27 Amazing Things to Know Before You Visit Orkney

Updated August 5, 2017

This year I finally visited Orkney, after years of wanting to go!

Travel 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. 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 things you never even imagined you’d find on this group of islands, perched at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.

(TL;DR? There’s a video at the end!)

Things to Know Before you Visit Orkney

So what are some things you might want or need to know before you visit Orkney?

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.

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, 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, and Aberdeen to Kirkwall taking 6 hours. Pentland ferries go Gill’s Bay to St Margarets Hope taking 60 minutes, and Jog Ferry is passenger only from John O’Groats to Burwick in the summer months, taking 40 minutes.

How to get to Orkney Islands

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.

Where to Stay in Orkney

But Stromness is important 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.

Stromness OrkneyPhoto 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 most of them.

Kirkwall, Orkney

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. According to archaeologist Julie Gibson, “Turn over a rock around here and you’re likely to find a new site.”

Historical Sites Orkney Islands Scotland

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.

Heart of Neolithic Orkney Historical Sites

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 to most of us 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!

Things to do in Orkney, Maeshowe

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.

Things to do in Orkney Islands, Scotland

Things to do in Orkney Islands, Scotland

The Ring of Brodgar is one of the truest examples of a stone circle

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.

Ring of Brodgar, historical site things to see Orkney

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 the farm, 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. It 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.

Ness of Brodgar - Things to see in Orkney

The Ness of Brodgar is changing the way we think about Neolithic society

Only 10% of the area 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. Sometimes the artwork was on stones placed away from view. 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.

Things to Do in Orkney, Ness of Brodgar

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.

Things to see and do in Orkney Islands, Scotland

Skara Brae is one of Orkney’s most popular attractions

Discovered in 1850 when a fierce storm blew away the sand that had covered it for centuries, at least. Walls and furnishings that were made by humans 5000 years ago. Occupied for more than 600 years, longer than many cities we have today. The dwellings look personal, 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. Children running along passageways between houses.

Best attractions in Orkney - Skara Brae

Best attractions in Orkney - Skara Brae

The Orkney islands weren’t an isolated community

With discoveries of volcanic glass from the Isle of Arran 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.

Historical Sites Orkney Islands Scotland

Stories have been written about Orkney for centuries

There is some evidence that Orkney has been written in 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.

Things to Know Before You Visit Orkney - Orkneyinga saga

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 that resembles the highlands more than the other Orkney Islands. There are plenty of things to see and do on Hoy, but the most popular attraction is probably the Old Man of Hoy. He is a 450ft tall sea stack that you can see by three-hour return walk.

Read More: How to Visit the Old Man of Hoy + Other Hoy Attractions

Visiting the Old Man of Hoy + Other Hoy Attractions, Orkney, Scotland

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 from island to island 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.

Orkney in the world 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. 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.

Italian Chapel, Orkney - Italian Prisoners of War

Italian Chapel, Orkney - Italian Prisoners 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. They 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.

Standing Stones of Stenness, historical sites in Orkney, Scotland

Ancient tombs are hidden all over Orkney

In 1958 a farmer 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 in 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. She was buried at the time between two parishes, as 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. 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 finally reburied with a concrete slab placed over the grave. Finally, around 1980, a gravestone was placed at the site.

Visit Orkney Islands Hoy Betty Corrigall's Grave

The ferry routes in Orkney are like second roads

You can access all the inhabited islands with Orkney Ferries. It’s worth spending some time visiting the outer islands of Orkney, and not just the mainland.

Orkney Ferries, Scotland - How to Get around Orkney

The world’s shortest flight is between Westray and Papa Westray

Westray and Papa Westray, located in the north of Orkney, are some of the most northerly Orkney Isles. 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!

It’s a wildlife paradise

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, with seals, whales, dolphins, and porpoises a regular sight around the isles.

Puffin

Orkney has not one, but TWO Whisky distilleries

For a small population and group of island, 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, but you would never think so when you walk through the dominant gates of the distillery today.

The younger of the two distilleries, the aptly named 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.

Distillery in Orkney Islands

Distillery in Orkney Islands

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 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 sounding Sea Glass Gin and a VODKA! They can be found on the east of mainland.

