Scotland travel guide: Orkney Islands
Where are the Orkney Islands you say? Good question so if anyone knows their geography, the islands lay just north-east of Scotland’s northern coastline. The islands are not too touristy and are fantastic to explore by car. I managed to check out the islands while doing a road trip around Scotland and I would have to say, the Orkney Islands excited me and I came away full of knowledge I didn’t have. The islands have some of the finest archaeological sites in Europe, it has a Neolithic and Viking past and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I arrived at the port of Stromness and drove all around the main islands of ‘South Ronaldsay’, ‘Burray’ and of course ‘Mainland’. The Orkney Islands have many other islands and lots of coastline to explore but most of the sights can be found on these islands and here is my guide for anyone doing a road trip here. (Tip: visitors can go by boat as a foot passenger or fly into Kirkwall, the main town from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness but public transport doesn’t run often up here and if on a short amount of time, then walking from A to B will take a while).
The main port for passengers to come into is Stromness. It is a lovely little seatown with a few places of accommodation and a great fish and chips restaurant on one of the back streets.
On the western side of the island the first site I checked out (and one of the biggest) was Skara Brae which lays on the southern shores of the Bay o’Skaill. This Neolithic village was found after a great storm battered the islands back in 1850 which to be honest, storms are a common place up here. However this time the extremely high tides and strong winds ripped up a lot of grass from a large mound. This revealed the tops of stone buildings and the landowner wanted to know more about what lies beneath. This relieved four ancient houses and after that work at the site was abandoned. It wasn’t until the late 1920s when more work was done at the site and more buildings were found underneath.
The history from this site is very interesting. During the 1930s, researchers thought that the village would be dating back from the Iron Age (around 500BC) but then years later on further research that the settlement found here dates back to the late Neolithic, around 3200BC and 2200BC.
I had a great time walking above the eight dwellings which are linked about a series of covered passages. It was great to see how life was back in the past because luckily due to the location of the site, the protection of the sand that covered this area for nearly 4,000 years, the contents, the buildings, are all very well-preserved. The roofs of the passageways are still preserved with their original stone labs, the walls are still standing, Each house I noticed had the same basic design, there is a large square room with a fireplace, a bed to the side of it and a doorway (of course). Exploring this area gave me a real glimpse of what home life was truly like whilst looking over the bay and pretending to see the men trying to fish during the summer months.
On the way to the next historical site, roadtrippers must visit the village of Twatt. This probably means something totally different around here but in English slang, this means ‘complete idiot!’ It is a hard place to find if there is no GPS to hand as someone keeps taking away the village signs. I managed to find one however at a nearby road junction.
The Mainland of Orkney Islands
On the northern coastline of the island there is a site called The Broch of Gurness which is an Iron Age broch village and used to house a substantial community between 500 and 200BC. Walking into the heart of the settlement there is a beautiful stone tower (also called a ‘broch’) whilst all around remains of other structures lie visible. I had the unfortunate worst timing ever to explore this settlement as a storm came over and the area is quite open. There was no where to stay dry at this point and after walking around the boggy grounds, I came away plastered in mud and wet. One word of advice, take extra clothes and maybe another pair of shoes.
Heading south and to the centre of the Western Mainland there is the Ring of Brodgar to check out. This site is also part of the Neolithic heritage and is a stone circle and is one of a few in the United Kingdom (the others being Stonehenge and Avebury to name a few). Whilst walking around here (and comparing these to other sites), the Ring of Brodgar does not have any stones inside the circle. I found out afterwards that archaeologists have never checked the interior of the circle so there could be a possibly that wooden structures may have been present. However what I love the most is the view over the two lochs (surrounding the ring from the west and the east) and giving the landscape a horror feel.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Ring of Brodgar is the Standing Stones of Stenness which like all the other sites, is Neolithic. Researches think this maybe the oldest henge site in the British Isles (for those who don’t know what a ‘henge’ is, please look it up. If I wrote it, this post would be very long and boring). Whilst walking around the field with these amazing stones, just mind the sheep poo on the ground.
