It seems mad that in all these years writing about beautiful corners of the world I’ve rarely touched upon my home island of Orkney! It’s not intentional, I swear! It’s actually surprisingly tricky to write about somewhere I grew up and somewhere I love so closely; every time I start an article on ‘things to do’ I find myself wanting to go off on a tangent.
It’s also hard to know where to begin. Who knew that this wee archipelago of islands off the north coast of Scotland could hold so much history?! Orkney is an archaeologist’s dream, of course, with evidence of some of the earliest human settlements found in Europe (and even the world!). It’s also a land which has been trodden by many sea-faring souls over the years, from Arctic explorers and whalers to swash-buckling pirates and naval fleets.
Fast-forward to the modern day and Orkney is a place brimming with things to see and do. It’s got a natural beauty that’ll catch your breath at times, with its wild and windy beaches, characterful hamlets and stunning country walks. It’s got all the cultural vibes you could want, from a lively folk music scene to excellent food and an artistic heritage that’ll follow you through every nook and cranny.
It may seem small on paper (the mainland is less than 40km from end to end) but one of the biggest challenges with visiting Orkney is knowing how to pack all of your activities into just a few days!
I’ve come up with a wee guide to help steer first-timers through their visit to the islands. 3 days is definitely enough to give you a taste of what Orkney can offer, but also short enough that it’ll leave you wanting more for sure!
Day 1: Explore the historical sights of the West Mainland
Start your day in pretty Stromness
Stromness is the second largest town on the Orkney mainland. It’s also my hometown, packed to the gunnels with character, and conveniently, is also the landing spot for the Northlink Ferry, if you’re making the sea crossing from Scrabster on the Scottish mainland.
Allow yourself a full morning to explore the cobbled main street, with its assortment of independent shops & galleries. Pay a visit to the Museum or the gorgeous Pier Arts Centre, and definitely treat yourself to breakfast (or a coffee & cake at the least!) at Julia’s Café. After all, you’ve a busy day ahead!
Visit the ancient village of Skara Brae
It’s not every day you can set foot inside a prehistoric village! Skara Brae is one of the best preserved Neolithic sites in the world, dating back to 3180BC. That’s older than the Pyramids of Giza!
Although Skara Brae has been around for a heck of a time it was actually only discovered in 1850, after being unearthed by a storm.
Today’s it’s one of Orkney’s most visited sites, and with good cause. The ancient houses are remarkably preserved, with beds, hearths, pots and tools all visible from above, giving you an amazing sense of life back in the stone age. It’s an amazingly atmospheric place to visit, and has stunning views out over Skaill Beach, which is also a lovely place to head if the sun’s on your side. If it’s not, make sure to pop into Skaill house, an intriguing stately home which now serves as a museum.
Grab lunch at Quoyloo Brewery
Sample the local produce with a tipple (or three, if you go for a tasting board) at the Quoyloo Brewery, just a ten minute drive from Skara Brae.
Set in a former schoolhouse, the exposed-brick Tasting Hall has a wonderful cafe which serves up locally-sourced homemade grub with a smile. There’s also a shop on hand where you can stock up on their popular ales, or – if you fancy a more hands on experience – you can even take part in one of their tours and learn about the brewing process first hand!
Cross the causeway at the Brough of Birsay
15 minutes in the car will take you onto the coastal hamlet of Birsay. Before you head along to the beach, make sure to stop by the Earl’s Palace, a ruined 16th Century castle which was once residence of Robert Stewart (half brother to Mary Queen of Scots). Then, I would head over to the Brough of Birsay, where you can chill by the beach, search for elusive groatie buckies (small whelk shells which are incredibly hard to find but rumoured to bring you good fortune!) and walk across the causeway to a wee island which is home to the ruins of Pictish and Nordic villages. Just be sure to watch for the tide coming in!
