ORKNEY ISLANDS  Ring of BrodgarHeading to the Orkney Islands, you’ll feel as though you’ve set off from Scotland’s mainland towards an enchanting world of flat green islands beyond the seas whose lands beam with a fascinating history and Viking heritage that has surpassed time.

Made up of about 70 islands, Orkney, which has been inhabited for at least 8,500 years, was occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes before the Picts arrived. Following the invasion and capture by Norway, the islands were settled by the Norse until it became a part of the crown of Scotland in 1472. The archipelago nestles the four sites collectively known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The largest of the islands is Mainland which is home to Kirkwall and Stromness, the only two burghs of Orkney. Mainland is the heart of the transportation system and boasts two large lochs, the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness.

The Orkney Public Transport Timetable is available for free at any of the islands’ tourist offices and is essential for travelling around the archipelago. Orkney Coaches [Tel. +44 1856870555] operates bus services on Mainland and South Ronaldsay with Rover passes that offer unlimited travel for one/three days at £6/£15. Orkney Ferries [Tel. +44 1856872044] offers ferry services throughout the islands (car spaces should be booked ahead) and Loganair [Tel. +44 1856872494, http://www.loganair.co.uk] offers inter-island flights at subsidized prices. Purchase the economic Historic Scotland explorer pass from participating attractions if you wish to explore more than a couple of Orkney’s historic sites.  


Kept away from crops by a dry-stone wall, the seaweed-eating sheep of the island of North Ronaldsay (pop. 60) are famous for their unique flavor. The island which is the northernmost of the Orkneys is also a hotspot for bird-watchers looking for nesting and flying migratory birds. North Ronaldsay is frequented by a pod of seals and an occasional whale or two.
Treacherous surrounding waters have been the death of many ships, explaining the early construction of Old Beacon, one of the first four lighthouses of Scotland whose light was put out in 1809 following the addition of others nearby. A newer one now stands at Point of Sinoss on the island’s north, built in 1852. The Observatory Guest House [Twingness, Tel. +44 1857633200, www.nrbo.co.uk, prices vary] frequented by birdwatchers offers dorm, twin and double room options.

North Ronaldsay is defined by the eastern Linklet Bay and South Bay, and its west is very rocky. Orkney Ferries [+44 8000113648] runs services to and from the island. 


ORKNEYS Westray BeachIsle of Westray
Westray (pop. 570) is a good place to capture the essence of northern Orkney if time isn’t on your side. An array of sandy beaches and rolling farmland make for a charming getaway from noisy cities and busy work weeks.
The village of Pierowall is Westray’s main settlement, just over 11 kilometers from the main ferry terminal. Developed around a quaint natural harbour, Pierowall was once a key Viking post which now runs a Heritage Centre [Next to Pierowall Hotel, Tel. +44 1857677414, http://www.westrayheritage.co.uk, £2.50] in the heart of the village featuring a permanent exhibition on the island’s history and geography. Near Pierowall stands the ruined 16th-century Noltland Castle [admission free built by Gilbert Balfour, who had attempted murder on Cardinal Beaton and later, the King of Sweden. Northwestern Westray nourishes the Noup Head RSPB Reserve that sees a multitude of breeding seabirds such as the puffin posse every year.

The main ferry terminal is at Rapness with services by Orkney Ferries [+44 8000113648] while the airport at Aikerness offers flights by Loganair [+44 1856872494], including the world’s shortest scheduled flight to and from Papa Westray that lasts about 2 minutes.

Isle of Papa Westray
Affectionately known as Papay, fertile Papa Westray (pop. 70) is one of Orkney’s smaller isles, rich in archaeology and biodiversity. On the island’s north stands its highest point, North Hill (49m), and an RSPB nature reserve which is home to the largest Arctic tern colony in Europe and the rare purple-flowered Scottish Primrose.

The well-preserved Knap of Howar on Papa Westray is Northern Europe’s earliest domestic building occupied by Neolithic farmers more than 5 centuries ago. Also on the island is Saint Boniface Kirk from the 8th century, dedicated to the famous teacher and missionary who founded many churches, monasteries and bishoprics before being murdered in 754 AD. The church was recently restored and is open in summer.

