settled and farmed by Neolithic, and possibly Mesolithic, people several millennia before the arrival of Picts or Vikings e.g. Skara Brae, near the Bay of Skaill in Sandwick, was occupied for 700 years from ca. 3180 BC - 2500 BC, longer than immigrant Americans have occupied America.

There is evidence of Mesolithic [i.e. pre 3,800 BC] human activity in Orkney but whether that of seasonal migrants or settlers is unclear. [See Wickham-Jones] Neolithic settlers [ca. 3,800 - 1,800 BC] appear to have included at least two co-existing but culturally distinct populations. One constructed stalled cairns and is associated with Unstan ware; another, possibly slightly later culture, built chambered cairns and favoured grooved pottery. The stalled tombs have similarities with those found the length of western Europe and as far south as Malta; the chambered tombs share characteristics with Irish cairns. Neolithic tombs in Orkney are sited on or overlooking prime agricultural land and it has been argued that they may have demarcated individual or family ‘estates’.

Tacitus, in his ‘Agricola’ written ca. A.D. 97-8 observed: Who the first inhabitants of Britain were, whether natives or imigrants, remains obscure; one must remember we are dealing with barbarians. Bearing in mind how much closer chronologically he was to his subject than we are, answers remains as elusive as ever. Picts were among the earliest historical inhabitants but they did not emerge till some 200 years after Tacitus' death yet they too are as elusive as their predecessors - so much so that the still influential and highly readable classic work on them was give the evocative tile ‘The Problem of the Picts’ by its author, F.T. Wainwright [Edinburgh, 1955] Orkney history starts with the Picts, first named by Eumenius in 297 AD as inhabiting the islands. What little is known about the Picts is contentious. For example, it is not known what, if anything, they called themselves. They left many fine carved stone monuments distributed over much of the Scottish mainland as well as Shetland and the Hebrides but interpretation of the meaning and purpose of these carvings is speculative. Their antecedents are also contested but, from their use of at least two languages, they may have been an amalgam of different races. Ptolomey named 18 Scottish tribes, seven or eight of which he placed north of the Great Glen including the Caledonii. What little is known of the Pictish language has characteristics identifiable as P-Celtic and might have been an amalgum of languages spoken by migrating proto-Picts. Their language may contain elements from an unidentified non-Indo-European language which may have been that of the population before the arrival of migrants. Picts were in the ascendant from about 300 AD until their union or absorbtion, for equally mysterious reasons, with the Dalriada Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin in 843 A.D. Thereafter they vanish. Only their monuments remain.

The exact date the Vikings arrived in Orkney is as uncertain as that of the Picts, but at about the same time the Picts united with the Scots, much of coastal Britain was under pressure from the Vikings, who by about 850 AD had established themselves in Orkney, a strategically important base mid-way between Scandinavia, the Western Isles and Ireland, as well as conveniently close to mainland Britain - all targets worth plundering. It is probable that Norsemen had frequented Orkney long before settling.

The Picts had an identifiable culture and were recognized by other competing cultures, including the Vikings but, as if beneath their notice, there is no mention of Picts in the sagas. Tacit acknowledgement of their existence is in the Norse name PettlandsfjǪrðr, meaning Pictland Fjord, for the stretch of water that has been crossed by almost every visitor to Orkney before or since the Picts, and now called the Pentland Firth. What the Picts might have called it is unknown and, barring a contested handful, no Pictish place-names survive in Orkney. Towards the end of Norse suppremacy in the islands, the Picts were described in unflattering terms in Historia Norwegiae, a document with its own puzzles. “The medieval text Historia Norwegie has been subjected to thorough and frequent scrutiny since its first publication in 1850. Nevertheless it remains to be established when, why, where, for whom and by whom it was written.” [Inger Ekrem 1998] The only extant manuscript copy, the Dalhousie ms., now in the National Archives of Scotland (MS GD 45/31/1), is thought to date from around 1500 and is identified with the scribe of the Haye manuscript, which includes the only surviving copy of the Kingis Quair. However, from internal evidence the text must have been composed much earlier; e.g. the account of islands that paid tribute to Norway suggests 1266 as the latest possible date. “The majority of scholars... favour... dates between 1170 and 1220.” [Phelpstead & Kunin 2001] Inger Ekrem argues for an even earlier composition date, between 1140 and 1154. Historia Norwegiae describes Orkney and the Picts thus; The Orkney Islands. These islands were first inhabited by the Picts and the Papar. [Monks, probably Irish] The Picts, who were only a little bigger than pygmies, worked great marvels in city-building each evening and morning, but at noontide they were utterly bereft of their strength and hid for fear in little subterranean dwellings. At that time moreover the islands were not called the Orkneys but Pictland, and this is why still to this day the sea dividing the islands from Scotland is called the Pictland Firth by the local people. The greatest of all whirlpools is to be found there, which engulfs the strongest ships, sucking them in at ebb tide and spewing out their fragments with a belch at flood tide. [The Swilkie, off Stroma] We do not know at all where these people came from. [Trans. by Devra Kunin]

