This post is part of a paid partnership with Destination Orkney as part of VisitScotland's Year of Stories
It is hard to know where to start when it comes to peeling back the layers of stories embedded in the Orkney Islands. You could begin around 6 millennia ago, when Neolithic people first arrived, erecting the unwieldy standing stones and atmospheric tombs that Orkney has become so famous for. Or you could fast forward to the 8th century when the Vikings settled in Orkney, leaving a strong Norse legacy that can still be found in everything from place names to 21st century jewellery designs. Any Orkney story would also have to include the rusting blockships, concrete defences and ornate Italian Chapel that witnessed wartime activity in Scapa Flow, or head back even further to the geological landscape formed hundreds of millions of years ago.
This is just a snapshot of the various people and events that have shaped the story of Orkney but the narrative of these islands doesn't end there. From renewables to artisans, and festivals to fishermen, Orkney's story is constantly evolving. If you are inspired to create your own island story, you will find lots of ideas and tips in this blog post.
The Orkney Islands are located off the north coast of Scotland and along with Shetland, form part of the Northern Isles. Often just shortened to Orkney (not the Orkneys!) ,the archipelago is made up of around 70 islands although most are uninhabited.
The islands are home to over 22,000 people with the majority of the population residing in the island of Mainland (not to be confused with the Scottish mainland), which is home to the main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness. There are a number of other populated islands including Burray, Eday, Egilsay, Flotta, Graemsay, Hoy, North Ronaldsay, Papa Westray, Rousay, Sanday, Shapinsay, South Ronaldsay, Stronsay, Westray and Wyre.
Island hopping is easy thanks to inter-island ferries and planes. You can even take the shortest scheduled flight in the world between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray which takes less than 2 minutes from take off to landing. I've done this myself and it is definitely a unique experience.
How to get to Orkney
There are two main ferry companies that travel to Orkney -
Pentland Ferries travels from Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope
NorthLink Ferries travels from Scrabster to Stromness and from Aberdeen to Kirkwall
In the summer there is also a foot passenger ferry from John O'Groats
Loganair runs regular scheduled flights to Kirkwall Airport from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.
GETTING AROUND ORKNEY
Public transport is quite limited so a car will open up more options. If you prefer not to drive, Stagecoach runs a limited bus service on Mainland and to some attractions.
Both Orkney Ferries and Loganair provide island-hopping options within Orkney by plane and ferry.
Uncover thousands of years of stories - Things to do in Orkney
You could easily spend weeks or even months touring around the Orkney Islands but no matter how long you have to spare, you are probably wondering where to even start when there is so much to see and do. I recently spent three days unravelling some of the stories that have made Orkney one of the most unique and interesting places to visit in Scotland and I've listed everything I got up to below to give you some inspiration.
If you only have a few days to spare then you might want to follow in my footsteps. If you have longer to explore you can use my itinerary as a starting point and add in some of my other suggested things to do.
From local food and drink to Neolithic treasures and outdoor adventures, I've tried to include something for everyone.
Join a walking tour of Kirkwall
Joining a local guide on a walking tour is a great starting point when you want to get to know a place on a deeper level. I opted to do exactly that and met up with Brian Alexander from Kirkwall Walking Tours to learn some of the stories associated with Orkney's main town.
Brian is an Orcadian with a wealth of knowledge, not just about the history of Orkney but also about present day life in the islands. We met up at Kirkwall harbour where he shared some maritime history and the workings of the current fishing fleet before setting off for a meander around the historic town centre.
We stopped at various points of interest where Brian regaled me with tales of pirates, press gangs, saints, merchants, Vikings and even a famous tree. He also gave me a guided tour of the inside of St Magnus Cathedral, explaining its Norse origins and the background to some of the memorials within the building.
This was a really informative start to my 3 day trip and I left with a whole new appreciation of the significant history of Kirkwall and the Orkney Islands.
Sample some drams at Scapa Distillery
After a walk around town in the chilly winter wind, a whisky tasting session at Scapa Distillery seemed like the perfect way to warm up and as it was now officially afternoon, I felt it was a perfectly acceptable time to sample a few drams (or four to be precise!).
All whisky has its own story to tell, from the local ingredients that provide the unique flavour to the local artisans who oversee every part of the process, these Orcadian elements are encapsulated in every bottle of Scapa whisky.
Our host Maria put us to work nosing and tasting four very different bottlings, helping us to work out the tasting notes of each dram. With a bit of practice and guidance from Maria, picking up on the subtle notes became easier and of course the tasting part was pretty enjoyable! Don't worry if you are driving, you can still nose each glass and take the samples away to drink later.
I do enjoy my whisky and the tasting session really made me think more about the complexities of every dram and how to enhance my whisky drinking experience.
If this is an aspect of Orkney you would like to explore further, here is a list of other local distilleries and breweries that currently offer tours -
Discover local history at Orkney Museum
Orkney Museum in Kirkwall is one of those places you could visit multiple times and learn something new each visit as it is packed with artefacts and exhibits. I always recommend popping by the local museum when visiting a place as so many interesting stories are revealed that you would never discover otherwise.
