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    The Orkney Islands:
    Your Travel Guide

    The Orkney Islands, located off the northern coast of Scotland, are an archipelago of around 70 islands known for their rugged coastline, dramatic cliffs, historic sites, and rich tapestry of history blending ancient and modern.

    Heritage & Community

    North of the Scottish mainland, the Orkney Isles huddle close together as though to keep warm from the North Sea that surrounds them. It is a land carved from the waves, and it is to that blue horizon that the people here have always gazed. Here, a unique community that mingles Scots, Scandinavian, and a little of their own charm have lived for millennia. With a wry wit, a vast hospitality to rival the coldness of their winters, and a sense of song passed in an oral tradition from skalds to the present day, Orcadians are a people quite unlike any other.

    Referred to as the Orkney Islands, the Orkney Isles or just Orkney, this archipelago is home to some of the most impressive wildlife colonies in the world. On grand sea cliffs and sand beaches within natural harbours, all manner of creatures come to rest and enjoy the abundance available on these islands.

    With smooth roads sweeping from glen to coast and history beneath your feet at every pace, Orkney is one of the must-see locations in Scotland. From E-biking to walking and wildlife watching, it mixes warm hospitality with unmissable natural beauty that begs to be enjoyed.

    An Overview of Orkney

    Located off the northern coast of Scotland, the Orkney Islands encompass approximately 70 islands, around 20 of which are inhabited. Situated in the North Sea, they form an archipelago characterised by a rugged coastline, dramatic cliffs, and numerous natural harbours. Varying in size, the largest of the islands is Mainland, where most of the population resides.

    Orkney’s landscape features rolling hills, fertile farmland, and expansive moorlands. The fertile land, combined with ready access to the abundance of the sea, explains why humans have inhabited Orkney for so long. A wealth of historical sites testify to the extended inhabitation of these islands. The unique climate of the islands has preserved many of these sites, which lie alongside newer ruins and modern villages, creating a rich tapestry of history beneath our feet with every step.

    The salt-stung cliffs of Orkney are the stuff of legend. Ravaged by fierce waves, these cliffs rise to dizzying heights, dwarfing even the most impressive monuments made by man. Many of the island’s monuments and historic sites, such as the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, lie atop these cliffs, adding to their grandeur.

    Blending ancient and modern, the Orkney archipelago is unqiue. These magical islands are a dream for archaeologists, birdwatchers, historians, divers, storytellers, and those who love beaches and wild open spaces.

    The History of the Orkney Isles

    Orkney’s history, spanning millennia, is rich and fascinating. Human habitation in Orkney dates back thousands of years. Early settlers left behind remarkable Neolithic sites like Skara Brae, the standing stones of Stenness, and Maeshowe. Then, the Bronze Age and Iron Age communities added their own archaeological treasures.

    The Vikings established a significant Norse presence, profoundly influencing Orkney’s culture. In the 15th century, Orkney transitioned from Norse rule to Scottish control as part of a marriage treaty, further enriching the islands’ cultural tapestry. The islands played an important role in both the First and Second World Wars and, more recently, have been at the forefront of wave and tidal power developments.

    orkney history

    The Old Man of Hoy. This iconic sea stack is only a few hundred years old.

    Early Habitation

    The earliest evidence of human habitation in Orkney dates back to around 8,000–9,000 years ago, with Mesolithic settlers leaving behind traces of their presence in the form of food remains, stone tools, and structures. The gradual end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, could have facilitated the arrival of these hunter-gatherers from the south. During this time, it may have been possible to walk from the British mainland to Orkney, which was then not an archipelago but a single island. However, rising sea levels slowly changed the landscape.

    Dwellings were found close to the sea, but much evidence has been lost due to the rising waters. Many of the existing uncovered seaside archaeological sites would not have been as immediately coastal during their habitation. Signs of middens—dumps of waste from consuming nuts, shellfish, and remnants of bone from fishing and hunting—indicate Mesolithic settlements on the Orkney Islands. Middens and tools have been discovered in places like Stenness on Mainland and other islands, including Stronsay and Papa Westray. Museums in Kirkwall and Stromness display early tools like arrowheads, suggesting that Orkney was a favourable area for hunting and fishing.

