I finally visited Orkney, after years of wanting to go!
Travelling in Scotland isn’t just about exploring Edinburgh’s historic streets and hidden gems, seeing the highlands or taking a road trip around the North Coast 500 – there are also hundreds of islands off the coast of Scotland that are worth entire trips on their own. The Isle of Skye is probably the most popular, and I’ve talked about the numerous reasons why you should visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris. But there’s also the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland, that have a whole history and story of their own.
The Orkney Islands number 70, and have a history of inhabitation that stretches back around 10,000 years, meaning there are plenty of things to do in Orkney now too! Whether you visit Orkney on a tour, as part of a cruise, or on your own, you’ll find yourself enchanted by this mystical land. Islands are commonly on our travel bucket list because we want a tropical vacation. Well, a holiday in Orkney can still involve white sand beaches and turquoise waters, but you’ll be treated to historical marvels, a craft culture, and amazing other things to do in Orkney that you never even imagined you’d find on a group of islands, perched at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.
So what are some things to do in Orkney or that you need to know before you go?
Orkney wasn’t always part of Scotland
In 1474 Orkney became part of Scotland, after King Christian I of Norway (plus Denmark and Sweden) pledged Orkney and Shetland against payment of his daughter’s dowry when she married King James III of Scotland. He failed to pay so both groups of islands were annexed to Scotland. This means there’s a lot of history in Orkney from different origins, leaving lots of things for us to explore and do!
It may feel isolated and far-flung, but the Orkney Islands are more accessible than you think
You can see Orkney from the top of mainland Britain, and reach it in more ways than one. Flying is the quickest way to get there, with direct flights to Orkney from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Sumburgh (Shetland) and Aberdeen. There are also four ferry routes, depending on where you want to leave from.
- Northlink Ferries run from Scrabster of Stromness taking 90 minutes
- Northlink Ferries also go from Aberdeen to Kirkwall taking 6 hours
- Pentland ferries go Gill’s Bay to St Margarets Hope taking 60 minutes
- Jog Ferry is a passenger only ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick in the summer months, taking 40 minutes
The capital is Kirkwall
In the islands of Orkney, the ‘mainland’ refers to the main island, rather than mainland Scotland or Britain. At the heart of Orkney and on Mainland is the capital of the Orkney islands, Kirkwall. The population is approximately 9,300. There are lots of things to do in Kirkwall, including visiting the 12th century St Magnus Cathedral, the Earl’s Palace, the Orkney Museum and the Wireless Museum.
But Stromness is important too
Stromness is the second most populated city in Orkney, located on the mainland, with plenty of history too. Login’s Well at the south end of the main street of Stromness was the last watering hole for sailors before they went off to the wild North Atlantic. It even provided the water for Captain Cook’s Discovery and Sir John Franklin’s Arctic exploration vessels.
Photo Credit: Yvonne Michele
St Magnus Cathedral has some of the oldest headstones I’ve ever seen
The most imposing building in Kirkwall is St Magnus Cathedral, built when the islands were ruled by the Norse Earl’s of Orkney. Construction began in 1137 and it has continuously been added to and adapted. Inside you can find the walls lined with ancient headstones. Most of them were unreadable to me, but there are translations or transcriptions next to them that give you an insight into the lives of people who lived here long ago.
Rumour has it Orkney has more ancient sites than anywhere else in Europe
It’s a rumour because there are so many undiscovered ancient sites in Orkney that it’s hard to calculate! The Orkney islands have been called the Egypt of the north because new sites are constantly discovered. For that reason, it’s an archaeologists dream and there are lots of great things to do in Orkney related to the historical sites. According to archaeologist Julie Gibson, “Turn over a rock around here and you’re likely to find a new site.”
The ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1999 an area west of Kirkwall was deemed the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” and earned UNESCO World Heritage Status. It includes the tomb of Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and now, the Ness of Brodgar. If you’re wondering what to do in Orkney and you only have limited time then this is the place to go! It’s crazy that there are so many points of interest in Orkney in just one small area.
It’s free to wander these sites (except for Maeshowe) but they can get crowded at times if you’re there when a tour bus is. However, tour buses also tend to move along quickly so take your time and hopefully you’ll get each one to yourself too!
Vikings explored Orkney just like us
The ancient tomb of Maeshowe was built around 5000 years ago and is the namesake of these types of chambered cairns found around Orkney. From the outside it just looks like a grassy hill, but inside is the main chamber and three smaller chambers, made with precision. However, what is probably the most interesting part of Maeshowe now came much later.
