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    Things To Do in Orkney

    By Rupert Shanks
    More by Rupert

    Discovering Orkney

    The Orkney Islands are a true gem of the Scottish Isles, an archipelago of spellbinding natural beauty and invigorating landscapes. With windswept cliffs, pristine beaches, and ancient historical sites dating back thousands of years, Orkney offers an unparalleled escape from the hustle of modern life.

    Whether you’re a history buff, nature lover, or simply seeking a relaxing coastal retreat, the Orkney Isles have plenty to occupy your time. Embark on bracing coastal walks while keeping an eye out for puffins, seals, and other remarkable wildlife. Delve into the islands’ rich Viking and Neolithic heritage at incredible archaeological sites like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. Explore quaint villages, visit world-class museums and galleries, and indulge in locally sourced produce and seafood fresh from the North Sea.

    From wreck diving amid shipwrecked relics of wartime history to uncovering remnants of Viking occupation, Orkney is an island odyssey waiting to be experienced. So why not see what all the fuss is about? Get ready to be swept away by the majesty of these remote islands off the northern coast of Scotland.

      1. Go Island Hopping
      2. Take Glorious Coastal Walks
      3. Stumble Across Some Ancient History
      4. Do Some Bird-Spotting
      5. Visit Wartime Relics
      6. Enjoy Some Local Produce
      7. Try a Local Tipple
      8. Discover First Rate Museums
      9. See Some Cutting-Edge Art
      10. Experience Wreck Diving in Scapa Flow

    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, which is packed with history. Enjoy exploring remnants of the Iron Age, medieval and Viking settlements, and 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.
    Orkney Isles Top Ten Old Man of Hoy

    The Old Man of Hoy

    Take Glorious Coastal Walks

    Orkney’s seascapes are wild and rugged, and the coast is marked by towering cliffs, deep caves, and giant sandstone sea stacks. For our clients on our Orkney walking trips, the intricate coastlines most often 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 the 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.
    Orkney Isles Top Ten: Coastal Walks

    Rackwick Bay

    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, was built centuries before Stonehenge, around 3,200 BC.
    • 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. 
    Orkney Isles Top Ten: Ring of Brodgar

    The Ring of Brodgar

    Do Some Bird-Spotting

    The RSPB has 13 nature reserves across the Orkney Isles looking after seacliffs, farmland, wetland and moorland habitats. 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 farmer’s fields
    • Search for the Hen Harrier, Orkney’s most common bird of prey, soaring across the moors
    Orkney Top Ten Birdspotting Puffin

    Puffin

    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.
    Orkney Isles Top Ten: The Italian Chapel

    The Italian Chapel

    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.
    Orkney Isles Top Ten Hand dived scallops

    Hand-dived scallops. Photo credit: P.Tomkins/VisitScotland

    Try a Local Tipple

    These days, Scotland’s drinks industry extends far beyond uisge beatha, or water of life, as whisky is also knownThe 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, whisky is 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, head to the Orkney Brewery for a whole host of traditional craft ales. And the secret ingredient? Well, that would be pure Orcadian water.

    Orkney Brewery Photo credit: P. Tomkins/Visit Scotland

    Discover 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 audiovisual displays about Scapa Flow’s role in wartime triumphs and disasters. 

    Orkney Isles Top Ten Kirbuster Farm Museum

    Kirbuster Farm Museum Photo credit: Paul Tomkins/VisitScotland

    See 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.

    Top Ten Orkney Isles The Pier Arts Centre

    The Pier Arts Centre Stromness. Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

    Experience 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 of 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 challenges even the most experienced divers.
    • Explore the wrecks and see how each is now its own thriving and impressive ecosystem, changing with the seasons.
    Top Ten Orkney Isles Wreck diving

    Photo credit: Paul Tomkins/VisitScotland

    Our Orkney Holidays

    Meet the Author: Rupert Shanks

    “After a spell in the corporate world in London Rupert decided to find a more rewarding way of life involving a closer connection to the outdoors and to his camera!”

    View profileMore by Rupert

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