Become a fan of h2g2
Whether you arrive in Orkney by ferry or by plane, once you've crossed 16 km of the Pentland Firth from the northern coast of the Scottish mainland, the first impression is one of lush, but treeless green islands ringed by blue expanses of sometimes wild ocean.
That's the impression so long as cloud isn't smothering the 70 islands, masking the beauty. Being in the north Atlantic, it's not an unusual occurrence. Low cloud, lashing wind and near horizontal rain are common. But see the islands once on a clear sunny day and you'll be hooked.
Of course, you may already be hooked by the promise of Orkney. It is a mecca for professional and amateur archaeologists alike, with its incredible density of well-preserved sites and artefacts, from Neolithic times to the Iron Age, from the early Vikings to the rule of Scandinavian Earls1. More recent historical events have also left their mark on Orkney, particularly the impacts of the two World Wars when the islands were host to the British Fleet, as well as airmen and soldiers from all over the Commonwealth.
For nature-lovers, the cliffs attract millions of seabirds, especially in late spring when they line up on the narrow ledges to breed. Inland Orkney boasts its own vole species and a significant population of short-eared owls which feed on it - among a myriad of other birds which are visible to the naked eye from the roadside. Along the seashores, the call of seals fills the air at dusk and the sight of distant flukes reveals pods of passing whales.
If you like food, you'll love Orkney. The food and beverage industry is one of the main employers in the islands. If you want fine restaurant food, or shellfish hauled out of the sea in front of your eyes, cheese made the traditional way, or malt whisky distilled here on the islands, then Orkney is for you, a foody's heaven!
Another significant industry is that of arts and crafts. Orkney is dotted with farmhouses converted into workshops and home to silversmiths, photographers, weavers, painters and potters. If you like to buy artisan-made craft items, this is the place to be.
First Stop Stromness
Arriving by ferry at Stromness is most people's entry to Orkney, both residents and visitors alike. Tourism numbers have steadily grown over the last three decades and these days you may meet more tourists than locals2. The ferry from Scrabster in Caithness takes an hour or so and passes the spectacular sight of The Old Man of Hoy and the cliffs of St John's Head along the route.
Stromness lies on the southwest coast of Orkney Mainland, the largest of the 17 islands that are inhabited. It is adjacent to one of the entrances to Scapa Flow, the great natural harbour which protected British Naval fleets in two World Wars.
The grey houses and the narrow-paved streets of the Burgh of Stromness cling to the side of Brinkies Brae and overlook the harbour, which is dominated by the ferry terminal and the car parks which feed the ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) ferry twice daily. Try to ignore this and appreciate the atmospheric and historic waterfront that is Stromness Harbour, characterised by fishing boats, stone harbour walls, small ferries that deliver passengers to the islands of Flotta, Graemsay and Hoy, the smell of fish being unloaded and the occasional waft of beery laughter from the Ferry Inn. It was here that the author and poet George Mackay Brown spent his life and found inspiration to write about Orkney.
The traditional fishing and whaling industrial base of the town is evident at the museum, the now gentrified wharf-side warehouses and the fishermen's cottages that fill the old part of town. Many of the 2,000 people who live here are still involved in seafaring, although these days it has more to do with tourism than with fishing. This is the starting point for many of the wreck divers who come to Orkney to dive the ships of the German Fleet that scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919.
High and Flat Islands
The island of Hoy is reached by passenger ferry from Stromness and is a thirty-minute crossing. Named Hoy ('High' in Old Norse) for the towering Ward Hill, this island stands out as the only one not characterised by rich pastures and gentle rolling hills. It is a high and relatively harsh, wild place. Golden eagles, mountain hares and deer populate its slopes. Human populations cling to the sheltered Scapa Flow coasts and to the small patches of cultivated land around the spectacular Rackwick Bay which opens onto the Pentland Firth3.
Hoy can also be reached by car ferry from Houghton on Orkney Mainland. This takes you to Lyness where there is a fascinating wartime museum, which puts into context many of the ruined pillboxes, wrecked ships and rusting gun mountings that are scattered around Orkney.
Next to Hoy you cannot miss the island of Flotta ('Flat island' in Old Norse), from whose oil and gas handling terminal rises the giant flare that burns off excess gas day and night. The terminal was built in the late 1970s to receive oil and gas from the North Sea and to load it into tankers to transport further south and to mainland Europe. The industry has brought considerable wealth to Orkney. In addition to the terminal providing employment, a levy is placed on every barrel that passes through Flotta, which goes into an 'Oil Fund' administered by the Orkney Islands Council for the benefit of the people of Orkney. The fund has paid for - and continues to pay for - community halls, schools, community initiatives and events throughout the islands.
Back in Stromness, The Orkney Fudge Factory stands proud on the outskirts of town, by the road that leads further into Orkney Mainland. At the first junction up the hill from Stromness, the A967 takes you north to the windy cliffs of Yesnaby which support one of the few remaining populations of the flower Primula Scotica; the wide sandy bay of Skaill and its stone age settlement, Skara Brae; up to the northwest corner of Mainland, to the Brough of Birsay. Here St Magnus was buried, after being slain at the behest of his cousin in 1117.
