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.
From April to October, your ticket to Skara Brae also provides access to Skaill House, the finest 17th Century house in Orkney, and only a short walk away. A preserved family home with a variety of items collected since the 17th Century on show, it makes an interesting stop. Oh and I should probably mention it is said to be haunted although I was assured all the ghosts are friendly!
A quick stop to admire the drama of the Yesnaby Cliffs and I was amazed when Clive informed us they had once formed the beach of a lake 380 million years ago. I was also a bit disconcerted when he warned us that it has been known for 90 ft waves to sweep over the 80 ft cliffs and I may have taken a few steps back at that point!
Ring of Brodgar
A dream for any Outlander fan as was evident by the North American lady having her photograph taken in a Claire pose on our arrival and sharing her dismay at not being catapulted back in time, the Ring of Brodgar is about as impressive as stone circles get. Estimated to have been constructed around 2000 to 2500 BC, it has been drawing visitors for a very long time, with the first recorded written account dating back to the early 16th Century. The third largest stone circle in the UK, there are 36 surviving stones, some of which had fallen and have since been up-righted in what is believed to be their original position although it is thought the circle once comprised as many as 60 stones. This enigmatic site has never been excavated and many of its secrets have yet to be discovered. Be warned that this is a busy spot during the day and thanks to Clive's local knowledge our visit was timed so we could explore between coach drop offs and as we left a stream of people were making their way from the car park. Visit early morning or late evening to increase your chances of having the place to yourself.
A Druid celebration to mark the summer solstice was scheduled to take place here at 3am on my last day on Orkney and as much as I would loved to have attended, I'm afraid lack of sleep and a 6 hour drive home would not have been a good combination!
Standing Stones of Stenness
Just along the road from the Ring of Brodgar are the larger Standing Stones of Stenness which date back to at least 3000 BC, making them part of one of the earliest stone circles in Britain. Only a few of the estimated 12 original stones remain, a couple of which were destroyed or toppled over by an angry Captain Mackay in 1814, fed up with visitors crossing his land to see them. Needless to say his actions along with the fact he was already a disliked incomer to the island (ferrylouper) led to some Orcadian summary justice and I'm not sure I want to discover what that involves!
Sometimes it feels like you are literally tripping over archaeology in Orkney and just next to the Standing Stones of Stenness is the Barnhouse Settlement, only discovered in 1984 and although nowhere nearly as impressive as Skara Brae, it is worth visiting if you're in the area.
It is amazing to think that big archaeological sites are still being discovered on Orkney, with the prehistoric Ness of Brodgar complex currently being excavated.
I really enjoyed my introduction to Orkney with my guide Clive and on top of all the fascinating history I also came away with some random facts like the A962 in Kirkwall is Britain's shortest 'A' road and Halston terminal just outside Kirkwall is Scotland’s longest deep-water commercial berth which partly explains why Orkney is booming as a cruise ship destination. If you are just visiting Orkney for the day or like me would prefer to let a local expert guide you around, I highly recommend joining one of the Wildabout Orkney tours.
3 Day Orkney Travel Itinerary - Day 2
Highland Park Distillery
There are two whisky distilleries on Orkney; Scapa and Highland Park. Without time to visit both, I opted for Highland Park and their rather special Magnus Eunson Tour which includes a tutored nosing and tasting of 7 of their whiskies (yes, 7 whiskies!). This is a tour that tends to attract whisky aficionados as it is more exclusive and in-depth although there are a range of tours to suit everyone.
I was joined by 5 friends from Germany who were part of a whisky club and I am sure they were amused at the lone Scottish lady in their group! After the standard behind the scenes tour, the real fun began when the drams were served and while I struggled to finish 7 whiskies at the fear of falling over, my new German friends were even more amused by my poor drinking form as they sat with empty glasses, informing me that they had already enjoyed a Highland Park with their breakfast. Despite my low tolerance for large amounts of Scotch, I do really enjoy the opportunity to try lots of different bottlings at once as you can really taste the difference in each malt and I was a bit dismayed to discover my favourite turned out to be the Highland Park 30 year old which is several hundred pounds out my budget, typical!
I left my new German friends sampling another whisky in the visitor centre and was perhaps not surprised to cross their paths again a couple of hours later at a pub in Kirkwall, this time sampling the local beer, they were certainly doing their bit for the local economy!
The Orkney Museum
After a strong cup of tea I was ready to explore again, although thanks to the whisky my investigations were limited to within walking distance of Kirkwall. I decided to pay a visit to The Orkney Museum and made the mistake of getting there near closing time as I had wrongly assumed the museum was quite small and could be covered quickly. It turned out to be a tardis of floors and rooms with collections and relics dating back 5000 years including finds from many of the famous archaeological sites, right up to collections from modern social history. I ended up feeling like I rushed around to see everything so don't make the mistake I did and give yourself plenty of time to explore this free wee gem of a museum. Don't forget to give the pretty Tankerness Garden around the back a look too.
