A Guide to the Orkney Islands – An Introduction

guide to the Orkney Islands at sunset

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The Orkney Islands are a collection of 70 small islands, 20 of which are inhabited. They are located 16km north of mainland Scotland across one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the UK with the strongest tidal streams known as the Pentland Firth.

The main island is known as Mainland and has the city of Kirkwall in the east as well as the small town of Stromness in the south west. The islands surrounding Mainland are divided into three main areas – the North Isles, South Isles and the Pentland Skerries which lie between the Orkney Islands and mainland Scotland.

The islands have a long history from Neolithic times when it was inhabited at Skara Brae. In later times it played a key part of World War 1 and World War 2 as well as being the original home of the Hudson Bay Company.

With its wild location and Atlantic position the wildlife and landscapes in this exposed set of islands is unique. Whales and orca patrol the seas while seals haul out on the beaches and rocks. Otters make the lochs their homes and share with the myriad of birdlife. In the summer months gannets and puffins make the islands their home before heading back to sea for the winter months.

And if you are more of an armchair traveller, sit back and enjoy the galleries as you are transported to this unique collection of islands.

Visiting the Orkney Islands

Orkney is the perfect place to feel like you are in another country whilst still being in the UK. It is made up of a number of islands and each one has its own personality. Many of the islands are uninhabited, but are open to visitors a few days a year. Flights from Kirkwall on Mainland (the main island) take you to many of the islands and ferries leave from a number of small jetties to take you across to the islands. The ferries are the perfect way to explore especially if you have a car with you and have the time to plan your visit around the ferry times.
Even if your time on the islands are limited, there is more than enough to explore close to Kirkwall and there are a growing number of local guides to show you around the main sites on the islands. Some of the best places are hidden away, but an experienced guide will show you what you want to see. There are also tours from Inverness and Edinburgh which will show you more of the country on the way to the islands.

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Planning a Road Trip to Orkney

Orkney is the perfect destination for a road trip. It is great as a detour from the North Coast 500 route around the north of Scotland as well as an adventure in its own right.

Getting to Orkney

Bringing your own car over to Orkney is easy with three ferry routes operating from the north of Scotland. It is a personal decision on the ferry you choose, a long drive north and a short ferry or a short drive and longer potentially rougher ferry crossing.

  • Northlink from Scrabster to Stromness on the west of Mainland and is useful if you are exploring the west coast of the island. These run three times a day and really need booking to guarantee a space.
  • Pentland Ferries from Gills Bay to St Margarets Hope on South Ronaldsay about 40 minutes south of Kirkwall is slightly shorter.
  • An alternative option is the longer ferry from Aberdeen with Northlink. This comes into Kirkwall late at night and is a much longer crossing.
red and white ferry with grey sky in Scotland
The ferry from Gills Bay to St Margarets Hope leaves from a small terminal near John O’Groats

There are also flights to Kirkwall with LoganAir from a number of airports in Scotland with connections to the rest of the UK. This can save a lot of time, especially if you are happy to hire a car or only want to stay a short while. If you do fly into the islands then you will need to take a bus or taxi into Kirkwall unless you hire a car. It is a fair distance to walk!

Getting Around Orkney

Once on Orkney getting around is easy. The roads are well made up and mainly wide enough for two vehicles to pass. There is a good public transport network with regular buses and the roads are quiet enough to safely cycle. The weather can be unpredictable and the winds are pretty constant and strong even on a clear day. This can make cycling hard work and in some conditions dangerous.

There is one company that has hire cars on the island and these can be picked up from the airport. Vehicles are limited so booking is essential even in the low season.

Driving on Orkney

The roads around Orkney are all good. On some of the islands they are more of a track than a road but even these are well cared for. The main roads around the islands are all two lane but some of the smaller roads are single track. Take care on these and use the passing places. Don’t force others to back up to a passing place, if you aren’t keen on reversing wait in the passing place. Don’t use them as photo stops or picnic places. They are essential for the safety of everyone on the roads. Also remember that we drive on the left as you leave a single track road onto a main road or pull into a passing place.