Prepare to get spooked out at Maeshowe
Back to the Neolithic stuff. After sunning yourself at the beach, head inland and follow the main Stromness – Kirkwall road to the village of Stenness, where you’ll find Maeshowe. What might look like a simple wee hillock from the side of the road is actually a chambered cairn, or burial site, dating back to 2800 BC. Beneath the grass lies a complex of tunnels and chambers, lined with impressively large flagstone rocks, some of which are even scrawled with Viking graffiti! It’s a well-loved site so best to book in advance. Tickets and mini-bus pick-up are all arranged from the nearby Visitor Centre.
Visit the curious Ring of Brodgar
Now for the big guns! The Ring of Brodgar is one of Orkney – if not Scotland’s – most impressive archaeological sites. A perfect circle, made up of giant standing stones. How they got there has baffled and intrigued historians for centuries. Their significance is equally mysterious. Was their circular placement a way for our ancient ancestors to tell the time, or the season? Was the site of religious significance? Whatever their purpose, the henge is a beautiful place to visit, with views out over the neighbouring lochs and wildflowers found only at their feet. I’ve recommended finishing here as late afternoon/early evening is the ideal time to visit, with fewer crowds and (depending on the season) the chance of a wonderful sunset to complete the scene.
Have dinner at the Merkister Hotel
This lovely loch-side hotel is the perfect place to wind down after a busy day travelling back in time. Better still, it’s only a short drive from the Standing Stones! The Skerries restaurant is definitely up there with some of Orkney’s finest, and regularly features in good food guides for their locally-sourced creative meals.
Day 2: Head East
Do a spot of morning shopping in Kirkwall
Like Stromness, Kirkwall isn’t exactly short on shopping options, with lots of gorgeous independent boutiques to explore. For wee knick-knacks and knitwear, head to Judith Glue (also home to a lovely cafe!). For Jewellery, I’m a big fan of Aurora’s stuff. For local literature, pop into The Orcadian bookshop. If the caffeine levels are running low, have a pit stop at the cosy wee Trenabie’s cafe.
Marvel over the St Magnus Cathedral
With its copper steeple stretching into the skyline, it’d be hard to miss the imposing St Magnus Cathedral. Founded in the 12th Century, this beauty is one of Orkney’s most recognisable buildings and is the most northerly cathedral in Britain. The Cathedral is named after eponymous Earl, who was brutally murdered at the request of his cousin, thus giving birth to one of the island’s darkest tales.
The Cathedral is strikingly beautiful, both inside and out. Today, it’s used for prayer, weddings and concerts – if you happen to be in town when there’s music on I highly recommend you go!
Have a harbour-side lunch
While I’m always going to favour Stromness harbour (bias – me?!), Kirkwall’s seafront doesn’t exactly fall short on character and has plenty of great pubs & restaurants to see you through when the afternoon hunger pangs begin to creep in. While The Kirkwall Hotel and The Shore are both lovely, I’d be tempted to head to Helgi’s for a cheeky burger & cocktail combo!
Take a drive out to the eerie Tomb of the Eagles
A trip to the Tomb of the Eagles will certainly be a little…out of the ordinary? This ancient burial tomb was discovered by accident by a farmer, who had the misfortune of discovering its presence on his land when digging up flagstones in 1958. After further excavations, he was shocked to discover the tomb intact – complete with a nice old collection of skeletons!
Today, the tomb is a privately-run attraction. Getting there involves driving the length of Orkney, over several of the Churchill Barriers, to the island of South Ronaldsay. After an informative talk at the visitor centre, you take a walk through the fields and follow the cliff edge round to the chamber itself, which can only be accessed through a narrow passage. How? By pulling yourself along a rope, while lying on a skateboard, of course! Again, not a trip for the claustrophobic, but well worth it if you fancy something a little weird and wonderful.
Just don’t go there when it’s misty and you’re rocking a considerable hangover. I learned that the hard way.
Have a moment’s silence at the Italian Chapel
Once you’ve had your fix of the macabre, head along to something a little more uplifting! The Italian Chapel is a stunning Catholic church, built by a Prisoner of War group during the Second World War. The men, who had been captured in North Africa, had been taken to Orkney and sent to work on the tiny uninhabited island of Lambholm, where they were tasked with building the Churchill Barriers. Under the instruction of a priest, Father Giacobazzi, the decision was made to turn two Nissen Huts into a place of worship, and the Italian Chapel was built.