St Magnus Festival - Saltfishforty
The highlight show of the festival for me was a performance by Saltfishforty and I spent the night tapping my toes in the stunning surroundings of St Magnus Cathedral. I'm so glad I discovered this Orkney act and I've already been checking out more of their stuff since getting back home, I suggest you do too.
Sunset & Simmer Dim
As I walked back to my hotel I was just in time to catch the most beautiful sunset so I sat myself down at the harbour and wished the day would never end. The air was still, feint music and laughter drifted from the nearby pubs and I just kept thinking how lucky I was to get opportunities to visit places like this, it was such a perfect end to a perfect day and I knew at that moment I had fallen for Orkney in a big way. At this time of year it never gets truly dark in this part of the world, with a period of extended twilight known as simmer dim. Sitting after sunset it was still strangely light and I sat hypnotised by the moon's glassy reflection on the water before finally dragging myself away for some much needed sleep.
3 Day Orkney Travel Itinerary - Day 3
Skate Rumple Orkney Alpacas
While sitting on the ferry to Orkney I was flicking through the free and local Islander magazine (be sure to pick one up as it is packed with ideas and info) when my attention was captured by a little advert for Skate Rumple, 'meet and feed our alpacas and other animals' and if I wasn't already sold 'coffee and cake included' sealed the deal. I immediately booked my tour and when the owners Mandy and Nick told me I could help brush the pigs too, I could barely contain my excitement, forget world class heritage sites, I was all about the cute animals!
Mandy and Nick are the loveliest couple and didn't make me feel the least bit weird for turning up alone, bouncing with anticipation at meeting their fluffy family. Once I had assisted in making sure the animals were suitably groomed and fed, I sat with Mandy and Nick in their little gift shop come tea shed and shared delicious homemade cake and amusing stories about life as an island incomer, something we have in common. My visit to Skate Rumple was an unexpected highlight of the trip for me and I really can't recommend it highly enough, no matter what your age!
Tomb of the Eagles
I was recommended by several people to visit the Tomb of the Eagles and while the story of the tomb is interesting, personally I found the whole visitor centre experience unorganised and very disappointing for the money. I enjoyed the 1 mile walk from the visitor centre to the tomb which passes along some dramatic and fragile cliffs, although for those wanting to see inside the tomb, be prepared to crawl or lie on a wheeled board and pull yourself along the entrance. Truthfully, I would give this a miss if you are short on time, there are better sites and better value visitor experiences in my opinion.
Deerness, Burray & South Ronaldsay
As it was an absolutely gorgeous day, I spent a good part of it driving around Deerness, Burray and South Ronaldsay in awe of the striking blue, green and yellow colours of the Orkney midsummer landscape.
Blockships of Scapa Flow
Crossing the Churchill Barriers that link Mainland with the islands to the south, you can't miss the eerie rusting remains of boats sticking out the water on either side of the causeways. These blockships were deliberately sunk during the World Wars to prevent the Germans entering Scapa Flow although they proved to be ineffective when a German submarine managed to gain access in 1939 and subsequently sunk HMS Royal Oak, killing 834 men and boys. This led to the construction of the permanent Churchill Barriers using concrete blocks and the remaining vessels serve to remind people of a darker era in history. The boats are now frequently used as dive training sites.
In the evening I ventured from East Mainland to West Mainland and the parish of Birsay in the north. There is a lot to do in the area but I only had time to quickly visit the ruins of The Earl's Palace which dates back to the late 16th Century and was built by Lord Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland. I also had time to pop in to the St Magnus Church which stands on the site of a much older church built by Earl Throrfinn in 1064.
Final Morning - Still Exploring!
There's always time for some last minute history in Orkney and before catching my 11am ferry I managed one last site. The neolithic Unstan Cairn has several chambers which were found to contain human bones, flint tools and pottery bowls when it was excavated. The bowls found were of distinctive construction and became known as Unstan Ware. It's free to visit and as it's not one of the main attractions you are quite likely to have the place to yourself as I did.
Not wanting to waste a minute of my time on Orkney I also managed to squeeze in a quick walk around the quaint streets of Stromness before boarding the ferry almost exactly 36 hours after I had arrived.
At times the wind was strong enough to whip up the sand and strip several layers of skin off my face and I can't imagine what it would be like with little more than 4 hours proper daylight in the winter, but Orkney has so much going for it that it seems a small price to pay. Other than visiting Maeshowe (top tip, book in advance or you have no chance of getting on a tour!) I managed to cover everything I had planned to see on this visit and more.
I hope my 3 day Orkney travel itinerary has inspired you to visit this amazing destination for yourself. I may have only scratched the surface of this complex place but I'm already hatching a plan to return for a longer stay. Orkney, I'll see you in a *peedie while!
(*Peedie - Orkney dialect for small or little and my new favourite word!)
OTHER THINGS TO DO ON ORKNEY
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Disclaimer - I was invited to Orkney by VisitScotland and The St Magnus Festival, however as always all opinions and experiences are my own. For more ideas on things to do, check out the VisitScotland Orkney Destination page.
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