One of the many single track roads on Orkney


If you do want to stop for a photograph find a safe place and then walk to your choice of location. There will always be a marked parking area near to viewpoints and landmarks so keep a look out for the official stopping place.

Staying on Orkney

Orkney has a large range of places to stay from larger hotels to small cottages and campsites. There really is no limit to the options available. If you want a really good central base then somewhere around Finstown on Mainland is a good place to start looking. However this is a short distance from beaches and main archeological sites or wildlife haunts. Further out west the accommodation is more secluded with beaches, wildlife and archaeology on your doorstep. If you plan to travel to the islands in the summer months booking ahead (a few months at least) is essential to get the location and price that you want.

FIND AIRBNB PLACES ON ORKNEY AND BOOK…

Weather on Orkney

So, this is a small island in the middle of the Atlantic! It isn’t difficult to figure out the weather here. You will see a bit of everything and usually all within the space of a few hours. When planning a trip to Orkney make sure you factor in the weather. A cliff top walk may be beautiful on a sunny day but in driving hail and winds it won’t be as much fun or as safe.

Sunset during a storm on the north west coast of Sanday


The winds on Orkney are strong and a calm day usually has a breeze at some point. Completely still days do happen and when they do it is a beautiful thing.
When packing for Orkney you need to ensure you have layers that can be added or removed with the mood of the weather. Waterproofs are an essential part of life as are wellies or walking boots. Every house has a ‘hot room’ for drying clothing off and I would recommend looking for accommodation that has a washing machine as you will probably need it! Hats and gloves make life pleasant even in the summer on colder days and I would NOT bother taking an umbrella. It will last less than a minute in the wind.

Orkney Mainland

This is the name given to the main island within Orkney and is the first place to visit for many people. It is divided into two halves east and west making planning and days out easier to plan.

East Mainland

This area of Orkney includes the capital Kirkwall with its beautiful red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral and associated Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace. This is the main hub of the islands with ferries to the islands in the north as well as being close to the airport. Even around Kirkwall there is wildlife and a walk along the quayside will result in seals watching from the water. Over the last few years an otter has been making the Peedie Sea between the sea front and the supermarkets its home. Not something you would see in many other places.

The ancient St Magnus Cathedral in the centre of Kirkwall

As soon as you head out beyond the airport East Mainland becomes wild again. The first area is Tankerness and this is a haven for wild birds and wildlife. This is one of my favourite spots for short eared owls. It is a large sheltered inlet that is protected from most of the weather making it a good adventure in bad weather.
There are a number of beautiful beaches including Newark Bay with its multi coloured pebbles and the wide sweeping Dingieshowe Beach reached over a large bank of sand dunes.
A short distance from Tankerness is Rerwick Head. This is an old gun battery used to protect the approaches to Kirkwall harbour. It is crumbling but the buildings are still intact along with the gun placements.

Gun battery at Rerwick Head near Tankerness

Once past Dingieshowe Beach which forms a sandy isthmus you are on the Deerness peninsula. This is where you will find the Gloup, a blowhole that can be seen from the clifftop path. If you are brave then there is a short walk down the cliffs to an ancient chapel now in ruins.
At the very end of Deerness is Mull Head with a World War One gunnery range and the Covenanters’ Memorial tower, erected to the memory of 200 religious prisoners who were shipwrecked in 1679. they were being transported to the American colonies and never made it.

West Mainland

This area of Orkney is rich in history and is where you will find many of the areas listed on the UNESCO listing for Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The stone circles at Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness stand proud against Stenness Loch and Harray Loch. A short distance away is the Bay of Skaill and Skara Brae, an almost intact neolithic village discovered in the 1850’s. There is also an old broch at Broch of Gurness, which whilst not Neolithic has certainly been in existence for a long period of time.

The Ring of Brodgar, part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO listing

READ MORE: Neolithic Orkney

To the north of West Mainland is the small village of Brisay with the ruined Earl’s Palace and tidal island, Brough of Birsay with its lighthouse. This is a great place to watch the sunset and wait for the northern lights to appear.
Between Bay of Skaill and Birsay is Marwick Head with a thriving seabird colony below the Kitchener Memorial on the cliff top. This remembers one of the biggest maritime disasters in the UK.