Orkney Museum is a Tardis of floors and rooms filled with objects and relics dating back 5000 years, including finds from many of the famous archaeological sites, to collections from modern social history. One of my personal favourite exhibits is the display of items recovered from a Viking boat burial.
Discovered on the island of Sanday, the site was excavated in 1991 and the Viking burial that was revealed there has left many questions. Three bodies had been laid in a boat along with a number of significant and ornate artefacts which are on display in the museum, including a gilded brooch, a sword, gaming pieces and an eye-catching whalebone plaque that has been beautifully carved with dragon heads.
Be sure to give yourself enough time to explore the numerous floors as the building is bigger than you might think, although it is free to visit so you can easily return again if you missed anything on your first visit.
Go tomb-raiding on Rousay
Orkney is famed for its vast number of ancient monuments but most people gravitate to the best known ones which inevitably means they can get quite busy. I wanted to discover some of Orkney's earliest stories on this trip but opted to depart the crowds by booking the 30-minute journey with Orkney Ferries from Tingwall to the island of Rousay to explore some of the lesser-known historic sites.
Did you know the island of Rousay is actually nicknamed the 'Egypt of the North' as it boast over 150 ancient sites? On arrival I made my way to what is undoubtedly the most impressive Neolithic monument on Rousay, and I'd even go as far as saying in the entire Orkney Islands.
Midhowe Chambered Cairn is by far the biggest tomb I've ever explored, it is protected by a modern hangar with walkways over the structure so you can get a bird's eye view of the interior. Built around 5,400 years ago, the remains of 25 human skeletons were found inside, including those of two young children. There is something very atmospheric about this place and I had serious goosebumps.
A short walk away are the remains of Midhowe Broch which was at the centre of an Iron Age settlement between 200 BC and 100 AD. It sits in a spectacular part of the coastline where the waves crash off the rocks and I found myself frequently sprayed by the sea as I walked around.
Finally I visited Blackhammer Chambered Cairn and Taversöe Tuick Chambered Cairn which were both constructed about 5000 years ago. Before getting back on the ferry I also popped in to the Rousay Heritage Centre which is a great place to find out more about the island and would actually have been a good first stop.
I spent around 3.5 hours on the island but you could easily spend longer if you have the time as there is more to see. I also recommend you take a car as there are no public transport options and at the time of my visit there was nowhere to get lunch so I took a packed lunch with me, although there is a small shop if you do need extra supplies.
Visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney
When I mentioned above that most people gravitate to the same few ancient monuments, most of those can be found in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe, along with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites.
These attractions are busy for a reason - they are seriously impressive and fairly close together. With the time I had left after my visit to Rousay, I opted to keep up the ancient history theme and add a couple of stone circles into my day of prehistory. Being March, the peak visitor season hadn't kicked in yet so I was lucky enough to share this special setting with only a couple of other people.
I stopped by the Standing Stones of Stenness first, which date back to 3100 to 2900 BC, preceding the Ring of Brodgar by about 500 years. There are only four stones remaining of an oval-shaped setting that once consisted of up to 12 stones but the ones still standing are colossal in size so the site still feels impressive.
From there I walked to the Ring of Brodgar which is on a whole other scale. It is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles at 104 metres wide and was originally made up of 60 stones. In 1854 only 13 stones were recorded as standing, however since then some of them have been re-erected and there are now 27 upright stones. The site has never been properly excavated although it is believed construction took place around 2500 to 2000 BC.
I didn't have time to visit any of the other monuments in the area on this occasion but after spending time on Rousay earlier in the day, I felt I still had discovered some of Orkney's most sacred and special ancient stories.
If ancient history is of particular interest and you have more time, you might like to read my Orkney World Heritage Sites - 1 Day Itinerary
Explore the coast by sea kayak
Although there is plenty to keep you occupied on land in Orkney, it seems a shame to be surrounded by so much beautiful coastline and not view it from the water. Sea Kayak 59 Degrees North is run by experienced instructor, Kristian Cooper, and I was keen to join him on one of his guided sea kayaking tours.
This was only my second time kayaking and I was still suffering from beginner nerves but Kristian's experience and relaxed manner soon had me at ease. In what seemed like no time at all, he had talked me through some basic manoeuvres so I was paddling more efficiently and we had left the shore well behind us.
Kristian has an expert knowledge of the Orkney coast and will pick the best location depending on the weather and group experience. On my outing we headed for the blockships deliberately sunk to block the passages between the islands during WWI. It was an incredible experience to get up close to these rusting hulks of metal, something only possible from the water.
Kristian was able to tell me the history of each ship, along with pointing out wildlife and even identifying seabird calls as we glided across the turquoise water soaking up the warmth from the sun. I didn't just have great fun, I learned a few things too and really enjoyed our slow-paced sea adventure.