    In the same period, a significant tidal wave, the Storegga Tsunami, nearly submerged the island, causing devastation to the land, animals, and people. This marked the beginning of the end of the Mesolithic period in Orkney. By around 3,000 BCE, about 5,000 years ago, there was no longer evidence of these hunter-gatherer communities. Instead, Orkney emerged as a centre of cultural and religious significance during the Neolithic period. Iconic archaeological sites such as Skara Brae, Maeshowe, and the Ring of Brodgar stand as testaments to the ingenuity and sophistication of the Neolithic inhabitants, who constructed remarkable stone monuments and dwellings.

    Neolithic Orkney

    Orkney had a warmer, more pleasant climate then; the land was fertile, sea levels were rising, and more people were moving around by boat from the British mainland, Ireland, and Europe.

    Farming would have developed over a few hundred years. Early farmers would have been incomers from the south as they were growing barley and wheat and rearing non-native sheep and cattle.

    The new arrivals certainly left their mark. At the end of the Neolithic period, there were very few trees left on Orkney. Subsistence farming would have used a slash and burn technique to clear large areas of forestry for farming, gradually over time covering bigger areas, destroying more woodland. Today, there are still large areas with no trees on the islands.

    All About Neolithic Orkney

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    Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, the Orkney Isles

    Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, the Orkney Isles

    The Legacy Left Behind

    Initially, wood was also used for shelter but, as forests declined, the farmers would have turned their minds to the old, red sandstone, which is relatively soft so flagstones could be cut out for building. This lack of wood is probably the most important factor in the stone legacy that has been left behind across Orkney from this era.

    As people farmed the land, they set up permanent homes, allowing possessions to accumulate. Communities got bigger as food could be grown and stored, the culture changed, and people had time to develop other skills. Craftsmen, toolmakers, and jewellery makers all played a part in the new age. Evidence of tool making, jewellery, and pottery has all been discovered.

    The Neolithic can be broken into two main timescales: Early Neolithic, which existed from around 3,600 BCE to 3,000 BCE, and Late Neolithic, which existed from around 3,000 BCE to 2,100 BCE, mainly typified by building styles.

     

    Early Neolithic Orkney

    Early Neolithic dwellings tended to consist of two buildings side by side with adjoining passages. Burial chambers from this period were similar to those found in other parts of the country, with the chambers separated like animal stocks.

    Human remains tended to be whole, and many burial chambers also contained bones of specific animals. Stone pottery discovered from the period is known as Unstan Ware and is characterised by its round-bottom pots.

    Papay or Papa Westray is the most northerly island of Orkney. As well as being a birdwatcher’s paradise, it is also a beautiful place in early summer when the wildflowers of the machair are in full bloom. If you can tear yourself away from the flora, fauna, and stunning beaches, the Knap of Howar is worth a visit.

    The Knap of Howar is the oldest stone building on Orkney and one of the oldest in northern Europe. It dates from the Early Neolithic period around 3,500 BCE. Two structures are joined by an adjacent passage, the larger one looking like a dwelling place with signs of hearth and recesses. Due to the discovery of flints and stone tools, it is generally thought that the second building was a workshop.

    The assembly of the building raises questions as to what was here before as the midden (or rubbish) from previous settlers was used to settle the stonework, but no other evidence of an earlier site has been discovered to date. Another big difference from later sites is that the buildings stand alone; later buildings tended to be communal.

    Neolithic Orkney

    Skara Brae, part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney world heritage site by the Bay of Skaill, Orkney.

    Late Neolithic

    Later buildings were characterised by one big room with a stone dresser opposite the entrance and a central hearth with bed recesses on either side, usually joined to other buildings with adjacent passages like those found in Skara Brae and Barnhouse. Burial chambers were central chambers accessed through long passageways with recesses on all four sides. Maeshowe chambered cairn is the classic example. These later chambers are unique to Orkney. Stoneware during this period was known as Grooved Ware, and tended to have flat bottoms and an unusual design of triangles and diamond.