Marwick Head and Brough of Birsay on a stormy day from Yesnaby Cliffs


Further south are the stunning Yesnaby Cliffs and the solitary sea stack called Yesnaby Castle, a smaller version of the well known Old Man of Hoy on the island of Hoy.
The main town in the west of the mainland is Stromness. This small town is where the ferry from scrabster arrives and has a history rich in discovery with the Arctic voyages of John Rae departing from the town.

Stromness town as the ferry departs to Scrabster

READ MORE: A Walking Tour Around Stromness

South Isles

Churchill Barriers to south Ronaldsay

From East Mainland, a series of causeways jump from island to island. These are known as the Churchill Barriers and were built during the Second World War to prevent submarines from entering the natural harbour of Scapa Flow. Before the barriers were built, blockships were places in the narrow entrances to Scapa Flow. These are now slowly slipping into the ocean and being engulfed by the sand dunes.

Blockships near to the Churchill Barriers

Before reaching South Ronaldsay the road passes the unassuming Italian Chapel. Built by Italian prisoners of war during World War Two it is a beautiful display of their skills and passion.

The interior of the beautiful Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm

Once on South Ronaldsay the main road runs along the spine of the island with St Margarets Hope being the one and only large town that you will pass. This is where the Gills Bay ferry comes in to. Along the east coast there are a number of small beaches and coves that are reached along small lanes from the main road. On the most southerly tip of the island is the Tomb of Eagles, an unusual burial chamber with a unique access method.

Pentland Skerries and the Scottish Mainland from South Ronaldsay on a stormy day


From the southern end of South Ronaldsay views out across the Pentland Firth show the force of the tides in this narrow channel as well as the stunning hills and cliffs of the area around Duncansby Head and John O’Groats.

Hoy, Graemsay and Flotta

This small collection of islands are located south of Stromness and form the south west boundary of Scapa Flow. They are reached by ferry from Houton a pier just outside of Stromness. All the islands are quiet compared to mainland but still have a number of places to visit and photograph.

Low Hoy Lighthouse with the Hoy Hills behind


Hoy has a deep link to the military and the base at Lyness is now a museum. It is right by the ferry and makes the perfect car free day trip from Stromness. It tells the story of Scapa Flow and has has interactive exhibits as well as a fantastic display in the converted oil storage tank.

A still and calm Scapa Flow on a winter day


Beyond Lyness the island becomes hilly. Rackwick Bay on the west coast is beautiful with an old bothy. The beach has red sandstone pebbles and is the starting point for the walk to the Old Man of Hoy. He is an amazing sea stack that stands 137 metres proud of the shoreline. He is often climbed by those looking for an adrenaline rush and for those looking for a more sedate approach can be seen from the Scrabster to Stromness ferry.

The Old Man of Hoy sea stack off Hoy


At the south end of the island is Cantick Head with its lighthouse which you can book for a stay. Puffins can be found around the headland here.
Graemsay is a very sedate island with two lighthouses and can be walked in a few hours. In contrast Flotta is dominated by its oil terminal that glows through the night and never seems to rest.

North Isles

Rousay, Wyre, Eynhallow, Egilsay and Gairsay

These small islands are all located around the north coast of west Mainland. They can be reached by ferry from Tingwall, just outside Evie. Other than the ferry pier this is quite an isolated little spot.

One of the many neolithic burial chambers on Rousay

Rousay is perfect for a days road trip and has enough neolithic burial chambers and more recent brochs to keep you occupied. These are all open and free to access although some require a walk across fields following well trodden paths. Midhowe tomb and chambered cairn have been excavated and are protected from the elements by a large barn. Right next to the tomb and directly across the sound from the Broch of Gurness is Midhowe Broch. This is fairly intact and gives an impression of life in the remote corner of Orkney.