In the 12th century, Viking explorers broke into the cairn and carved graffiti in runes around the walls. Yes, actual graffiti that says things like “Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes”. There are also clues as to when the men were there, with mention of Ragnar Lothbrok – who is in The Vikings TV series!
Maeshowe is linked to the winter solstice, as Stonehenge is to the summer
On the winter solstice, the sun sets perfectly down the entry passage of Maeshowe and illuminates the chamber. This would be an extremely unlikely coincidence.
If visiting Maeshowe is on your list of things to do in Orkney make sure you plan in advance. You need to take a guided tour which leaves from the nearby Visitor Centre. You’ll be taken to the site where you’ll learn more about it before entering. The guide will point out and translate the graffiti for you too!
The Ring of Brodgar is one of the truest examples of a stone circle
The Ring of Brodgar really is a site to behold and one of the best things to see in Orkney. Likely once a site of ritual, although no one knows what for, the Ring of Brodgar is 104 metres wide and is a true circle. It’s thought it once contained 60 stones, and although only 27 remain, the size of the stone circle and the height of some of the stones are certainly impressive. I’ve been to a few other stone circles around the UK and this is definitely the biggest I’ve seen, plus it’s free to visit!
You can witness a live archeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar
For over ten years archeologists have been working to uncover the Ness of Brodgar. In 1925 a carved stone was discovered during ploughing of the field at a farm in Orkney, but it wasn’t until 2002 when a survey as part of the World Heritage Site revealed that there could be numerous structures beneath the ground there.
Given the location, the survey suggested there could be something special between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, and so with the permission of the landowners, the dig at the Ness of Brodgar began.
Budget and weather constraints mean the dig only takes place for 6-8 weeks a year, so if you visit in July/August you might be lucky enough to see it when it’s uncovered and being worked on.
The Ness of Brodgar is changing the way we think about Neolithic society
Only 10% of the area at the Ness of Brodgar has been excavated, but so much has been discovered. Polished stone axes, coloured pottery, a human figurine, and more than 650 pieces of Neolithic art have been recovered. Sometimes the artwork was on stones placed away from view, suggesting that the artwork was for pleasure rather than for a purpose.
This society was not primitive, as once thought! Thirty centuries before the Romans even thought to build Hadrians Wall, the people of Orkney were living in a sophisticated community that is now being uncovered piece by piece.
No one knows why any of these monuments are here
The Orkney Islands may not be tropical but they do feel mystical. There is so much mystery about who lived there, how and why. The sheer scale and amount of monuments at the Heart Of Neolithic Orkney are surely not a coincidence, and must be related in some way, although we don’t (yet) know how.
When visiting, you’ll be struck by how many of the things to do in Orkney are related to these structures. It’s like a great mystery just waiting to be solved!
Skara Brae is one of Orkney’s most popular attractions
Skara Brae was discovered in 1850 when a fierce storm blew away the sand that had covered it for centuries, at least. It comprises of streets and houses with walls and furnishings that were made by humans 5000 years ago. Skara Brae was occupied for more than 600 years, longer than many cities we have today. The dwellings look personal and you can almost picture someone living there, with cubby holes and table tops for personal items.
The Neolithic period can seem far removed and the people who lived then incomprehensible, but standing in a 5000-year-old house and seeing these personal touches, it brings these people and their lives to life. You imagine then walking in the nearby fields, or along the beach, and children running along passageways between houses.
Historic Scotland run a visitor centre at Skara Brae, and entry to the site and nearby Skaill House costs £7.50 for adults and £4.50 for children. You’re not able to walk amongst the ancient buildings themselves, in order to preserve the area as much as possible. However, in the summer you can opt for an after-hours tour in the evening where you will be guided into the site itself for a closer look, including entering a house and walking down the streets!
The Orkney islands weren’t an isolated community
With discoveries of volcanic glass from the Isle of Arran (located much further south off the west of Scotland) and other artifacts from across the islands, it can be assumed that Orkney may have been part of an established trade route, and owing to all of the buildings and history in the area, maybe even a pivotal part of one.
It’s something that is still being researched and explored so that we can understand more about the role that Orkney played in history.