An intriguing ride would be a flight between Papa Westray Airport and Westray, the shortest scheduled flight in the world which lasts about 2 minutes. Orkney Ferries [+44 8000113648] connects the island to Westray and Kirkwall on Orkney Mainland.

Isle of Sanday
etting its name from sandy white beaches, Sanday (pop. 500) off Scotland’s northern coast is popular with tourists who enjoy calming environs and historical sites. Probably the most intriguing of such sites is the Quoyness Chambered Tomb a burial site that dates as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Another contender is Tofts Ness at Sanday’s northeastern tip, a prehistoric funerary complex that represents thousands of years of civilization.  The unique black-and-white-striped Start Point Lighthouse standing on eastern Sanday, built early in the 19th century by engineer Robert Stevenson, was the first Scottish lighthouse to own a revolving light.

Orkney Ferries [+44 8000113648] runs services while Loganair [+44 1856872494] operates flights to and from Kirkwall.

Isle of Eday
Just under 13 kilometers long, Eday (pop. 120) is one of Orkney’s quiet northern isles some 24 kilometers north of Mainland. Much of the island’s centre is adorned by heather-hilled moorland all surrounded by bog-cotton fields, sand dunes and scenic cliffs. Amongst the attractions on this unfrequented island are the chambered cairns of Huntersquoy, Braeside and Vinquoy and the Stone of Setter, the tallest (4.5 kilometers) single standing stone in the Orkney Islands, a deeply weathered monolith resembling a giant’s hand. The 17th-century Carrick House on the shore is the infamous place where Pirate Gow was captured in 1725 that is now home to the islands’ crofters and farmers.
The ferry point is near the isthmus’ south not far from London Airport – Eday’s trusty flight link to and from Kirkwall.


Isle of Rousay
illy Rousay (pop. 270) is both a relaxing getaway and a history buff’s haven owing to scenic landscapes and prehistoric sites. A mere 3 kilometers off Scotland’s northern coast, the island is a popular day trip from Orkney’s surrounding islands, but you may wish to hang around a little more to explore its cracks and stacks. Rousay’s wildflower colonies, RSPV reserve and cliff formations make it one of the UK’s Site of Special Scientific Interest. Summers are more popular with visitors to the island, especially those interested in wildlife and geology.

Dubbed “the Egypt of the north”, Rousay contains over a hundred discovered archaeological sites, although only a small number of these have been excavated. Signs leading to the main sites [admission free] are easy to find on the island’s 23-kilometer ring road. Head left from the ferry point towards Taversoe Tuick – a burial cairn that was built on two levels, each with its own entrance, perhaps as a sort of ‘duplex’ tomb for two families. Other cairns nearby include, Blackhammer and Knowe of Yarso that requires a walk up the hill, rewarded with great views.

About 10 kilometers from the ferry point, downhill from the main road and by the water, Midhowe Cairn is a behemoth structure known as the “Great Ship of Death” that was built around 3500 BC. Divided into compartments, the remains of 25 people were found in this cairn which is enclosed by a protective stone building. Next to it is the ridged Midhowe Broch, a dramatic Iron Age fortified complex.

Rousay Transport [+44 1856821234, £21] operates taxi tours of the island for up to four people or minibus tours inclusive of guided visits to historical sites on Tuesdays and Thursdays [£16 per adults, £35 per family]. Rent a bike from Trumland Farm [£7 per day] for a windy ride along the island’s ring road.

Isle of Eglisay
The rasping cry of corncrakes will greet you on the island of Egilsay (pop. 30) which is mostly owned by the RSPB as a reserve preserving the natural habitat of these birds. Floating east of Rousay, the island is best known as the setting of Saint Magnus’ murder in 1155; the spot where he was slain is marked by a cenotaph today. Dominating the island is Saint Magnus Church, retaining all but its conical roof. The church was dedicated to the martyr after his death and its round Irish-style tower, clearly visible from afar, is rare in Orkney. Ferries do not sail to Egilsay on Sundays in winter. 


Isle of Wyre
outh-east of Rousay next to Egilsay is Wyre (pop. 20) one of the smallest of Orkney’s islands whose history still echoes from the ruins of a Viking castle widely believed to have housed Kolbein Hrúga (Cubbie Roo), a Norwegian chieftain who settled here in the 12th century. The castle is one of Scotland’s oldest and is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga.