Like many convincing lies this description of the Picts has elements of truth, but the assertion that they were ‘pygmies’ is downright libelous. The adult male occupant of a Pictish grave at Buckquoy stood 5’ 7” in his ploots - equal in stature to the Norse who, “in general were relatively short.” [Berry & Firth 1986] The Norse buried on Deerness in Orkney averaged 5’ 7¼” In comparison, modern Deerness males average 5’ 8½” and modern Norwegians 5’ 7½” [Ibid.] Some Picts were certainly skilled stone-carvers but some of their building appears to have been in early cowboy style; “the Pictish structures are so poorly built that previous excavators would not have noticed them” according to John Hedges writing of his excavation of Howe Broch. [Renfrew 1990] The brochs themselves were not constructed by Picts, a common error and one possibly also made by the author of Historia Norwegiae; radiocarbon dates from finds at the Bu Broch (Stromness) show it to have been occupied around 600 BC “half a millennium earlier than the conventional date” [Renfrew 1990] and thus a thousand years before Pictish supremacy. Having said that, with possible mixed ancestry from earlier occupants of Orkney and migrants, the Picts might have some legitimate claim that their ancestors had a hand in building brochs. More certain is that they constructed “subterranean dwellings” - souterrains or weems as they are called locally. Whether “at noontide they were utterly bereft of their strength” is impossible now to know, but if true, is a weakness with which, from time to time, I have been afflicted myself, and may be proof of descent from Picts rather than their supplanters, the vainglorious Vikings.

The Westray Wife or Orkney Venus What happened to the resident Pictish population when the Vikings colonized Orkney is unknown, but there is no archaeological evidence of a pogrom or ‘ethnic cleansing’. This does not prevent theorizing about genocide and/or enslavement, but peaceful integration or coexistence must have been a possibility, if for no other reason than the Vikings would have needed breeding stock. I don't imagine Viking long ships had much in the way of female accommodation. According to one source, [citation] the Picts themselves had stocked up with women in Ireland, the quid pro quo being that the Picts adopt matrilineal succession. Orkney was not without home-grown pin-ups, certainly at least in the case of Westray. The image at left is of Miss Orkney ca. 3000 BC, a.k.a. ‘The Orkney Venus’, and is the oldest representation of a human in Scotland and also the earliest depiction of a face from anywhere in Britain. Cognoscenti have pronounced that the right breast is squarer and more emphasised than the left, which is considered diamond-shaped, and that there are similarities between this figurine and carving in the chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray - something about the eyebrows apparently. Personally, I find her legs a bit on the short side. ‘The Orkney Venus’ was found at the Links of Noltland, near the appropriately named Grobust Bay on the north of Westray, and was promptly purloined by the National Museum of Scotland rather than displayed in Orkney. The Links of Noltland is comparable to, and of a similar age with, Scara Brae and, while one of Orkney's richest archaeological sites, is also one of the most threatened by erosion.

It is noteworthy that when the Vikings arrived in Orkney they were pagan, whereas the Picts were Christian. Within a hundred years or so Orkney Vikings had converted to Christianity, with a bit of back-sliding on the part of certain individuals and more than a backward glance culturally to Odin and his merry crew. They even produced a couple of home-grown saints, Magnus and Rognvald, albeit of very dubious saintly credentials. Vikings occupied and used Pictish settlements just as the Picts themselves had used earlier settlements, that at Buckquoy being one example, and Clouston, among others, maintained that the Vikings adopted aspects of Pictish land division and management. [Clouston 1932] However, the legal system in Orkney evolved from Norwegian practice, as also happened in Iceland, and property ownership was allodial, the antithesis of feudal. Such property and its rights were udal or odal and their owners were udallers or odallers - but not both; they are the Swiss! There is a tendency among commentators to favour u when writing of allodial rights in Orkney or elsewhere in Scotland, e.g. Jamieson's Dictionary, but Clouston and Balfour prefer o which makes etymological sense, stemming, as the word does, from the Norse oðal. When quoting others I preserve their spelling. I go with the flow and use udal and udaller. The udaller held his land without any written title, subject to no service or payment to a superior, and with full possession and every conceivable right of ownership. The udaller was a peasant noble; he was the king's equal and not his vassal. He owed king or jarl no services, duties or payment for his udal lands, which he held as an absolute possession, inalienable from him and his race. [Gunn n.d.]

