Northern outposts of civilization, the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos consist of around 200 islands, about 40 of which are inhabited. "Go to Shetland for scenery, Orkney for antiquities" -- that's the saying, anyway. That doesn't mean the Orkneys don't have scenery, too. They do, in abundance.

These far-flung and scattered islands are rich in a great Viking heritage. Ceded to Scotland by Norway as part of the 1472 dowry of Princess Margaret, when she married James III, the islands were part of the great Norse earldoms. They were a gathering place for Norse fleets and celebrated in the Orkneyinga Saga, which detailed the exploits of the Viking warriors.

Before the Vikings, however, tribes of Stone Age people occupied both the Shetlands and the Orkneys. The Picts came later, and you can still see ruins of their round forts dotting the coastlines. The island chains aren't part of the Highlands and are entirely different from both the Inner and the Outer Hebrides. Clans, Gaelic, and kilts were unfamiliar to the Orcadians and the Shetlanders -- until the Scots arrived. At first these merchants and newcomer landlords were bitterly resented. Even today, the islanders are fiercely independent. They refer to themselves as Orcadians and Shetlanders rather than as Scots. And Orkney and Shetland not only are different from the Highlands, but also are different from each other.

Inevitably, change has come to the Orkneys and Shetlands by way of oil and modern conveniences. But tradition remains strong, which has a lot to do with climate and ancestry.