Orkney - Scotland's Remote and Remarkable Island Group

  • 01 of 08

    Northern Shores - Off Scotland, A Deserted Beach on Orkney

    Orkney Beach
    ••• Landfall on an Orkney Beach. ©Visit Orkney

     

    The North Atlantic Drift warms Orkney, making it a temperate, year round destination with a fascinating history, colorful wildlife and great seafood.

    Closer to Norway than to England, Orkney was the last holdout of the Vikings in the United Kingdom. They stayed until 1468. Before them, and reaching back to a mysterious past of at least 5,000 years, Stone Age communities lived, farmed and built houses on Orkney. You can still see the monuments they left behind.

    There are so many, in fact, that large tracts of the main island are included in a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Orkney's Neolithic Heartland. It includes:

    • two impressive stone circles
    • unexcavated mounds
    • a mysterious spiral chamber, Maeshowe, much older than the rude Viking graffitti that mars its walls
    • a 5,000 year old stone settlement, Skara Brae, with shelters that only needs roofs to be in move-in condition (well sort of)
    • and a massive ritual site that, in 2016 is still being excavated and revealing its secrets.

    Find Out More...MORE About Visiting Neolithic Orkney

     

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  • 02 of 08

    More Than Ancient Monuments

    Kirkwall Basin, Orkney Island, Scotland
    ••• What Orkney Islanders can't grow or catch must come by sea, keeping the Kirkwall Basin, in the islands' capital, a busy place. ©Visit Orkney

    Orkney is also a sophisticated island, popular with artists and artisans inspired by the islands' subtle colors, their dramatic and changing light and their melancholy beauty.

    All over the island, artists, craftspeople and artisans work in stone, oils, textiles, ceramics and precious metals creating contemporary work as well as traditional wicker furniture that is unique to the islands.

    It's a place to find music festivals, a small but perfect art gallery with a remarkable permanent collection and some of the best cold water fish and shellfish I've ever eaten.

    Even the beaches are unexpectedly lovely. The North Atlantic Drift -- the last remnants of the Gulf Stream -- wash Orkney shores making them water warmer than you might expect at the 59th parallel, at the top of Scotland. Still too cold for swimming without a wet suit though.

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  • 03 of 08

    St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney's Capital

    St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney
    ••• St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. ©Visit Orkney

    St. Magnus Cathedral, one of the smallest cathedrals in the United Kingdom, was begun in 1137 to honor a martyred Viking Earl.

    Built of local red and yellow sandstone, the cathedral was built by Norse Earl Rognvald to honor his uncle, Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney. Magnus was martyred by a rival on the island of Egilsay. His remains, as well as his nephew Rognvald's are buried in the church which is known for its medieval grave markers and early stained glass.

    Unusually, St. Magnus Cathedral belongs to the City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall and has never been church property.

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  • 04 of 08

    The Kirkwall Fishing Fleet

    On Kirkwall Pier, Orkney
    ••• Mending the nets on Kirwall Pier. ©Visit Orkney

    Cold, deep North Atlantic waters supply Orkney with a steady supply of some of the best seafood and shellfish in Europe. The archipelago's fishing fleet, based in Kirkwall, stays busy year round, bringing the islands an exceptional variety of fresh seafood. The scene on Kirkwall Pier, as fishermen mend and sort their nets, probably hasn't changed much in a hundred years.

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  • 05 of 08

    Stromness Harbour

    Stromness Harbour, Orkney Island, Scotland
    ••• Stromness Harbour, Orkney Island, Scotland. ©Visit Orkney

    Stromness, Orkney's second town, is younger than thousand-year-old Kirkwall.  Its picturesque, tight stone-paved streets climb up a hill known as Brinkie's Brae, sheltering pedestrians from the gusty winds of Orkney.

    Stromness flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was a main recruitment center for the Hudson Bay Company. It still has strong connections with the families of emigrés who headed west to make their fortunes in Canada. The port, around a bay known by its Norse name, Hamnavoe, is the first stop for the ferry service from Scrabster in Scotland.

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  • 06 of 08

    The Pier Art Centre

    Stromness Harbour, Orkney, Scotland
    ••• Pier Art Centre, on Stromness Harbour, Orkney, Scotland. ©Visit Orkney

    The Pier Art Centre, in a historic stone building overlooking Stromness Harbour, houses a remarkable collection including work by St. Ives artists Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Recently expanded with an infusion of National Lottery funds, the Centre is a hub for Orkney's significant art community. 

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  • 07 of 08

    Making Orkney Chairs

    Traditional Orkney chairmaking
    ••• Orkney chairs are made to commission and shipped all over the world. ©Visit Orkney

    The making of Orkney chairs is a traditional island craft. Frames were originally created from driftwood, there being few trees on Orkney. Today they are usually made of fine hardwoods, although the occasional find of driftwood can still be used. The backs of these distinctive chairs are woven from rope that is hand made from white oat straw.

    There are several specialist chair makers on the island, clustered around Kirkwall. While you are on Orkney, you can arrange a visit to see how the chairs are made and, perhaps, order one custom fitted to your own measurements. Check out Scapa Crafts, The Orkney Furniture Maker or Orkney Handcrafted Furniture.

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  • 08 of 08

    The Broch of Gurness

    The Broch of Gurness is the best preserved Broch in Orkney, Scotland, UK
    ••• The Broch of Gurness, a 2,000 year old tower and village is young by Orkney standards. Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

    Some of Orkney's ancient monuments are more than 5,000 years old and, together make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Neolithic Heart of Orkney

    In comparison, the Broch of Gurness, pictured here, is a relative stripling, dating from between 100 and 200 B.C. The foundations of a defensive tower and a settlement around it were probably occupied by Vikings and, before them, the almost mythological Scottish tribe, the Picts.

    There is a lot more to see and explore, from stone circles and mysterious cairns to post millennial excavations that seem to be the largest neolithic ritual center ever uncovered in Europe.

    Find out what else there is to see and do in Orkney