Explore the ancient and exciting Orkney Islands
The Orkney Islands are a collection of fertile islands off the north cost of Scotland, most recently famed for playing its part in the second world war, protecting ships and even harbouring captured enemy ships. But the history of these islands and its inhabitants goes back not just centuries but millennia. There’s much to see and do here and even with its remote northern geographic location its a much more pleasant place to visit than you might expect.
How to get to the Orkney islands
There are numerous ferry crossings to the mainland island and you can also fly in too. If you’re coming by car like our recent Great British road trip the best ferry crossing is from Gill’s Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. The double hulled ship takes just an hour in good weather and the views as you pass smaller islands are quite spectacular.
- Tickets: £33 for a car and £14 per adult
- Book online at pentlandferries.co.uk
- or call +44 (0)1955 611 773
If you’re flying in you can catch flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen which land at Kirkwall, the main town on the biggest island. Visit flybe.com for more details.
Places to go in the Orkneys
While there are many islands to explore the costs of ferries to each can become quite expensive and take up a lot of your time. I would always recommend a visit to at least one other island if you have time but if you don’t there’s no need to worry. The main island appropriately known as the “mainland” is filled with truly breathtaking sites, quirky museums and some very impressive ancient sites worth exploring.
Skara Brae and Skail house
These beautiful and fertile islands have been inhabited by humans as far back at a whopping 6000 years ago. Back in 1850 a storm lashed the coast of the Orkneys and blew away some of the grass and soil revealing an ancient settlement. Over the following hundred years numerous excavations have taken place and today a wonderful museum and protected settlement can be explored. The museum is wonderfully interactive and the reconstruction of the most complete of the houses here really gives you a sense of what life was like on the islands 2000 years before even Stonehenge was built! You can also take a walk around the nearby Skail House, a mansion filled with interesting paintings and objects, locked in the 1950s when the house was still fully occupied. An interesting place with great views of the nearby Skail Bay.
- Opening times: 1 April – 30 September 9.30am to 5.30pm, 1 October – 31 March, 9.30am to 4.30pm
- Ticket Price: Adult £6.90, Child £4.10, Concession £5.50
- For more information and to book tickets go here
You’ll no doubt be staying in Kirkwall for all or part of your visit. The largest town on the island is rich with history spanning thousands of years and is a pretty place to wander about. There are some interesting museums here too worth checking out. The Orkney Museum is a fantastic museum that is free to enter too! It has everything from neolithic times right up to modern-day. In fact it has so much information and artefacts its quite an overload on the senses. There’s some great cine-film footage of “The Ba” which is a very strange and rather violent game played every year in the town and has been for hundreds of years.
- Opening times: Summer Opening (1st May to 30th September) Monday – Saturday, from 10.30 – 17.00. Winter Opening (1st October – 30th April) Monday – Saturday, from 10.30 – 12.30 and 13.30 – 17.00. Museum is closed for lunch – 12.30 – 13.30.
- Tickets: Free!
- Website: More information and to book online go here
Other museums in Kirkwall include the weird and wonderful Wireless museum which is probably one of the smallest museums in the world but packed with old-fashioned radios! It also includes some of the Orkneys military history and hardware from WWII. If you need somewhere cheap to stay we can recommend the Kirkwall Youth Hostel. It has lots of common space to relax in and some great private bedrooms too although you have to be out between 10am and 5pm as the building is not staffed during the day. Not really of a problem when you’re out sightseeing!
My personal favourite is the pretty little town of Stromness. Just 35 minutes drive across the beautiful landscapes of the Orkneys you’ll come to town filled with narrow streets and gorgeous buildings. Stromness is also another port town with a slightly longer and more expensive ferry trip back to mainland Scotland. The town has some wonderful pubs and hotel bars with great views of the sea. It also has some great places to stay including the rather locally famous Mrs Brown’s which is both a hostel and a self-catering home stay. In September there’s also the Orkney Blues Festival which packs out all the local pubs and hotels with some seriously good local bands. Stromness is the place to feel a part of the Orkneys and chat to some locals.
Ring of Brogdor
Forget Stonehenge in England, Scotland’s ancient monuments are far more scenic and mystical. The Ring of Brogdor, between Kirkwall and Stromness is well worth a visit. A ring of huge stones with beautiful purple Scottish heather surrounding it. Stunning vistas in all directions and if you’re lucky maybe even a witch casting spells and a piper playing the bag pipes! Maybe the last two were just amazing timing when I visited but it just shows that this area is very special even to this day and nothing quite epitomises the mystical nature of Scotland quite like this place. Its free to visit and you’re bound to catch a rainbow or two from passing rain clouds. Quite a site. Check out the stone that got struck by lightning too!
Other things to see in the Orkneys
You’ll find lots of wonderful craft shops in the Orkneys, some selling the famous Orkney chair too. Scapa flow and the sunken battleships is quite a surreal site as well. and you can visit the amazing Italian Chapel too which was built by Italian prisoners of war during WWII out of 2 Nissen huts!
The weather in the Orkneys is quite unlike that famed in mainland Scotland. While the mountains and hills on the mainland cause all sorts of wet and windy weather, the Orkneys enjoys more than its fair share of fine weather. Expect passing showers that last just a few minutes and always create rainbows as the sun pops out. Don’t expect high temperatures though, wrap up warm and be prepared for rain. Chances are you’ll meet a shower but it really just adds to the charm and the beauty of this rich and ancient land.