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My fave place in all of Scotland
In the wind-whipped north, where the Atlantic crashes into Scotland’s rugged shores, lies an archipelago of mystery: the Orkney Islands. For some, it’s just a name on a map somewhere in Europe. But for the lucky few who venture here, they find a tapestry of ancient stories, a culture carved by centuries and people who have mastered the art of living against the elements. In three days, we venture into the heart of Orkney’s whispered tales and undying traditions. Join me on a journey where time blurs, and every corner whispers a millennia-old secret. Welcome to Orkney, where history isn’t told—it’s lived.
How to Get Around Orkney Islands
Orkney’s call isn’t just in its ancient monuments, World War II relics, its echoes, or its wind-kissed shores. It’s in the journey itself. To truly experience Orkney is to tread its paths, meander its roads, and breathe in the sights and sounds that have shaped it.
Booking with Rabbie’s was my ticket to unveiling the heart of Orkney. Guided by Stewart, whose knowledge and passion transformed every mile into an unfolding story, I felt less like a tourist and more like an initiate into the island’s hidden tales. With each turn, he painted the backdrop, filling in the gaps of history, lore, and local trivia. If Orkney was a mosaic of experiences, Stewart was the craftsman, piecing together every fragment into a coherent, mesmerizing narrative.
But for the solo wanderers, Orkney doesn’t disappoint. Rent a bike, feel the wind in your hair, and set your own pace. Every corner turned, every hill ascended, offers a new perspective, a fresh scene to savor.
For those who prefer the open water, ferries connect the islands, each offering its unique flavor and charm. The gentle sway, the hum of the engine, and the occasional splash of sea spray bring forth an age-old connection between the Orkney folks and the surrounding waters.
There are inter island flights for those who are up for an adventure.
The World’s Shortest Flight
Imagine this: You’re in Kirkwall, the heart of the Orkney archipelago, boarding a flight to Westray. From there, you’ll hop onto the world’s shortest flight according to the Guinness World Records—a 1.7-mile narrow strip to Papa Westray that could end in 53 seconds if the wind gods are generous.
Now, let’s be honest: The cabin of Loganair’s Britten Norman BN-2 Islander feels like a VW camper van got wings. Forget about an in-flight magazine, let alone a lavatory. No mile-high club prospects here, kids. The thrumming of the propellers swallows any idea of conversation, but that’s okay, because the pilot—so close you could pass him a note—becomes the lead actor in a high-stakes drama. Except the stakes are delightfully low. He flips toggles, adjusts dials, and responds to radio squawks as you lift off.
There’s no need for a route map on the seatback in front of you; just peer out of the window and you’ll spot your destination. It’s like someone took the term “puddle-jumper” literally. The plane sprints down a gravel airstrip, garnished with tufts of Orkney flora, then takes off with a leap, banking right, flying over water so blue it looks digitally enhanced. You are airborne for so little time that if you blink, or fiddle with your seat belt, you might miss the landing on another gravel strip, with an actual fire truck manned by local farmers awaiting your arrival.
So why would you do it? Sure, it’s a novelty. It’s an antidote to soul-sucking layovers and WiFi charges that bleed you dry at 30,000 feet. And it’s the perfect gateway to Papa Westray, an island so tiny it feels as though a good long jump might clear it from side to side. But there’s more. It’s not just a flight; it’s an essential vein of life for the islanders, an airborne umbilical cord to services like medicine and education. To us, it may be a jaunt, a caper, but to the residents of Papa Westray, this flight is a necessity dressed up as a quirk.
Whether you’re a tourist capturing every second on your GoPro or an islander making the commute, the flight is a sort of equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are or why you’re there; you’re sharing this odd, beautiful, fleeting experience that encapsulates much of what we’ve lost in the era of modern aviation—a sense of immediacy, of being genuinely thrilled to have wings, if only for a minute or so.
If flying has become a chore, this journey—long or short as it may be—is a return to when it was an adventure. The dash from Westray to Papa Westray strips away the needless complexities and brings you face to face with flying in its most elemental form: the pilot, the plane, and the ever-changing Orkney sky stretching out in front of you. Then, just like that, you’re back on the ground, already missing the sky you left behind.
However you choose to traverse these lands, do so with an open heart and an inquisitive mind. For in Orkney, the journey is as spellbinding as the destination.
The Ferry from Scottish Mainland
The thrum of the ferry’s engine, the salty spray of the Atlantic – this is the lifeline that bridges the gap between the Scottish mainland and the enigmatic Orkney Islands. With the discipline of a seasoned sailor, this vessel sets forth with clockwork regularity. Passengers come to trust not just its punctuality but its soulful connection to these waters.