In the centre of the island nestles the roofless Saint Mary’s Chapel, a partly-restored Romanesque- Norse building. The island’s western edge is great for spotting seals. No ferries serve Wyre on Sundays in winter and admission is free all year for both attractions.

Isle of Stronsay
The island of Stronsay (pop. 350) is a friendly stop for visitors who like cycling, wildlife-spotting and coastal walks. Along the island’s coast between Odiness and Lamb Ness, striking cliffs feature the Vat of Kirbister, the famous gloup or natural arch that is considered one of the finest in Orkney. Beside the ferry dock, the Stronsay Fish Mart [Whitehall, Tel. +44 1857616386, admission free] features a herring-industry museum which showcases the traditional role of fishing on the island.

Orkney Ferries [+44 8000113648] links Stronsay to Kirkwall and Eday while Loganair [+44 1856872494] operates flights to and from Kirkwall.

Isle of Shapinsay
The isle of Shapinsay (pop. 300), just 20 minutes from Kirkwall via ferry, is a popular choice for day trips from Mainland Orkney. The fertile island soil nourishes many farms and is the home ground of the Balfour Castle [Tel. +44 1856711282, tours incl. return ferry trip £20]], the northernmost castle in the whole world. The Victorian manor was built around the house of Cliffdale and housed the Balfour family from Fife. In 1961, the last heir of the castle,

David Hubert Ligonier Balfour died after having sold the 830-acre farm of Balfour Mains to the Zawadzki family who also acquired the castle upon his death. Tours end with a taste of the castle grounds’ very own Orcadian tea. Book well in advance for a stay at one of the plush Victorian rooms [£220-260 incl. dinner] that includes pre-dinner drinks in the library.

Orkney Ferries [+44 8000113648] runs services to and from Kirkwall. 


ORKNEYS Dramatic BrodgarAbout three quarters of Orkney’s population are residents of Orkney's largest island, Mainland, where an eventful history has left behind several significant archaeological sites, and fertile grounds provide sustenance to wildlife and the thriving archipelago.

Mainland, whose eastern part curiously resembles the shape of the letter “W”, is linked to southern islands of Orkney via the Churchill Barriers, increasing accessibility to these isles from the north. Western Mainland is part of one of the 40 National Scenic Areas of Scotland.

The three most significant of Mainland’s settlements are Kirkwall – the capital and traditional seat of the Bishop of Orkney, Stromness – an established seaport owing its growth to the expansion of whaling, and Finstown on the main road from Stromness to Kirkwall.


The parish of Birsay sits on Mainland Orkney’s northwestern corner. Most of the land in the parish is dedicated to agriculture, especially beef cattle rearing. The two main attractions in Birsay are the ruins of the Earl’s Palace at the village’s northern end and the Brough of Birsay opposite the Mainland.

Earl’s Palace [Tel. +44 1856721205, admission free] was built late in the 16th century by the first Earl of Orkney, Robert Stewart, a terror to Orkney peasants. Champagne-coloured walls and crumbling columns stand in an unusual floor plan to its time; an open courtyard is surrounded by four ranges. Abandoned since the late 17th century, the palace was originally connected to walled gardens, a bowling green and an archery range. Along with Shetland’s Scalloway Castle and Kirkwall’s Earl Palace, the building served as one of the main residences of the Stewart Earls of Orkney.

About a mile from the ruined palace, the Brough of Birsay [Tel. +44 1856841815, £3.20] makes for a nice stroll across a causeway at low tide. This tidal island preserves the remains of Pictish and Norse settlements centered on the 12th-century Saint Peter’s Kirk. A walk to the far side of the Brough leads to the lighthouse and cliff face where migratory birds and puffins play.  

The wonderfull village of Evie on Mainland Orkney is home to two large and notably fertile dairy farms – Georth and Dale which contribute to Orkney’s award winning cheese, Burgar farm and a few beef farms.

Perhaps more enticing are the imposing walls and entranceway of the Broch of Gurness (Aikerness Broch) [www.historic-scotland.gov.uk, ad/ch £5/£3] which is sign-posted from Evie. This Iron Age broch, overlooking Eynhallow Sound and offering views of the isle of Rousay, is a fine example of fortified drystone towers that protected the area from raiders more than 2000 years ago. Centered on the Broch are the remains of a settlement.  

