Since moving to Orkney, I've found myself more and more interested in the Norse heritage of the islands. Unlike many other Scottish places connected with and ruled by the Vikings, it is hard to escape their legacy here.
I was excited to learn that a 1 day Orkney Viking itinerary had been put together by Destination Orkney which includes some of the most significant sites on Mainland. This seemed like the best way for me to start learning more about this era of local history so I set off on a beautiful autumnal Saturday to try the route out for myself. It turned out to be a pretty epic excursion which started on a tidal island and ended on a sea-stack, with a few top notch attractions in-between. It also transpired that visiting these sites outwith the popular summer tourism season meant I had almost every one to myself - result!
By the time I finished, I felt I had gained a much better understanding of the Norse settlers that colonised Orkney, which at one time held a central position in the Viking world. However, I also discovered that much is still unknown about them, including when exactly they arrived (probably the 8th century) and whether they arrived peacefully or took the land by force.
Whatever the answer to those questions, it is agreed that Norse culture and dominance quickly took over, and it was not until 1468 that Norse rule in Orkney formally came to an end. Today, evidence of their habitation can be found in structures, artefacts, place names and even the Orcadians themselves as DNA tests have shown a significant percentage of islanders have genes that can be traced to Norway.
It is hard not to be drawn in by this intriguing island heritage and if you want to find out more, the Orkney Viking itinerary is definitely a good introduction.
ABOUT THE ITINERARY AND MY ADVICE
The itinerary is one of several autumn and spring themed day trip ideas that are being introduced by Destination Orkney over the coming months as part of their 'See You at The Weekend' campaign. I'll be trying them all out so stay tuned for lots more Orkney inspiration from me.
If you intend on following the full Viking itinerary then I would advise some advance planning as you will need to take in to consideration tide times, booking tours and opening hours. Due to these variables it is unlikely that your route will be exactly the same order as mine.
The day is quite intense as there is a lot to do and see but if you're short on time and want to visit all the attractions mentioned then it is doable, just be prepared for a full day out.
Alternatively, you can select a few sites to visit and take your day a bit easier or if you have more time, spread the itinerary out over a couple of days and enjoy it at a more relaxed pace.
I've included a list of the locations below, with a map at the bottom of the page. I've also provided the approximate minimum time needed to visit (although you could spend much longer at most sites) and some helpful tips at the bottom of each attraction to make your Viking adventure planning as easy as possible - don't say I'm not good to you...
ORKNEY VIKING ITINERARY LOCATIONS
Brough of Birsay
TIME REQUIRED - MINIMUM 30 MINUTES TO VISIT THE ISLAND + ADDITIONAL 15 MINUTES IF YOU ARE ALSO PLANNING TO VISIT ST MAGNUS CHURCH
My day started off just after sunrise as I made my way across the tidal causeway to reach my first destination, the Brough of Birsay. Pink skies lit up the island ahead and as always I was full of excited anticipation at the thought of visiting somewhere new.
I actually wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived but I can honestly say the site surpassed my expectations and set a pretty high bar for the rest of the day. It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that the Brough of Birsay was a special place to explore. Archaeological excavations here have revealed that this tidal island was a place of power, first for the Picts from the 600s and later the Vikings, who arrived there in the 9th century and developed the Norse settlement over the next 300 years.
It is also thought to have been the home of Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, Orkney's most powerful Earl which would have made it a very important place. Earl Thorfinn was the grandson of Malcolm II, King of Scots, and during his lifetime in the 11th century he built a kingdom larger than any other Earl of Orkney.
The settlement is very clear to make out and I loved the fact you can walk around it so freely. Although it is mainly the foundations that are left, it felt pretty easy to imagine what it would have looked like. Standing within the living space of Viking houses gave me goosebumps as I imagined who might have called these buildings their home. Their lives almost felt within touching distance.
The remains of houses, a sauna, blacksmith's workshop and a significant church surrounded by monastic buildings have all been discovered here along with some fascinating artefacts that are now housed in Orkney Museum. With such a packed itinerary ahead, I couldn't linger here as long as I would have liked but it felt like the perfect introduction to Orkney Viking history.
Back on the mainland I took a walk along to St Magnus Church in the village of Birsay. There is still some debate as to whether this is located on the foundations of Christ's Kirk built by Earl Thorfinn in 1064. Although this is widely accepted view, others speculate that Christ's Kirk was located on the Brough of Birsay.
As Christ's Kirk or Christchurch, was the burial place of Earl Thorfinn and also the murdered Earl Magnus (later St Magnus), it plays an important role in Norse history. Pilgrims visiting the grave of Magnus told stories of 'heavenly lights and a strange fragrance'. Claims of visions and miracles led to him being declared a saint and his remains exhumed before later being interred in St Magnus Cathedral, which was built in his honour and on my 'to visit' list later in the day.
TIPS FOR VISITING
TIME REQUIRED - 90 MINUTES
Maeshowe is probably better associated with Neolithic rather than the Norse chapter of Orkney history. However it turns out this unassuming green mound is not only one of the finest Neolithic buildings to survive in North West Europe, it is also home to the largest collection of Viking runic inscriptions to survive outside Scandinavia.
The interior of the chambered tomb can only be visited on a guided tour which I had pre-booked, so I made my way to the Historic Scotland visitor centre and joined a small group of fellow sightseers. After a short bus journey and an easy walk, we bent over and shuffled our way along the gloomy passageway that leads in to the central chamber.
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.
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