Midhowe Broch on Rousay in ruins

On the north side of Rousay is a beautiful beach. This is composed of fine golden sand with shallow beaches into the deep turquoise sea. Seals watch from the surf and fulmars can be seen on the thermals above the beach.
The other islands are all small and can be reached by ferry or private boat on specific days. Eynhallow is a special place linked to St Magnus and can only be visited a few days each year. These have their own share of archaeology and wildlife encounters to be found.

Eynhallow island from Midhowe Broch on Rousay

Westray and Papa Westray

Westray is the furthest north west of the Orkney islands and can be reached by a scheduled flight from Kirkwall or by ferry. It has a number of sandy beaches and a small village called Pierowall. Just outside Pierowall, heading towards the lighthouse at Noup Head is the abandoned Noltland Castle. Close to the castle at Grobust Beach is a neolithic site called the Links of Noltland that is slowly giving up its secrets. Noup Head is home to a gannet colony and can be seen on a clear day from Birsay on the mainland. Puffins can be found in the summer months at Castle of Burrian, the number one spot to find these amazing sea birds.

Noup Head Lighthouse on Westray is wild and remote


A short hop from Westray on the shortest commercial flight in the world is Papa Westray. This small island has the oldest house in northern Europe, the Knap of Howarth, the farmhouse Holland House has a small museum telling the story of the island and the church of St Boniface stands where there was once a christian station. The north of the island has steep cliffs buffeted by the ocean and is home to puffins, skuas and terns.

Stronsay

Stronsay is a special little island with an undulating coastline and is known as the ‘Island of Bays’. It has three bays – St Catherine’s Bay, Bay of Holland and Mill Bay that are separated by two isthmuses. These large sweeping sandy bays are perfect for families with their sheltered gently sloping shorelines and beautiful shells – perfect for beachcombing. As well as the gentle beaches, Stronsay has dramatic sea cliffs at Odiness Bay and Lamb Head and a stunning sea arch at Vat of Kirkister. Wildlife is everywhere with seals and sea birds being the main visitors to the shoreline.

A seal peaking through the waves

Sanday

Sanday really does live up to its name. It has miles of beautiful light sand beaches with rolling sand dunes. These are perfect for an isolated wander as you will more than likely have them to yourself even in the height of summer. The island has a striped lighthouse at Start Point. This lighthouse on its own tidal island is worth a visit as well as a neolithic burial chamber called Quoyness Cairn that you can explore inside and a world war one shipwreck that can be seen from Bay of Lopness beach. As with the other islands this is a haven for wildlife. The highlights have to be the seals, otters and short eared owls as well as the occasional snowy owl who passes through.

READ MORE: Things to see on Sanday

An empty sandy beach on Sanday

Eday

Eday is located between Westray and Sanday and is the 9th largest of the Orkney islands. In the north is the Eday lighthouse overlooking Calf sound to the smaller island called the Calf of Eday. As with all of the other Orkney islands, Eday has a rich history with Vinquoy chambered cairn overlooking Calf sound. The island also has Stone of Setter an isolated standing stone as well as other cairns and stones. Eday has large areas of moorland which attracts different birds to the other islands including bonxies (great skuas), Arctic skuas and red-throated divers. It is quite a marshy island an is one of the few places in Orkney where bog myrtle can be seen in the summer months.

bonxie shouting
A bonxie shouting to passing skuas

Shapinsay

Shapinsay is the closest island to Kirkwall and is perfect for small day road trip. The approach from Kirkwall is dominated by Balfour Castle, built in the Scottish Baronial style and Helliar Holm lighthouse. The main road loops around the island with small rocky beaches scattered along the coastline. The ruined kirk with views across the bay is the first landmark after Balfour village and is followed shortly afterwards by a standing stone and the remains of an Iron Age broch. This island is one of the more farmed islands and one of the last places to see beremeal being grown, a unique 6-row barley only grown in the Orkney islands.

