Visit Orkney - a Quick Planning Guide

Scotland's Egypt of the North, where even the Vikings were Johnny-Come-Latelies

Ring Of Brodgar, Orkney
The ancient standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney. Martin McCarthy / Getty Images

Visit Orkney for the surprising and fascinating experience of what some archaeologists call the Egypt of the North.

Orkney is an archipelago of islands scattered, like a handful of pebbles tossed by a giant off the northernmost corner of Scotland. They are windswept and virtually treeless yet intensely green with a wild and lonely beauty.

Generations of seafarers, settlers and visitors have been attracted here to the edge of the world. The Vikings left their names, bits of their folklore and graffitti written in runes. But they were latecomers. The UNESCO World Heritage site that takes in most of the main island (called "the mainland" by Orcadians) protects Stone Age settlements and monuments that predate the Vikings by more than 4,000 years.

Happily for today's visitor - in search of wildlife, ancient and recent history, outdoor activities and a unique, Norse influenced culture - Orkney can be reached year round. It may take a bit more effort than hopping on a train but it is well worth it. And once there, you'll find plenty of comfortable places to stay, wonderful, fresh-from-the-sea cuisine, and lots of welcoming Orcadians. Use these resources to consider and plan a trip.

Will you like it?

It's a wild, windscoured place where human beings have come and go for millennia leaving little trace but lots of mysterious puzzles.Its villages seem more Scandinavian than British and they are few and far between. The salty tang of northern oceans is all around you.If you like exploring islands on the edge and find beauty in bleak northern landscapes, you will love it. Seeing is believing.

When is the best time to go?

There's something to be said for every season on Orkney:

  • If you like outdoor activities you'll appreciate the long Northern days of late spring and summer - Orcadians have midnight golf events in May!
  • On the other hand, Orkney's ancient monuments are less crowded and more dramatic in the wind and rain of winter. Winter is also when you might see The Merrie Dancers - Orcandian for the Aurora Borealis.
  • Autumn is a time for migrating birds.
  • In spring the sea birds nest on every available cliff, daffodils bloom in the gardens and the heather bursts into color.

Read more about Orkney weather then make up your own mind.

How to Get There

By Air

Flybe flies direct to Kirkwall Airport on the Orkney mainland from Aberdeen. Loganair, the Scottish airline, flies from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Manchester, Shetland, and Bergen, Norway. Flights from London, the USA or Ireland connect at Glasgow, Edinburgh or Manchester. Most direct flights are an hour or less though flights with connections can take three or four hours because of waits between legs of the journey.

By Sea

  • John O'Groats Ferries run short, passenger-only crossings from John O'Groats to the Ferry Port at Burwick. There is coach transfer from Burwick to Kirkwall, the island capital. The service runs twice a day in May and September and three times a day in June, July and August. The trip takes 40 minutes. Bicycles are carried free and there is car parking in John O'Groats.
  • Northlink Orkney & Shetland Ferries Sail year round between Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick in Shetland, and from Scrabster in Scotland to Stromness on Orkney. This is a large car ferry.
  • Pentland Ferries sail between Gills Bay in Caithness to St. Margaret's Hope, an hour long, sheltered route for passengers and vehicles. This service is aboard a fast and futuristic looking vessel.

Where to Stay in Orkney

Hotel accommodation in Orkney ranges from old fashioned and basic to small and very comfortable. You won't find luxury boutique hotels but there are lovely guest houses with views, restaurants with rooms and plenty of self catering and B&B accommodation.

We've enjoyed stays at:

  •  The Foveran, a lovely seafood restaurant with 8 cozy rooms, most with good views.
  • The Sands Hotel, a small hotel with six modern, en suite rooms and two suites on the shore at Burray, a small island connected to the Orkney mainland by a causeway.

Dining Out

Oysters, prawns, lobster, salmon, all kinds of fresh seafood -- what's not to like? And the island beef, seaweed-fed lamb, fresh berries, vegetables and local cheese are pretty special too. The restaurant scene on Orkney changes often. The Sands Hotel (see above) does very good scallops and fish. They can produce a lobster for you with 24 hours notice. The Foveran is essentially a restaurant with rooms so you can count on the day's catch, as well as local meat and vegetarian dishes done nicely. Your best bet is to ask the locals when you arrive. You may be surprised at the quality of the seafood and other dishes at unassuming looking little cafes in Kirkwall and Stromness.

Five Great Things to Do in Orkney

  • Dive a shipwreck Make a guided dive to one of the German WWI shipwrecks in Scapa Flow. Or stay on the surface and explore the bottom through a remote submersible.
  • Visit the Italian Chapel The church, built by Italian POWs during World War II, is a remarkable demonstration of faith in adversity and a must for visitors.
  • Discover Orkney's Neolithic heartland Orkney's UNESCO World Heritage designation has earned it the nickname The Egypt of the North.
  • Go whale watching You don't even have to go out in a boat to spot whales from Orkney's western shores.

Retail Therapy

You can't get very far from shopping anywhere these days. On Orkney the best goodies to take home are handmade by local craftspeople and designers. The islands attract craftspeople and artists from all over the United Kingdom who find inspiration in the archipelago's unique landscape and history. Expect to find locally made, beautiful ceramics, textiles, jewelry and wood products, much of which is sold in the shops of Kirkwall, Stromness, Dounby and St. Margaret's Hope.

The Orkney Craft Associations has put together the Orkney Craft Trail  , made up of 21 locations where you can visit craftspeople in their studios and workshops, watch them work and buy their handcrafted objects. 

Some we liked were:

  • Orkneyinga Silversmiths Jewelry and large silver objects. Open workshop from 10a.m. to 5p.m., Monday - Saturday, Easter through September.
  • Fluke Jewellery Birsay jewelry maker inspired by marine life and nature. Open workshop May through September, Monday - Friday, 11a.m. to 5p.m. Orkney telephone: 01856 721242
  • The Woolshed Handmade felt and knitwear from the fleece of the native, seaweed-eating, North Ronaldsay sheep. Natural wools for handknitters. Open workshop in Evie, April through September, Monday - Saturday, noon to 6p.m.; October to December, Saturdays, noon to 4p.m.Orkney telephone: 01856 751305
  • Fursbreck Pottery Andrew Appleby makes handcrafted pottery ranging from individual pieces to full dinner services in the village of Harray on Orkney. Thus he calls himself the "original Harray Potter". Recreations of ancient pottery styles. Open workshop April to Christmas, Monday-Saturday, 10a.m. to 6p.m. Sunday 2p.m. to 5:30p.m.
  • Scapa Crafts The makers of the unique and collectible traditional Orkney chairs, open from 10 a.m. to 5p.m., Monday to Friday, year round. Even if you aren't shopping for furniture, it's worth making a trip to their workshop to see these unusual chairs, made of wood and straw, take shape. There is almost always work in progress you can watch.

Annual Events Worth Knowing About

  • Orkney Folk Festival For more than 20 years, modern and traditional folk artists from all over the world have gathered in Orkney, for four days in May, for concerts, workshops, ceilidhs and stomps. Most events take place in Stromness but some are staged in rural areas and on the smaller islands. The next event is May 23 to 26, 2019.
  • The St. Magnus Festival Annual, midsummer festival of arts and music attracts world class performing artists. The festival includes drama, poetry, the visual arts, jazz, classical and contemporary music. Artists who have appeared in the past include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andre Previn, Evelyn Glennie and Juliam Bream. In 2018, the festival dates are 22 to 28 June.