On board, while the raw beauty of Scotland unfolds outside, there’s the hum of connection. Not just from the quiet whispers of stories shared among travelers but from the dependable WiFi that keeps you linked to the world you’ve left behind – if only momentarily.
And as the waves lull you into the rhythm of the journey, the on-board bar beckons. A sanctuary of warmth, offering comforting meals, the tingle of a cold drink, and snacks to keep you fueled. It’s not just about satiating hunger; it’s about the shared camaraderie of a journey. Here, against the backdrop of the infinite sea, you share a drink, a tale, and a nod of mutual understanding with fellow adventurers. The ferry isn’t merely a means to an end; it’s a chapter in the Orkney story.
North Sea and the Brough of Birsay
Where the tempestuous North Sea meets the gentle lull of the Atlantic, the Brough of Birsay unveils itself. Only at the whims of low tide does this transient bridge reveal, ushering the adventurous to a land caught in time. It’s where the north coast meets the west coast, and the sight of it is unreal.
The island rises, stern and commanding, with cliffs that have stood sentinel for ages, their silent testimony to countless sunrises and storms. The echoes of Viking footsteps reverberate through the ancient ruins, ghosts of a bygone era reminding us of the impermanence of human conquest compared to nature’s timeless reign. I could’ve spent all week here, watching the two bodies of waters meet at the top of Europe. Okay, it isn’t really the northern tip of Europe, nor the top of Great Britain (that claim belongs to several islands even further north, called Shetland Islands), but when you’re from a mile-wide town in the middle of North America, it sure feels that way.
The capriciousness of the Orkney climate means the hoped-for sight of puffins is not always granted. Yet, the majesty of the place doesn’t hinge on their appearance. With the North Sea’s fury on one flank and the Atlantic’s serene embrace on the other, it’s like standing at the crossroads of nature’s dual personalities.
And for those who might misjudge the tides, a modest haven awaits, providing both shelter and a lifeline. A testament to mankind’s tenacity and foresight amidst the vast embrace of nature.
In the heart of Orkney lies a portal to the past, an echo of a time when the world was younger and mankind’s touch on the earth was still tentative. Neolithic Orkney is not just a collection of sites; it’s a whisper of ancient souls, a testament to our ancestors’ ingenuity, and a nod to their reverence for the world around them.
Sites to Explore in Neolithic Orkney:
Skara Brae: More than a village, this is a snapshot of life from 5,000 years ago (older than the Egyptian pyramids!). Its stone dwellings reveal tales of families, communities, and the daily rhythms of a long-gone era. Insight: Arrive early to beat the crowds and soak in the serenity.
Ring of Brodgar: This majestic circle of stones, each telling its own silent story, captures imaginations and inspires awe. Tip: Visit during dusk or dawn; the play of light adds an ethereal beauty.
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn: This tomb is not just an architectural marvel but also a canvas. Intriguingly, Vikings have left their own mark here with runic inscriptions. Trick: Engage a knowledgeable guide to unravel the runes and tales buried within.
I ruined my coat wearing makeup in the rain earlier that day. The rest of the visit was beautiful, though! While not ancient ruins, this housed the family who discovered and financed these ancient ruins so people could enjoy them for years to come.
There’s a little cafe here, and we witnessed a sheep give birth. The neighbor happened to be having lunch at the cafe, noticed the sheep was struggling, and hopped the fence to yank it out real quick.
Stones of Stenness: Standing tall, these standing stones have observed millennia pass by, silent witnesses to countless seasons. Insight: The stillness here is palpable; take a moment to reflect and connect. Just maybe you’ll travel back in time and find your own Jamie Fraser.
Walking among these remnants, one cannot help but feel the weight of time and the thread that ties us to these ancient architects. It’s more than history; it’s a conversation across the millennia, inviting us to listen, learn, and linger.
In the pulsing heart of Orkney lies Kirkwall, a city that marries the ancient with the modern in a dance as intricate as it is entrancing. Here, every cobblestone, every whispering alley, has a tale to tell. It’s not just a destination—it’s a journey back in time, where history has left its indelible mark, and stories of valor, intrigue, and artistry await the curious traveler.
Where else can you touch the pages of a volume that predates most modern nations? The Orkney Library isn’t just a repository of books; it’s a treasure trove of memories, chronicling tales from centuries past. Founded in 1683, this library holds the distinction of being Scotland’s oldest public library, with rules that can be traced back to 1815. But don’t let its historic ambiance fool you. The library has embraced the contemporary era with zest, evident in its witty and engaging Twitter presence. Tip: While exploring its hallowed halls, ask the librarians for recommendations. Their insights could lead you to hidden gems.
St. Magnus Cathedral
A beacon of faith and artistry, St. Magnus Cathedral dominates Kirkwall’s skyline. Constructed of vibrant red and yellow sandstone, its walls hold tales of saints, sinners, and centuries of devout worshippers. The architecture itself is a marvel, blending Norman and Gothic influences. Each stained-glass window, each carving, tells a story of faith, hope, and the eternal quest for transcendence.