The calm waters of Balfour harbour on Shapinsay

North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay is the most northerly of the Orkney Islands and feels the most remote. On the north coast is its large and dominant lighthouse with the old beacon close by. To the south is the harbour and bird observatory. Surrounding the entire island is a stone built dyke which keeps the sheep on the sea side of the wall. These hardy sheep are unique to North Ronaldsay and are one of the few species of sheep to graze on seaweed. The main road of the island runs straight down the middle from the lighthouse to the harbour making exploring on foot easy. The whole island can be walked in a day or two with short detours to explore the beaches and standing stones.

North Ronaldsay sheep on the rocky shoreline of the island

Photographing Orkney Landscapes and Wildlife

Orkney is a hidden gem for photographers. Many people visit Scotland to photograph the stunning and iconic landscapes, but never make it over to the islands. There are numerous sea stacks and sea cliffs with stunning drops into an ocean that is often raging. This makes for perfect conditions to photograph the waves as they break on the rocks and cliffs.

Winter storm waves breaking at Birsay


The history of Orkney can still be seen and the standing stones and cairns make for interesting compositions against the barren rolling hills of the islands. These are especially interesting at sunset and during the night when the northern lights are rolling across the sky.

Northern lights over Swannay in the north of Orkney

Given the weather and wind on Orkney you need to ensure that you protect your camera. A tripod is not always ideal as the winds are strong and can cause more movement than hand holding a camera. They can also get blown over so it is always an idea to weight the tripod or find a sheltered spot to set up.
Rain can come from nowhere so a protective cover is also an essential piece of kit. Having it to hand along with a lense cloth can make all the difference to a photograph.

Wildlife on Orkney

Orkney is home to a vast number of birds the most commonly sought out being the puffins and gannets. The cliffs where they live are wild and exposed and need extra caution when visiting. The islands also have a large population of greylag geese which are quite destructive to the crops and land that is farmed. As well as the geese curlews, oystercatchers and other small wading birds can be found on the shoreline all around the islands. Their calls can be heard echoing across the landscape in the early hours of the morning, a sound I now associate with the islands.

Oystercatchers who swarm the beach at Evie


Away from the seabirds, short eared owls and hen harriers can be found hunting along the side of the roads. It isn’t uncommon to see a short eared owl sitting on a fence post as a pigeon would in other parts of the country. There are also a large number of smaller birds including ducks and geese that make the lochs and rivers their homes.

Short eared owl watching the road from a post on Sanday

Across the islands there is a growing number of otters. These elusive mammals can be seen in the rivers, especially where they flow into the sea and lochs. A little easier to find are the brown hares who are bold and found in what seems like every field across the islands. They are especially visible in the spring when the fields have newly sown crops growing or in the autumn after the harvest. Harder to find are the mountain hares who live on the peaks of Hoy and are incredibly timid and flighty.

Brown hare in a field near Evie

Offshore seals are extremely common. They can be seen hauled out all along the coast and are not too bothered by walkers although care to avoid them when they have young pups is essential to prevent the young from being abandoned. There are also numerous sightings of Orca, whales and dolphins all along the coast as well as from the ferry on the way over from Scotland. They are seen fishing all along the coast and in the still calm waters of Scapa Flow although their presence is transient and a sighting is more luck than anything.

Orkney seal pup with mum
Seal pup and mother photographed from a distance in South Ronaldsay

Scuba Diving the Orkney Islands and Scapa Flow

Orkney is one of THE places to go scuba diving, not just in the U.K. but in the world. Whilst it is cold water diving with temperatures ranging from 5 degrees to a balmy 17ish degrees and requires a semi-dry suit if not a dry suit it is worth the chill. Within Scapa Flow are the remains of the German High Fleet that was scuttled on 21st June 1919 as World War 1 came to a close. At depths of around 30 metres many of the wrecks are still recognisable and with the shale and sandy seabed the visibility can be amazing. This can come close to many tropical destinations for memorable dives.
As well as the wreckage within Scapa Flow, the islands have beautiful reefs and an abundance of sea life. Rays, wrasse and blennies are found around the islands and smaller anemones, sponges and corals blanket the rocky surfaces in colour and life. Diving around the islands is certainly worth considering if you have the time.