Orkney Islands Attractions
The Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland are separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth. The distance from John O'Groats at the northeastern tip of the Scottish mainland to the most southerly point on the island of South Ronaldsay is 6.5mi/10.4km.
The islands are home to about 19,000 people who are known as Orcadians. Of the 67 islands only 18 are inhabited, although the principal island has a population of 14,000. Some 48mi/76.8km separate north from south while the distance from east to west measures 35mi/56km. Farming provides work for a good proportion of the population, and fishing, particularly for lobsters and prawns, is an important element in the local economy; however, of most significance today is the offshore oil industry. The island of Flotta on the east side of Scapa Flow Bay is a major loading station for oil tankers. Fertile top soil on the Devonian "old red sandstone" and the mild climate brought in by the Gulf Stream have created good conditions for farming. Long fields and green pastureland broken up by moors, grass and heathland characterize the islands. Ice Age glaciers left behind gently rolling hills with altitudes no higher than 1,000ft/305m, although the island of Hoy with its extremely steep cliffs is an exception. Moorland vegetation includes sphagnum moss, cotton grass, chickweed wintergreen, sundew and many varieties of heathers. Sea grasses predominate by the coast, but a number of rare species such as the Scottish primrose do occur. The Orkneys are also, of course, an important resting and breeding ground for sea birds but kestrels and peregrine falcons, sparrowhawks and golden eagles (on Hoy) breed here, while the moors make good habitats for great skuas, hen harriers and short-eared owls. The wetlands are ideal territory for oystercatchers, golden plovers, curlews, widgeons and pintails. The rocks attract birdwatchers who train their binoculars on the shearwaters, Arctic skuas, long-tailed ducks, puffins, gannets, terns, graylag geese, Canada geese and snow geese. Close to the shore otters, gray seals and common seals are a frequent sight, while further out it is sometimes possible to catch a glimpse of a school of dolphins.When the Egyptians were building pyramids by the Nile, the first settlers on the Orkneys were also constructing their simple dwellings. These first inhabitants were driven out by Picts who themselves had been forced to flee from Nordic invaders. For centuries the Orkneys, along with the Shetlands, the Hebrides and northern Scotland, belonged to Norway and many surnames serve as a reminder of that period. In fact, Nordic traces in the island's culture are not hard to find. Until the 17th century the language of the Orcadians was "Norn", a dialect related to old Norwegian and the name "Orkney" derives from the Nordic word "orc" meaning "wild bear". The history of the Nordic rulers, the "Jarls", is outlined in the "Orkneyinga Saga". After the Battle of Largs in 1263 the Norwegians abandoned all their Scottish territories apart from the Orkney and Shetland Islands. In 1468 Christian I of Norway pledged the islands as surety for a dowry when his daughter Margaret (the Maid of Norway) married James III of Scotland. The debt was not paid so in 1472 Scotland annexd the islands. The Scots imposed their feudal system on the islanders, who were not familiar with the clan structure. Up until then the land had been administered and cultivated on a communal basis. Earl Patrick Stewart was executed in Edinburgh in 1615 for his tyrannical treatment of the islanders. Scapa Flow Bay was a major naval base for the British fleet during World Wars I and II.The Orkneys are popular with walkers, nature lovers and birdwatchers, but anglers too are attracted by both the sea and the inland freshwater lakes. And yet there are also plenty of places of interest for the more traditional tourist. In prehistoric times early man appreciated the favorable climate and fertile soil and left a wealth of ancient sites, with probably more here than anywhere else in Britain. Many of these Stone Age and Bronze Age remains can only be reached on foot or by bicycle. Malt whisky is also produced on the Orkneys and the regional specialties such as lobster and smoked cheese ought not to be missed. Golfers will even find two 18-hole golf courses, one near Stromness and one at Grainbank near Kirkwall.
Direct British Airways flights connect the Orkneys (Kirkwall) with Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. Loganair run services to Kirkwall from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Wick and also to the other islands including the Shetlands.