From here it's hard to miss the sight of the wind turbines turning atop Burgar Hill. Very much part of the Orkney landscape these days, they have been here since the early 1980s when they were the first functioning turbines in the UK. A visitor centre provided a fascinating early insight into the potential for wind power in these exposed islands. Adjacent to the turbines lies a small loch and RSPB Reserve, where great northern divers return year after year.
Up here on Burgar Hill is one of the few 'wild areas' of Orkney Mainland. Uncultivated, the peat bogs were traditionally harvested for winter fuel, a crucial supply in treeless islands. Each house was allocated an area of peat to cut for free. There are still a few banks cut each summer, with piles of cut peat laid out to dry along the top, before being transported down to the sheds of cottages to feed stoves through the dark and damp winter months.
Traditionally, Orcadians relied upon a combination of farming and fishing for their livelihoods, ensuring that starvation was rarely a serious threat in the fertile soils and waters. Each family would have had a house cow, a few hens and a horse or oxen to pull the plough to grow barley and bere4. Each would have also had a boat to ply the onshore seas for a mixture of fish and shellfish.
All around Orkney you will see orange and red buoys bobbing in the ocean a few hundred yards off-shore. These mark the creels - crab and lobster pots - which catch crabs and lobsters for the locals. Most are sold via the fishermen's cooperative to markets in London and Europe, but some make it to the shops and restaurants in Orkney. Wherever the market, they still provide a valuable additional source of income to Orcadian families.
The evidence of the traditional lifestyle is seen in the landscape of small fields bounded by stone walls and fences, with long low-lying 'butt and ben' farmhouses. 'Butt and bens' not only housed the family, but the stock would also be accommodated at one end of the building throughout the winter, thereby affording them protection and giving the family easy access to milk and eggs and additional warmth in the coldest months.
Back to the Tour
Take the other road out of Stromness - the A965 east - and you pass the lochs of Stenness and Harray, two of the many lochs that teem with wild brown trout and recreational fly fishers. The huge stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar is unmissable on the isthmus between the two lochs. The ancient burial chamber of Maeshowe rears up on the left, opposite the rather less aged, but nonetheless historical Tormiston Water Mill5. Further along, Finstown appears over the brow of the road, then Kirkwall Bay, the golf course and down you go to the capital of Orkney.
The Capital - Kirkwall
Kirkwall is dominated by the green copper roof of St Magnus Cathedral in its centre. Close to the Cathedral are the Bishops' and Earls' Palaces; both ruins from the 14th Century when Danish Earls still ruled Orkney. The Tankerness House Museum, over the road from the Cathedral, will fill you in on everything you've ever wanted to know about the history of the place.
The town harbour usually holds an interesting variety of vessels: replica Viking longships, Fisheries Protection Vessels, cruise ships from Scandinavia and northern Europe, yachts from all over the world, fishing boats filled with creels and many local ferries which ply the waters to the northern islands of Orkney.
Somehow Kirkwall has largely avoided the wholesale homogenisation of so many British town centres. On the outskirts of town, there is Orkney's sole supermarket and the Pickaquoy Centre, its sports and entertainments venue, but the national chains in the town itself have fitted into the vernacular architecture of the place and the character of the town has been retained.
Also retained is 'The Tree', an unremarkable sycamore growing in the midst of the narrow confines of Albert Street, the main shopping drag. It is a well-known meeting point and in the context of these windy islands, any tree measuring more than 10ft high and not bent double is quite remarkable.
Many of the shops are outlets for the dozens of local arts and crafts designers and manufacturers who have found a niche market in Orkney. From silversmiths and weavers, to potters and painters, to knitters and glass makers and above all, designers of jewellery of all shapes and hues. Of course the market for crafts would be nothing without the tourists who throng the streets on a summer's day.
And the summer days are long at this latitude of 59°N. The sun dips below the northern horizon for a brief hour at midsummer, providing an atmospheric setting for the annual Orkney Folk Festival in June and the St Magnus Festival in July. Music; classical, traditional and contemporary, rings out of pubs, church halls, the Cathedral, school halls and cafes throughout the long summer evenings.
Of course the other side of this coin is the long dark winters, which Orcadians, but few visitors, endure. Some attribute the higher than average drink-driving figures in Orkney to the dark winters when the pub is a cosy social haven for islanders.
Islands in the North
Leaving Kirkwall heading east on the A960 to Grimsetter, you'll find Orkney's International Airport, where flights land from mainland UK and Europe, and from where you can jump on a small local plane. Indeed from here you can end up on the shortest scheduled flight in the world. Fly up to Westray, then fly the 90 seconds from the airport on the island of Westray to the airport6 on the island of Papa Westray, also known as Papay. Take off from a silage field and land in a cattle pasture.
