The Orkney Islands lie hard off Caithness, the northernmost corner of Scotland, like a handful of pebbles tossed by a giant. They are windswept and virtually treeless yet intensely green with a wild and lonely beauty.
Generations of seafarers, settlers and visitors have been attracted here to the edge of the world. The Vikings left their names, bits of their folklore and graffitti written in runes. But they were latecomers. The UNESCO World Heritage site that takes in most of the main island (called "the mainland" by Orcadians) protects Stone Age settlements and monuments that predate the Vikings by more than 4,000 years.
Happily for today's visitor - in search of wildlife, ancient and recent history, outdoor activities and a unique, Norse influenced culture - Orkney is not hard to reach year round. There are plenty of comfortable places to stay, wonderful, fresh-from-the-sea cuisine, and lots of welcoming Orcadians.
Plan your trip to Orkney using the resources below:
Will you like it?Seeing is believing. Check out these pictures of Orkney for an idea of what to expect.
When is the best time to go?There's something to be said for every season on Orkney:
- If you like outdoor activities you'll appreciate the long Northern days of late spring and summer - Orcadians have midnight golf events in May!
- On the other hand, Orkney's ancient monuments are less crowded and more dramatic in the wind and rain of winter. Winter is also when you might see The Merrie Dancers - Orcandian for the Aurora Borealis.
- Autumn is a time for migrating birds.
- In Spring the sea birds nest on every available cliff, daffodils bloom in the gardens and the heather bursts into color.
Getting There:Flying? British Air fly to Kirwall Airport from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Shetland and Wick. Flights from the USA or Ireland connect at Glasgow or Prestwick for Edinburgh. Find a flight.
- John O'Groats Ferries run short, passenger-only crossings from Caithness to Kirkwall from May through September.
- Northlink Orkney & Shetland Ferries Sail year round between Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick in Shetland, and from Scrabster in Scotland to Stromness.
- Pentland Ferries sail between Gills Bay in Caithness to St. Margaret's Hope, an hour long, sheltered route for passengers and vehicles.
Where to Stay in OrkneyHotel accommodation in Orkney can be old fashioned or pretty basic. Self-catering and B&B accommodation is a better bet for both value and comfort. Check out a list of recommended accommodations, hostels and camp sites.
Dining OutOysters, prawns, lobster, salmon, all kinds of fresh seafood -- what's not to like? And the island beef, seaweed-fed lamb, fresh berries, vegetables and local cheese are pretty special too. Try these great restaurants with rooms for a start.
Five Great Things to Do in Orkney
- Dive a shipwreck Make a guided dive to one of the German WWI shipwrecks in Scapa Flow. Or stay on the surface and explore the bottom through a remote submersible.
- Visit the Italian Chapel The church, built by Italian POWs during World War II, is a remarkable demonstration of faith in adversity and a must for visitors.
- Discover Orkney's Neolithic heartland Orkney's UNESCO World Heritage designation has earned it the nickname The Egypt of the North.
- Go whale watching You don't even have to go out in a boat to spot whales from Orkney's western shores.
- Take a hike The Orkney Islands Council has put together a series of walking maps along with information about walker-friendly accommodation. Most walking itineraries are easy and short - one to not quite six miles - and planned for maximum wildlife and cliff viewing.
Retail TherapyYou can't get very far from shopping anywhere these days. On Orkney the best goodies to take home are handmade by local craftspeople and designers. Read about what what you can find on the Orkney Craft Trail.
Annual Events Worth Knowing About
- Orkney Homecoming From May 16th to 22nd, all North Americans of Orcadian descent are invited to return to Orkney for celebrations and a chance to pursuie their Orcadian family history. In 2007, 300 Canadians were expected to arrive for the celebrations.
- Orkney Folk Festival For more than 20 years, modern and traditional folk artists from all over the world have gathered in Orkney, for four days in May, for concerts, workshops, ceilidhs and stomps. Most events take place in Stromness but some are staged in rural areas and on the smaller islands.
- The St. Magnus Festival Annual, midsummer festival of arts and music attracts world class performing artists. The festival includes drama, poetry, the visual arts, jass, classical and contemporary music. Artists who have appeared in the past include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andre Previn, Evelyn Glennie and Juliam Bream.