One of the top ancient ruins on the island I came across was Maeshowe which is a Neolithic chambered cairn and a grave which was built around 2800BC. I managed to get myself on a tour of the mound (which starts at the building on the main road opposite the mound) which includes a visit inside. Here the tour guide explains about the history but what burnt my ears was the fact this settlement has Viking history (I won’t say the whole story, I be here forever again). Then the tour guide surprised me even more to show graffiti done by our Nordic friends. This place is truly amazing and I highly recommend everyone to get on this tour.
Whilst driving around the country lanes where there was not a soul to be seen (I seen more cowes in the fields than cars) I came across the village of Orphir which became the place of power during the Viking era however there is not much to show for that era apart from it has the location of Scotland’s only surviving circular medieval church which was built around the 12th century. Behind the church are fantastic views over the bay and can understand why the Vikings built base here because it was easy to pull up the ships to the shore.
I managed to do the Western side of the mainland in one day and finished with an evening looking at the sunset over the islands before heading back to Stromness for fish and chips. The second day I checked out the Eastern side of the mainland and headed south to the small islands and South Ronaldsay. My recommendation is (especially if staying in Stromness or Kirkwall) is to do the long drive to the southern tip of South Ronaldsay island and backtrack to all the sites that way.
Another amazing place to check out in the Orkney Islands is the Tomb of Eagles which is a Neolithic (again) chambered tomb which is located on a cliff edge. Inside this tomb there were 16,000 human bones found and about 725 from birds. Most of the birds bones found belonged to the white-tailed sea eagle and there were up to twenty different types of these. The tomb entrance is through a narrow small tunnel where visitors have to lay themselves on a trolley and pull on the rope to get inside. Around the tomb the scenery is quite spectacular with the rugged coastline, sharp drop of the cliffs and the rolling fields on top. This area is ideal for hiking and birdwatching.
Heading back towards Kirkwall on the small island of Lamb Holm, there is the Italian Chapel to check out. This Catholic place of worship was built in the Second World War by Italian prisoners of war who got caught by the British and were sent to the Orkney Islands (Unlucky buggers). Not only they built this chapel but they also built the nearby Churchill Barriers which were part of the navy defensive system but are now used as road bridges to get across from one island to the other. Walking around this area is so peaceful, staring out to sea and not a soul in sight.
Entering Kirkwall from the south the first place to check out has to be Highland Park distillery which is a great place to do a tour. The company is known for making one of the best spirits in the world, the single malt Scottish whisky. Now I am not a huge whisky fan but I did learn a lot about how they make it up here and managed to try some and nearly burnt my throat.
In the centre of the capital of the Orkney Islands, the city is actually quite small. A good shopping street, a nice harbour to look at and see all the pretty boats but the highlight has to be the huge St Magnus Cathedral which dominates Kirkwall skyline. With its Romanesque architecture, the cathedral is the most northerly in the United Kingdom and is the only cathedral not owned by the Church of England but by the Burgh of Kirkwall (something to do with the Royal Family and started with King James III of Scotland when Orkney buggered off out of the Scottish Crown in the 15th century. The locals up here must of hated Scotland at the time but they now very happy to be part of the same union again.
Also because of the bad days the cathedral has a dungeon but I don’t think it was used in the end because nothing happened. Apart from that, bugger all happens here and finding a car parking space can be very hard (but when I was here I did pay about 30p an hour which is nearly £2 cheaper than most towns in England and £17 pound cheaper than London!).
My tour of the Orkney Islands came to the end but I absolutely loved driving around the winding country lanes, the long straight main roads and wherever I looked out of the window, I could see the sea in all directions. It also felt weird that I was nearer to Norway than London and for the first time ever in my home country, I felt miles away from home, from civilisation and the weird feeling continued as there were no trees to be seen because of the wind (and this blows away the seeds so no trees ever grow here). Would I come back, for sure I would but there is another set of islands just north of here which has caught my eyes, the Shetlands.