The Orkney Islands are an archipelago of over 70 islands some 10 miles (16 km) off the north tip of mainland Scotland. They've been settled since the Neolithic period and have a remarkable collection of standing stones, early settlements and burial cairns, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Their total population in 2017 was 22,100, with Kirkwall the main town.
Islands and towns
Mainland is Orkney's largest island, where 80% of the population resides. (To avoid ambiguity, on this and related pages the term Mainland, cap "M", refers to this island, while the landmass of Great Britain to the south is referred to as the Scottish mainland, small "m".) The chief settlements on Mainland are:
- 1 Kirkwall is the administrative capital of the Orkney Islands and largest town. The airport, and ferry port for Aberdeen and Shetland, are here; it has the most accommodation and is the obvious base for visitors. Its main attractions are St Magnus cathedral, the Earl's and Bishop's Palaces, a couple of museums, and two distilleries.
- 2 Stromness is the second-largest town, and the most attractive, with its narrow flagstone main street. The ferry from Scrabster on the Scottish mainland lands here.
- 3 Stenness is a small village on the main road between Kirkwall and Stromness. Around it is an outstanding collection of prehistoric sites: Maeshowe burial cairn, the Stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar are all within walking distance. A few miles further north is the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae.
- 4 Birsay is a small village on the north coast of Mainland. Its sights are the Earl's Palace, and Brough of Birsay which is a tidal island with prehistoric remains.
- Other small settlements include Finstown on the main road between Kirkwall and Stromness. This is the turn-off for Tingwall (ferry for Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre), and eventually the road winds round the north coast to Birsay; Houton south of Stromness is the ferry terminal for Lyness in Hoy, and for Flotta; and Deerness the eastern promontory of Mainland is farmland riven by the sea-chasm of The Gloup.
The "Barrier" islands: during the Second World War, the "Churchill Barriers" were built between Mainland and four small islands just south, to prevent seaborne attacks on Scapa Flow. So these are now linked by a good road, and for all practical purposes are part of Mainland. Approaching from Kirkwall north to south these are:
- 5 Lamb Holm small and uninhabited, is the site of the Italian Chapel. It was built 1943-45 by Italian prisoners of war who were constructing the Churchill Barriers. It was cobbled together from two Nissen huts and any bits and pieces the Italians could scrape up, and ornately decorated. Mass is still held here, the first Sunday of the month April to September. It's open daily 09:00-17:00, £3.50 (Sep 2022).
- Glims Holm is also small and uninhabited, just a few sheep. On the causeway to the next island, note the remains of "blockships" - the first attempt to close the eastern channels into Scapa Flow. These sufficed for World War I but proved inadequate at the outset of World War II, when HMS Royal Oak was sunk with the loss of 833 lives.
- 6 Burray has a small village. It has an excellent fossil and herutage museum.
- 7 South Ronaldsay has the village of St Margaret's Hope (ferry from Gill's Bay), and Burwick harbour (ferry from John O'Groats). The Tomb of the Eagle is a Neolithic burial cairn with human and bird bones.
Other islands close to Mainland, with short ferry rides, are:
- 8 Shapinsay is the closest island to Kirkwall, a short ferry-ride north. Its main attraction Balfour Castle is closed, but there's a well-preserved broch.
- 9 Hoy to the southwest is the second largest island. "Hoy" means high, and it feels more Hebridean than Orcadian: upland heath with poor soil, clouds and drizzle. Its main sight is the sea-stack "Old Man of Hoy", with a hike through the RSPB Nature Reserve to view it. The main village is Lyness.
- South Walls is linked by a roadway to Hoy. Its main settlement is Longhope.
- Graemsay is farmland just north of Hoy: the Stromness-Hoy ferry calls here. There's no transport to the uninhabited little islands of Cava and Fara.
- 10 Flotta just east of Hoy is dominated by an oil terminal at its north end, the rest is farmland. The Houton-Hoy ferry calls here.
- 11 Rousay is the largest of a group 2 km north of Mainland and reached by ferry from Tingwall. it has a rich concentration of archaeological sites.
- Egilsay where Earl Magnus was martyred and Wyre are served by the Rousay ferry. There's no transport to Gairsay or Eynhallow.
