Orkney Islands is an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland comprising 70 islands and is a history lovers dream. Nowhere else in our travels have we found Stone Age historical artefacts this accessible to the public and we find it fascinating to be able to physically see them (multiple Unesco World Heritage sites). Plus the scenery isn’t too bad either, its relatively quite flat but does have beautiful cliffs, decent beaches & an abundance of birds. This is a long post only because Orkney is a very rich place to visit, the pictures should make up for the reading time 🙂
Tip: Orkney day trips run from Inverness and thats how we saw the island for the first time to be left mesmerized. However 7/14 hours of that tour is transiting & it is tiring. We recommend staying over for alteast 2 nights (which Dalek did).
Things to see in Orkney
1. Skara Brae (Stone age village)
Definitely the top thing to do in the Orkney Islands is to visit this very well preserved Stone Age (Neolithic) village that is right next to a very beautiful beach as well (though it may be a bit too windy). You can actually step into a “model home” so to speak except that it was built 5000 years ago! We must say that given the weather elements that Orkney is subjected to, the homes were designed quite intelligently. A must visit for history lovers.
2. Ring of Brodgar (Standing stone circle)
This is a standing stone circle with 27 huge stones still upright (down from the original 60) that was built 4000-4500 years ago. The area looks especially stunning in the sunshine with its nearby lake & open areas accentuating the beauty.
Tip: Do not miss the Ness of Brodgar which is an active excavation of another Stone Age complex (we know!) right next door. And just a short walk down are another set of standing stones called the Standing Stones of Stenness (pictured below).
3. Maeshowe (Chambered tomb)
Another must-visit, Maeshowe is a very short walk / drive from the Standing Stones of Stennes is the chambered cairn of Maeshowe, again about 4800 years old. Entrance is only by tour and there are no photos allowed which is a shame because there are 2 very unique things about this Stone Age structure.
- It is built in such a way that only on the day of the Winter Solstice, golden sunlight fills the cairn just before sunset which signifies a millennia-old ceremony.
- Viking invaders had used this tomb as a place to sleep for a couple of nights when they were raiding Scotland in the 1200s. Some left behind Norse inscriptions on the stone, one of which said “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women”. Men haven’t changed in the last 1000 years!! 😂😂
4. Day trip to a different island (example: Hoy)
Dalek took a day trip to the Isle of Hoy from Stromness and it turned out to be one of the best day trips we’ve taken in Scotland. Hoy had the beautiful sandstone sea stack The Old Man of Hoy, rugged cliffs & beaches, small museums in a time warp & many birds flying about to visit. There are many other small islands that are great for quick visits too, we’ve read about the beaches on Sanday & the archeological artefacts on Graemsay among others.
Tip: Make yourself comfortable with the Orkney Ferries website to scour timetables & plan daytrips. Mon-Fri are the best days for daytrips as multiple ferries run on those day (incl Hoy).
5. Walk about the towns – Kirkwall & Stromness
Both the main towns on the Orkney Mainland are absolute beauties to explore. Its also interesting to note the Nordic influences on display in this part of Scotland.
Kirkwall is the largest town on the Orkney mainland and is home to attractions such as the St. Magnus Cathedral (whose construction began in the 1100s) & the 2 distilleries (to be covered in Food & Drink). The High Street is small but charming with interesting jewelry on sale by local artisans. Kirkwall is also a major port with many ferries to the different Orkney islands, Shetland & Aberdeen.
Tip: If you’re spending a sunny day in Kirkwall, head down to the local beach to work on your tan as locals do. I visited the beach briefly, it was decent & a bus stop is right in front.
However, our pick of the 2 towns is the charming Stromness on the south coast. It has so much character! Beautiful cobbled streets, old buildings & even funny street names make a long, leisurely walk around Stromness a must-do.
6. Italian Chapel & Scapa Flow
The final attraction we’d like to talk about is the small, historical & exquisite Italian chapel. More modern Orkney history had the island as a prison base for WW prisoners & some of the Italian ones made this delightful chapel (they even stayed back to live out the rest of their life in Orkney). Our pictures do not do it justice, it is a must-visit (part of the day tour).
The day of our tour actually coincided with a wedding & we were happy to take a picture of this fine Scottish gentleman in his traditional clothes. Rarely have we seen such a beaming smile!
Food & Drink
People flock to the Highland Park distillery, a world famous whisky maker of note (Scotch for all non-Scots). They do tours & have a small shop. However, we highly recommend visiting the smaller Scapa distillery instead, it is more scenic & the product is really good. It is one of those hidden gems that you should try!
Once again, people flock to the Orkney Brewery because it is more famous. It is a very well managed place with a big bustling cafe & I do recommend visiting them. However, if you want to drink a better product, try the new Swannay Brewery. It has burst on to the Scotland craft beer scene with some exceptional beers and is one of our favourite Scottish beers.
If you have access to a kitchen & love cooking, the best meal in Orkney is home cooking Orkney lamb bought from E. Flett butchers in Stromness. The best lamb I’ve ever cooked period, physically melted in my mouth & my hostelmates polished it off quick. We also highly recommend the fortified wine from 60 North Wine, scrummy!
Getting In & Around by Public Transport
Northlink Ferries from Scrabster – Stromness (2 hours), passes Old Man of Hoy! Highly recommended as ample onward connecting buses
Foot passenger ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick (used by the day trip)
Pentland ferries from Gill’s Bay to St. Margarets Hope, the fastest crossing with cars.
Getting around notes:
Stagecoach Orkney runs buses along the island (timetables). The arterial X1 between Stromness & Kirkwall runs every 20 minutes and is your go to bus for Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe & the Standing Stones of Stennes. Buses run from Stromness to Skara Brae.
Orkney Brewery isnt feasible by bus (I walked a lot & eventually got a lift from a French resident, thank you Sir). Swannay brewery is infrequently accessible by direct bus.
Local buses run to Highland Park from Kirkwall & close to Scapa Distillery.
Return tickets are the best value for money, buy a day ticket only if making multiple hops.
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