Inalienable, that is, until the islands fell under Scottish tyrrany. Too strong? “Who shall say that any terms can be too strong to characterize such an unparalleled series of oppressions, in a district so poor and so unable to struggle against them as these islands?” [Mackenzie 1750] The very Christian Bishop, William Tulloch was rewarded with a favourable Tack of the Earldom and Royal revenues in 1472 shortly after the Impignoration, was not the first cleric to abuse his power. Bishop Adam had set a fine precedent in the 13th century, when by rigorous exaction and arbitrary increase of payments [Balfour 1860], he was finally rewarded with his own personal auto da fe and was burned to death in 1222 by outraged Orcadians. Sadly avoiding the same fate, Bishop William Tulloch pursued a similar policy of extortion to which he added the refinement of illegal erosion of udal rights to which end he unvaryingly favoured Feudal principles over what were to him the barbarous anomalies of Odalism... It was fatal to the interests and independence of Orkney, that, at such a crisis of transition, [i.e. the Impignoration] the power to interpret and fix the existing and future rights of parties should have been intrusted to such an arbiter.” [Balfour 1860] This abuse became the norm, if anything compounded and refined by the notably un-Christian Stewart earls, starting with Lord Robert, bastard in every sense of the word because the illegitimate son of James V. Despotism reached its apogee under his son's tenure, Earl Patrick a.k.a. ‘Black Pate’ whose “whole life and proceedings formed one continual breach of the island laws” [Mackenzie 1750], and Patrick's son, another Robert. Both deservedly ended up “two merry boys in a hempen string, under the gallows tree” tra-la - not “for (their) violent and masterful oppressions, committed upon his Majesty's peaceable and good subjects” [Mackenzie 1750], but for treason against their king. “The ministers who tried to prepare (Patrick) for death, finding him so ignorant that he could not say the lord's prayer, asked the council to delay his execution for a few days, till he could be better informed.” [Gunn n.d.] Then they hanged him.

Under the terms of the Impignoration, itself probably illegal because King Christian I seems to have acted unilaterally without consulting the Norwegian Rigsraada [state council] [Mooney n.d.], the administration of Orkney passed to Scotland while sovereignty remained with Norway until such time as the pledge was redeemed. No time-limit was set and the redemptory sum was fixed at 50,000 florins of the Rhine - a paltry £24,166, 13s. 4d. according to David Balfour [Edinburgh, 1860]. During Scottish administration, governance of Orkney was to conform to existing Norse custom and law. This was codified in the Norse Lawbook which was “corrupted, and ultimately (it is said) burnt.” [Drever n.d. See further Mackenzie p.36] This destruction, together with that of the Norse Rent Rolls, was the culmination of sustained attack by successive despots on the rights of udallers the better to mulct maximum profit from territory regarded by its ‘guardians’ as their personal fiefdom. Their aim to eradicate udal law nearly succeeded, but not quite.

Udal-land is such as the owners have in All-hood, acknowledging none but God alone for it. Latin writers call this Alodium, or Alodum; the French and English Alod or Aleud, the Germans and Scandinavians Aoidal, Audal, Othel or Odal; and the Orknay [sic] men and Shetlanders, Authel, Uthel or Udal: A compound of the Tuetonick [sic] Ode, signifying propriety or possession, and of Ole or Ale, which in the same language signifies ancient. (Eccardus ad leges salicas, in voce Authumnia.) And thus by an Udal or Aleud, an Odal or Alod, is meant an ancient inheritance, patrimony or possession.
The owners of these lands of inheritance were by the Germans called Othel-men, and by the Anglo-Saxons Edel-men. In Norway they are called Odal-men, and in these islands [i.e. Orkney and Shetland] Authal-men, Uthel-men, or Udal-men; a name (says Eccard in loc. citat) equipollent to noblemen. [Mackenzie 1750 - and so say all of us! The somewhat erratic Italicis are as in the 1836 edition.]