    This culture developed and lasted for over a thousand years before gradually giving way to the Bronze Age (2,500–800 BCE). Developments throughout Britain and Europe were relatively slow to catch on in Orkney, and it is thought that the religious cultures and practices of the Neolithic hindered progress.

    Iron Age Orkney

    The Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age (800 BCE to 800 CE). Brochs are the most notable remnants of the Iron Age in Orkney. These large and round tower houses served as dwellings and defensive structures for extended families. A good example worth visiting is Midhowe on Rousay, the largest and best preserved on the Islands.

    The Romans, first landing in Britain in 55 BCE, knew of the islands, calling them “Orcades”. There is no evidence of Roman attempts to occupy the area, though trade likely occurred. In the early 6th century, the Dál Riata Gaels briefly settled in Orkney, followed by Celtic Christian missionaries. The Gaels were soon displaced by the Picts, who controlled the islands until the Viking’s arrival.

    Norse Rule in Orkney

    The period of Norwegian rule left a lasting impact on the culture and heritage of the Orkney Islands. Vikings arrived in the late 8th century, colonising the islands in the 9th century and using Orkney as a strategic base for their expeditions across the North Sea and the British Isles. Following Viking rule, the islands were governed by a series of Norwegian ‘jarls’ (earls). One of the most significant legacies of this era is the Orkneyinga Saga, which chronicles the turbulent history of Norse rule in the region.

    Despite the arrival of Celtic missionaries in the 7th century, the Norsemen did not convert to Christianity until much later. St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, a magnificent medieval structure built primarily by Norsemen in the 12th century, stands as a testament to this period. Orkney and Shetland remained under Scandinavian control until they came under Scottish rule due to the unpaid dowry for the marriage of Christian I of Denmark’s daughter to James III of Scotland. The islands’ legal and constitutional status remained complex and often contested for centuries, but Orkney’s strong Scandinavian ties continue to be a significant part of its identity. Norse influence is still evident in Orkney’s place names, local dialect, and genetic heritage, with it being estimated that nearly a third of modern Orcadians are descendants of Norse settlers.

    Orkney’s Strategic Position in the 20th Century

    When summarising Orkney’s extensive history, Scapa Flow is worth mentioning. In World War I and World War II, Scapa Flow was a crucial base for the British Royal Navy, leveraging its natural deep-sea anchorage and strategic location.

    During WWI, the entire German High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow after the Armistice in 1918, but the German sailors strategically scuttled (deliberately sank) their ships after months of planning to prevent the ships from being controlled by the British Navy. While some vessels were salvaged, others remain as evocative wrecks, attracting divers and tour boats.

    During WWII, the base was again pivotal. The sinking of the HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat in 1939, resulting in the loss of over 800 lives, prompted the construction of the Churchill Barriers, which enhanced defences and connected South Ronaldsay to Mainland Orkney and Burray.

    The Churchill Barriers and further defences were primarily built by Italian Prisoners of War, who also built what is now known as the Italian Chapel, a chapel built out of found materials and a Nissan hut.

    Scapa Flow on Google Maps

    Orkney's Wildlife

    Orkney’s wildlife thrives in its diverse and often rugged landscapes, offering a habitat for a wide array of species both on land and at sea. The archipelago’s coastal cliffs provide nesting sites for numerous seabird species, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes. These cliffs are bustling breeding grounds during the summer months, with the air filled with the calls of seabirds as they tend to their nests and young. Offshore, the waters surrounding Orkney are home to seals, dolphins, and porpoises, often spotted playing in the waves or hunting for fish.

    Inland, Orkney’s moorlands, heathlands, and wetlands support a variety of terrestrial wildlife. Red deer roam the hillsides, while smaller mammals such as otters, hedgehogs, and brown hares inhabit the grassy plains and coastal marshes. Orkney’s freshwater lochs and rivers are teeming with life, hosting populations of salmon, trout, and freshwater birds such as ducks, swans, and grebes. The islands’ mild maritime climate and relatively low human population density contribute to the preservation of its natural habitats, making Orkney a haven for wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists alike. Efforts to protect and manage these ecosystems ensure that Orkney’s wildlife continues to thrive in this unique island environment. Thirteen nature reserves are dotted around the archipelago, where birdlife plays a particular highlight.