A testament to ambition and the transient nature of power, the Earl’s Palace stands as a reminder of a tumultuous period in Orkney’s history. Built in the 1600s by the notorious Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, its once-grand halls now lay in picturesque ruin. Wander its grounds and imagine the feasts, the plots, and the drama that once unfolded here.
Highland Park Distillery
For those with a penchant for the finer things in life, a visit to the Highland Park Distillery is a sensory delight. As one of Scotland’s most revered distilleries, it offers an intimate look into the art of whisky-making. From the golden barley fields to the intoxicating scent of aging spirits in oak casks, this is where tradition meets passion in every drop. Insight: Opt for the guided tour to truly appreciate the nuances of this age-old craft.
Kirkwall beckons with a rich tapestry of experiences, each more captivating than the last. Dive in, and let history guide your steps.
Resting your head in Orkney isn’t just about finding a bed for the night; it’s about embedding yourself further into its narrative. From centuries-old inns to modern lodges or even camping, accommodations here echo the soul of the islands, blending tradition with contemporary comforts.
Ayre Hotel, Kirkwall
Perched on the Ayre’s edge, this hotel allows guests to drink in panoramic views of Kirkwall Bay. Each room is a balance of Orkney’s rustic charm and modern amenities, ensuring a restful slumber after a day of exploration.
The Shore, Stromness
An elegant bed and breakfast housed in a refurbished 19th-century building. Its cozy rooms, some boasting views of the harbor, ooze warmth. The hearty Scottish breakfast, made from locally-sourced ingredients, ensures you start your day on a flavorful note.
Buxa Farm Chalets & Croft House
For those seeking a more secluded experience, these self-catering accommodations offer a serene getaway. Overlooking the Aikerness Bay, one can wake up to the gentle symphony of waves and the distant calls of seabirds.
The Peedie House, Deerness
A charming retreat for those who want to be surrounded by nature. This small, eco-friendly cottage, set amidst lush greenery, promises a tranquil and environmentally-conscious stay.
In Orkney, every accommodation has a story, a legacy. Choose yours and weave yourself into its tale.
Orkney is a canvas, where nature and history paint a masterpiece that beckons to be captured through a lens.
Old Man of Hoy
This iconic sea stack, standing tall against the force of the elements, is a testament to nature’s artistic prowess. Best photographed at sunset, its silhouette against the fiery sky creates a mesmerizing contrast.
Ring of Brodgar at Dusk
The ancient stone circle takes on an ethereal glow under the soft light of dusk. A long-exposure shot here can capture both the stones and the dance of stars above, creating a blend of history and cosmos.
Rackwick Bay, Hoy
A rugged coastline, golden sands, and towering cliffs—Rackwick Bay offers a dynamic landscape. Capture the play of light on the waves, or focus on the textures of the sand and rocks, each telling its own tale.
Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm
This beautifully preserved chapel, built by Italian prisoners during WWII, provides a unique blend of Orcadian and Italian architecture. Its intricate interiors and vibrant frescoes can be captured in detailed close-ups, while its exterior, against the backdrop of the sea, offers a wider, contrasting frame.
In Orkney, every vista is a poetic visual. Arm yourself with a camera and a sense of wonder, and let the islands unveil their photogenic splendor.
Local Flavor: Food in the Orkney Islands
In Orkney, the allure isn’t just in its ancient stones or the whispers of the wind; it’s also in the flavors that dance on your palate, born from the marriage of land and sea. To truly immerse oneself in the Orkney experience, it’s essential to embark on a culinary exploration that mirrors the richness of its history.
Overlooking the waters of Scapa Flow, The Foveran offers not just a feast for the taste buds but also for the eyes. With a menu deeply rooted in the fresh produce of the isles, you can anticipate dishes that bring forth the briny kiss of the sea and the earthy tones of the Orkney soil. From locally-sourced seafood to tender cuts of Orkney beef, each bite is a testament to the island’s bounty.
Nestled in the heart of Kirkwall, Helgi’s is where tradition meets modernity. It’s a place where you can sip on a pint of local ale while savoring a plate of haggis nachos, a nod to the fusion of cultures. The cozy ambiance, coupled with its eclectic menu, makes it a favorite hangout for both locals and travelers.
Judith Glue Real Food Cafe
A stone’s throw from St. Magnus Cathedral, this cafe beckons with the aroma of freshly baked bread and hearty soups. Known for its emphasis on ‘real’ food, expect dishes made from scratch, with ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen. And don’t leave without trying their Orkney cheese platter— it’s a delightful introduction to the island’s dairy prowess.