Distillery in Orkney Islands

I haven’t even begun to mention everything there is to do in the Or ey Islands, because there really is so much to see! 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 to Orkney?

Ferries to Orkney

There are four ferry options to Orkney.

Northlink Ferries

Scrabster of Stromness – 90 minutes (An opportunity to see the Old Man of Hoy on your way)

Aberdeen to Kirkwall – 6 hours

Pentland Ferries

Gill’s Bay to St Margarets Hope – 60 minutes

Jog Ferry

A passenger only from John O’Groats to Burwick in the summer months, taking 40 minutes.

Ferries to Orkney, Scotland

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

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.

Where to Stay in Orkney - Accommodation

When to visit

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 to get around Orkney, Scotland

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. The Orkney islands are easy to reach from northern Scotland, and their beauty and mystery will stay with you long after you leave.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for more videos on Scotland and beyond!

Sonja x

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27 Amazing Things to Know Before You Visit Orkney, Scotland 27 Amazing Things to Know Before You Visit Orkney, Scotland

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34 Comments

  • Reply Kirstin (the tinberry travels) August 6, 2017 at 12:08 am

    Orkney is always on my list but I have even more reasons to want to go now! So much history.

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 6, 2017 at 12:12 am

      It’s incredible how much there is in such a small space!

  • Reply Alexandria Iveson August 6, 2017 at 12:09 am

    Fantastic post – I’d love to visit Orkney 🙂

  • Reply Jessica August 6, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    I’m dying to go back to Scotland! Will have to visit Ornkey when I do!

  • Reply Natasha August 8, 2017 at 10:54 am

    This is a truly amazing guide. I am Scottish down in the Scottish Borders and I have never been to Orkney. I am glad to see it is so accessible, I never knew it was not always Scottish! Interesting

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 9, 2017 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks!! It is actually quite easy to get to. I had been to Shetland before which is much further but not Orkney, and it didn’t take long at all to drive up and get the ferry across!

  • Reply Yvonne August 8, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Absolutely fantastic post, you nailed it! So interesting and full of history, I really enjoyed reading and great photos too! 🙂 Thank you so much.

  • Reply Joanna August 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    You had me at local made gin. 🙂 Leaving the joke aside, your post actually reminded me of my visit to Stonehnge. The ancient tomb of Maeshowe looks like one of those hills surrounding Stonehenge, and nobody knows why they were build for. The Ring of Brodgar makes it even clearer that there is some sort of connection between the two areas. Who knows what was going on in this land thousands of years ago. We might never go. It’s very interesting to visit though and try to imagine.

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 9, 2017 at 4:58 pm

      Haha I LOVE that rhubarb flavour. It’s so good! No one knows what Maeshowe was built for either, or any of the other places actually. It’s so crazy!!

  • Reply Aditi Shukla August 8, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    The Orkney islands rank high on my list of places to visit. I can’t wait to spot puffins – such cuties. You just nailed it with the video in the end. Cheers!!

  • Reply Lisa August 8, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    An excllent post about a remote part of the world! I’m not sure why, but this feels so Game of Thrones, so it’s a real winner for me 🙂 I love the little Italian church, plus the other facts you gave about Orkney. It really makes me want to visit now!

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 9, 2017 at 4:57 pm

      It does look like a Game of Thrones location! Although I’m pretty sure no filming took place there. Which means it hasn’t been inundated!! The Italian Chapel is really beautiful and definitely worth the visit.

  • Reply Abigail Sinsona August 9, 2017 at 1:27 am

    Scotland is one of the countries in my bucket list. But just when I think I know all there is to see in Scotland, I read posts like this and I find myself adding more items to my bucket list. I love exploring off the beaten path destinations. And I do feel like Orkney is one. I love that it is naturally beautiful but filled with lots of history and culture. It’s like a secret of Scotland waiting to be explored!

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 9, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      Haha Orkney is definitely one for the bucket list! So much to see there 🙂

  • Reply Tania Mukherjee August 9, 2017 at 6:39 am

    Orkney has so much history yet I have never heard about it before. I am so glad to come across your article. I learnt a great deal today. The connection of Maeshowe with winter solstice is so interesting. Just like you I too don’t think its a case of mere co-incidence. The fact that Orkney is also a paradise for bird lovers just gives me enough reason not to miss this place.

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 9, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      Thanks!! There is so much there I really feel like I didn’t even begin to cover it. It’s crazy to think how much is in a small place!

  • Reply James August 9, 2017 at 9:53 am

    I’m visiting Edinburgh soon, I should visit more places in Scotland too really. Orkney looks quiet just how I like it, I don’t think there were thousands of tourists stood behind you when you took your pictures?. The Whisky and Gin up there sounds enticing! I didn’t know there was a designated UNESCO zone up there or the shortest flight in the world! The history of the area sounds interesting as to why it was inhabited years ago.

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 9, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      I’d definitely recommend getting out to other places in Scotland! Cruise ships do go to Orkney so there would be the occasional bus load of people, but they wouldn’t stay long at each place and I managed to spend a lot of time without any other people around!

  • Reply Birthe August 9, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    I had never heard of Orkney, but it sure looks and sounds interesting! My niece and nephew visited Scotland recently and their photos were amazing (don’t think they visited Orkney though), so the country is on our bucket list since. 😉 Have to mark Orkney as a must visit now! The Old Man of Hoy looks really impressive, and I would love to spot some puffins. I had no idea these cute creatures were called puffins btw, learned something new today. 😉 Thanks for making me aware of this hidden gem in Scotland!

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 10, 2017 at 10:14 am

      You’re welcome! Scotland has SO many great places to see! I’ve been living here awhile and there’s still so much I haven’t visited.

  • Reply Carol Henshaw August 9, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    What’s your opinion on the current debate about cruise ships and the Orkney Islands? Did you talk to any of the residents about this?

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 10, 2017 at 11:19 am

      I didn’t speak to any of the residents about it, but it was noticeable. I do think that there are quite a few places like this that are becoming “victims of their own success” in a way. I can completely understand why people who live there would become annoyed with the cruise ships coming in. However, for me, it wasn’t too bad because we didn’t stay in Kirkwall so didn’t notice it as much, and when we did go to Kirkwall it was later in the evening when people had gone back to the ship. As far as visiting the historic sites etc goes, I turned up at the Stones of Stenness when no one else was there (see pictures) and just after two busloads of people arrived. But then they left within about 5 minutes and I had the place to myself again. There are a lot of free attractions in Orkney which is lovely, but it also wouldn’t be a bad idea to charge a small amount to help with the upkeep of them. I know they have put a limit on the amount of passengers allowed per day, and I think they will need to keep an eye on whether that’s working or not.

  • Reply yukti August 10, 2017 at 5:46 am

    Orkney looks like a very quiet and mythological place. Also it played an important role in both World Wars which makes it more historical. It really resembles like Stonhenge. Also it is a good place for watching ocean wildlife like dolphins, whales, seals, etc. and 21 species of birds. I would prefer ferry to reach this place.

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 10, 2017 at 10:11 am

      It really is quite mystical! Especially since no one knows why most of the historical things are there 🙂

  • Reply kathy August 10, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    I absolutely love the Orkney Islands. So much so that I applied for a job there as a island nurse. I didn’t get it though. I have been there twice and both times I have loved it. The highlights for me are the Stones of Stenness and seeing the Puffins. I went the second time there in June as this is the best time to see them nesting. I also had a pretty good night out in Kirkwall 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 11, 2017 at 10:59 am

      I think it would be such an interesting place to live! Maybe you’ll get another chance :D. Puffins are so adorable! I’d follow them anywhere haha.

  • Reply Kathy Bichan August 15, 2017 at 7:14 am

    I have been in the tourism business in Orkney for 23+ years and Sonja I have to say, you have done an incredible job of capturing the essence of what is Orkney! Thank you!

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 15, 2017 at 9:44 am

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment! It really made my day 🙂

  • Reply Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad August 20, 2017 at 8:32 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Orkney! What’s really amazing about it, is having lived here for most of my life and discovering more and more about it since I’ve been back, I’ve STILL learned things from your post! It’s neverending. 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 21, 2017 at 7:45 pm

      I really enjoyed it and I’d love to go back and explore even more! I feel like I still missed a lot too 🙂

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