North Isles are quiet places for walks and bird watching. They have long ferry crossings but you can day-trip by air:
- 12 Stronsay has a large sea-arch, and stacks such as "Tam's Castle". The islet of Papa Stronsay is a monastic community.
- 13 Sanday is well-named for its fine sandy beaches.
- 14 Eday has many Neolithic and Bronze Age tombs.
- 15 Westray has dramatic cliffs and an old castle and church.
- 16 Papa Westray is home to the oldest site in Orkney, Knap of Howar.
- 17 North Ronaldsay is the most northerly island of Orkney.
The Orkney Islands do not include Fair Isle, which is part of Shetland. Nor do they include Stroma and Muckle Skerry, the two uninhabited islands seen to the south from South Ronaldsay. These are considered part of the Highland Region of the Scottish mainland and have no transport. The Orkney Islands do include Swona, seen to the west from South Ronaldsay, but that too is uninhabited with no transport.
These faraway places were inhabited from the Mesolithic period circa 7000 BC, and archaeologists are still reeling from the 2021 discovery of 5500 year old objects that appear to be cricket balls. The islands only stumbled into written lore and history with the 9th century AD arrival of the Vikings, who became christianised and penned the Orkneyinga saga, an unreliable early soap opera. The Orkneys are low-lying and fertile upon a bed of bright red old sandstone, and the ocean is harsh but around the next headland is sure to be a bay or inlet enjoying shelter. "Ork" may be from a Norse word for pigs, implying the sort of soft terrain they enjoy fossicking about in, but it's better suited to sheep and cattle. "Ork" also meant "sea-pigs", dolphins and porpoises, and came to mean seals.
Norse or Viking sea power extended in the 8th century, and the Orkney and Shetland Islands became part of the Kingdom of Norway for over 500 years, long after the Norsemen had been ousted from the British and Irish mainlands. In 1290 the Norwegian king's daughter Margaret was heir presumptive to the crown of Scotland, and was betrothed to the son of Edward I of England. She sailed in state from Norway for the ceremony, got as far as Orkney, and died, sparking a succession crisis. Margaret was four years old. Nothing daunted, in 1486 they waited until Margaret of Denmark was 13 before marrying her to James III of Scotland, with Orkney pledged as security for payment of the dowry. This wasn't paid, and Orkney became part of Scotland.
This means that the island culture was Norse and not Gaelic. Its soil, climate and scenery are also different from the Gaelic areas, with green fields, cows grazing and a shimmer of blue from the many lochs and sea inlets. It doesn't draw the clouds, rain and midges of Highland Scotland. The largest island Mainland, together with Hoy and the chain of small islands down to South Ronaldsay, enclose Scapa Flow, which in wartime was an important naval anchorage.
There is a Tourist Information Centre at Kirkwall bus station.
- 1 Kirkwall Airport (KOI IATA) (5 miles southeast of town). Loganair fly to Kirkwall from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands. (They also operate inter-island flights - see below as these have a different system.) Fares include a 20-kg checked-baggage allowance. In summer there are several flights a day so day-trips are possible. The aircraft are medium-sized twin-props, eg the Saab 340. The airport has separate check-in areas for Scottish mainland and for inter-island flights, and a cafe. There's a car-hire desk, booking is essential as they have a limited fleet and will need to fetch your car from town. Stagecoach Bus 4 runs between the airport and Kirkwall bus station every 30 min M-Sa, hourly Su, taking 10-15 min (£1.70 as of 2022, cash or credit card). It runs Su-F 06:15-19:15, Sa till 16:15 when the last flight comes in. An occasional Bus 3 between Kirkwall and Deerness also calls here. Parking is free for pick-up and drop off but charges apply after 2 hours. Taxis ply to the airport, listed in "Get around". There's often one waiting, otherwise phone from Arrivals.
- Don't go booking flights to a place IATA coded ORK - that's Cork in Ireland, oddly enough.
- Scrabster to Stromness car ferry, operated by Northlink, makes the 90-min crossing daily. It sails three times a day in peak periods (mid-May to Aug, and some weekends), and twice a day the rest of the year. Scrabster on the Scottish mainland is near Thurso, the most northerly railway station in Britain. Stromness is a 20-min drive to Kirkwall, frequent buses, or a £35-40 taxi (2022).
