The wild island of Orkney 10 miles off the northern Scottish coast is one of the most far flung points of the inhabited British Isles – only The Shetlands are more remote.
To be precise Orkney is really an archipelago of 70 separate islands, only 20 of which are inhabited.
They have milder than average winters but significantly chillier summers than the rest of Britain – but you can be sure of a warm welcome there.
And it’s the second destination in our Island Life series.
Unlike the quick hop, skip and jump to get to many of Britain’s islands, it will take a bit more planning.
But it’ll be worth it.
Note: If you’re thinking of visiting in 2020, capacity on ferries and flights is restricted and you may not be able to travel exactly when you’d like. It’s best to have all your travel and accommodation booked before arriving. Some sites and attractions remain closed but Orkney’s perfect for exploring the great outdoors with beaches, coastlines and cliffs aplenty.
Before you go we recommend you check the latest on Orkney.com – it’s packed with beautiful pictures, a great interactive map and all the information you need.
Your first glimpse of the islands is likely to be either Stromness or Kirkwall. Kirkwall is the largest of Orkney’s towns with a thriving harbour, magnificent cathedral and plenty of accommodation choices. If you’re flying to Orkney, the airport is just a few miles out from the centre.
Stromness is the main seaport with winding streets and narrow alleyways reaching from the harbour up into the hillside behind. There’s a magnificent cycle track that links the two if you’re ready for a twenty mile ride.
But for most visitors it’s the call of the wild that gets them heading away from the towns and out into the countryside.
Getting to Orkney
The fastest route is by air from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Shetland which means if you’re coming from outside of Scotland you need to get north of the border first by road, rail or air.
A road trip to Aberdeen and a 6 hour ferry journey to Kirkwall is a more leisurely way to travel if you have the time. Even more dramatic is the 90 minute ferry trip from Scrabster on the mainland’s northernmost coast to Stromness, which takes you past The Old Man of Hoy.
History of Orkney
Four famous archaeological treasures are the reason why Orkney’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some of Europe’s best preserved pre-historic settlements dating back to around 2,000 BCE.
Skara Brae was a thriving village, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids were built. Walk around the 5,000 year old ruins and then visit the replica house to get a complete idea of neolithic living.
Another perfect example of how we lived 5,000 years ago can be found at Maeshowe chambered tomb. At first glance all you see is a grassy mound but enter the portal and walk, head-bowed because of the low ceiling, through the long stone passage until it opens out into a chamber built from massive sandstone slabs. Runes carved by raiding Norse-folk centuries ago can still be seen on the slabs, proving that graffiti is as old as time!
Note: Skara Brae and Maeshowe are not currently open to the public but are part of Scotland’s phased re-opening plan.
There are Viking burial grounds scattered across the islands but at St Boniface Kirk on Papa Westray you can see a Norse hog-back gravestone. The church is one of the few in Orkney to survive the reformation and is still in use today.
And as for the people? Well like most far-flung islands Orkney’s been part of several different dynasties, ruled over by Romans, Norwegians, Picts and Celts before finally being absorbed by Scotland in the 1400s. An influx of Scottish entrepreneurs quickly established it as an independent community of fisherfolk, farmers and merchants who called themselves Communitas Orcadie.
After periods of depopulation Orcadians have now established themselves as a thriving community and in 2019 Orkney was rated as the best place to live in the UK for its quality of life.
Nature raw and free is the main reason for visiting Orkney. It boasts some of Scotland’s best walking routes, revealing sandy white beaches, turquoise waters, dramatic cliffs, standing stones and rock pools.
The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island (make sure you don’t get marooned!) studded with wildflowers and home to Pictish, Norse and medieval remains.
Beach-combing in St Catherine’s Bay on Stronsay might yield the beautiful pelican’s foot shell or the razor clam buried deep in the sand.
Stronsay’s also the location for the amazing sea arch, the Vat of Kirbister, formed when the roof of a large sea cave collapsed. The arch is a spectacular 10 metre wide, 20 metre high natural bridge. There are more sea caves and sea stacks nearby including the Malme which has the remains of an early Christian hermitage on its summit.
Bird-watchers find themselves in seventh heaven with 13 RSPB reserves across seven different islands providing safe havens for numerous bird species, including puffins, hen harriers, fulmars, curlews, short-eared owls and red-throated divers.
And on the subject of divers, those with the right scuba gear and qualifications will revel in the wrecks around Scapa Flow. Seven warships sunk during WWII dot the seabed. Awe-inspiring wartime ghosts that attract divers from around the globe.
All kinds of marine life can be found in the waters of Scapa Flow – starfish, comb and moon jellies, urchins, seals, both common and grey and shoals of fish.
If you’re really lucky a basking shark might turn up.
Orkney’s a great place to see the Northern Lights, because of the lack of light pollution. Best time to see The Mirrie Dancers, as they’re known locally, is when summer slowly turns to autumn.
Unexpected and rare things in Orkney
La Bella Cappella Italiana is an architectural masterpiece, marooned on the uninhabited Lamb Holm. Built during WWII by Italian prisoners of war they created a highly ornate Catholic chapel from two old metal Nissen huts.
Orkney is home to the rare tiny purple primula scotica flower. It grows in coastal heaths and grassland of northern Scotland and blooms twice a year from April to June.
And there are the remarkable North Ronaldsay sheep, a rare breed which graze the beaches of the island. Yes you read that right. The beaches. The semi-feral flock evolved to subsist almost entirely on seaweed – one of very few mammals to do this. They are confined to the foreshore by a wall which completely encircles the island.
The Devil’s apparently left his mark at a church on the island of Sanday. Ladykirk is now a roofless ruin, but scramble up the stone stairs and as you reach the top look for the stone with deep marks, as if scratched by some very strong claws.
Legend has it a minister used to preach against the very same sins he was committing. One night as he left his mistress’s house the Devil appeared and tried to grab him. But the minister was too quick and ran to the sanctuary of the church, leaving the Devil ranting, raving and clawing at the stonework.
Orkney’s all about stone. Drive anywhere on the Orkney Mainland and you will see, and be able to get up close to, standing stones. The most dramatic stone circle is the Ring of Brodgar and nearby you’ll find the Stones of Stenness, soaring 6 metres high into the sky.
The world’s shortest flight is between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray – just 90 seconds long or possibly a record-breaking 57 seconds if the wind’s in the right direction. Loganair operates this lifeline for locals which has been running since 1967. First time passengers on the tiny eight-seater planes even get a certificate!
And finally, the accent. It’s a lovely, sing-song mix of Scots and Scandinavian, unlike anywhere else in the world. Orcadians dialect is mainly Scots but with roots in ‘the Norn’ once spoken by Norsemen.
Just wait til you hear them say, ‘Hello and welcome to Orkney.’
Main picture: Skara Brae beach © Rab Lawrence