Exploring the Orkney Islands

Exploring the Orkney Islands

Nestled off the northeastern coast of Scotland, the Orkney Islands are a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. This archipelago, consisting of approximately 70 islands, is known for its rich history, breathtaking landscapes, and unique cultural heritage. From ancient archaeological sites to stunning natural wonders, there is something for every traveler to explore in the Orkneys. In this article, we will take you on a journey through these enchanting islands and uncover their hidden treasures.

1. Awe-Inspiring Neolithic Sites:

One of the main draws of the Orkney Islands is their incredible collection of Neolithic sites, which date back over 5,000 years. UNESCO has recognized these sites as a World Heritage Site, highlighting their global significance. Among the most famous sites is Skara Brae, a remarkably preserved stone-built village that offers a glimpse into the lives of Neolithic inhabitants. Wander through the ancient dwellings, marvel at the intricate stone furniture, and imagine the stories that these ruins hold.

Another must-visit site is the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle that stands as a mysterious and awe-inspiring monument. Explore the circle, consisting of 27 standing stones, and contemplate the purpose and symbolism behind this ancient structure. Additionally, Maeshowe, a Neolithic chambered tomb, is worth a visit to witness the fascinating alignments of the winter solstice. These Neolithic sites are a testament to the advanced skills and ingenuity of our ancestors, and they offer a profound connection to the past.

2. Viking Heritage and Historic Landmarks:

The Orkney Islands also have a rich Viking heritage, with a history that is deeply intertwined with Norse culture. Visit the Brough of Birsay, an island connected to the mainland by a causeway, where you can explore the remains of an ancient Viking settlement. Discover the Viking Age artifacts and gain insights into the lives of the Norse settlers who once inhabited this rugged land.

Additionally, the town of Kirkwall, the largest settlement in the Orkneys, is home to many historic landmarks. St. Magnus Cathedral, a magnificent medieval cathedral, is a testament to the island’s religious history. Take a guided tour to learn about the cathedral’s architecture and the stories behind its construction. The Earl’s Palace, a 16th-century ruin, offers a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of the earls of Orkney. Immerse yourself in the history and explore the grand halls and intricately carved stone details.

3. Captivating Coastal Landscapes:

The Orkney Islands boast an abundance of captivating coastal landscapes that will leave you in awe. From rugged cliffs to sweeping sandy beaches, the coastline offers a diverse range of natural beauty. The dramatic cliffs of Yesnaby are a photographer’s paradise, with their imposing presence and breathtaking views of the crashing waves below. Take a leisurely walk along the coastal path and marvel at the sea stacks and natural arches that have been sculpted by the relentless forces of nature.

For a tranquil beach experience, head to the Bay of Skaill, where you can stroll along the pristine shoreline and feel the soft sand between your toes. This idyllic beach is also home to Skaill House, a 17th-century mansion that offers a glimpse into Orkney’s past. Explore the historic rooms and wander through the beautiful gardens, all while enjoying the stunning coastal backdrop.

4. Birdwatching Paradise:

The Orkney Islands are a haven for birdwatchers, with an abundance of bird species that call these islands home. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) nature reserves in the Orkneys provide excellent opportunities for birdwatching. Visit the North Hill reserve on

 Hoy Island to spot majestic sea eagles soaring overhead or scan the cliffs for puffins during the breeding season. The Noup Cliffs reserve on Westray Island is another hotspot for birdwatching, offering stunning views of seabird colonies, including guillemots, razorbills, and fulmars.

The Orkney Islands are also a crucial breeding ground for many species of migratory birds, making it a must-visit destination for bird enthusiasts. Keep your binoculars handy and explore the coastal paths and nature reserves to witness the impressive diversity of birdlife that thrives in this unique environment.

5. Delicious Local Cuisine:

No visit to the Orkney Islands is complete without savoring the local cuisine. The islands offer a wealth of culinary delights, showcasing the region’s fresh seafood, traditional dishes, and locally sourced ingredients. Sample the famous Orkney cheese, renowned for its distinct flavor and creamy texture. Visit one of the local distilleries and enjoy a tasting of fine Orcadian whisky, crafted using traditional methods that have been passed down through generations.

Indulge in locally caught seafood, such as succulent scallops, flavorsome crab, and tender lobster. Many restaurants and cafes in the Orkneys pride themselves on serving dishes made from the finest local produce. From hearty stews to delectable desserts, the Orkney Islands offer a culinary experience that will leave your taste buds longing for more.

6. Island-Hopping Adventures:

One of the best ways to explore the Orkney Islands is by embarking on an island-hopping adventure. The well-connected ferry system allows you to easily hop from one island to another, each offering its own unique charm and attractions. Explore the rugged landscapes of Hoy Island, hike to the famous Old Man of Hoy sea stack, and soak in the tranquility of the surrounding nature.

Visit the island of Rousay, known as the “Egypt of the North” due to its wealth of archaeological sites. Explore the ancient chambered cairns and tombs that dot the landscape and uncover the island’s rich history. Other islands worth exploring include Westray, Sanday, and Stronsay, each offering their own distinct landscapes and attractions.

