Shipwrecks, prehistoric sites and coastal walks make this archipelago a magical place that will linger in your memory for years
Offering some of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in Europe, the Orkney Isles boast striking landscapes, breath-taking beaches and splendid coastal walks. Voted as the UK’s best place to live this year, its civilisation stretches back 10,000 years and was invaded by the Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries.
Located six miles north of the Scottish mainland, there are about 70 islands within the Orkney archipelago, 17 of which are inhabited.
The remote region can be difficult to get to but once there, you’ll want to stay for longer!
Getting to the Orkneys:
Pentland Ferries catamaran sails between Gill’s Bay, near John o’ Groats, and St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay, with a journey time of just over 1 hour.
Ferry to Orkney: NorthLink Ferries sail between Lerwick in Shetland, Hatston in Kirkwall and Aberdeen, operating the 90-minute service between Scrabster and Stromness.
Tip: When going by ferry, you need to arrive at the port 40-1hr before departure to check in.
We used NorthLink Ferries and found that we could easily amend our booking to depart on a later ferry. Simply ring the company or visit one of their shops to re-arrange a departure time. Of course, remember that amendments are subject to availability and you may not be able to fit on a different ferry.
Fly to Orkney: You can fly from London to Kirkwall (with connections) that takes 3-4 hours. Otherwise, you can fly from Glasgow/Edinburgh to Kirkwall (1-hour journey time) or Aberdeen to Kirkwall (50 minutes) or Inverness to Kirkwall (45 minutes). Flying from the Shetlands to Kirkwall takes just 35 mins.
Meanwhile, you can also fly from Manchester to Kirkwall (summer service, with a journey time of 1hr 25mins) or Bergen to Kirkwall (summer service, with a journey time of 1hr 20mins).
Drive to Orkney: The best way to get to the isle by car is by heading north to the ferry ports of either Aberdeen, Scrabster, Gills Bay, or John O’Groats. The passenger ferry only runs between May -September.
Tip: If you’re driving an RV and boarding a ferry, be prepared to reverse the motorhome onto the boat.
Bus to Orkney: Citylink buses run to Aberdeen, Thurso and Gills Bay, with ongoing ferry connections to Orkney.
The Orkney Bus travels direct from Inverness to Kirkwall and utilises the John O’ Groats passenger ferry link. It runs between June and the start of September.
Train to Orkney: Travel by train to Aberdeen or Thurso, where you can catch a ferry to Orkney from the harbours Scrabster, Aberdeen, Lerwick, Gills Bay or John O’Groats. Visit ScotRail or National Rail for train timetables and departures.
Things to do in Orkney:
Dominated by the magnificent 12th century Norse cathedral of St Magnus, the capital town of Kirkwall is the largest of the Orkney Isles. The Nordic settlers called Kirkwall ‘Kirkjuvagr’, which translates to ‘Church on the bay’.
The town centre offers lovely little cafes, chocolate box houses and the Pickaquoy Centre – a sports, arts and leisure facility where you can enjoy all sorts of indoor activities. Visit the many shops to pick up tartan scarfs or old Orkney distillery bottles.
St Magnus Cathedral
Built from red and yellow sandstone, the cathedral took 300 years to build. Dedicated to Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, the building is an example of a Romano-Gothic Cathedral.
In 2007, the cathedral was highly commended for the ‘Best Historic Attraction – Cathedral/Abbey’ award from the Icons of Scotland magazine.
A domestic settlement dating back 5,000 years, this preserved village consists of stone walls, passageways and stone furnishings – including beds and ‘dressers’.
First uncovered by a storm in 1850, you first visit a replica Neolithic house to see how its full interior might have looked and then follow the path that overlooks the ancient buildings.
You can also see artefacts including gaming dice, tools and jewellery on display in the visitor centre.
Price: A ticket costs £9 per adult. Children under five years old go free.
Opening times: 1 April to 30 September (Skara Brae and Skaill House) daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm.
1 October to 31 March (Skara Brae only): daily, 10am to 4pm.
Tip: You can take twilight tours of Skara Brae from July – August.
Visit Skaill House, an impressive 17th century mansion, adjacent to Skara Brae.