There are different sessions to suit experience levels and all equipment is provided. As nervous as I was beforehand, this was one of the highlights of my trip.
If you are interested in finding out more about Orkney's wartime history, I have put together this 1 day itinerary
Meander the historic streets of Stromness
I had a little spare time at the end of my trip so I decided to do something a bit different and let my Instagram followers vote on what I should do for my final activity. I gave the option of a scenic coastal walk or a meaner around the historic streets of Stromness, which you might have guessed by now was the winner.
Stromness is a town that has been shaped by the sea, with maritime history running through the veins of its winding, narrow streets. Sitting on the fringes of a natural harbour used by Picts and Vikings, increased trade with the New World played a large part in its rapid growth as a town in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Blue plaques adorn buildings of note, including the historic offices of the Hudson's Bay Company and the former Login's Inn which sits opposite Login's Well. Fresh water from the well was essential for ships embarking on, or returning from, long voyages across the Atlantic and the well was a popular supply stop. Reading the adjacent plaque gives you an idea of the notable ships that once passed through Stromness including Captain Cook's vessels, Resolution and Discovery, and Erebus and Terror, from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.
A statue of Orkney-born Arctic explorer John Rae stands guard over the harbour where fishing boats and ferries depart and arrive. Today Stromness is at the cutting edge of marine renewables, carrying on the town's maritime legacy into the future.
It is also home to a fantastic wee museum and independent shops and galleries selling the work of local artists and designers. Sitting in the sun by the harbour with a coffee and cake from Julia's Cafe, and stories of the sea whirling around my head, I couldn't think of a more perfect way to end my own Orkney chapter.
Have more time to spare? I've put together a guide with even more things to see and do in Stromness
or if you would have voted for a coastal walk you might prefer this itinerary
Where to eat in Orkney
Orkney has a fabulous larder of produce and many local restaurants make the most of the ingredients on their doorstep. Here are a few that I tried and I can recommend -
The Storehouse Restaurant with Rooms (this is also where I stayed) - The restaurant specialises in hand dived Orkney scallops so I had to order them for starters. They were served with a mouth-watering chorizo butter, lemon and chive crumb. I followed them with pan fried chicken breast, salt baked neep, cavolo nero, tarragon and mustard sauce. I wished I could fit in a second helping of both dishes as they were so delicious.
The Kirkwall Hotel - Another place that specialises in local produce, I had some yummy local fish and chips to start, the fish was melt in the mouth fresh, and I couldn't resist a cheeky wee Eton Mess for pudding as a treat.
Beiting and Brew - I picked up some lentil dahl and warm chapattis from Orkney Street Food - Beiting & Brew , the coolest street van in Orkney! Local produce is very much part of Orkney's story and these guys create some really imaginative dishes using local ingredients.
Where to stay in Orkney
The Storehouse Restaurant with Rooms
You know how much I love to share fab accommodation when I come across it and I definitely discovered an Orkney gem on this trip. I stayed at The Storehouse Restaurant with Rooms in Kirkwall which was originally built in 1880 for pork and herring curing, later run as a printworks, toy and newspaper store.
The building is now owned by local couple Judith Glue and David Spence who have transformed it into a stunning restaurant with rooms that retains many of the original features and oozes style and character.
There are 8 bedrooms, all uniquely designed by Judith and featuring artwork by her sister, Jane Glue, a well known Orcadian artist. I stayed in the 'Rackwick' room which was bursting with coastal colours and high attention to detail - everything has been thought of, from internal cupboard lighting to underfloor heating - it all felt very luxurious and I even had a wee balcony.
One of my favourite features was the wooden posts dating back to the 19th century from tall ships that wrecked off the shores of Orkney. Another couple of things I loved was the blown-up image of Rackwick Bay in the bathroom and the puffin bath toy, perfect for creating an Orcadian bath experience by the beach! Oh and there is a walk-in shower too so the best of both worlds.
Of course, the rooms are just one side of the story, The Storehouse also boasts a fabulous restaurant too. The historic dining area has received a funky 21st-century makeover while still retaining character and quite a few nods to local history - the food is some of the best I've eaten in Orkney. I also really appreciated that all the island food and drink suppliers were listed on the menu, confirming that the dishes have a real Orcadian provenance.
There was also a good choice of breakfasts - on my first morning I opted for a cooked breakfast but the following morning I was leaving early so the manager kindly arranged for a breakfast tray to be delivered to my room the night before so I could eat at my convenience. I didn't know what to expect but was seriously impressed when granola, mixed fruit, natural yoghurt, a pain au chocolat and fresh orange juice arrived at my door - all sealed to keep them fresh until the morning - that is what I call top service!
If you're planning a trip to Orkney put The Storehouse Restaurant with Rooms on your list of places to stay.
All of this is just a taster of things you could do on a trip to Orkney so I recommend you pop over to the Orkney.com website where you will discover many more local stories and useful resources for planning your trip.
I hope my latest Adventure Around Scotland has given you some inspiration
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