The Merkister Hotel
Located by the shores of Harray Loch, dining here is an experience for all the senses. From their famous Orkney crab and lobster dishes to the locally distilled spirits that warm you from within, The Merkister melds the essence of Orkney into every dish.
To eat in Orkney is to journey through its stories—stories of fishermen, farmers, and artisans who have, for generations, harvested the best of what the land and sea offer. Each meal is a chapter, waiting to be savored.
The Storehouse Restaurant
If you’ve ever found yourself wandering the mist-shrouded, cobblestone streets of Kirkwall, near the towering St. Magnus Cathedral, there’s a place you need to know about. A place that smells like ancient timbers and hallowed stone, a place called The Storehouse. I kid you not—this establishment reeks of authenticity in the best possible way.
Let’s dig into its soul a little, shall we?
The Storehouse is steeped in a turbulent history. We’re talking about a structure from the 1880s, initially intended for herring and pork curing. I mean, how much more maritime and old-world can you get? This place has seen days as a print works, storage for toys and china, and then—neglect, like an old sea captain forgotten by his crew. But Judith Glue and David Spence, the dynamic duo, brought this grand dame back to life, pouring both love and grant money into her bones.
Judith, a global knitwear virtuoso, and David, an almost-architect with the touch of an artist, were clearly the right pair for this restoration tango. David got down and dirty with the build team, while both aimed to preserve the place’s spirit, reusing the original wood and stone. They even incorporated odd relics they found lying around, like old ink bottles and a Clydesdale horseshoe for luck. This place is practically a living museum of Orkney culture, told through interior design.
Let’s talk sustenance, shall we? I sank my teeth into hand-dived Orkney scallops slathered in garlic butter. Accompanied by a salad and what Americans would call steak fries, this meal was no-nonsense and richly satisfying, the flavors pure and unmasked. And all of it, mind you, was cooked in an open kitchen that’s as transparent as their mission to serve local Orkney produce.
Listen, if you’re looking to step back in time, to feel the essence of Orkney, to feast like a king who appreciates the simple beauty of fresh, local ingredients—then you’ve got to make your way to The Storehouse. It’s not just a restaurant; it’s an experience. A love letter to Orkney’s complex history, and a testament to the enduring vision of Judith and David. Don’t walk, run. Because places like this—real places—they’re an endangered species.
1. What is special about the Orkney Islands?
Orkney is a treasure trove of history and nature. With ancient Neolithic sites, stunning landscapes, and a unique culture, it offers a blend of the ancient and the contemporary in a breathtaking setting.
2. Does anyone live on the Orkney Islands?
Yes, Orkney has a vibrant community with a population of over 21,000 residents, many of whom have lived here for generations.
3. What country owns the Orkney Islands?
The Orkney Islands are part of Scotland, which is a country within the United Kingdom.
4. What language is spoken in Orkney?
English is the primary language spoken in Orkney. However, you might also hear traces of the Orcadian dialect, which has Norse influences.
5. What are the Orkneys famous for?
Orkney is renowned for its Neolithic sites, like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, its maritime heritage, unique culture, local crafts, and abundant wildlife.
6. Is Orkney part of the UK or Scotland?
Orkney is part of Scotland, which in turn is part of the United Kingdom.
7. Do they speak English in Orkney?
Yes, English is widely spoken in Orkney.
8. What is the best month to visit Orkney?
May to September offers the best weather, with long daylight hours, making it a popular time for visitors.
9. How many days do you need in the Orkney Islands?
While you can get a glimpse in a day or two, ideally, a 3-5 day trip allows a comprehensive exploration of the islands.
10. Is it worth going to the Orkney Islands?
Absolutely! With its rich history, natural beauty, and warm locals, Orkney provides a unique and memorable experience.
11. How do you get around on the Orkney Islands?
From buses, bikes, cars to guided tours, there are various modes to explore Orkney. Ferries connect the different islands.
12. How do you get to the Orkney Islands?
The most common ways are by ferry from the Scottish mainland or by flying into Kirkwall Airport.
13. How long is the ferry from Scotland to Orkney?
The ferry ride varies but typically takes around 1.5 to 2 hours from the Scottish mainland.
14. How many days should I spend on Orkney?
A 3-5 day trip is recommended to truly appreciate what Orkney has to offer.
15. Are there tours of the Orkney Islands?
Yes, several guided tours offer deep dives into the history, culture, and landscapes of Orkney.
16. Can you do a day trip to Orkney?
While possible, a day trip might feel rushed. However, organized tours do offer condensed experiences for those on a tight schedule.
17. Is Orkney better than Shetland?
Both archipelagos have their unique charm. Orkney boasts Neolithic wonders and a more temperate climate, while Shetland offers rugged beauty and a rich Norse heritage. It boils down to personal preference.