The Stones of Stenness
The circle and henge consists of four upright stones up to 6m in height that originally held 12 stones. The focus of the interior was a large hearth. The stones were encircled by a large ditch and bank, the form of which has been lost over time by ploughing.
Opening times: Open all year round.
Tip: You can join the Orkney Ranger Service for a free guided tour between July – September.
The Ring of Brodgar
An impressive stone circle has stood for 5,000 years and is one of the four historic sites in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It’s the third largest stone circle in Britain, with 27 of the 60 original standing stones remaining.
Opening times: Open all year round.
The Italian Chapel
The chapel consists of two Nissen huts transformed into a beautiful chapel by Domenico Chiocchetti and his colleagues, prisoners of war captured in North Africa and transported to the Island of Lambholm in Orkney.
The chapel contains angelic figure frescos, stained glass windows and an altarpiece depicting the Madonna and Child surrounded by cherubic figures with the scroll inscribed ‘Queen of Peace pray for us’ complete the interior paintwork.
All the materials for the decoration were scavenged from wherever possible and wood was sourced from a wrecked ship for the tabernacle.
70 years after the completion of the chapel, it is one of Orkney’s major tourist attractions with over 100,000 visitors every year.
Price: £3 per adult. Free entry for under 12.
Opening times: November – March open 10.00 – 13.00 every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. April and October open 10.00- 16.00 every day. May and September open 09.00 – 17.00 every day. June, July and August open 09.00 – 18.30 everyday
Scapa Distillery Visitor Centre
A distillery visitor centre that offers guided tours of the distillery and traditional warehouse. A complimentary dram and gift is given at the end of your tour.
Opening times: June – December.
Old Man of Hoy
This is a famous 450-foot sea stack that means ‘High Island’ from the Old Norse ‘Haey’. There is a parking area in Rackwick. The walk starts by following the track (signed for the Old Man) towards the sea.
Opening times: Open all year round.
Tip: If you’ve travelled from Stromness to Moaness in North Hoy there is a 2 hour walk (one way) from Moaness to Rackwick. The walk is demanding and stony in places.
If you’ve travelled from Houton, it’s advised to drive from the east to the west side of the island.
The Old Man of Hoy can also be seen from the daily Scrabster-Stromness ferry route.
You can roam the ruins of the residence of Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, who became Earl of Orkney in the late 1500s.
An inventory drawn up by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in 1653 suggests neglect had set in and by 1700, the palace was roofless and decaying.
Opening times: Open all year round
Brough of Birsay
The Brough of Birsay is a tiny island that can be visited by causeway to explore Pictish, Norse and medieval remains.
The Norse settled in the 9th century, but may have lived peacefully alongside the Picts. It is possible to make out the remnants of Norse houses, barns and sauna.
Price: £6 per adult. Children under five go free.
Opening times: Mid-June to 30 Sept, daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm (tides permitting).
One of Orkney’s most popular beaches, Scapa is just a mile or so from Kirkwall. It is a sandy beach framed by cliffs and if you’re lucky, you’ll see seals popping there heads out of the water.
The Crantit Trail walking route leads out to the beach from the town.
At the east side of the bay is a pier and nearby is a channel buoy which marks the location of the wreck of HMS Royal Oak.
Visit the Royal Oak Memorial Garden, next to the car-park, which is a poignant reminder of Scapa Flow’s role during two World Wars.
Stop at the Scapa Flow to see the shipwreck of the World Wars. The German submarine – U 47 used the partially blocked channel between Lamb Holm and the mainland to attack HMS Royal Oak in October 1939.
The wrecks of three battleships, three light cruisers and a fast mine-layer remain on the seabed of Scapa Flow.
The second-most populous town in Orkney, Stromness lies in the west of the Orkney islands located on the shore of Hamnavoe, an inlet of Scapa Flow. Acting as the main ferry port, the old town attracted sailors and mariners.
With its narrow streets, steep passageways, picturesque setting and waterfront houses, it’s easy to see why this town was a favourite with pirates and explorers.
The best way to arrive in Stromness is by sea, with the entrance lying between the holms and the Point of Ness.
Camping: Places to camp and park
Visitor guide: Things to do
Checking out C & J