Where to stay and what to see in this unique destination
The Orkney islands are packed with wonderful archaeology and other outdoor sites, so make sure you can find it all with the the best digital or printed maps at 1:50,000 or even better at 1:25,000 scales. Get their app and view the map on your phone or tablet, with your position shown as you walk.Read More
Spectacular Orkney is a paradise for walkers, birdwatchers and lovers of history and archaeology
The Orkney islands with their ancient ruins, Norse influences and incredibly long summer days are very different to the rest of Scotland. The islands have a permanent population of only 21,000 people, spread over 20 islands out of the total of 70 islands Orkney has. The main islands are Mainland (with most of the population), South Ronaldsay, Hoy, Rousay, Shapinsay, Eday, Sanday and Westray. The islands are linked by causeways (in some cases) or by ferry and by air. The Orkney Tourist Office in West Castle St in Kirkwall has information on the islands and seasonal events, and is worth visiting on your first day on Orkney.
Below are some of the many, many attractions worth visiting on the islands.
1. St Magnus Cathedral Broad St, Kirkwall
This red sandstone building was built from the 12th century onwards (it took 300 years to complete) and was not badly damaged during the Reformation (as many other cathedrals in Scotland were), and is still in use as a place of worship. Service at 11.15 am on Sundays are open to all. Visitors at other times can use an app (available at entry) which will provide an audio-visual guide. The St Magnus Centre in Palace Road nearby has a free display about St Magnus and the cathedral also. See http://stmagnus.org
Beside the cathedral Is the ruined Bishop’s palace, also built in the 12th century when Norway still controlled the Northern isles.
2. Earl’s Palace Watergate, Kirkwall (entry charge)
This is a now-ruined palace built by Earl Patrick Stewart from 1600-1607 using forced labour. It was built in the French Renaissance style, and is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, like most of the ancient and historical sites on Orkney. Though now roofless, two storeys of the L-shaped building remain, including cellars, the kitchen, apartments and the great hall.
3. Highland Park Distillery Holm Road, Kirkwall (tour charge)
The famous and mellow highland Park whisky is made in this distillery north of the town. You can take a tour (there are different types of tour depending on how much time you have) and sample the product.
4. Orkney Museum Tankerness House, Broad Street, Kirkwall
This free museum cover the whole 5,000 year plus history of Orkney from the stone age through to Viking and medieval times up to the 20th century. It is run by the Orkney Islands Council. Also has a pleasant garden at the rear.
5. The Italian Chapel Lamb Holm
This chapel is to be found on the island of Lamb Holm, a small island which is connected by causeways to Mainland and to South Ronaldsay. It has its own car park (look for the Italian flag on a large flagpole). Italian prisoners of war here during World War 2 built a chapel in a Nissan hut, from material they managed to scavenge and reuse, and did a beautiful job. Worth a stop on your way through. You will travel over the road on the Churchill Barriers, which the Italian prisoners of war helped to build.
6. Tomb of the Eagles South Ronaldsay (at the south of the island)
This Neolithic chambered cairn is set on a clifftop. Excavation inside the chambers of the cairn found the remains of at least 300 people (their bones may have been brought from elsewhere) as well as pottery, stone axes, a mace head and stone knives. Radiocarbon dating has revealed it was built about 3150 BC and it may have been in use for about 800 years. Carcases and the talons of sea eagles also found here give the site its name. You can go inside the tomb, and there is a visitor centre on site.
7. Heart of Neolithic Orkney – The Ring of Brodgar, The Standing Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe chambered cairn, Skara Brae Neolithic village
Orkney has some of the best preserved Neolithic remains in Europe, and this group of sites on Orkney Mainland is Unesco-listed,meaning it is also of international significance. Three of the sites, the two stone circles and the well-preserved chambered cairn are close to each other by the Loch of Stenness and can be conveniently visited one after the other. Perhaps the most interesting site of all, Skara Brae with its exposed houses including beds and furniture, is on the east coast of mainland at Skaill. Maeshowe and Skara Brae have entrance charges. You can save money by getting the Orkney Explorer Pass.
8. Broch of Gurness (entry charge)
The remains of this Iron Age defensive tower and habitation are to be found at Aikerness; there are three wall lines and many outbuildings to be seen as well as the broch itself. There is a visitor centre with information about brochs: high drystone-built forts which are unique to Scotland.
9. Stromness Museum 52 Alfred street, Stromness (entry charge)
This museum has displays covering the archaeological heritage of the Orkney Islands, its natural history, maritime history and World War 2.
This spectacular island can be reached by ferry from Stromness and also from Houton on the Mainland. Bold rock climbers ascend the stack called the Old Man of Hoy (137m / 450 ft high) but normal visitors can enjoy the island’s great walking and photographic opportunities. Take some windproof clothing.
11. Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum Lyness, Hoy
This centre is being rebuilt and will reopen in 2021. Until then, the displays are housed in the Hoy hotel. Lyness was a maritime base for the Royal Navy during wartime, and the museum focusses on the events in World War 1 and World War 2 in and around Scapa Flow, the sheltered waters encircled by the Orkney islands. The German fleet was deliberately scuttled here in 1919 and the area has become a favoured recreational diving location.
12. Northern Islands of Orkney – Rousay, Westray, Papa Westray, Sanday
These islands, accessible by air and by ferry from Kirkwall are a wonderful destination for lovers of archaeology and for birdwatchers, with huge flocks of locally breeding and migratory birds to be seen.
13. Yesnaby cliffs – Coastal Walk
From the end of the road at Yesnaby you can walk south along the spectacular coastline, with sea stacks, high cliffs and wildlife aplenty including seals and puffins. This is a fine place to watch the sunset too.