Scotland Itinerary Ideas: The Orkney Islands

by Keith Savage · 14 comments

The Kirkwall skyline from Highland Park distillery

Over the new few months I will be rolling out a new series of articles providing you with itinerary ideas for various regions around Scotland. I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage as I feel that kind of specificity is often lacking in travel writing. However, just as the timing of my Best of Scotland series felt right for the past couple of months, the time is right for me to provide information at a higher level to help you in your trip-planning idea-generation phase.

These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles will collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.

As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.

The Orkney Islands

For a man who loves trees as much as I do, a love affair with Orkney might seem odd. You only need to step foot on the Orcadian archipelago, a collection of islands just skimming above the surface of the North Sea, to understand. There is a certain “something” – I apologize for having to use that word – in the air here that defies my description. A magical pull? A heightened consciousness? A mystical bending of perception? I would agree with all and none of them. Suffice to say the Orkney Islands are a special place that require you to experience them in the flesh, not just via the word and the photo.

Things You Can’t Miss

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The focus of any visit to the Orkney Islands begins on the west mainland at the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. This collection of ancient sites includes Skara Brae on the west coast and a series of sites wedged between Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray that includes the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the incredible in-progress excavation known as the Ness of Brodgar. One aspect that makes these sites so magnificent is their proximity to you: You can enter Maeshowe, drag your fingers across the standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar, and clamber over the turf roofs at Skara Brae. The sites feel like they’re still a part of this world, not just museum showpieces, and that is a wondrous thing. A visit to this cluster of sites makes for a truly epic day out in Orkney’s distant past.

Highland Park. Orkney is home to two distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa, but only Highland Park accommodates visitors. Lucky for you. This is one of the greatest distilleries in all of Scotland, not to mention the most northern, and a tour is an excellent way to spend your time here whether you feel love or ambivalence toward Scotland’s national drink. Highland Park highlights the provenance of Orkney, using heathery peat from nearby Hobbister Moor, and provides an interesting historical look at the way whisky has been made for hundreds of years with their peat fire and hand-turned floor maltings.

The Orkney Craft Trail. Orkney is brimming with local artisans producing quality crafts, from inspired jewelry by Sheila Fleet and Stewart Moar to attractive yet functional pottery by Fursbreck Pottery. Much like Skye’s Craft Trail, Orkney’s artisans have banded together in an association to promote, support, and develop high-quality craftwork, and visitors can find these shops scattered across the Orcadian hinterland via their handy craft trail.

Hiking. Scotland is a rambler’s paradise, and Orkney does not drop the ball. Largely uninhabited and with loads of coastline, Orkney’s islands can keep serious hikers busy for days or provide just a taste for those looking to stretch their legs after countless beautiful miles in the car. The Orkney Walks site is a nifty trove of ideal walks organized by the Orkney Islands Council that covers the entire archipelago. The Noup Head Loop on the island of Westray is one of my favorites. The island of Hoy is Orkney’s hilliest and a common destination for those seeking the grandeur of Rackwick on the island’s west coast. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for seals bobbing in the surf and tiny lambs frolicking in the emerald green fields.

Things You Shouldn’t Miss

Island-Hopping. While Orkney’s Mainland undeniably possesses the lion’s share of value-for-time, it would be a shame to not spend a day exploring Orkney’s other islands, places like Hoy, Westray, Sanday, and Rousay. Orkney Ferries run services among 13 of Orkney’s islands providing easy access to just about any place you’d like to go. Each island has its own feel, distinct from the mainland, providing a different view on this gorgeous place. Westray felt like the rim of the world!

The Italian Chapel. Some 550 Italian POWs captured in North Africa during WWII built the Chuchill Barriers to protect Scapa Flow from prowling Nazi submarines. These same POWs built the Italian Chapel, an ornate Catholic church, on the barrier island that came to be known as Lamb Holm. It is an incongruous monument with a poignant story. Shamefully, I have never paused on Lamb Holm to take in the Italian Chapel, but I can promise you I will rectify this oversight on my next visit.

St. Magnus Cathedral. The massive red and yellow sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral dominates the skyline from the heart of Kirkwall, Orkney’s primary town. Dating from 1137, it was built for the bishops of Orkney and remains a fine example of Romanesque architecture. On a sunny day, it is marvel to behold, the structure’s great age obvious and yet somehow undefined beyond the small size of its windows. The interior is equally fascinating, especially for the dungeon beneath the floor. How many cathedrals can you think of with dungeons?

More ancient sites. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Orkney’s antique riches. The Broch of Gurness, the Brough of Birsay, and the Tomb of the Eagles all warrant your interest and time. All these sites evoke the Pictish and Viking history of the region and fill you with a wonder at the quality of their preservation. Seems Orkney’s ever-present wind is good for something!

Things to Do Off the Beaten Path

Diving, sailing, and fishing. Adventurous sorts have loads of options in Orkney. Dive boat charters are available in Stromness and Burray for exploring the amazing undersea graveyard of Scapa Flow, though you should note that it is forbidden to get to close to the HMS Royal Oak, HMS Vanguard, and the Flotta oil terminal. Sailing is an option, too, though the waters around the Orkney Islands are infamously treacherous with the fastest riptides in European waters, so a measure of expertise is required. If those skills escape you, think about chartering a yacht with Sail Orkney. Fishing in Scotland is generally a bank-busting nonstarter, but in Orkney visiting anglers can snag an affordable £20 subscription from the Orkney Trout Fishing Association to give their trout-filled lochs a go. Don’t forget about equipment rental and possibly a ghillie.