The prehistoric site of Skara Brae [Tel. +44 1856841815, http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk, prices vary] is a striking reminder of the sturdiness of prehistoric architecture that outlasts time despite the use of primitive tools and methods. Incredibly well-preserved, this stone village is made up of a labyrinth of ten clustered houses complete with stone beds, dressers and cupboards all intact as if its owners are all on holiday.

Orjney Islands, Skara BraeSkara Brae

Dating back some 5000 years, Skara Brae was inhabited for 600 years and deserted sometime around the construction of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The village was only discovered in 1850 when a violent storm carried away the sand dunes that had piled on, preserving them. Today, it is one of the most complete Neolithic villages in Europe and it has a visitor centre, gift shop and charming café.

Located on the sandy white Bay of Skaill on Mainland Orkney’s west coast, Skara Brae is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site (1999) which also includes Maes Howe, The Standing Stones of Stenness and The Ring of Brodgar. 

The tour begins with a short video and an introductory exhibition highlighting archaeological findings in bold and theories in italics. This is followed by a viewing of a reconstructed house that gives you a better idea of the following exhibits. If you’re here in summer, Skaill House [Joint ticket with Skara Brae] is open for visits as well. The house was built in 1620 for the local bishop, a shocking contrast to the prehistoric monument, but intriguing enough. Look out for the hidden compartment in the library and the original 17th-century four-poster bed that once cradled the bishop.

The hidden alleyways and paved winding streets of Stromness (pop. 2,200) are a testament to its colourful past, culminating in the 18th century when conflict with the French brought ships bound for the Americas to its shores because the Channel was deemed unsafe. A popular base for exploring the Orkneys, Stromness gets its name from the Norse term “Strom” which refers to the strong tides that wave past the Point of Ness and through Hoy Sound to the town’s south, and “Ness” meaning headland. The burgh is the main seaport of Orkney with picturesque houses along the shore, built half into the hill on one side and half out into sea on the other. Look out for the displays of whale bones outside several buildings in town.

Stromness on the Orkney IslandsLayout
The Northlink Ferry Terminal shares the same building as the Tourist Office [Pier Head, Stromness, Tel. +44 1856850716]. Hire a bicycle from Orkney Cycle Hire [54 Dundas Street, Tel. +44 1856850255, from £6/day] to get around Stromness.

The Stromness Museum [52 Alfred Street, Tel. +44 1856850025, www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/stromnessmuseum, £3.50] interprets the town’s maritime heritage with a collection of historical displays including some on Arctic whaling and the German fleet that was scuttled in Scapa Flow. The museum also has a section on Stromness’ natural history. If you carry an MP3 player, download the BBC podcast [http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/take_one/downloads.shtml] that guides you on a tour of the museum.

The Pier Arts Centre [Ferry Road, Tel. +44 1856850209, www.pierartscentre.com, admission free] underwent a major redesign, making it one of the most striking buildings north of Scotland’s mainland. The centre is the place to be to indulge in Orkney’s modern art scene. The museum has a permanent exhibition of paintings and sculptures, and temporary exhibitions featuring some of the latest pieces of modern art.
Stromness by Carriage [Hoy View, Innertown, Tel. +44 1856851388, http://www.stromnessbycarriage.co.uk, prices vary] offers tours of the town if you want a more laid-back, traditional experience.


The village of Stenness on Orkney’s Mainland is well known for nearby prehistoric monuments – Maes Howe, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar which, together with Skara Brae, collectively form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site (1999). The sites are evidential of Orkney’s significant role in the development of British Neolithic culture.

Between the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae is the Orkney Folklore & Storytelling Visitor Centre [Tel. +44 1856841207, www.orkneyretreat.co.uk, £3.50] that is a must stop for culture buffs. The best way to experience the island’s tradition is on storytelling evenings [8.30pm, ad/ch £10/6] – Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays, during which the local legends are told around a peat fire. The centre is also a B&B [from £50] which serves traditional local cuisine.  

Maes Howe
Dating back as far as 3000 BC, Maes Howe is a massive chambered cairn from the Stone Age that was built from large blocks of sandstone. Marveling at such a sight, it is hard to believe that some of these heavy blocks were brought here from far away by means of primitive methods of transportation. 