- Aberdeen to Shetland car ferry, also operated by Northlink, sails every night year-round, calling at Kirkwall on several nights. Northbound it leaves Aberdeen at 17:00 (Apr-Oct: Tu Th Sa Su, Nov-Mar: Th Sa Su not Tu), reaching Kirkwall (Hatston Terminal) at 23:00 before sailing on to Lerwick for 07:30 next morning. Southbound the ferry leaves Lerwick at 17:30 (Apr-Oct: M W F, Nov-Mar: W & F not M), similarly reaching Kirkwall at 23:00 before sailing on to Aberdeen for 07:00 next morning. On evenings when it's not calling at Kirkwall, the ferry leaves Aberdeen or Lerwick later. See Shetland and Kirkwall pages for practical info and advice on this ferry.
- Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope car ferry, operated by Pentland Ferries, runs three times every day, and takes an hour. Gill's Bay is on the Scottish mainland on the A836 five miles west of John o'Groats. St Margaret's Hope is a 30-min drive to Kirkwall, bus every hour or so.
- John o'Groats to Burwick ferry, for foot passengers and cyclists only, is operated by Jogferry. It takes only 40 min and runs May-Sep, three times a day Jun-Aug and twice daily in May and Sep; no winter service. On the Scottish mainland, Jun-Aug a connecting coach runs between Inverness and John o'Groats. (No dogs or bikes on this coach, they're welcome on the ferry.) On Orkney a connecting coach runs between Burwick and Kirkwall: the X1 bus to South Ronaldsay doesn't run as far south as Burwick.
- Cruise ships often visit Orkney. They may berth at Kirkwall Hatston Terminal, with a shuttle-bus to town, or anchor out in the bay with tenders bringing passengers ashore. The main tourist attractions get mobbed when they arrive.
Loganair operates short internal flights between Kirkwall and the six northerly islands of Eday, North Ronaldsay, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay and Westray. Frequency varies, eg in summer to North Ronaldsay daily, to Westray and Stronsay most days, but to Eday only once a week. Schedules always allow for a day-trip in either direction because these flights are essential for islanders going about their daily business: to get to town, or to a hospital appointment, or even to attend school. Residents therefore have priority, and you can only book by phoning +44 1856 872494 or 873457 (lines open Su-F to 19:00, to 18:00 Sa); you can't book online. The aircraft are rinky-dinky BNF Islanders, suitable for grass-strip landings, and baggage space is limited.
The service between Westray and Papa Westray (and vice versa) is the world's shortest commercial flight, at just under 2 miles and 2 minutes, shorter than the runways at Heathrow. Pilots have to complete their final landing checks before opening throttle to take off.
Orkney Ferries sail from Kirkwall to the North Isles of Shapinsay, Stronsay, Eday, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay. They're all about the same fare: in 2022 reckon £11 adult return from Kirkwall, £26 car.
They sail from Houton via Flotta to Lyness near the south tip of Hoy, and (for foot passengers) from Stromness via Graemsay to Moaness in the north of Hoy.
They sail from Tingwall to Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre.
Most buses pass through Kirkwall, so see that page for details. The most useful service is the X1 bus, from Stromness past Stenness Stones to Kirkwall, then south past the Italian Chapel to St Margaret's Hope ferry terminal.
A circular tour bus Stagecoach T11 is advertised but didn't run in 2021.
OCTO are a coach-hire company, +44 1856 871536. They can provide wheelchair-accessible transport and their own guides for tours.
Taxis are a good option for outlying parts of Mainland off the bus routes. Car rental firms are reluctant to hire for a single day, so for a day-trip try negotiating for a taxi to take you round for a few hours. Call ahead for out-of-town pick-ups, as you might have to wait for the car to reach you from Kirkwall, and there are no taxis on the outer islands. Based in Kirkwall and serving the airport, as of 2021, are Orkney Taxis (also trading as Scapa Taxis) +44 1856 875511, and Craigie’s Taxis +44 1856 878787.
