Orkney – Awe-inspiring Isles in the Northern Seas

Among the Scottish islands, Orkney is a place proud of its ancient past and sure about its future. We love it there. It makes for a different visit: a different kind of Scotland. (Maybe not even Scotland at all!)

I have no special Viking axe to grind, but amongst Scotland islands I really like Orkney because the local folk seem to genuinely want you to enjoy what the place has to offer (and may tell you in an Orcadian accent that is somehow just melodic to the ear).

There are three all but inescapable themes for a Scottish islands Orkney visit – wildlife, prehistory, and the more recent history of Scapa Flow as a wartime fleet anchorage.

On the Scrabster to Stromness ferry
Stromness ferry (from Scrabster) passing Rackwick Bay on Hoy (right of centre)

(Pictured) There’s always a sense of excitement and a buzz amongst the visitors on the deck of the Scrabster to Stromness ferry, as it passes the island of Hoy.

(Rackwick Bay, Hoy, is pictured further down the page.)

The Orkney island of Hoy is much more rugged than the other mostly low green islands of the Orkney archipelago.

The easy way to see Orkney and be totally relaxed about it is to take an organised trip – no worries about taking your car across by ferry for example. See here…

What To See On Orkney

Take note – in summary – on Orkney you have to see Skara Brae and Maes Howe – the Neolithic chart-toppers!

The Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones at Stenness also usually end up on everyone’s list. And you also should see, in Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral – though you get a fine view of it from the ruins of the Earl’s Palace, just opposite it.

All of this means you should stroll around Kirkwall too. (Good shops!) Same applies to Stromness, where the museum is interesting – good on the scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow in 1919.

Amongst the islands, we also think that Rousay is an Orkney must-see.

View north from Widdeford Hill
View north from Widdeford Hill, near Kirkwall, Orkney.
Position of Orkney
Location of Orkney at the top of mainland Scotland. Poor old Shetland has been moved off to the east again, I see. They hate it when map makers do that.
Marwick Head, Orkney
Marwick Head and its seabird colonies. Plenty of scary verticals here. Take care.
Yesnaby seascape
Yesnaby cliffscape. Is there such a word?

Where Is Orkney?

Look at this map– Orkney is pretty much at the top of mainland Scotland. The archipelago is connected via Scrabster, Gills Bay and Aberdeen by good ferry services.

On this page we mention the Scrabster to Stromness ferry. Elsewhere on site we feature the Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope option. (We like!)

By the way, sorry about Shetland appearing right-hand side of Orkney, when it lies well to the north in reality. It’s a map-maker’s convention. Or it’s done to annoy the folk in Shetland.

What else is there on Orkney? Well, the cliffs at Yesnaby (pictured), north of Stromness, also seem to be on the ‘milk run’ – the squares of old concrete where you park are relics of war-time gun sites.

However, if you really want rugged cliffs – to be honest, totally scary ones! – then you’ll find Marwick Head bracing – seabird colony on horrifying vertical rock – and there’s a bleak memorial to WWI British leader Lord Kitchener.

He lost his life offshore here when HMS Hampshire, taking him to negotiations in Russia, hit a mine and sank in June 1916. (You knew that Kitchener invented the idea of a concentration camp, during the Boer War?)

Anyway, more than on any other of Scotland’s islands, what you’ll constantly hear about Orkney is the fact that it has a greater concentration of prehistoric and early sites than anywhere else in Europe.

It’s easy to set up your own little tour round the main island (mainland, as they call it) taking in the Brough of Birsay (watch the tide times!) and the Broch of Gurness as well.

Naturally, among the residents, there’s a pride and an interest in all this heritage, as well as an active Orkney Archaeology Society.

Street in Stromness
Plenty of character abut the streets of Stromness
Stromness – ferry port

The old established town of Stromness was once the last watering-place for the crews of ships, such as whalers, trading vessels and Arctic explorers, (and notably the fleet of the Hudson’s Bay Company) before they set sail for the polar regions.

The Stromness Museum here is fascinating, as is the award-winning Pier Arts Centre.

St John's Head and the Old Man of Hoy
St John’s Head on Hoy – with the famous sea-stack, the Old man of Hoy, on the right. photographed from the Stromness to Scrabster ferry.

Island Of Hoy

(Pictured) This is the view from the ferry of the most spectacular part of the coastline of the Orkney island of Hoy. If you visit Hoy, then many visitors take a look at the top of the Old Man of Hoy, the offshore sea-stack, from the adjacent cliff, as in the picture below.

There is a path from Rackwick Bay on Hoy. (On the way, you may get dive-bombed by great skuas, also called bonxies, a large and piratical type of gull, during their breeding season. You will survive this.)

But if you think the 450ft (137m) stack is impressive, then see how – in the picture – the ground rises to the cliffs of St John’s Head, at 1260ft (384m) one of the highest vertical cliffs in Britain.

Note, in the pic above, St John’s Head centre, Old Man of Hoy in the distance, right…

Hoy can (just about) be day-tripped by car-ferry, though you’ll have to walk briskly if you want to park at Rackwick Bay and take the path up to the ‘top view’ of the iconic rock stack of the Old Man of Hoy and then take in the fascinating Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum at Lyness. (You should probably stay over!)

Old Man of Hoy, landward side
The Old Man of Hoy, landward side…scary cliffs and seabirds galore.
How many other Orkney Islands should I visit?

This depends on your tastes in ancient archaeology, wind and weather and big northern skies. 

Other pages on this site cover Rousay and at the very top, North Ronaldsay. From a pre-history viewpoint, Rousay is pretty extraordinary as well as being easily reached from Orkney Mainland by ferry.

North Ronaldsay and its bird observatory has a particular fame as a place where rare migrant birds turn up, plus its got seaweed-eating sheep. It’s defeintely different – but fascinating.

Seascape at Yesnaby
Seascape at Yesnaby. Wartime bits and pieces, spectacular cliffs and birdlife, and even a Scots primrose site, if you know where to look!
Rackwick Bay on Hoy, Orkney
Rackwick Bay on Hoy, Orkney
More Orkney Must-Sees

There is plenty more to potentially tick off your list, including the wonderful St Magnus Cathedral in the capital Kirkwall.

You can also see the oldest stone houses in northern Europe – 2800-3700BC – away to the north on the island of Papa Westray (Papay).

They are even older than the more famous Skara Brae Neolithic settlement. There are good inter-island ferry and air links.

Overall, allow at the very least two nights on Orkney mainland, and longer if you add in Hoy or any of the other islands.

After a few days here, you’ll want to turn the map upside-down. Far from a distant outpost, Orkney somehow feels at the centre of northern affairs.

Explore Rousay – lots of interesting prehistory.

Fly (or take the ferry) to North Ronaldsay if you’re an avid birdwatcher.

Ferries to Orkney: go with Northlink or from Gills Bay with Pentland Ferries. Or a passenger ferry, summer only from John o Groats.

By the way, you’ll need to book accommodation on Orkney in advance.