The term “Howe” from the Old Norse word “haugr” which means “mound” or “barrow” is commonly used throughout Orkney. A grass mound veils a series of stone passages that lead towards a central chamber. Built entirely out of carefully sculpted slabs of sandstone, this monument is in a league of its own, compared to most of its European counterparts from the same era. The origin and ancient use of Maes Howe has yet to be discovered, but one thing is for sure – it was a place of huge significance.

As if the precise construction of a cairn with gargantuan blocks of stone wasn’t enough, Maes Howe seems to have been designed such that during a few weeks around the winter solstice, the rear wall of the tomb is illuminated when rays from the setting sun shoot up the entrance passage and into the central chamber.

Abandoned during the Bronze Age, Maes Howe was broken into from the 9th to 12th centuries by Vikings who were seeking treasure. Some years later, another group of Norsemen sought refuge in the chamber from a 3-day blizzard, during which they ‘vandalized’ the walls with a series of runic inscriptions that is today, one of the largest collections of its kind in Europe. Ask your guide to show you more inscriptions if you please.

Admissions to Maes Howe must be booked and paid for in advance at Tormiston Mill Visitor Centre [Tel. +44 1856761606, £6] or over the phone. Tickets for the 45-minute guided tour are scheduled for fixed time slots so exercise punctuality.

Orkney Islands, Standing Stones of StennessStanding Stones of Stenness
The Standing Stones of Stenness [admission free] are five remains of a henge of 12 megaliths, the largest of which is about 6 metres high.  Visible from Maes Howe, the site is believed to have been constructed around 3300 BC, making it one of the earliest henge in Britain.

The Stones stand about 1.2 kilometers away from the Ring of Brodgar to its north-west and about the same distance away from Maes Howe to its east. This suggests that The Stones form part of a landscape of ritualistic significance to the “grooved ware people”.

The original structure was a circle of 12 standing stones approximately 32 metres in diameter, surrounded by a 2-metre wide and 7-metre deep ditch, with one entrance causeway on its northern side that faces the Barnhouse Settlement. The Watch Stone stands to the north-west outside the circle while a square stone in the circle’s centre along with discovered animal bones in the ditch suggest ritualistic sacrifice and feasts.

Ring of Brodgar
The enormous Ring of Brodgar [admission free] is a stone henge, 104 metres in diameter that originally comprised of 60 megaliths. Today, just over a third of the stones remain within a circular 10-metre wide and 3-metre deep ditch that is estimated to have taken 80,000 man-hours to dig. Standing on a small isthmus between the Lochs of Harray and Stenness, The Ring was built sometime between 2500 – 2000 BC, making it the last of Stenness’ three prehistoric monuments to be constructed.

Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar site between The Standing Stones of Stenness and The Ring have unearthed many buildings of both ritualistic and domestic significance, suggesting the likeliness of more such buildings in the area. In 2010, a rock which was coloured yellow, orange and red was excavated, evidential of the use of paint by Neolithic peoples to decorate buildings. These primitive pigments could have been made from iron ore that was mixed with milk, eggs or animal fat. A week later, a stone with a red zigzag chevron motif was unearthed nearby.
From June to August, free guided tours from the car park leave at 1pm.


The busy capital of Orkney is also its largest town, Kirkwall (pop. 8,500) located on Mainland Orkney’s northern coast. The town was first referred to in the Orkneyinga Saga in 1046 when it was acknowledged as the residence of the Earl of Orkney, Rögnvald Brusason, who was killed by order of Thorfinn the Mighty, his uncle. In 1486, Kirkwall was given the status of royal burgh by King James III of Scotland.

Deriving its name from the Norse term “Kirkjuvagr” meaning “Church Bay”, Kirkwall is well known for its Saint Magnus Cathedral, one of the prized medieval churches of Scotland. The port town serves as a ferry hub for services to and from Aberdeen in Scotland’s mainland, Lerwick in the Shetlands and several of the Northern Isles.

If you’re in Kirkwall on Christmas and New Year’s Day, you’ll witness the Ba’, a traditional game of mass football played in the streets between the ‘Uppies’ and the ‘Doonies’ teams, each made up of locals from the corresponding sides of town (“Up-the-Gates” and “Doon-the-Gates” from the cathedral) . The town also nestles the northernmost Carnegie library in the world which was moved from its original building to a larger one on Junction Road.

