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Professor Peter Marshall, Leverhulme Fellowship

Culture and Belief in Orkney, 1468 - 1800

Professor Peter Marshall’s Fellowship explores the history of early modern Britain from the perspective of its geographical edge.

An archipelago of seventy islands, around a third inhabited, Orkney lay for centuries at the intersection of the British and Scandinavian worlds.

In the Middle Ages, it was the centre of a large and quasi-independent Norse earldom. The islands remained part of the Norwegian-Danish state until 1468, when Christian I mortgaged them to James III of Scotland in lieu of monies promised as dowry for the marriage of his daughter.

The ‘Scottification’ of Orkney began long before 1472 (when the earldom was annexed to the crown of Scotland), but it was a slow and patchy process. The Norwegian legal system operated into the seventeenth century, and a distinctive form of Old Norse known as Norn died out as a language only in the second half of the eighteenth.

Orkney, as Professor Marshall’s research will seek to demonstrate, was a kind of geographical paradox: simultaneously a place of deeply-rooted indigenous community and a site of continuous arrival and encounter. The omnipresent sea was a hazard and a barrier – between Orkney and the Mainland, and between the islands themselves – but it was also a medium of contact and communication, allowing significant commercial and cultural connections with Norway to continue.

Orkney played a prominent role in the political convulsions of seventeenth century Scotland. In the following century, through naval service and recruitment to the Hudson’s Bay Company, Orcadians were increasingly drawn into the orbits of British nation and empire.


Kirkwall in the early nineteenth century: The cathedral of St Magnus contained a dungeon where criminals (including witches) were held.


Professor Marshall at the Brough of Deerness: A medieval chapel on a remote rocky outcrop, which for centuries after the Reformation remained a place of illicit pilgrimage.

At home, Orkney’s religious institutions and structures of belief were transformed by a Protestant Reformation implemented by a predominantly immigrant clergy. But older ways of thinking persisted, and were assimilated uneasily into the new – a particularly virulent strain of witchcraft prosecutions offers insight into magical mentalities among the population, and the potential for painful cultural misunderstanding.

A key aim of Professor Marshall’s project is to make the peripheral central; to ask what happens when places we instinctively regard as peripheral or ‘remote’ become our central points of reference. He will argue that Orkney’s distinctive historical character – as a diffusely inhabited archipelagic society, a frontier zone, a jurisdictional anomaly, and a site of cultural and linguistic encounter – can help to reframe important questions about the making of modern Britain, and the meanings of local, regional and national identity.