It’s remarkable what was achieved. The chapel is inspiringly beautiful, and one of the greatest symbols of hope to come out of the war which crept onto Orcadian soil. It’s absolutely worth paying the small entrance fee to see inside.
Spot the shipwrecks at the Churchill Barriers
A slightly bleaker reminder of the war can also be viewed when crossing the Churchill Barriers, which were built to protect the British Naval fleet while they were based in Scapa Flow. Several shipwrecks can be seen emerging from the water, the remnants of the scuttling of the German fleet. Their presence is as much intriguing as it is haunting, and it’s a popular spot for divers looking to delve into the islands’ underwater history.
Have a dram or two at the Highland Park Distillery
Orkney doesn’t fall short on the home-brew scale. Perhaps one of its best known spirits is Highland Park, a whisky which has been distilled since 1798, and which has consistently been voted one of the world’s best Scotch whiskies.
This master of the malt scene is a firm favourite amongst Orcadians and visitors alike, so it’s well worth sampling the goods while you’re in town. Highland Park have a couple of shops across Kirkwall now, but for the real deal, you should book yourself onto one of their ever-popular tours for a fun end to an afternoon of sight-seeing. Just be sure to delegate the designated driver before you get there!
Treat yourself to dinner at The Foveran
It’s hard to think of a better way to end the day than with some fine Orcadian food and unbeatable views out across Scapa Flow. The Foveran, a short drive from Kirkwall’s town centre, offers both. There’s even rooms on hand if you don’t want to leave!
Day 3: Cross the sea to Hoy
A voyage to Orkney wouldn’t be complete without a day trip to one of its smaller islands! While the outer isles are equally stunning and packed full of historical wonders, if you’re limited on time and can only visit one I implore you to make it Hoy!
The largest isle after the mainland is also one of its most dramatic. Not only is it home to the vast heather-clad hills which gaze over the mainland from all angles, it’s also an outdoor fanatic’s dream, with gorgeous valley and coastal walks, a lengthy burn just ripe for kayaking and wildlife which can vary from otters to the mighty golden eagles who have made the hills their home. Locals often refer to the fact that Hoy has its own microclimate, often experiencing entirely different weather to anywhere else across the isles! Sunny days can be exceptionally hot. Rainy days can be…well…the less said about that the better!
There are two different ways you can head to Hoy. If you’re taking the car, you can get the ferry from Houton to Lyness. If you’re planning on coming by foot or bike, you can also take a ferry from Stromness to Moaness (this is a lovely way to go but will involve a fair hike as many of the sights are quite far apart!).
Once there, you won’t be short on activities. With just one day, here’s a few of the spots you shouldn’t miss:
My absolute favourite place on Earth. This has to be one of Scotland’s best beaches, with towering great cliffs overlooking a wide, curving bay, a beautiful hilly backdrop and a traditional old bothie overlooking the campsite. If you can afford to stay overnight you should, but definitely take the midge spray!
The Old Man of Hoy
Orkney’s famous sea stack stands at a precarious 450 feet tall. Every year, the 1st of April gives way to a host of April Fools jokes that the stack has fallen down in a storm, but it hasn’t happened yet *touch wood*. For the best views, take the coastal path from Rackwick Bay. Allow a couple of hours there and back.
The Dwarfie Stane
Rumour has it that this mysterious hollowed-out rock was occupied by a mysterious wee resident. In fairness, it does look a bit like a house! That’s because it is, in fact, another neolithic tomb. We like our auld tombs up North!
Betty Corrigall’s Grave
Shunned by her community after falling pregnant and being abandoned by a passing sailor, Betty Corrigall was a young woman who took her own life in the 1700s. Even in death, she was ostracised – rejected by the church and buried in an unmarked peat grave. Her coffin was discovered in 1930s by peat-diggers, and it took several decades still for the local community to take pity on Betty and allow her grave to be marked. It’s a tragic story, and many people take time out of their visit to Hoy to visit the lonely site.