Rennibister Earth House
Orphir Round Church
Maes Howe Chambered Cairn
Nowhere provides a better insight into the Orkneys' prehistoric past than the Stone Age burial chamber at Maes Howe, situated on the road to Stromness about 9mi/14.4km west of Kirkwall. Dating from 2500 B.C., it is almost certainly the best-preserved late Stone Age site of its kind anywhere on the British Isles. The interior of this grass-covered grave is vast; it measures a full 115ft/32m in diameter. The low and narrow entrance tunnel, almost 36ft/11m long, is built from long stone slabs up to 16ft/5m in length and it leads into a main chamber and three adjoining chambers; however, as some runic inscriptions indicate, the contents were plundered by the Vikings in the 12th century. "Haakon alone took the treasure from this hill" is just one of the many examples. Some researchers maintain that Nordic crusaders sought shelter here from a storm.It is recorded in the "Orkneyinga Saga" that when Earl Harold and his retinue sheltered in the tomb during a storm, several of the men were driven mad.
Address: Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Jedburgh TD8 6JQ, Scotland
Opening hours: Apr 1 to Sep 30: 9:30am-5pm
Oct 1 to Mar 31: 9:30am-4:30pm
Oct 1 to Mar 31: 9:30am-4:30pm
Entrance fee in GBP: Adult £5.50, Concession or reduced rate £4.40, Child £3.30
Useful tips: Only twelve people admitted inside at any one time. Booking in advance is required.
Guides: Guided tour included with admission.
Typical Visit: 30 minutes
Stenness - Standing Stones
Ring of Brodgar
The 5,000 year old Ring of Brodgar, about 2mi/3.2km higher up from the standing stones by Loch Stenness, provides further evidence of the islands' earliest inhabitants. It remains a mystery as to what precise function these 27 (originally 60) stones performed. The monoliths, ranging in height from 6.5ft/2m to 15ft/4.5m, are arranged in a perfect circle 340ft/103.7m in diameter. On the northern side of the circle a stone bears the runic symbol for the Nordic name "Björn". The stunning interplay of water, countryside, cloud and stone pillars leaves a lasting impression.
Unstan Cairn is situated on a peninsula on the south side of Loch Stenness. It is a burial chamber about 23ft/7m in total length although it is divided into smaller sections. When the grave was excavated in 1884, archaeologists unearthed the largest piece of Stone Age pottery ever found in Scotland. It is now on display in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.
Stromness (pop. 2,800) is the second-biggest town on Mainland island and serves as the main ferry terminal for the archipelago. Although the narrow cobbled lanes and gray stone houses look older than those in Kirkwall, the town actually dates from more recent times. The growth of Stromness started at the end of the 17th century when the Hudson Bay Company set up a base at the port and recruited sailors to crew the vessels that plied across the North Atlantic to northern Canada. During the 18th century whaling fleets called in for supplies on their way to the coast of Greenland. Orkney islanders, always recognized for their seafaring skills, were among those who signed up to serve on such famous vessels as Scott's R.R.S. Discovery and the legendary HMS Bounty of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame.
Pier Arts Centre
The collection of modern art in the Pier Arts Centre was bequeathed to the town by the art-lover Mary Gardiner. Barbara Hepworth and other artists from the St Ives school are represented in the gallery.
Stromness Museum demonstrates the influence of the Hudson Bay Company on the town and also details the wealth of bird-life on the island and the history of whaling. Sections of the German warships which were scuttled in Scapa Flow at the end of World War I are also displayed here.
The Skara Brae Prehistoric Village serves as an open-air museum and a popular tourist attraction. Displaying well preserved houses and remnants of Stone Age furnishings, the Village is an interesting site.
Brough of Birsay
The island of Birsay on the northwest coast of Mainland (accessible on foot at low tide) was an important Viking settlement and as a former island capital it was the first place to have a church. Ruined buildings here include the typical Viking longhouses and an 11-13th century church, while in the village of Birsay the remains of a 16th century episcopal palace can still be seen.
