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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Inspirational ideas for visiting the Orkney Islands

Updated: Feb 17

Where are the Orkney Islands you say? Good question so if anyone knows their geography, the islands lay just north-east of Scotland’s northern coastline. The islands are not too touristy and are fantastic to explore by car. Olga and I managed to check out the islands whilst doing a road trip around Scotland and I would have to say, the Orkney Islands excited me and I came away full of knowledge I didn’t have. The islands have some of the finest archaeological sites in Europe, it has a Neolithic and Viking past and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. We arrived at the port of Stromness and drove all around the main islands of ‘South Ronaldsay’, ‘Burray’ and of course ‘Mainland’. The Orkney’s have many other islands and lots of coastline to explore but most of the sights can be found on these islands and here is my guide for anyone doing a road trip here. (Tip: visitors can go by boat as a foot passenger or fly into Kirkwall, the main town from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness but public transport doesn’t run often up here and if on a short amount of time, then walking from A to B will take a while). We only had two full days here, so we crammed in a lot, however two days is nowhere enough time to check out these stunning islands.

Clestrain, Orkney Islands
A beautiful view looking south-west from the village of Clestrain

Western Mainland

The main port for passengers to come into is Stromness and is the first taste of the Orkney Islands for many (unless visitors fly into Kirkwall airport). The crossing from Scrabster near Thurso on the Scottish mainland is beautiful, seeing the rugged coastline of the island of Hoy (which has the famous rock feature known as the Old Man of Hoy which we had a great view from the ferry). Stromness itself is a lovely little seatown with a few places of accommodation and a great fish and chips restaurant on one of the back streets.

Beautiful stone-slated buildings in Stromness, Orkney Islands

On the western side of the island the first site I checked out (and one of the biggest) was Skara Brae which lies on the southern shores of the Bay o’Skaill and is an UNESCO Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. This Neolithic village was found after a great storm battered the islands back in 1850 which to be honest, storms are a common place up here. However this time the extremely high tides and strong winds ripped up a lot of grass from a large mound. This revealed the tops of stone buildings and the landowner wanted to know more about what lies beneath. This relieved four ancient houses and after that work at the site was abandoned. It wasn’t until the late 1920s when more work was done at the site and more buildings were found underneath.

Skara Brae, UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Orkney Islands
Skara Brae

The history from this site is very interesting. During the 1930s, researchers thought that the village would be dating back from the Iron Age (around 500 BC) but then years later on further research that the settlement found here dates back to the late Neolithic, around 3200 BC and 2200 BC.

We had a great time walking above the eight dwellings which are linked to a series of covered passages. It was great to see how life was back in the past because luckily due to the location of the site, the protection of the sand that covered this area for nearly 4,000 years, the contents, the buildings, are all very well-preserved. The roofs of the passageways are still preserved with their original stone labs, the walls are still standing, Each house I noticed had the same basic design, there is a large square room with a fireplace, a bed to the side of it and a doorway (of course). Exploring this area gave me a real glimpse of what home life was truly like whilst looking over the bay and pretending to see the men trying to fish during the summer months.

On the way to the next historical site, roadtrippers must visit the village of Twatt. This probably means something totally different around here but in English slang, this means ‘complete idiot!’ It is a hard place to find if there is no GPS to hand as someone keeps taking away the village signs. I managed to find one however at a nearby road junction.

On the northern coastline of the island there is a site called The Broch of Gurness which is an Iron Age broch village and used to house a substantial community between 500 and 200 BC. Walking into the heart of the settlement there is a beautiful stone tower (also called a ‘broch’) whilst all around remains of other structures lie visible. I had the unfortunate worst timing ever to explore this settlement as a storm came over and the area is quite open. There was nowhere to stay dry at this point and after walking around the boggy grounds, I came away plastered in mud and wet. One word of advice, take extra clothes and maybe another pair of shoes.

Heading south and to the centre of the Western Mainland there is the Ring of Brodgar to check out. This site is also part of the Neolithic heritage and is a stone circle and is one of a few in the United Kingdom (the others being Stonehenge and Avebury to name a few). Whilst walking around here (and comparing these to other sites), the Ring of Brodgar does not have any stones inside the circle. I found out afterwards that archaeologists have never checked the interior of the circle so there could be a possibility that wooden structures may have been present. However what I love the most is the view over the two lochs (surrounding the ring from the west and the east) and giving the landscape a horror feel. The stone circle is 104 meters in diameter, and a site this big, we were very lucky to have the whole place to ourselves. It's open 24/7, so come anytime.

Just a stone's throw away from the Ring of Brodgar is the Standing Stones of Stenness which, like all the other sites, is Neolithic. Researchers think this maybe the oldest henge site in the British Isles (for those who don’t know what a ‘henge’ is, please look it up. If I wrote it, this post would be very long and boring). Whilst walking around the field with these amazing stones, just mind the sheep poo on the ground. The stone circle only has four stones left standing today, but there were originally twelve stones.

One of the top ancient ruins on the island I came across was Maeshowe which is a Neolithic chambered cairn and a grave which was built around 2800 BC. I managed to get myself on a tour of the mound (which starts at the building on the main road opposite the mound) which includes a visit inside. Here the tour guide explains about the history but what burnt my ears was the fact this settlement has Viking history (I won't say the whole story, I will be here forever again). Then the tour guide surprised me even more to show graffiti done by our Nordic friends. This place is truly amazing and I highly recommend everyone to get on this tour. Please note tours for Maeshowe get booked up well in advance so tickets can be brought here.

Whilst driving around the country lanes where there was not a soul to be seen (I seen more cowes in the fields than cars) we came across the village of Orphir which became the place of power during the Viking era however there is not much to show for that era apart from it has the location of Scotland’s only surviving circular medieval church which was built around the 12th century. Behind the church are fantastic views over the bay and you can understand why the Vikings built a base here because it was easy to pull up the ships to the shore.

We managed to do the Western side of the mainland in one day and finished with an evening looking at the sunset over the islands before heading back to Stromness for fish and chips. The second day we checked out the Eastern side of the mainland and headed south to the small islands and South Ronaldsay. My recommendation (especially if staying in Stromness or Kirkwall) is to do the long drive to the southern tip of South Ronaldsay island and backtrack to all the sites that way.

Another amazing place to check out is the Tomb of Eagles which is a Neolithic (again) chambered tomb which is located on a cliff edge. Inside this tomb there were 16,000 human bones found and about 725 from birds. Most of the bird's bones found belonged to the white-tailed sea eagle and there were up to twenty different types of these. The tomb entrance is through a narrow small tunnel where visitors have to lay themselves on a trolley and pull on the rope to get inside. Around the tomb the scenery is quite spectacular with the rugged coastline, sharp drop of the cliffs and the rolling fields on top. This area is ideal for hiking and birdwatching.

Heading back towards Kirkwall on the small island of Lamb Holm, there is the Italian Chapel to check out. This Catholic place of worship was built in the Second World War by Italian prisoners of war who got caught by the British and were sent to the Orkney’s (Unlucky buggers). Not only they built this chapel but they also built the nearby Churchill Barriers which were part of the navy defensive system but are now used as road bridges to get across from one island to the other. Walking around this area is so peaceful, staring out to sea and not a soul in sight.

Entering Kirkwall from the south the first place to check out has to be Highland Park Distillery which is a great place to do a tour. The company is known for making one of the best spirits in the world, the single malt Scottish whisky. Now I am not a huge whisky fan but I did learn a lot about how they make it up here and managed to try some and nearly burnt my throat.

In the centre of the capital of the Orkney’s, the city is actually quite small. A good shopping street, a nice harbour to look at and see all the pretty boats but the highlight has to be the huge St Magnus Cathedral which dominates Kirkwall skyline. With its Romanesque architecture, the cathedral is the most northerly in the United Kingdom and is the only cathedral not owned by the Church of England but by the Burgh of Kirkwall (something to do with the Royal Family and started with King James III of Scotland when Orkney buggered off out of the Scottish Crown in the 15th century. The locals up here must have hated Scotland at the time but they are now very happy to be part of the same union again. Also because of the bad days the cathedral has a dungeon but I don’t think it was used in the end because nothing happened. Apart from that, bugger all happens here and finding a car parking space can be very hard (but when I was here I did pay about 30p an hour which is nearly £2 cheaper than most towns in England and £17 pound cheaper than London!).

Our tour of the Orkney Islands came to an end but we absolutely loved driving around the winding country lanes, the long straight main roads and wherever I looked out of the window, I could see the sea in all directions. It also felt weird that I was nearer to Norway than London and for the first time ever in my home country, I felt miles away from home, from civilisation and the weird feeling continued as there were no trees to be seen because of the wind (and this blows away the seeds so no trees ever grow here). Would I come back, for sure I would but there is another set of islands just north of here which has caught my eyes, the Shetlands.

Welcome to the Orkney Islands

The Lowdown

How to get to the Orkney Islands: As mentioned we drove our car and took the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness with North Link Ferries. There are three other ferries, the Aberdeen to Kirkwall route which is also run by North Link Ferries, Gills Bay (near John o’Groats) to St. Margarets’ Hope (on the northern end of South Ronaldsay Island and is nearer to Kirkwall) with Pentland Ferries and there is a foot passenger ferry from John o’Groats to Burwick (Jog Ferry). On the island don’t expect a train service, however there is a bus service which connects the settlements together and ties in with the ferry schedules. For us, taking the car was the best option as this gave us more freedom.

Old Man of Hoy, Orkney Islands
Old man of Hoy as seen from the ferry between Stromness and Scrabster

Looking for accommodation: We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in Stromness for one night (however it has closed down since), but there are many great places to stay across the islands, to which most can be found on

Need insurance? Safety Wing offers coverage for a lot of adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and so forth. I never travel without travel insurance. I highly recommend them for those who need travel insurance.

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