Orkney Isles: Top 10 Things to Do
Posted on Apr 21, 2017 by Sonja Jones
With spellbinding natural beauty and invigorating landscapes the Orkney Isles are like no other archipelago. Why not see what all the fuss is about with our top ten things to do?
1. Go Island Hopping
Orkney is an archipelago of over 70 islands but only 20 of those are inhabited. Of a total population of 21,000 the majority live on the Orkney Mainland and some islands only have 3 or 4 inhabitants. There are so many islands to explore so here are a couple we often visit on our Orkney Isles walking trips for starters:
- On Rousay we love the fascinating shoreline walk that is packed with history. Enjoy exploring remnants of the iron age, medieval and viking settlements as well as a 4,000 year old cairn.
- Hoy is home to the gob-smacking Old Man of Hoy. The 450 ft sea-stack was created through erosion – battered by Orkney’s windy weather – and stands dramatically apart from an incredibly high cliff-face and is a great place to spot Puffins.
2. Take Glorious Coastal Walks
Orkney’s seascapes are characterised by their wild and rugged nature and the coast is marked by towering cliffs, deep caves and giant sandstone sea stacks. For our clients on our Orkney walking trips it is, more often than not, the intricate coastlines that inspire wonder at the natural world.
- From the Old Man of Hoy your first glimpse of Rackwick Bay from the footpath is nothing short of stunning. Large rollers sweep in to meet pink sands and huge boulders, and there is a haunting peacefulness that has inspired many artists, writers and composers. Many claim this as the most beautiful location in Orkney.
- Take a walk along west coast of the mainland along the rugged edges of the Yesnaby Cliffs and enjoy an invigorating blast of fresh air as you admire the spectacular natural wonder of Yeanaby Castle – another of Orkney’s famed sea stacks.
3. Stumble Across Some Ancient History
On Orkney you’ll literally stumble across thousands of years of history. Neolithic, Pictish, Viking – discover Orkney’s varied past and marvel at the neolithic wonders that are thousands of years old.
- Discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar have given historians food for thought about life 5,000 years ago and some archaeologists call the findings here more significant than Stonehenge in England. In fact, the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney’s standing stones, were built centuries before Stonehenge at around 3,200BC.
- Visit UNESCO World Heritage site Skara Brae, a stone-age village that was first discovered after a great storm in 1850, and the magnificent Maeshowe burial chamber.
4. Go Bird-Spotting
The RSPB has 13 nature reserves across the Orkney Isles looking after habitats such as seacliffs, farmland, wetland and moorland. There’s truly something for bird-spotters year-round.
- Catch a glimpse of the Puffins nestling on the seacliffs
- Chase after the elusive call of the Corncrake in the farmers fields
- Search for the Hen Harrier, Orkney’s most common bird of prey, soaring across the moors
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5. Visit Wartime Relics
The Orkney Islands have played a prominent role in both world wars. From scuttled ships at the bottom of Scapa Flow to the concrete bunkers overlooking the sea where the scars of war are still visible.
- The Churchill Barriers, originally built as naval defences to stop enemy ships and submarines during World War Two, are so named for Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. These four causeways now connect some of Orkney’s islands by road.
- The Italian Chapel or the La Bella Cappella Italiana was built by Italian prisoners of war. The POWs, captured in North Africa, were shipped to Orkney in 1942 to build the Churchill Barriers. The prisoners were given two old Nissen huts − half-cylindrical buildings skinned in corrugated iron − as a place of worship. Through sheer determination and imagination they transformed these shabby huts into a beautifully ornate chapel.
6. Enjoy Some Local Produce
Orkney is a green and fertile land and the local produce doesn’t disappoint. Indulge at will but expect to leave the islands a wee bit rounder than you started.
- Perhaps you’ll begin with some succulent and super-fresh hand-dived scallops. Then to follow maybe prime Orkney beef, for cattle nurtured on forage-based diet in fertile fields make for tasty cuts.
- To finish you may indulge in some Orkney Fudge or ice cream or munch on some delicious Westray shortbread.
7. Try a Local Tipple
These days Scotland’s drinks industry extends far beyond uisge beatha or water of life as whisky is also known. The art of small batch gin is exploding in Scotland thanks to the variety and abundance of local botanicals and experience in distilling. And there are a whole host of craft brewers too.
- If you want to stay close to Orkney’s historic past then whisky’s the tipple for you. Visit Scapa Distillery, one of the last manually operated distilleries, and try their distinctively smooth single malt.
- If you prefer a gin then try Orkney Gin’s seasonal offerings and taste the earthy essence of the islands. The botanicals they use along with their artisanal method of blending means no two batches are exactly the same.
- If you’d rather stick to beer then head to the Orkney Brewery for a whole host of traditional craft ales. And the secret ingredient? Well, that would be the pure Orcadian water.
8. Visit First Rate Museums
Orcadians are very enthusiastic custodians of their history and culture so it follows their museums are first rate.
- Find out more about the Orcadian lifestyle of farmers who fish at one of Orkney Farm Museums – Corrigall and Kirbuster.
- On Hoy you’ll find the Scapa Flow Visitors Centre and Museum on the site of an old naval base. There you can watch audio-visual displays about Scapa Flow’s role in wartime triumphs and disasters.
9. Enjoy Some Cutting-Edge Art
You’d be forgiven for thinking art wouldn’t be up to much in such a far flung location but the islands are positively brimming with thriving creative communities.
- Opened in 1979 the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness can keep up with galleries in London with their collection including work by influential sculptor Barbara Hepsworth.
- St Magnus International Festival is a mid-summer celebration of the arts brings in world-class performance and community together. In 2017 the festival will draw heavily on the islands’ Norse connections.
- Papay Westray, population 75, is home to its own contemporary arts festival. Papay Gyro Nights has run in February since 2011 and includes all sorts of experimental projects. It sees an influx of visitors during the island’s off-season at a time when Orkney’s temperamental winds might put the average visitor off.
10. Try Wreck Diving in Scapa Flow
Although Orkney has fascinating marine wildlife it is the bottom of Scapa Flow, a natural harbour, that often captivates visitors. You’ll be astonished by the collection of wrecks that languish at the bottom of the sea; they include ships from both world wars and even a couple warplanes.
- Fancy visiting one of the world’s best dive spots? Beneath the waves at Scapa Flow you’ll discover a chaotic collection of man-made destruction that intrigues and challenge even the most experienced divers.
- Explore the wrecks and see how each is now its own thriving and impressive ecosystem changing with the seasons.
Want to visit the beautiful Orkney Isles?
In Orkney you can witness stunning environments, landscapes full of rich diverse wildlife and you will have the chance to explore the fascinating history of the Island. Check below to find out when our next Wilderness Walking trips will depart for an unforgettable experience in Orkney.
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