Bird Watching. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a strong presence across Scotland and especially among islands like those of the Orcadian archipelago. Orkney posseses several RSPB reserves, including the excellent Hobbister RSPB, Brodgar RSPB, and Cottascarth and Rendall Moss RSPB. Whether it’s curlews or oystercatchers, skylarks or kittiwakes, birders are spoiled for viewing choices in Orkney.

Broch of Borwick. Halfway between the Bay o’ Skaill and Yesnaby, high up on an eroding headland, stands the little known Broch of Borwick. With little signage pointing you toward its location, finding this broch makes for a good hike and a bit of adventure. One must wonder how many other archaeological dreams still lie hidden beneath Orkney’s thick turf.

Logistics and Salient Tidbits

Transportation. You must either fly on a small plane to Kirkwall or take one of the ferries from Thurso or Scrabster across the Pentland Firth to either Stromness or St. Margaret’s Hope to arrive at the Orkney Islands. Flying is certainly quicker and easier (and sometimes even cheaper if you’re ferrying a car over), though there is something to be said for the experience of sailing. However you get here, renting a car on the Orkney mainland is a great idea that permits you the freedom to explore all its magical nooks and crannies.

Bases. Kirkwall and Stromness are the only towns of any real substance on Orkney, and they are still quite small. Many choose to stay in the hotels in town, but I’ve found choosing B&Bs or self-catering out in the hinterland to be more pleasurable. You cannot go wrong with Orkney Crofts.

Food & Drink. The Creel in St. Margaret’s Hope is unanimously the great restaurant in the islands, though it’s notoriously difficult to get a reservation. I’ve enjoyed Helgi’s in Kirkwall, the Merkister Hotel out on Harray Loch, Appie’s Tea Room in Sandwick, and the Peedie Chippie, a traveling food trailer, which serves up some great fish and chips.

I hope this article has given you some ideas when considering spending time in Orkney. I truly can’t recommend the place highly enough. If you’ve got questions, pop them in the comments.

Lyn SwanNo Gravatar October 3, 2016 at 8:02 AM

My husband have just returned from a two week trip to Scotland. To say that I’ve lost my heart to the place is an understatement and we are already planning a return trip. My favorite place, Orkney, has become apart of me. From the standing stones of Stennes to Maeshowe to Saint Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall the ancient history of the place haunts you with its presence. We were invited to a caleigh in St Margret where we met warm and helpful locals and shared lovely homemade scottish food. The most amazing experience for me was at dusk one evening as we were driving back to our self catering, I saw a stag standing in a field. They are the most remarkable beasts and this one was a beauty. So, go if you can, you will never be the same!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 3, 2016 at 9:16 AM

You said it, Lyn. Orkney is such a special place. It got inside my soul, too.

Stephen GaroneNo Gravatar September 20, 2015 at 3:47 PM

Very nice! My brother spent much time here many years ago when he was in college and insisted that I go during my recent trip to Scotland. Glad I listened to him! The beauty and story, and history, of these islands were greater than I anticipated.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 20, 2015 at 3:52 PM

My favorite place in Scotland. Your brother has great taste!

RobertNo Gravatar June 6, 2014 at 10:52 AM

we are arriving on 17 June for about a week for the solstice, but every car hire company in Orkney is sold out so far. Any suggestions?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 6, 2014 at 11:32 AM

All cars or just automatics? You could look into peer-to-peer car rentals, business likes RelayRides in the USA. Also, consider posting a Craig’s List ad.

HoggaNo Gravatar December 9, 2013 at 3:17 PM

so beautiful

Julie K.No Gravatar December 9, 2013 at 2:23 AM

Is it true you can see the Northern Lights in Orkney?? This would certainly be a more accessible option than the North Pole:)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 9, 2013 at 9:17 AM

Hi Julie,

It is possible to see the northern lights in Orkney from November through February. While Orkney has few people, it can still be difficult to see them in Kirkwall. I think your best bet would be to drive out into the west mainland hinterland or better yet spend a night on one of the smaller islands.

KenNo Gravatar December 6, 2013 at 8:24 AM

Great post! I couldn’t agree more about visiting Orkney and the almost mystical quality of the place. Lordy, I wish the Peedie Chippie could come to Memphis and I’ll always regret not getting the haggis lasagna at Helgi’s.

Alison ChinoNo Gravatar December 5, 2013 at 7:35 AM

I am a fairly new transplant to Scotland (from the US) and I cannot wait to visit the islands. Are there specific seasons you would not recommend going? We can take the ferry from here (in Aberdeen) but I have wondered if we should wait until summer.

PS, Just discovering your blog (and Instagram). Consider yourself bookmarked!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2013 at 9:13 AM

Hi Alison,

Glad you’ve found your way here. Consider me jealous of your ex-pat situation in Scotland. This question just came up on Facebook, too. Scotland is beautiful no matter the season, but late fall and winter certainly complicate transportation among the islands. There are fewer ferries during this time and those that remain are often cancelled, justifiably so, due to weather (often the day of the sailing). The other consideration to keep in mind is that there are fewer accommodations and attractions open in these months, if those things matter to you. If I had a choice, however, I would choose to travel in late spring/early fall.

Alison ChinoNo Gravatar December 6, 2013 at 8:29 AM

Thanks very much! We will hold out for fairer weather for the islands then. 🙂

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