Anyone who knows me, knows that Orkney has been on my travel bucket-list for a very long time. Its fascination for me has much to do with the tapestry of archaeology, layers of preserved heritage and complex relationship history that have helped Orkney achieve an almost mythical status. Salty sea tales, mysterious folklore and ancestral tradition just add to the magic.
Orkney is an archipelago made up of approximately 70 islands and its position off the far north of Scotland on the same latitude as Oslo and Stockholm means that depending on what part of Scotland you live in, visiting generally requires a bit of planning as it can be more expensive and difficult to reach than some European countries. After an almost 6 hour non-stop drive from Glasgow to reach the ferry terminal at Scrabster I can testify to this! However, none of this should be a reason to put off your visit as there are also options to fly or catch a ferry from Aberdeen, it's just a case of planning the journey in a way that works best for you.
With a mere 36 hours to explore and 20 or so inhabited islands to choose from, I had to plan my visit wisely and decided to focus most of my time on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney islands. I managed to squeeze A LOT into my stay although there is also A LOT that I didn't manage to do, but I did have an absolutely amazing time so I thought I would share my 3 day Orkney travel itinerary to help you with planning your own trip.
3 Day Orkney Travel Itinerary - Day 1
I started my day on the 8:45 Northlink ferry from Scrabster to Stromness and the 90 minute journey across the Pentland Firth. I spent much of my time out on the windy deck, watching the seabirds bob and weave alongside us and kept my eyes peeled for some of the marine life that frequents the area, although sadly this time I wasn't rewarded for my perseverance. Even though the day was fairly calm, the boat rose and dipped as it traversed the swell of the waves and I can imagine that these exposed waters could provide a pretty bumpy ride if the weather was not on your side.
Before reaching Stromness, the ferry skirts around the fringes of Hoy, the second largest island in Orkney and most famous for its iconic sea stack affectionately named the Old Man of Hoy which inevitably convinces every virgin visitor to grab their cameras, rush out on deck and brave the exposed conditions to capture a few shaky snaps as the ferry lurches by. For me, an even bigger bonus was the towering cliffs of Hoy, rising dramatically into the clouds like a setting from Middle-earth, while the ferry Captain managed to sail surprisingly close to the tallest vertical cliff face in Britain at St John's Head, a maneuver no doubt perfected to wow the gawking passengers!
After my endurance drive the previous day, I was relieved to finally step ashore at Stromness, ditch the car and let someone else take the wheel for a while. I had booked a day tour with Wildabout Orkney and was very relieved to sit back and relax in the comfort of their executive touring vehicle while I soaked up the expert commentary from our guide Clive.
Their tours are ideal for day trippers to Orkney who want to maximise their visit by being personally guided around some of the most famous attractions and dropped off again in time for their return ferry. The tours vary slightly depending on the day of the week and I enjoyed their 'Treasures of Orkney' tour with the following itinerary.
The Italian Chapel
Our first stop was the beautiful Italian Chapel on the little island of Lamb Holm which is reached by a causeway originally designed to block access to Scapa Flow during WW2. The chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war brought to Orkney to assist with the construction of the concrete block barriers. It is hard not to feel emotional reflecting on the devotion and skill needed to produce this stunning sanctuary given the basic materials they had. A very special place that should be on every Orkney itinerary.
Next up was the highly impressive Skara Brae, a 5000 year old village uncovered by a storm in 1850 and now considered the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. Walking around you can peer in to the ancient homes complete with stone furniture and fittings, that's if you can take your eyes off the huge sweep of white sand and turquoise water of the neighbouring beach! The mounds around the site were actually created by rubbish thrown away by the inhabitants and if you look closely you will see little trenches that reveal piles of discarded shells. Older than the pyramids, the details of this site are simply mind blowing and its location is spectacular, this was by far my favourite archaeological attraction out of those I visited and again a must for any Orkney travel itinerary.
Lots of you have been in touch to say how useful my Outlander filming location blog posts have been in planning your Outlander inspired vacation to Scotland. I have been meaning to add more guides for a while but wanted to wait until Season 2 was well under way to prevent any spoilers! Also there are now so many filming locations in Scotland that it is hard to keep up but I'm trying my best and as I never want to write a blog post giving advice about a place I haven't personally visited it takes that bit longer to catch up...:-)
There will be more to come but in the meantime here are 7 more Outlander filming locations to add to your list.
1. Doune Castle
Doune Castle is one of the most visited Outlander filming locations in Scotland, with visitor numbers up a third since it was featured in the show as Castle Leoch, the seat of the Clan MacKenzie. Outlander is not this castle's only claim to fame as it was also featured as Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and starred in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.
Doune Castle is a great place to visit with lots of nooks and crannies to get lost in and I highly recommend taking the audio guide to make the most of your visit to this 14th Century fortification. The audio tour is narrated by Monty Python's Terry Jones and thanks to the interest in Outlander it now also features Sam Heughan, bonus! Once you have explored the interior, make sure you find your way to the battlements as the views over the River Teith and towards the Menteith Hills and Ben Lomond are worth the effort.
The nearest city to Doune Castle is Stirling which is a 20 minute drive away. You could easily spend a couple of hours here and if you are being selective about which Outlander filming locations to include in your trip to Scotland I would definitely recommend fitting in a visit here. It can easily be combined with a trip to Deanston Distillery which is a 5 minute drive away, see details below.
Doune Castle belongs to Historic Scotland and there is an admission charge to visit. If you are going to a few of their sites the costs can add up and I recommend investigating whether a membership would work out cheaper.
2. Deanston Distillery
Handily located a 5 minute drive from Doune Castle is Deanston Distillery and if you are in need of some whisky after your tour then you need to head here. I should add that it is also an Outlander filming location so a visit here for a dram or two is totally allowed and indeed encouraged!
The distillery warehouse was featured in Episode 1, Season 2 of Outlander as the warehouse in the French port of Le Havre where the Comte St Germain stores his wine shipment.
There are several tours available of this former cotton mill and if you would like to know more about the Scotch whisky making process, taking a tour and sampling the goods is an enjoyable education.
The distillery also features in a Scottish film called The Angel's Share (give it a watch!) and in the warehouse look out for a whisky cask signed by the cast of the movie.
The distillery shop is well stocked with whisky related gifts from scented candles to flavoured chocolates to bottles of the real thing. There is also a little coffee shop if you need a caffeine boost after all that touring and whisky!
3. Linlithgow Palace
Some of the scenes from Wentworth Prison might be ones that most Outlander fans would rather forget but the filming location of Linlithgow Palace is not the grim place that you might envisage. Yes, there are a few atmospherically dark rooms and corridors which were used in the prison scenes, but overall it is a rather majestic ruin that strongly alludes to its former status as a great Royal Palace and the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Climb the steps to the top of the building for superb views over Linlithgow Loch and towards the Forth bridges.
Again this is a location that I think should be included on any Outlander filming location itinerary. Linlithgow is a 40 minute drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow and can easily be reached by train from either city making it an ideal day out if you don't have a car. Like Doune Castle, this is another Historic Scotland property site and I recommend investigating membership which can be cheaper than paying individually if you plan on visiting a few of their properties.
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