7. Unforgettable Sunsets and Aurora Borealis:

The Orkney Islands are blessed with breathtaking sunsets that paint the sky with vibrant hues of orange, pink, and purple. Find a scenic spot along the coast, perhaps with a view of one of the Neolithic sites, and witness the spectacle of the sun sinking below the horizon. Capture the moment with your camera or simply take a moment to savor the beauty of nature’s display.

In the winter months, the Orkneys also offer the chance to witness the mesmerizing Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. The islands’ remote location and minimal light pollution make them an ideal destination for experiencing this natural phenomenon. On a clear night, if luck is on your side, you may be treated to a dazzling display of dancing lights illuminating the dark sky.

8. Warm Island Hospitality:

One of the highlights of visiting the Orkney Islands is the warm and welcoming hospitality of the locals. The close-knit island communities are known for their friendly nature and genuine warmth towards visitors. Take the time to engage in conversations with the locals, and you may uncover hidden gems and stories that add a personal touch to your Orkney experience.

Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in a traditional music session in one of the local pubs or offered a taste of homemade Orkney fudge. The islanders’ pride in their heritage and willingness to share their knowledge and traditions create a welcoming atmosphere that enhances your exploration of the Orkney Islands.

The Orkney Islands have a rich and diverse history that adds to their allure. Throughout the archipelago, you’ll find numerous archaeological sites and ancient monuments that provide a glimpse into the past. One such site is the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle dating back over 4,500 years. This impressive monument consists of 27 standing stones arranged in a perfect circle, creating a captivating sight against the backdrop of the surrounding landscape. The purpose of the Ring of Brodgar remains a mystery, adding an air of intrigue to this ancient site.

Another must-visit archaeological site is Skara Brae, a remarkably preserved Neolithic village. Located on the west coast of the Orkney mainland, Skara Brae offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the inhabitants who lived here over 5,000 years ago. Explore the well-preserved stone dwellings and imagine what life was like in this ancient settlement. The site also includes a visitor center where you can learn more about the history and significance of Skara Brae.

For those interested in the Viking history of the Orkney Islands, a visit to the Birsay Norse Settlement is a must. This archaeological site provides a glimpse into the lives of the Norsemen who settled here during the Viking Age. Explore the remains of the Viking farmstead and imagine the daily activities that took place within these ancient walls. The site also offers stunning views of the coastline, adding to the overall experience.

The Orkney Islands are also home to numerous museums and visitor centers that delve deeper into the history and culture of the region. The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall houses a vast collection of artifacts and displays that showcase the islands’ rich heritage. Learn about the Picts, the early Christian period, and the Norse influence that shaped the islands’ history. The Stromness Museum, located in the charming town of Stromness, offers further insights into the maritime history and natural wonders of the Orkneys.

Aside from its historical significance, the Orkney Islands boast some of the most stunning natural landscapes in Scotland. From dramatic cliffs and sweeping beaches to picturesque countryside and tranquil lochs, the islands offer a haven for nature lovers. Explore the coastline and be rewarded with breathtaking views of rugged cliffs, sea stacks, and secluded coves. The dramatic cliffs of Yesnaby provide a perfect vantage point to observe the crashing waves and the seabirds that call these cliffs home.

Nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries are scattered throughout the islands, offering opportunities to spot a variety of bird species, seals, and even whales. The RSPB nature reserve on the island of North Ronaldsay is a haven for birdwatching, with thousands of seabirds nesting along the coastline. Keep an eye out for puffins, Arctic terns, and great skuas as you explore the reserve. The beaches of Sanday Island are also a great place to spot seals basking in the sun or playing in the surf.

Exploring the Orkney Islands wouldn’t be complete without indulging in the local cuisine and experiencing the vibrant arts and crafts scene. The islands boast a thriving food and drink culture, with an emphasis on fresh, local produce. Sample Orcadian specialties such as haggis, seafood, and traditional bannocks (oatcakes). Visit the local farmers’ markets to taste the flavors of the islands and purchase handmade crafts, including pottery, jewelry, and textiles.

The Orkney Islands are also known for their festivals and events that celebrate the islands’ heritage and culture. The St. Magnus International Festival, held annually in June, showcases the best of the islands’ music, arts, and literature. The event attracts performers and artists from around the world, creating a vibrant atmosphere throughout the islands. The Orkney Folk Festival is another popular event, celebrating traditional music and dance in various venues across the islands.

As you explore the Orkney Islands, take the opportunity to hop on a ferry and visit some of the smaller islands that make up the archipelago. The islands of Hoy, Rousay, and Eday offer their own unique charm and attractions. Whether it’s the towering sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy, the ancient broch of Midhowe on Rousay, or the bird reserves of Eday, each island has its own distinct character and natural beauty to discover.


The Orkney Islands offer a captivating blend of ancient history, breathtaking landscapes, and warm island hospitality. Whether you’re exploring the Neolithic sites, immersing yourself in Viking heritage, or simply enjoying the natural beauty of the coast, the Orkneys will leave a lasting impression on your travel memories. From archaeological wonders to birdwatching paradises, culinary delights to island-hopping adventures, the Orkney Islands are a destination that should not be missed. Plan your journey to this enchanting archipelago and discover the magic of the Orkneys for yourself.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *