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Orkney - Famous People

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Famous People Connected to Orkney

Historic County of Scotland

Image right - John Rae (1813 – 1893)

People of note with connections to the county are listed below. Some of these connections are a little tenuous - counties like to lay claim to people of renown!

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Please add information about people of renown connected to Orkney , Scotland. If the person has a profile on Geni please add their profile to the project and add the link in bold.



  • William Balfour Baikie - Explorer, naturalist and surgeon born in Kirkwall in 1825. He is remembered for opening navigation of the River Niger in Africa and establishing a market for trade. After studying medicine in Edinburgh, Baikie joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon. He took part in the Niger Expedition in 1854 and went on to found the Lokoja settlement. He was anti-slavery and known for his welfare for the people, while running the trading post. He died of malignant fever while on leave in Sierra Leone, aged just 39. You can see his stone monument in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.


  • James Petrie Chalmers was born in Tankerness in 1866 but left Orkney for New York as a young man. There, in 1907, he launched and edited the world's first film magazine, "The Moving Picture World".



  • Magnus Erlendsson - Saint Magnus Perhaps the most famous of all the Orkney Earls, Magnus became important in the Orkneyinga Saga when Orkney was presided over by Paul and Erlend Thorsfinnsson. Magnus was the son of Erlend Thorsfinnsson while Hakon, who was to become the enemy of Magnus, was the son of Paul.
  • Sigurd I Eysteinsson, Jarl of Orkney


  • Eliza Fraser - This Stromness woman who was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in 1863 is a famous figure in Australian popular culture.


  • Margaret Graham, a nurse and missionary who devoted her life to the children and the sick of Nigeria. She was born in Orphir, Orkney in 1860 and died in Africa in 1933.
  • Isabel Gunn disguised herself as a man and in 1806 joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as John Fubbister, her father’s name. The ‘lad’ John worked well and no one suspected her secret until she gave birth to a son in the house of shocked chief factor Alexander Henry. Isabel was given work as a washerwoman in Canada but she and her son James settled in Stromness in 1809 where she lived in poverty, working as a seamstress. She died in 1861, aged 81.


  • Gavin Hamilton (1835-1909) was one of the notable factors of the early Hudson Bay days of the province of British Columbia. He was chief factor of the Hudson's Bay company, in charge of New Caledonia, which practically comprised all the country between the Fraser and the Skeena.
  • Sigurd Hlodvisson - Sigurd the Stout famous for the myth and legend that surrounded his life as told in the Orkneyinga Saga. He was a powerful leader and ruled over not only Orkney but also Caithness. He successfully defended Caithness against the Scots. He is thought to be the last of "true heathens" and was converted to Christianity in 995 by Viking chief Olaf Trygvesson. It is told in the Orkneyinga Saga that he eventually met his death when he held aloft the "Raven Banner" during the battle of Clontarf in Ireland. The banner was magical and guaranteed victory for the side that displayed it but death to the man actually carrying it. They won the battle but Orkney lost its Earl.




  • Rognvald Kolsson - Saint Rognvald is best remembered as the Earl who undertook the building of the Saint Magnus Cathedral in 1136 to celebrate his Uncle's Sainthood. In 1129 he was made Earl of Orkney but had to share it with Paul Hakonsson. He gained sole Earldom by defeating Paul with help of the "Ultimate Viking", Svein Asleifarson. He eventually met his end in 1158 when he went on an expedition and was murdered by Thorbjorn Clerk. He is buried at St Magnus' Cathedral.


  • Thomas Smith Leask (1839-1912) Traveller and hunter. Born in the Orkney Islands in 1839, he reached Natal in 1862 and began his travels in Mashonaland in 1866. Accompanied by Dr. Calderley, he went to the Zambesi in 1869, and the two were among the earliest Europeans to see the Victoria Falls. Leask was a personal friend of both Moselekatse and Lobengula. He retired in 1870 and went into partnership with J. Taylor, as Thomas Leask & Co. in Klerksdorp. There he played a leading part in the discovery of the first gold and was elected the first President of Klerksdorp Chamber of Mines in 1887. He died in Scotland in 1912.


  • Colonel Sir Robert MacRae (1915-1999) former Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, had a distinguished military career before entering local government and becoming Lord Lieutenant of Orkney for 18 years, from 1972 onwards.
  • Alexander Malcolmson was the real founder of the Ford Motor Company. He was born near Longhope, Orkney, little is known about his early life. But he went on to become one of the largest coal dealers in Detroit. He had several branches and certainly had interest in or owned a coalfield in West Virginia and a plant in Toledo, Ohio.






  • John Rae (1813 – 1893) Scottish doctor who explored Northern Canada, surveyed parts of the Northwest Passage and reported the fate of the Franklin Expedition. Born Hall of Clestrain, Orkney.
  • Jack Renton, a young Orkney sailor who became a white head-hunter in the South Seas, made him a celebrity on his return to Britain. Renton told of how he was shanghaied in San Francisco in 1868 but escaped with others on a makeshift craft and washed up on Malaita in the Solomon Islands, inhabited by head-hunters and cannibals. He was sold to the chief who protected him but after eight years he escaped by sending a message on timber written with charcoal to a passing slave ship. He too was feted in Australia before returning home to Orkney. But he hankered for the South Seas and returned there, to be murdered by another tribe in the New Hebrides. You can see a small exhibition about Renton in the Stromness Museum which includes a necklace of teeth, given to Renton as a charm.
  • Rev. George Aeneas Ross, M.A. (1680-1753) Church of England pioneer (SPG) in the Colonies of Delaware and Pennsylvania and father of Col. George Ross, Signer of the "Declaration of Independence"


  • Henry Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney (c.1345-c.1400) (see wikipedia
  • George Stewart from Stromness, Orkney joined the HMS Bounty in 1787. Captain Bligh is reported to have said of Stewart that: "…a young man of credible parents, in the Orkneys: at which place, on the return of the HMS Resolution from the South Seas, in 1780, we received so many civilities, that, on that account only, I should gladly have taken him with me…he was a seaman and had always borne a good character."


  • William Tomison born in 1740 in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, and aged 20 joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a labourer in the fur trade in Canada. Despite his lack of education, he rose to become Governer and Inland Chief, based in Manitoba. He founded the trading post which grew into the city of Edmonton. He retired home to Orkney, and died in 1829, leaving a bequest to found a school, Tomison’s Academy. This was built in 1851 and provided free education for local children. He is buried in the garden of his former home across the road from the school.




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