Odal law is not just a historical oddity; it continues to hold supremacy over Scots law in Orkney and Shetland. In 1567 an Act of the Parliament of Scotland was passed allowing the Norse laws of Orkney and Shetland to prevail over the Scottish common law which was, after all, no more than was agreed at the time of the Impignoration. This remains the position which Scottish Courts are occasionally forced to acknowledge. Two 20th century cases exemplify the sublime and ridiculous extremes of what odd bedfellows udal and feudal rights make.

One major difference from Scots law is the udal right to ownership of the shore which extends not just to the shore-line above high water but includes the lowest point of the ebb, [the LAT or Lowest Astronomical Tide] and possibly beyond to a hazily defined point, sometimes referred to as the marebakke, where the foreshore becomes steep and beyond a man's depth, or the distance a man could cast a net from the ebb-line. It is common for udal titles to extend “from the lowest of the ebb to the highest of the hill” and therefore to include the foreshore within the grant.” [Scottish Law Commission 2001] This was important as it ensured a right of access to load boats, by wading human porterage or by horses, from any shore without a jetty. It also became of considerable significance in laying pipelines and cables which was brought home to the Occidental Oil Company and the Crown Commissioners in an important case in the mid-1970s when Occidental was constructing its pipeline to Flotta. It negotiated with the Crown Estate for rights to cross the foreshore at the end of the 4th Barrier at Cara without realising that the Crown has no authority over the intertidal zone in Orkney and therefore no legal right to try and extort payment for its use. “Accordingly, where a udal title includes the foreshore, the Crown has no proprietary rights in the foreshore... The Crown still has an interest in the foreshore, but only as protector of the public rights.” [Scottish Law Commission 2001] When the landowner successfully asserted his udal rights, the Crown had to relinquish its ‘royalties’ and refund their charges to the udaller.

At the other extreme was a case that came to court around 1910 over the Mute Swan. The Crown asserts ownership of all mute swans purely on the basis of having passed a law to that effect, the preposterous 1482 Act of Swans, but this was challenged by a Kirkwall lawyer who, accompanied by his friend, the Procurator Fiscal, went to the Loch of Harray and shot an unfortunate swan. The case went to the High Court and the Crown lost because, in Orkney, swans are the property of the people. As for the swans, they remain mute.

Richan stone Linklater is an ancient Orkney township testimony of whose age is to be found in the need to add Upper, Nether and West Linklater to the main township either to accommodate an expanding population or in recognition of the udal subdivision of the original property among heritors. It appears to have belonged to Linklaters until the middle of the 17th century when “Alexander of that Ilk sold his lands to Rob. Richan from 1662 to 1667.” [Clouston 1914] Half a century before the proprietorship of Linklater passed to Richan, there were other Linklaters of some standing either unconnected with Linklater township or who had moved away and prospered, e.g. Thomas Linkletter of Wattle who died in 1611 was a substantial farmer; he employed four male and three female farm-servants, he owned 10 horses, 4 oxen, 16 cattle, 20 sheep and 10 pigs and he had a large acreage under crop.[Thomson, 1995]. Wattle is in Birsay, a little under 4 miles north of Linklater and just to the north of the northern end of the Loch of Boardhouse. Another Linkletter, Andro, of Harray, was sworn in as a juryman in November 1612 in Petersone contra Dicksone; and in January 1613 in Rendall contra Sandie Henrie Linkletter of Goirsnes was sworn in. Both returned guilty verdicts in cases of assault. [Barclay 1962] Only men of substance would have been jurors. For more on the name in general see Linklater Name.

Richan stone George Richan was described as “of Linklater” in Poll Tax records from the 1690s and again, in 1718, in a document allocating pews and seats in the recently rebuilt Stromness church. Richans were evidently people of substance who continued to prosper, by fair means or foul, e.g. kelp and smuggling, well into the 19th century until the inevitable bankruptcy. I wonder if Esther Richan regretted winning an argument with a ‘gentleman’ diner as to who could consume the most expensive breakfast? when Esther Richan took the laurels by eating a sandwich containing a fifty pound note. Clearly, Linklaters were no match for them! proof of which may be found set in stone within St Magnus' Kirk where there are at least two memorial stones for the Richan family, the earlier of which [shown above left] records the death of John Richen Merchant Bvrges of Kirkwal on 6o Febr 1679 without reference to Linklater, whereas the slightly later stone [at right] records the death of Robert Richen of Linclater Merchant and Bvrges of Kirkwal 1 Decr 1679 - although the year is in some doubt as the carving is very worn. I have yet to find evidence of any sort of memorial to any of my immediate forebears, who would thus appear not to have been blessed with enough spare cash to memorialize their dead in any permanent form. There are several stones recording Linklaters in St Peter's Kirk, Skaill [HY 234 198] but I do not know what, if any, immediate relationship they bore to my ancestors. I have not looked in other Orkney boneyards.