    Orkney Wildlife

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    Orkney Weather

    Sitting at a similar latitude to Anchorage in Alaska, Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki in Finland and St Petersburg in Russia, the climate of the Orkney Isles is temperate. Influenced by the North Atlantic Drift, the winters are relatively mild and the summers cool. The islands experience less extreme temperatures compared to it’s latitudinal neighbours. Despite having wet winters, the archipelago sees relatively little snow during the cold months.

    One thing to remember is that Orkney’s exposed position means that the weather can shift swiftly, even for Scotland.

    Learn More About Scotland’s Climate

    Spring

    Spring weather is mild, but the days are lengthening and consistently drier. The landscape is buzzing with life and colour, with flowers blooming and bustling wildlife.

    Find out more

    Summer

    Summer promises long days, pleasant temperatures, and festivals galore. The countryside transitions from vibrant green to breath-taking purple as the heather blooms.

    Find out more

    Autumn

    Autumn is a time of colourful landscapes and glowing skies. Witness some of Scotland’s most exciting wildlife spectacles and taste flavours unique to our autumn months.

    Find out more

    Winter

    If the conditions are right, Scottish winters are the epitome of ‘winter wonderland’. Crunchy snow underneath your boots, sparkly fields, and the most beautiful night skies.

    Find out more

    Exploring the Orkney Islands

    Orkney seems to have been crafted for adventure. With smooth domed hills that allow you to gaze across the archipelago and sandy beaches to enjoy, the views are second to none on a calm day.

    Perhaps more dramatic is when the wind picks up, and the sea begins to heave and beat against the sandy shores and rugged cliffs. Some of the islands’ most impressive walks skirt the tops of sea cliffs, and the crash of waves is an inspiring rumble. You’re never far from the ocean here, and it pays to keep in mind how strong its currents can be. Stand in awe at the top of those cliffs and gaze across the water. You may spot orcas or seals hunting in these rich waters, and the sea has an inherent draw to it which is difficult to escape.

    Orkney also enjoys smooth roads across its islands, which are perfect for cycling. With little traffic and plentiful passing places, a cycler can lose themselves in the wilderness before returning to a hospitable village for a cosy dinner. This is especially enjoyable on an E-bike, as you’ll want to be well rested and indulge in the islands’ history and cultural hotspots.

    Videos of Orkney

    Immerse yourself for a moment in the raw beauty of the Orkney Isles as Wilderness Guide Andy Heald tells you more about the fascinating culture, history, and unique landscapes of the island group.

    With an expert Wilderness guide, discover the elemental, wild beauty of Orkney by E-bike. On a 6 day adventure, enjoy exploring the purity of a landscape made up of fertile fields, plunging cliffs, and boundless, iridescent skies.

    Orkney's Inhabitants, Orcadians

    Orkney is an exciting crossing of Scandinavian and Scottish cultures. One trait which both people share is a deep sense of heritage and community. That means that in many of the pubs across the islands, you’ll find fiddlers and musicians of all sorts playing together. Music has been at the heart of island culture for centuries, particularly with the impact of the cold winter nights which hit hard this far north. There’s a strong tradition of players coming together to play common songs or improvise a new tune. Everyone knows their place in the melody, and it’s a beautiful thing to see a crowd enraptured by the sound of instruments filling the room.

    The northern location and exposure of the Orkney Isles create a dynamic, ever-changing weather pattern that adds to the islands’ rugged charm. While conditions can shift quickly, the warm hospitality of the Orcadian people is a constant. Generations of islanders have developed a deep sense of community, always ready to welcome visitors with a cosy hearth, a warm drink, and friendly conversation. You’ll find that making new friends happens naturally as you share stories and experiences in the fresh island air.

    The islands also proudly maintain their unique accent, and you’ll often hear a Scots turn of phrase. Even within Scots, though, insular populations are a little bit distinctive. Orcadians share many of their words and phrases with the people of Shetland, and there’s small wonder, considering their relative closeness and shared Scandinavian heritage.

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