Stories have been written about Orkney for centuries
There is some evidence that Orkney has been written about since 56BC, quoting Greek explorer Pytheas who sailed around Britain in 325BC. By the 1st century Orkney was on maps as “Orcades”, but probably the most famous text about Orkney is the Orkneyinga Saga.
It was compiled by an Icelandic scribe (or scribes) and details Orkney’s story from the first conquest until around 1200. It’s not entirely historical fact, which is clear in the early chapters about the mythical ancestry of the later Earl’s of Orkney, but it’s thought that later chapters are much more plausible and could be closer to real life and goings on in Orkney.
The island of Hoy is like a slice of the highlands
Hoy is the second largest island in Orkney and has the most dramatic scenery. It more closely resembles the highlands than the other Orkney Islands. There are plenty of things to see and do on Hoy, but the most popular attraction is the Old Man of Hoy, a 450ft tall sea stack that you can see by taking a three-hour return walk.
Orkney played a crucial role in both World Wars
Scapa Flow was home to the British Home Fleet during both World Wars. After World War I ended the German High Seas Fleet was sunk in Scapa Flow. You can see some remnants of it around when the tide is lower, and also dive some of the sites.
After the HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a U-Boat in 1938, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of barriers between the islands to the east of Scapa Flow. These causeways are now known as the Churchill Barriers and provide a means to travel between many of the islands close to the mainland easily.
The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum on Hoy is free to enter and provides an insight into the importance of Orkney during the wars.
Italian Prisoners of War created one of the most poignant churches in Britain
During World War II 550 Italian Prisoners of War were held on Orkney, where they were made to build the Churchill Barriers. The prisoners held on Lambholm managed to convince their camp commander to allow them to build a chapel, as most of them were Catholic. They were allowed to do so if they worked outside of their normal hours, and were given two Nissan huts to use.
What they created is certainly not what would have been expected. They used plaster to line the huts and created an elaborate facade. Inside a prisoner named Domenico Chiocchetti painted it to look like brick walls and stonework and paintings in the sanctuary and they used scrap metal for candelabras and other furnishings. The result is nothing short of beautiful, and it gives you a feeling of hope to see something like this created in a time of war.
The Stones of Stenness may be the oldest henge in the British Isles
You’ve probably heard of Stonehenge, but the Stones of Stenness may be the oldest henge, a type of Neolithic earthwork where a central flat area is surrounded by a bank and ditch. The henges around Britain are thought to have been sites of ritual, but like much of the Neolithic period, remain a mystery.
The Standing Stones of Stenness are some of the tallest I have ever seen, with one stretching to up to around 16 ft (5 metres) high. They are another of the free things to do in Orkney and are located near the Ness of Brodgar and the ring of Brodgar.
Ancient tombs are hidden all over Orkney
In 1958 a farmer in the south of Orkney discovered an ancient tomb on his land. It held ancient human bones but surprisingly, also hundreds of ancient eagle bones that had been added at a later date. The Tomb of the Eagles is on South Ronaldsay, and you enter the tomb by lying on a board with wheels underneath and pulling yourself along a tunnel with a rope.
Orkney is home to the “loneliest grave in Britain”
The grave of Betty Corrigal on Hoy is said to be one of the saddest and loneliest in Britain. At the time, she was buried between two parishes, as because she took her own life after finding out she was pregnant neither Laird would allow her to be buried on hallowed ground. The site was an unmarked peat field, and in 1933 two men cutting peat discovered her wooden coffin, with Betty still perfectly preserved inside thanks to the conditions of the peat surrounding her. She was reburied and once again forgotten.
Unfortunately, Betty’s grave was discovered again by soldiers stationed in Orkney during WWII. She became somewhat of a spectacle until she was reburied with a concrete slab placed over the grave to prevent her being disturbed in future. Finally, around 1980, a gravestone was placed at the site.
The ferry routes in Orkney are like second roads
Although you can drive across bridges or the Churchill barriers between some islands, many of the other islands in Orkney must be accessed by sea or air. It’s possible to get to all the inhabited islands with Orkney Ferries. It’s worth spending some time visiting the outer islands of Orkney, and not just the mainland, as they have even more things to see and do and their isolation means you’ll be less likely to run into other tourists!
The world’s shortest flight is between Westray and Papa Westray
Westray and Papa Westray are some of the most northerly of the Orkney Isles and are located fairly close to each other. You can fly between the two on what is the world’s shortest flight, coming in at just under 2 minutes. You’ll even get a certificate afterward to say you’ve done it!