Nether Benzieclett was one of the oldest domestic properties in Orkney and at one time occupied by Linklaters. [Research: when they ceased to occupy.] It was still inhabited at the turn of the 20th century but not by Linklaters. [Research: when it became unoccupied.] Nether Benzieclett is less than 1½ miles from Linklater [Research: was it ever a part of the township.] as is another, very old property, now called Housegarth, which is claimed to have been continuously occupied by Linklaters “for nearly a millennium.” [Thomson 1981] [See Nether Benzieclett for more.]

Surnames appear in Orkney from the 14th and 15th c. and were universal by the 17th c. The earliest surnames were place-names, all of which are Norse. There are no Norse taxation rolls [rentals] for Orkney. The earliest rentals date from the end of the 15th century by which time Orkney was under Scottish administration. Those adopting surnames tended to take ‘Scottish’ names, Sinclair being a particular favourite even though originally Norman French. Old Norse names were rarely if ever adopted. Thus anyone called Linklater is likely to have been resident during, if not before, the Viking colonization and unlikely to have arrived after the Impignoration. [Research: when did the surname Linklater first appear outside Orkney? on Fairisle? and Shetland?] Linklater is one of several surnames unique to Orkney. [See Linklater Name for more.]

Writing of Scotland in general, Alexander Fenton said Relatively few areas have an indigenous population historically linked with that area for more than a century and a half to two centuries. Being somewhat inaccessible islands must have helped make Orkney one of those few. The last of my immediate ancestors was born and raised at Aith, 2½ miles from Linklater. The balance of probability favours his descent from individuals inhabiting Orkney no later than the Norse settlement. This means that over the course of say one thousand years my ancestors moved not only slower than a glacier but far, far slower than a snail. At the 1995 World Snail Racing Championships at Longhan, a garden snail named Archie covered a 13 inch course in 2 minutes. An average garden snail motors along at 0.03 m.p.h. Taking a millennium to cover 2½ is extreme dawdling, a hundred thousand times more dawdly than a gastropod - just the turn of speed you would expect from a rock in the heather.




  • Balfour, David: Odal Rights and Feudal Wrongs [Edinburgh, 1860]
  • Barclay, Robert S: The Court Book of Orkney and Shetland 1612-1613 [Mackintosh, Kirkwall Press, 1962]
  • Berry, R.J. and Firth, H.N.: The People of Orkney [Orkney Press, 1986]
  • Black, George F.: The Surnames of Scotland [Birlinn, Edinburgh 1996]
  • Clouston, J. Storer: A History of Orkney [Kirkwall, 1932]
  • Clouston, J. Storer: Records of the Earldom of Orkney 1299-1614 [Edinburgh, 1914]
  • Drever, W.P.: Udal Law in the Orkneys and Zetland. [no info.]
  • Fenton, Alexander: The Shape of the Past 1: Essays in Scottish Ethnology. [Edinburgh, 1985]
  • Gunn, John: The Orkney Book [Nelson and Sons, London, Edinburgh etc n.d. ca. 1909]
  • Mackenzie, James: Grievances and Oppression of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland [1750 reprinted Edinburgh 1836]
  • Mooney, John: Charters and Other Records of...Kirkwall [Kirkwall Town Council, n.d.]
  • Phelpstead, Carl and Kunin, Devra: A History of Norway ... Trans. by Devra Kunin, edited with intro. and notes by Carl Phelpstead [Viking Soc., Univ. Coll. London 2001 Web revision 2008]
  • Thomson, Gordon: The Other Orkney Book [Edinburgh, 1981]
  • Renfrew, Colin [ed]: The Prehistory of Orkney [Edinburgh U.P., 1990]
  • Scottish Law Commission: Discussion Paper on Law of the Foreshore and Seabed [H.M.S.O. Edinburgh, April 2001]
  • Tacitus: On Britain and Germany Trans. by H. Mattingly [Penguin: 1948]
  • Willaim P. L. Thomson: The Landscape of Medieval Birsay published in Northern Isles Connections [Kirkwall, 1995] edited by Barbara E. Crawford
  • Wickham-Jones: [Internet 2007] antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/wickham/
  • Wickham-Jones: [Internet 2004] www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/dhl/papers/cwj/index.html
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