The airport [+44 1856 872421, www.hial.co.uk] sits about 5.5 kilometers from town. The Hatston NorthLink Ferry Terminal [Hatston Quay , +44 845 600 0449] runs ferries to and from Aberdeen & Shetland while Orkney Ferries [+44 1856872044] operates services to and from Shapinsay and other isles in Orkney from terminals on Shore Street. The bus station cum information centre [+44 1856872856] sits at the top of West Castle Street in the heart of town.

ORKNEYS st magnus cathedralSights
As if the reddish walls of Saint Magnus Cathedral [1 Broad Street, Tel. +44 1856874894, www.stmagnus.org, admission free] emerging over Kirkwall aren’t enough to intrigue, the cathedral’s aisled interior is punctuated with commanding pillars and arches, all echoing an ethereal ambience. Commissioned in 1137 by Earl Rognvald Kolsson the cathedral was built in honour of the Earl’s uncle, Saint Magnus, whose bones were found in the rectangular pillars near the choir stalls. Highlights include the stained glass work and medieval grave markers. Tours of the upper floor (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am and 2pm) should be booked with the custodian in advance. At the St Magnus Centre [admission free], a 15-minute multilingual film on the cathedral and the Saint is available for viewing.
Nearby rest the sandstone ruins of the Earl’s Palace & Bishop’s Palace [Watergate, Tel. +44 1856871918, joint admission ad/ch £4.50/£2.70]. The 16th-century Earl’s Palace although never actually completed was once recognized as a fine example of Scotland’s Renaissance buildings, while the 12th-century Bishop’s Palace was the luxurious residence of Bishop William. The latter has a tower offering great views of the cathedral.

Tankerness House & Orkney Museum [Broad Street, Tel. +44 1856873191, www.orkney.gov.uk, admission free] opposite the cathedral’s entrance is housed in a former merchant’s home. It features Orkney’s history, including Pictish carvings and a display on the Ba Game. Look out for the last rooms which showcase Orkney’s 19th-and 20th-century social history and the charming gardens on the museum’s grounds.

Highland Park Distillery Kirkwall Flickr austinevan The Highland Park Distillery [Holm Road, Tel. +44 1856874619, www.highlandpark.co.uk, standard tour £6.00] is a highly-regarded whiskey maker which malts its own barley. The hour-long tour explains the whiskey-making process complete with germination and drying methods. Instead of the standard tour, you may book a Connoisseur tour [£35.00] which includes a taste of 12-, 15-, 18- and 25-year-old Highland Park Whiskey, or the special Magnus Eunson Tour [£75.00, group of 8 or less] inclusive of a full-range tasting and an oak-framed certificate, limited edition glass and Highland Park book as souvenirs.

The Orkney Wine Company [Operahalla, Tel. +44 1856878700, www.orkneywine.co.uk] makes traditional fruit wines and liqueurs using local fruit, flowers and vegetables – keeping them as natural as possible. This results in wholesome varieties that are both anti-oxidant and vegetarian.

Orkney Wireless Museum [1 Junction Road (Kiln Corner), Tel. +44 185687140, www.orkneywirelessmuseum.org.uk, £3] houses a collection of domestic and military wireless communication equipment, especially those used during World War II. The museum started out with a personal collection of the late Jim MacDonald of Saint Margaret’s Hope and later developed into a fascinating collection including war memorabilia and photographs.

Founded in 1683,  Orkney Library and Archive [44 Junction Road, Tel. +44 1856873166, www.orkneylibrary.org.uk] is Scotland’s oldest public library that will provide bookworms and history buffs with sleepless hours.

If books don’t grab you, the Pickaquoy Centre [Muddisdale Road, Tel. +44 1856879900, www.pickaquoy.net] provides all sorts of family fun. This large community and leisure facility comprises of a fitness suite, a health suite, a gym, an athletics track, a sports arena, an all weather pitch, a cinema and an adventure play area for kids. Golf enthusiasts can tee off at the 18-hole Kirkwall Golf Course [Grainbank, Tel. 1856872457, www.orkneygolfclub.co.uk].