Prehistoric Orkney: these islands have an amazing collection of well-preserved prehistoric remains. The finest and most extensive are Neolithic or New Stone Age, dating to around 3000 BC. That makes them 5000 years old, older than the Pyramids of Giza, and among the oldest human structures known. They're recognised as World Heritage sites by UNESCO, the pick of them being the Heart of Neolithic Orkney collection around Stenness. There's less from the Iron Age and Pictish Age. Prehistory in this region shades into history sometime in the first millennium AD, when Viking sagas began to describe local places, rulers and battles.
And lots and lots of people naturally want to see them. The standing stones can absorb the crowds and if you just wait aside for 20 mins, the tour bus will depart and you can enjoy the lull before the next group. But in the underground chambers it doesn't take many to cause congestion, and at Maeshowe they've had to limit access; it can be booked out for days ahead. There's no need for this because there are so many other high-quality sites, more than a single trip to the Orkneys could encompass, and those off the "circuit" are seldom visited. So spread out and enjoy. Most of them are free to enter, any time of day or night; pre-view them on Historic Environment Scotland website. Most of them just have a signpost and a grassy path leading to a hole in the hillside; the lesser-known just have the hole. If it's been raining you'll get filthy, but you'll really feel like an explorer as you crawl inside - although Lord Carnarvon and Indiana Jones didn't have smartphones to use as flashlights.
The principal sites are:
- At Stenness is Maeshowe, Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, with Skara Brae a few miles north.
- Birsay has the Brough (plus later Palace and Skaill House).
- The island of Rousay has Midhowe Broch and Cairn, and Yarso.
- Less touristy sites near Kirkwall include the Cairns of Wideford Hill and Cuween Hill.
Natural world: Old Man of Hoy, and "The Gloup" at the south-east edge of Mainland, a deep chasm into the sea.
- Diving: In November 1918 when Germany surrendered at the end of World War I, the German Imperial Fleet was disarmed and brought to Scapa Flow. Peace negotiations dragged on, the captured crews became mutinous, and by the following June the Armistice was about to expire and Admiral Reuter became convinced the British would seize the ships for their own military use. He therefore had the entire fleet of 74 warships scuttled: the greatest mass sinking in history. The British managed to rescue several ships and others were later salvaged, but most remain. Seven are routinely visited by divers: battleships König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf, and cruisers Brummer, Cöln, Dresden and Carlsruhe. Being top-heavy with armour the ships sank upside down, and have been down there for 100 years and are now fragile - dive with care. They're beyond the range of novice divers, and far too deep for snorkelers, but there are plenty of shallower dive sites, eg the "blockships" along the Churchill Barriers. Some local diving companies:
- Orkney Archaeology Tours, email@example.com. Holidays and day small-group tours led by professional archaeologists and qualified guides. They're generally fully booked a year ahead; already they're booked out for 2022 but have availability for 2023. You need to be reasonably mobile to hike across moors and wriggle into cairns, and minimum age is 18. £1900 pp.
- Wildabout Orkney, firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily tours of the main Orkney sites, including day-trips meeting the Scrabster ferry, and shore excursions for cruise ship passengers.
- Orkney Folk Festival is held in May, mostly in Stromness but various other venues.
- St Magnus Festival includes music, theatre and literature. It's held for a week in June, mostly in Kirkwall.
- Orkney Science Festival is a week in September, mostly in Kirkwall.
- Highland Park and Scapa whisky distilleries are in Kirkwall. Tours available with a free sample of the product, plus gift shop.
- Orkney Wine is on Lamb Holm by the turnoff for the Italian Chapel, open M-Sa 10:00-16:00. J Gow Rum is distilled next door.
- Orkney Brewery between Skaill and Birsay is open 10:30-17:00, Su 12:00-17:00. There are tours, and tasting flights in the cafe.
All the accommodation on Orkney is independent & family-run, with no hotel chains. Lots of camping, hostels, B&Bs and small hotels dotted across the islands - see individual town listings - with the main concentration being around Kirkwall. There's no stand-out "Splurge" hotel, but prices can be steep in mid-summer peak periods.
Either continue north to the Shetland Islands, or return south to the Scottish mainland.