On a sunny day, seeing Orkney from the air brings home the sheer beauty of the islands. Deep blue seas, white surf at the base of cliffs, long pale crescent beaches, green pastures, golden barley fields and the shocks of blue that are inland lochs are all laid out before you.
Ferries from Kirkwall deliver people, shopping, farm stores, vehicles, cattle, produce and tourists to all of the inhabited northern islands on journeys that take half an hour to Shapinsay, or up to three hours to North Ronaldsay.
Shapinsay, being the closest island to Kirkwall Harbour, is the most visited. It boasts Balfour Castle and Gardens which is now a hotel. It was built in the early 1800s with wealth that the Balfour family accumulated from the harvest of kelp (seaweed) around the shores of the island. Kelp was dried and then shipped as the raw material for fertilisers for farmlands around the new and hungry industrial towns of England and southern Scotland. Most of the large rural houses in Orkney, such as Balfour Castle, Skaill House and Scarth House are the legacy of the 'Kelp Barons'.
Rousay lies west of Shapinsay and is known as 'The Egypt of the North' for its incredible density, even by Orkney standards, of archaeological sites, from the many funerary monuments7 such as Midhowe, to crannogs and Neolithic settlements. In its more recent history, Rousay has the dubious distinction of being the only island to suffer the Clearances of the 18th Century, under its landowner, General Traill-Burroughs.
Further north is the island of Westray. It has the most magnificent cliffs in Orkney, supporting even more seabirds than Hoy's famed St John's Head. The Westray cliffs rear out of the ocean and lie broadside to the prevailing westerly gales coming off the Atlantic; a spectacular bird-watching spot in spring and early summer when 'rafts' of guillemots, razorbills and puffins float on the water. Bonxies (great skuas) circle, on the lookout for weak or abandoned chicks. Fulmars ride the thermals up the cliff-faces and pop up alarmingly enlarged in the binoculars of the unsuspecting watcher.
Sanday, on the other hand - and on the other side of the archipelago - has some of the longest, cleanest and emptiest beaches in Orkney. If you like solitude whilst kicking up the sand and strolling in the surf, Sanday is the place to visit. The water is bracing, but thanks to the Gulf Stream it is not as cold as might be expected. Look into the rock pools and there's coral growing there.
North Ronaldsay, as well as being the island most distant from Orkney Mainland, is also known for having one of the first fully self-sustaining houses in Britain in terms of energy and water. In addition, it is home to a flock of Viking sheep, a genetic throwback to the 11th Century. They are fenced off from most of the island and consequently they feed on seaweed along the rocky shoreline. Their meat and their wool attracts premium prices, for the novelty value as much as for the high quality of the product.
Back on the A960 heading east from Grimsetter Airport, you soon pass one of the most recent archaeological sensations in Orkney. Dubbed 'The Mystery of the 39 Steps', Mine Howe was made famous being investigated by Channel 4's TimeTeam. And it's worth a visit. The visitor centre documents the dig and you have the chance to walk down the steps into one of the most enigmatic Neolithic sites in Europe, for which nobody yet has a plausible explanation.
The far east of Mainland Orkney is Mull Head Nature Reserve, home of nesting bonxies in spring. Watch out for them diving down and regurgitating half-digested fish on your head. It's a sure-fire way to keep you away from their chicks and you'll always remember your trip. There are arctic terns here, as well as the 'usual suspects' of ledge-hugging guillemots, razorbills and burrowing puffins. The cliffs provide a look-out point for passing whales, dolphins and porpoises.
If you take the A961 route out of Kirkwall, you pass the Highland Park Distillery, which is a 'must sip' for all malt whisky lovers. There is a free guided tour, with complimentary samples at the end of it, while you peruse the shop.
The road continues southwards between fields of barley and bere, to the southern islands that are linked by the Churchill Barriers. These causeways are a remnant of Orkney's rich wartime history, built to prevent German U-Boats sinking any more of the British Fleet after HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in 1939. The Barriers were built by Italian prisoners of war, who also constructed The Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, which is now the most popular tourist destination in Orkney.
The southernmost island, South Ronaldsay has two ferry terminals linking it to mainland Scotland. At Burwick, the John O'Groats passenger ferry disgorges people onto waiting buses to Kirkwall. The town of St Margaret's Hope is the location for the terminal for the car ferry from Gill's Bay in Caithness. It is also Orkney's third largest settlement; a town nestling into a deep bay in Scapa Flow and one of the most sheltered places. It is a centre for arts and crafts and has one of the best-known seafood restaurants in Scotland, The Creel.
Orkney is a special place. The recent idea to investigate the feasibility of a road bridge to span the Pentland Firth between the islands and mainland Scotland will strike horror into the hearts of many people who know and love Orkney. Because it has remained physically remote from the rest of Britain, it has retained a character and traditions that are cherished by its residents and its visitors.
Go there. Have a look. And spend a few quid to keep the place vibrant.