The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum
Orkney holds a unique place in European history in that during WW2, our waters were used as the British naval base. There’s a brilliant Naval museum at Lyness (conveniently just a stone’s throw from the ferry back to Houton!), which’ll tell you all about life during the war and Orkney’s role during that time. Be sure to check out the bomb shelter and oil drum at the back!
Prefer to keep things simple? Hoy is an excellent place for walking. Ambitious sorts might want to take on the challenging (albeit not munro proportions) Ward Hill, while those looking for a gentle but rewarding ramble should take the valley walk from Moaness to Rackwick. You’ll even pass a secret waterfall en route!
And to go out with a bang…
If I had one night left in Orkney I know where I’d like to spend it, and that’s the Hamnavoe Restaurant! Tucked away on one of Stromness’ quieter closes, Orcadian food doesn’t come much better or more authentic than this. Family run, great vibes, folk music in the background…and that’s without the wonderful food! The Hamnavoe somehow manages to achieve that perfect balance between luxury dining and feeling like you’ve just been welcomed into an old pal’s living room. Head here straight from the Hoy ferry and you’ve got all the makings for the perfect final day.
A few pointers…
How to get there
Loganair operate several flights to Kirkwall every day from Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Be warned though – flights do not come cheap! I’d fly home A LOT more if it didn’t cost me £200 for a round trip…
Personally – even though I’m not a fan of boats – I’d always recommend coming by ferry. Northlink have a long sea crossing from Aberdeen – Kirkwall (6 hours), or a shorter crossing from Scrabster (a port just off Thurso) – Stromness (1.5 hours). There’s also a smaller, locally-run ferry service which runs from John O’ Groats – Burwick in 45 minutes (though keep in mind that it’s quite a long drive then across the mainland to either of the larger towns).
My favourite route is to drive to Scrabster and take the ferry. Not only is the drive up through the north of Scotland seriously impressive, but you also get winning views out over Hoy and its Old Man on the way in. As far as ferries go, this is a lovely one too, with a nice restaurant and bar, squishy seats and even private cabins if you’re not a good traveller.
How to get around
If you can, I’d always say to pay extra and take a car over on the boat or hire a car once you arrive on Orkney. It gives you complete flexibility for exploring.
Of course, not everyone drives, and that’s fine too! There’s a really great local bus service which’ll take you to most of the sights. For more information, you might want to pop into the travel centres in Stromness or Kirkwall and pick up some timetables.
Taxis are super-friendly but not economical. A trip between the towns of Kirkwall & Stromness (25 minutes) will usually set you back around £30.00.
Orkney Uncovered offer bespoke tours around the islands, and you can also take part in larger bus tours from Inverness if you book through companies such as Wow Scotland. Like Skye, Orkney is starting to buckle a little under the weight of large tour companies however, so if you can, I’d maybe consider visiting independently out of peak season. Which brings me on to my next point…
When should I visit?
Orkney is beautiful year-round, but for me, the safest month to go would be May. The spring flowers will be in full bloom, the weather is often at its best and there’s often sightings of puffins and orcas around this time of year, if you’re keen to get your wildlife fix! The third weekend in May will also see the Folk Festival taking place, and it’s hard to imagine a more fun and lively time to be around!
Where to stay?
Whether you decide to go self-catered or with a hotel, you won’t be short on accommodation. There are a few times of year, however, which can be tricky. The Folk Festival (late May), St Magnus Festival (late June) and Stromness Shopping Week (late July), for example, require advance booking as places can fill up quickly
To browse the options, head to Orkney.com‘s comprehensive guide!
Bias though I may be, I genuinely feel that Stromness is the perfect place to base yourself for a stay on the islands. It’s small enough that you’ll get a real feel for island life, yet it’s perfectly connected for travelling further afield, and has a wealth of independent pubs, shops and cafes to keep you equipped for a busy few days of exploring. It’s also just a beautiful place, and tends to captures people’s hearts before they’ve even left the ferry.