Orkney Islands

Travel Guide Europe United Kingdom Scotland Scottish Islands Orkney Islands

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Introduction

Knap of Howar Prehistoric House, Orkney Islands, Scotland

Knap of Howar Prehistoric House, Orkney Islands, Scotland

© FiveSenses

The Orkney Islands are a group of islands off the northeast coast of Scotland, the closest one being just about 15 kilometres form the mainland. They cover about 1000 square kilometres with about 20,000 inhabitants. The main reasons to plan a visit to the Orkney Islands are because of the many neolithic monuments and the flora and fauna on the Islands. In summer many species of birds are nestling on the coastline. Seals, Dolphins and Whales are common on the shores of the islands.

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Geography

Orkney is separated from the mainland of Scotland by the Pentland Firth, a 10-kilometre wide seaway between Brough Ness on the island of South Ronaldsay and Duncansby Head in Caithness. Orkney lies between 58°41′ and 59°24′ North, and 2°22′ and 3°26′ West, measuring 80 kilometres from northeast to southwest and 47 kilometres from east to west, and covers 975 square kilometres.

Orkney is separated from the Shetland Islands, a group farther out, by a body of water called the Fair Isle Channel.

The islands are mainly low-lying except for some sharply rising sandstone hills on Mainland, Rousay and Hoy (where the tallest point in Orkney, Ward Hill, can be found) and rugged cliffs on some western coasts. Nearly all of the islands have lochs, but the watercourses are merely streams draining the high land. The coastlines are indented, and the islands themselves are divided from each other by straits generally called "sounds" or "firths".

The tidal currents, or "roosts" as some of them are called locally, off many of the isles are swift, with frequent whirlpools. The islands are notable for the absence of trees, which is partly accounted for by the strong winds.

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Cities

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.
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.
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.
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 & Stromness. This is the turn-off for Tingwall (ferry for Rousay, Egilsay & 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.

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Sights and Activities

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.

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Events and Festivals

  • Folk Festival (May)
  • St Magnus Festival (midsummer)
  • County Show (August)
  • Orkney International Science Festival (September)

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Weather

The Orkney Islands have a martime climate with cool summers and mild winters. Average temperatures during the day in winter are still well above zero, while nights are just a few degrees colder. Snow is common, although rarely involves huge amounts. Total precipitation throughout the year is about 900mm. Summers are short and cool and last from June to August with days of around 16 °C and nights again just several degrees colder. Temperatures over 20 °C are possible but not common.

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Getting There

By Plane

Kirkwall Airport (KOI) is the main airport. Flights with Loganair go to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Shetland Islands and Bergen, Norway.

By Car

Cars are allowed on the ferries (see below) between Scrabster and Stromness.

By Bus

Citylink has connections from Inverness to Scrabster, where ferries leave for Stromness on the Orkneys. Buses don't go on that ferry!
Summer only John o'Groats Ferry offers bus-ferry-bus service in one from Inverness to Kirkwall. Tickets (one way/return £30/42, five hours) include bus travel from Inverness to John o’Groats, passenger ferry to Burwick and another bus from Burwick to Kirkwall. There’s one bus daily in May and two daily from June to early September.

By Boat

Northlink Ferries has connections to the Shetlands Islands and Aberdeen.
Pentland Ferries offers ferries from Gills Bay, about 5 kilometres west of John o’Groats, and head to St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney about 3 or 4 times daily depending on the season.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Eday, North Ronaldsay, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay and Westray are all served by Logainair from Kirkwall.

By Car

Getting around the islands' small and narrow roads is a great way of exploring the islands. Rental cars are available on the airport and in Kirkwall. Check the Orkney Carhire website for rates.

By Bus

Orkney Coaches runs bus services on Mainland and South Ronaldsay, but most buses don't run on Sundays.
Causeway Coaches runs to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay.

By Boat

http://www.orkneyferries.co.uk|Orkney Ferries]] operates boats between several islands, including Hoy, Flotta and the northern Orkney islands.

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Drink

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.

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Sleep

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.

View our map of accommodation in Orkney Islands

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Quick Facts

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Coordinates
  • Latitude: 59.10766
  • Longitude: -2.52048

Accommodation in Orkney Islands

We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in Orkney Islands searchable right here on Travellerspoint.

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This is version 13. Last edited at 18:21 on Jul 7, 20 by Utrecht. 8 articles link to this page.

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