Brough O’Deerness
Sticking out of the north-eastern coast of Mainland Orkney into the North Sea is the Brough O’Deerness (Brough of Deerness) a massive grassy rock spanning 80 metres by 30 metres. Atop the Brough remain faded remnants of a settlement surrounding the ruins of a chapel from the 10th century.

Once linked to Mainland Orkney by a bridge that is believed to have fallen way before the Brough was occupied, the rock its now accessible via a muddy path down to the bottom of Little Burrageo which leads to a steep and narrow track up the southern edge of the Brough towards its top. The Brough is part of the Mull Head Nature Reserve.

The Gloup
The Mull Head Nature Reserve on Orkney’s East Mainland nestles The Gloup, a collapsed sea-cave that is approximately 40 metres long and 25 metres deep. Getting its name from the Old Norse term “gluppa” meaning “chasm”, the cave is located on the east coast of the Deerness peninsula. The nature reserve is great for nature walks, with sign-posted circuit routes from the Gloup Car Park.


ORKNEYS hoy sea stackThe island of Hoy (pop. 300) is the second largest of Scotland’s Orkneys Islands and is connected to the isle of South Walls via The Ayre causeway. Getting its name from the Old Norse term “Haey” meaning “High Island”, Hoy’s northern and western parts are hilly and ‘higher’ while its south and east emulate the fertile low-lying character of most the Orkneys. Steeped in history, Hoy possesses the charms of a wonderfully aged environment complete with prehistoric sites and natural scenery. The sea has left its mark on the coast in the form of cliffs, bays and striking rock formations that make for scenic walks across the island which stretches 23 kilometers at most at its longest point.

On Hoy’s west coast is one of Britain’s highest vertical cliff, St John’s Head (346m), popular amongst photographers. The island’s better known attraction is the Old Man of Hoy (137m), a sea stack that is attracts rock climbers and geology buffs. The northern part of the island nestles the North Hoy RSPB Reserve where seabirds such as great skuas, fulmars and kittiwakes breed.

A popular walking route leads along the cliff edge facing the Old Man of Hoy. This 7-hour return trip begins at Moaness Pier. Another route circuits to the sea stack via the Dwarfie Stane [admission free], a megalithic chambered tomb carved out of a single huge block of red sandstone, resting between the settlements of Rackwick and Quoys, dating back to 3000 BC.

Lyness, where the car ferry stops on Hoy served as the base for the British grand Fleet until 1956. In between Lyness (Hoy) and Mainland Orkney is Scapa Flow, one of the world’s largest natural harbours that was used by various fleets from as far back as the Viking era. It was here that the sinking of the German Fleet by Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter took place early in the 20th century. Seven vessels still remain on the seabed to attract divers, including the three battleships; König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Markgraf. The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre [Lyness, Tel. 1856791300, www.scapaflow.co.uk/sfvc.htm, admission free] is an interesting naval museum that features a photographic display in an old pump house. Highlights include the account of the scuttling of the German Fleet after WWI.

The car ferry [Tel. +44 1856811397] operates from Lyness while the passenger & bicycle ferry [Tel. +44 1856850624] sails from Moaness Pier.


Scapa Flow
In 1939, a German U-boat stealthily sailed into Scapa Flow, sinking the battleship HMS Royal Oak and taking the British Royal Navy by surprise. It was then that Sir Winston Churchill strategized to defend the naval harbour, creating the Churchill Barriers using discarded ships and concrete blocks to block the channels between Mainland Orkney, South Ronaldsay, Burray (pop. 360), Glims Holm and Lamb Holm. The barriers still remain today, providing links between the islands. 

Isle of Burray
Burray lies east of Scapa Flow, between Mainland Orkney and South Ronaldsay, connected to the latter by the 4th Churchill Barrier. Burray’s sandy beaches have made it a centre for holidays and water sports including diving, and sailing. Boasting several lochs, cliffs and rocks, Burray is also a hotspot for watching birds, seals and the occasional otter or two.

Scapa Flow has earned its reputation as one of Europe’s best diving spots, owing to its clear pollution-free waters and the sinking of the German Fleet by Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter early in 1919. The legendary scuttling left behind wrecks that were mostly salvaged, save for a few which have become popular diving sites. Contact Scapa Flow Diving Centre [Tel. +441856751492, www.scapaflowdivingcentre.com] for more details on dive trips. If you’d prefer to stay dry, hire some fishing tackle and cast your lines off the barriers or local boats.