It’s a wildlife paradise
Puffins are one of my absolute favourite birds to watch! Orkney is one of the best places to spot puffins or one of the other 21 breeding species of bird found here. Not to mention the ocean wildlife you might spot, with seals, whales, dolphins, and porpoises a regular sight around the isles.
Orkney has not one, but TWO Whisky distilleries
For a small population and group of islands, Orkney punches above its weight in the distillery stakes. The oldest distillery, Highland Park, has been producing the amber brew since 1798. It began as an illegal still and had to be hidden, but you would never think so when you walk through the dominant gates of the distillery today.
The younger of the two distilleries, Scapa Distillery, can be found on the banks of Scapa Flow and dates back to 1885. You can visit both distilleries for a taste of Orkney whisky!
But there’s something in Orkney for the gin-lovers too
With 70% of the gin in the UK being produced in Scotland, it’s no surprise the northern isles are getting in on the act. While there were gins that have used Orkney botanicals produced elsewhere, the Orkney Gin Company were the first to start producing gin on the islands themselves. What began as a hobby and a homemade Christmas present for friends and family has morphed into a backyard business selling different flavours of gin. My favourite is the Rhubarb Old Tom!
They’ve now been joined by the Deerness Distillery, who have a delicious Sea Glass Gin and a VODKA! They can be found on the east of mainland.
I haven’t even begun to mention all the things to do in the Orkney Islands, because there really is so much to see and so many different islands to explore! You can visit the Earl’s Palace, once known as the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland, or the Broch of Birsay, an island that contains Norse ruins that you can walk to at low tide, and almost countless other things that Orkney has on offer.
If you only have one or two days in Orkney you might get an overview of these mystical and time-travelling islands, but you could spend weeks exploring and still never reach the end of the gems there are to see here.
Practical Tips for Visiting Orkney
How to get to Orkney
The Orkney islands can be reached by sea or air. If you’re driving the North Coast 500 route, why not take a detour north to Orkney for a few days?
Ferries to Orkney
There are four ferry options to Orkney.
Scrabster of Stromness – 90 minutes (An opportunity to see the Old Man of Hoy on your way)
Aberdeen to Kirkwall – 6 hours
Gill’s Bay to St Margarets Hope – 60 minutes
A passenger-only from John O’Groats to Burwick in the summer months, taking 40 minutes.
Flights to Orkney
Flybe and Logan Air offer direct flights to Orkney from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Sumburgh (Shetland) and Aberdeen. You can check Skyscanner to compare flights.
Where to stay in Orkney
There is plenty of accommodation in Orkney on offer. When you’re considering your Orkney accommodation don’t just look at Kirkwall, although this or Stromness will be the easiest if you’re without a car. We stayed in St Margarets Hope, a beautiful little village with several Airbnb (use my discount code to save on your first stay) and B&B options, and with a lovely drive to the mainland. Check Booking.com for hotel, B&B and hostel options.
When to visit Orkney
The weather isn’t always perfect so the best time to visit Orkney can be hard to pin down. I visited in summer and still had rain some of the time, although it’s to be expected in most of Scotland! If you go in the summer months, especially June, you’ll be treated to longer days and a higher chance of seeing seabirds.
How to get around
If you don’t have a car then you can look at Orkney tours that will take you around the islands, or to particular places like the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. You can also consider tours that will take you all the way from Edinburgh with a company like Rabbies Tours.
Hiring a car in Orkney is also an option if you take one of the ferries as a passenger.
The Orkney Explorer Pass
You can get free admission to the top things to see in Orkney with the Orkney Explorer Pass. If you want to visit more than 3 of Orkney’s top attractions (plus Jarlshof in Shetland), then it may be worth getting the £19 pass. It’s only valid between April and September for 30 consecutive days. I didn’t get the pass as I didn’t think I’d go to enough Orkney attractions, but I ended up doing so and could have saved money!
How long to spend in Orkney
How long do you need to visit Orkney? How long is a piece of string! I could have spent far longer on the islands than I did, but in my time there I was able to discover the island of Hoy, learn more about Orkney’s role in the world wars, and travel through time to explore Neolithic Orkney. You could cover all of this within a couple of days if you move quickly, with it’s worth taking a slower pace and trying to reach some of the outer islands too!
The Orkney islands are easy to reach from northern Scotland, and their beauty and mystery will stay with you long after you leave.
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