Burgar Hill Wind Turbine Site
Broch of Gurness
A side road leads from Evie Village to Gurness Broch. The tower served as a dwelling and as a fortification for the Picts in the first half of the first century B.C. but continued to be used by Vikings until the ninth century A.D. as the remains of Norse longhouses in the vicinity prove. These windowless brochs built from layers of stone had a cylindrical interior and an external wall tapering upwards. Galleries ran between the two and steps provided access to the upper floors.
Corrigall Farm Museum
Scapa Flow Bay was a notable strategic base for the British navy during the First World War. During the Second World War, the Germans were able to sink the battleship "Royal Oak" anchored in the bay.
The most southerly of the Orkney Islands is South Ronaldsay, which can be reached by crossing the Churchill Barriers.
Lambholm Italian Chapel
On the tiny island of Lambholm between Mainland and Burray stands an Italian Chapel that was built during World War II by Italian prisoners-of-war out of two Nissen huts. It is covered from floor to ceiling with brightly-colored bricks and ornate stone panels.
Tomb of the Eagles
At the southeastern tip of the island lies the "Tomb of the Eagles" (also known as Isbister Tomb). The main burial chamber and three secondary chambers date from the third millennium B.C. and were used as a graveyard for about 1,500 years. The tomb's name derives from the large number of sea eagle bones that were found here. It can only be assumed that for the Isbisters the sea eagle was a sacred creature. When the graves were excavated, the bones of the various parts of the body had been sorted and stored together. More than 340 bodies were dismembered before being buried in a communal grave.As a locally run museum it possesses a unique form of presentation that is of interest to the ordinary visitor.
The island of Rousay lies off the north coast of Mainland island. Here too there are a number of prehistoric burial sites such as Blackhammer Cairn (third millennium B.C.)
Egilsay - St Magnus Church
Westray Noltland Castle
The crossing from Kirkwall to Westray will take about one and a half hours. Dominating the harbor at Pierowall is the ruined Noltland Castle. Its massive walls are pierced with 60 embrasures. Gilbert Balfour ordered the construction of this Z-shaped castle in 1560, but it was destroyed by Covenanters in 1650.
Noup Head, some 5mi/8km in length and boasting a rocky north coast, is home to vast numbers of seabirds. The thousands of petrels, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills that gather here for the breeding season constitute one of the biggest bird colonies in Great Britain.
Knap of Howar
To see two of the oldest stone houses in Europe will require a trip to the tiny island of Papa Westray which lies just off the northeast coast of Westray. Thought to be 5,000 years old and, like Skara Brae, protected for centuries from the elements by a thick layer of sand, they were exposed after a fierce storm. Spoons, mallets and drills made from whalebones were found during the excavations.
The sandy grassland and dunes on Sanday make excellent breeding grounds for sea birds, while Otters Wick Bay is noted for its seal colony. There are some fine bathing beaches on the island and amateur archaeologists ought not to miss the burial chamber at Quoyness which dates from 2900 B.C.
Car ferries operate between Scrabster and Stromness (Mainland) and also between Aberdeen and Stromness. Passenger ferries cross in the summer from John o'Groats to Burwick (South Ronaldsay).
Address: Queen Elizabeth Pier, Caithness KW14 7UT, Scotland
Useful tips: Ferries Aberdeen-Stromness (Orkney), 1/2 weekly, 8h (14h overnight), P & O Scottish Ferries Scrabster-Stromness (Orkney), 1/3 weekdays, 50m, P & O Scottish Ferries John O'Groat's-Burwick (Orkney), 2/4 daily, 45m, passengers only, Thomas & Bews Stromness (Orkney)-Lerwick (Shetland), 1/2 weekly, 8h, P & O Scottish Ferries.
Orkney Inter Island Ferries
An inter-island ferry service operates on a regular basis and there is also a ferry to Lerwick (Shetlands).
Between May and September Day trips to the Orkney Islands leave from the harbor at John O'Groats.