Burray Village is the island’s charming main settlement and centre for farming, knitwear production, accommodation and hospitality. Be sure to visit one of the craft shops for souvenirs. After the village, with Scapa Flow on your left, head past Echna Loch towards the hill on the right where you’ll find the Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre [Viewforth, Tel. +44 1856731255, www.orkneyfossilcentre.co.uk, ad/ch £3.50/£2]. Here, an interesting display of fossils, some more that 350 million years old, trace the geological development of the Orkney Islands through fish fossils that were deposited in sedimentary rocks by Lake Orcadia which used to cover the area. The collection also includes more contemporary artifacts and memorabilia, and the centre has a small gift shop and café.

ORKNEYS italian ChapelLamb Holm
Nearby, the island of Lamb Holm in Holm Sound, between Burray and Mainland Orkney, nestles the Italian Chapel [Tel. +44 1856781268, admission free]. It was built in World War II by the Italian Prisoners of Camp 60 who were living on the island while constructing the Churchill Barriers east of Scapa Flow. Completed only after the war, the chapel was restored twice; in the 1960s and 1990s.

The little island of Hunda on the west side of Burray is uninhabited, save for sheep and goats, but it is a good place to spot birds and seals. Call Littlequoy Farm before visiting.

The island of South Ronaldsay (pop. 850) is the nearest of the Orkney Islands to the northern coast of Scotland. The island is linked to Mainland Orkney by the Churchill Barriers which Sir Winston Churchill strategized to defend the naval harbour of Scapa Flow. The barriers run via Burray, Glims Holm and Lamb Holm to South Ronaldsay.

The main attractions on the island include the charming village of St. Margaret’s Hope and the southern archaeological Tomb of the Eagles. Rich in geology, South Ronaldsay’s beaches, lochs, cliffs and rocks provide a natural habitat and playground for various seabirds, seals and otters.

Other places of interest on the island include St Mary’s Church [Burwick, Tel. +44 01856831212] – one of the earliest chapels in Orkney set in a small graveyard overlooking the Ayre of Burwick, the Harrabrough sea stack and the scenic viewpoint of Olad Brae offering views of the Pentland Firth, mainland Scotland and several of Orkney’s isles.

The village of St Margaret’s Hope nestles the nearest ferry terminal [Pier Road, Tel. +44 8006888998, www.pentlandferries.co.uk].

St. Margaret’s Hope
St. Margaret’s Hope (pop. 550) is the main settlement on the island of South Ronaldsay located just off Water Sound in the Orkneys. Known locally as The Hope (pronounced “Hup”); the village sits on a sheltered bay with houses along the shore and is a centre for hospitality for visitors to South Ronaldsay. It is suggested that the village was named after Margaret, Maid of Norway, who was engaged to Edward II of England but may have died there in 1290 on the way to her wedding.

St. Margaret’s Hope serves as a ferry terminus and is connected to Gill’s Bay on mainland Scotland by Pentland Ferries [Pier Road, Tel. +44 8006888998, www.pentlandferries.co.uk].

Tomb of the Eagles

Nestled in the south of the isle of South Ronaldsay is the Tomb of the Eagles [Liddle Farm (St. Margaret’s Hope), Tel. +44 1856831339, www.tomboftheeagles.co.uk, ad/ch £6.80/£3], a massive chambered tomb that was discovered by farmer Ronald Simison in 1958. Dating back to approximately 3000 BC, the tomb gets its name from the numerous claws and talons of sea eagles found on site.

Ronald Simison first found a Bronze Age stone building with an indoor well, a fire pit and seating areas. Beyond this is the Neolithic tomb which you’ll have to wheel yourself into with a trolley, lying flat. The impressive stone tomb held the remains of up to 340 people who died some 5 millennia ago. The site is about a 1.5-kilometer walk from the visitor centre where you’ll see skulls and hold some artifacts.

To get here from St. Margaret’s Hope, follow the main road through the village and make a right turn at the first junction towards Burwick A961. Just under 10 kilometers on, turn left at the “Tomb of the Eagles” sign and follow more signage for about 1.5 kilometers.