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.
Do you ever get the urge to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life? To enjoy some respite from rushing around? To feel liberated from crowds of people, technological distractions, traffic jams and the general stresses that come with living in the modern world? Even if just for 24 hours?
As I jumped in the car to catch my first CalMac ferry of the day, I immediately felt the weight of the world rise off my shoulders as rapidly as the blazing sun was emerging on the horizon. This had to be a good omen for the weekend ahead and my own much needed 24 hour escape to the little Hebridean haven of Colonsay.
Heading off alone to a remote island with a population of only approx 135 hardy inhabitants is a very appealing prospect to me at the best of times; when the sun shines and the sky is a perfect blue, it offers the alluring promise of a peaceful paradise.
However, as is often the case in Scotland, it's just as much about the beauty of the journey as that of the destination. With three very different CalMac ferry crossings, through some of the most scenic west coast waters, I spent much of my time on deck breathing in the salty air and surveying the several other islands we passed by as seabirds glided effortlessly along the air currents before diving-bombing into the frothy waves below.
As my final ferry of the day reached Port Askaig for a quick stop-off I was able to enjoy a different view of Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain, two of the distilleries I had visited earlier in the year during a whisky tour of Islay.
Soon after departing Islay my GPS showed that we were fast approaching Colonsay and I excitedly peered ahead to catch my first glimpses of the island, with the distinctive point of the Lord Colonsay Monument visible on a hill top as we neared the ferry terminal at the main settlement of Scalasaig.
Driving off the ferry I was greeted by one of the locals who handed me a pack containing lots of information about the island. This was a first for me and I was highly impressed at both being personally welcomed and the initiative of providing tourists with local information to encourage them to make the most of their time during their stay. This is fantastic proactive approach to tourism from a small community and something which many places in Scotland could learn a thing or two from!
Between my welcome pack and pre-trip research, I had a pretty good idea of the things I wanted to do and see to make the most of my short stay on Colonsay. I may only have had just over 24 hours to enjoy my Hebridean freedom, however time seems to stretch when you embrace the slow pace of island life and I always find a minute standing immersed in rugged remoteness seems much more productive than an hour spent negotiating my usual never-ending to do list.
Luckily Colonsay is a small island and easy to explore by car or bike, with one main road circulating the sites. This was my first visit to this little strip of land, where free roaming sheep far outnumber the people and the next landmass after the craggy rocks and sandy beaches on the west coast is Canada.
This is how I chose to relax on the Isle of Colonsay...
After departing the ferry I made a quick stop at Colonsay Brewery before it closed for the weekend to pick up some gift packs to take home and I may have sneaked in an extra bottle for me to enjoy that evening! Well what better place to enjoy the local brew?
With just one road there wasn't too much risk of getting lost as I made my way to Colonsay House and my accommodation for the night. My short drive and first introduction to the island consisted mainly of a welcoming mass of white, woolly balls on legs. Lining the verges, congregating in fields, strolling towards me on the road and peering over hilltops, I was starting to wonder if sheep were the real rulers of this empire.
By the end of my trip I had developed a real fondness for my new fleecy friends.
Colonsay House and Gardens
Colonsay House dates from 1722 and the south wing has been converted into holiday apartments which is where I was spending the night. With a view overlooking the pretty gardens it would have been a shame not to visit and I had just enough time to quickly explore before they closed.
One thing I particularly wanted to see in the grounds of the house was the mysterious carved stone statue which stands next to a well dedicated to St Oran. It is believed to date from the 7th or 8th century with what is thought to be a head of Christ at the top and a fish tail at the bottom. The gardens are well worth visiting with lots of floral colour, butterflies and quirky objects.
WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
An hour by train from Glasgow Central and a 35 minute connecting ferry ride will bring you into the centre of Rothesay, the main town on the Isle of Bute.
A perfect day trip from Glasgow, this little Scottish island has plenty to offer and provides a pretty and peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. It may not have the mountains of Skye or the brightly painted houses of Mull but Bute has a charm all of it's own
Although a day won't be enough to take in all the history, wildlife and activities on offer it will certainly give you a flavour and a reason to return.
Bute is the little island oasis I currently call home and knowing all that it has to offer has made it difficult to narrow down a list of places you can visit in a day. I could easily have provided a week long itinerary but I feel that coming to an island should be about relaxation and I think my suggested things to do find a balance between visiting some interesting attractions and taking it at an easy pace. Hopefully you will leave feeling not only chilled out but with a little bit of knowledge about this historical Scottish island and a yearning to come back.
First stop should be The Discovery Centre in Rothesay, here you will find tourist information and a great free multi-media exhibition telling you a bit more about The Isle of Bute. It is only a few minutes walk from the ferry terminal and a fantastic introduction to the island.
Then take a stroll along the promenade and admire the beautiful flower displays, if the weather is nice why not enjoy a shot on the putting green and take a seat by the fountain. Admire the boats in the harbour and the views over the Firth of Clyde to the mainland.
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