Orkney Islands, Scotland
The Orkney Islands, also referred to as Orkney, are an archipelago off the north coast of mainland Scotland. Comprised of around 70 islands (20 of which are inhabited), the Orkney Islands have a mystical charm that makes you feel as if you are far away from everything despite the fact they are very accessible from the mainland. Orkney’s largest island is called Mainland and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
The best way to get to travel to Orkney is by ferry or plane. You can fly from many of the major cities in the UK, including London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, to Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. It is cheapest, and quickest, to fly from Aberdeen. Northlink ferries also run from Aberdeen to Kirkwall. The journey takes around seven hours but the ferries are very comfortable and equipped with all the facilities you might need. There are also ferry links between Scrabster (near Thurso) and Stromness, and John O’Groats and Burwick. It is possible to do a day trip to Orkney from northern Scotland but those who can fit it into their itinerary, an overnight visit at a hotel or booking a few nights accommodation is a better way to make the most of the islands.
What to See in Orkney
Orkney is known for its prehistoric treasures and Neolithic sites, in particular its magnificent and ancient stone circles. A must-see site is the Ring of Brodgar, considered to be the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring. Thought to be built around 2500 BC, 27 of the original 60 stones remain standing today and visiting the stone circle is a truly magical experience.Another important site is Skara Brae, the best-preserved group of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. The settlement was first uncovered by a severe storm in 1850 and remains a place of discovery. You can explore these prehistoric homes, admiring the dressers and beds early humans made from stones more than 5,000 years ago. Today, visitors can enjoy an interactive exhibit that offers a fascinating insight into one of Orkney’s most incredible archeological sites. Another archaeological wonder, also built 5,000 years ago, is Maeshowe, a Stone Age chambered tomb built into a hilly mound. The tomb, also known as a cairn, was first excavated in the mid-19th century and the tomb is built from enormous sandstone blocks that must have been brought from many miles away.
St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is a Viking-era red sandstone cathedral and Britian’s most northerly cathedral. It was founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking, as somewhere he could lay Magnus, his martyred uncle, to rest. His remains are entombed in an interior pillar. Those who choose to have a guided tour of the cathedral are allowed to climb the bell tower.
A twenty minute walk from the cathedral is the excellent Highland Park Distillery. The Highland Park distillery offers a number of guided tours and has been a part of the isle for a long time. The whisky distillery is still operating today and whisky has been distilled since 1798 and the barley is used is smoked over 4000 year old peat cut from the nearby Hobbister Moor.
The Churchill Barriers refer to four causeways that were built after the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak while it lay at harbour in Scapa Flow, a body of water in the Orkney Islands, in October 1939. Construction of the barriers began in May 1940 and much of the labour was provided by Italian prisoners of war, held in a camp on the island of Lamb Holm. Opened in 1945, the barriers have now been transformed into roads and link Mainland with the other Orkney isles of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.
The prisoners who were made to build the causeways also unwittingly created their own modern-day tourist attraction, the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. The prisoners were Catholic and they managed to convince their camp commander to build a chapel as long as they built it outside their normal working hours. Two Nissen huts were joined together to form the chapel and one of the prisoners, an artist named Domenico Chiocchetti, painted the an image of Madonna and Child above the alter. Prisoners used scrap metal and beef tins to create candelabras and other decorative furnishings and the result was something incredible. Today, people travel from all over the world to visit the chapel and it became a symbol of peace and hope in the time of war. It takes around twenty minutes to travel from Kirkwall to the chapel.
If you love wildlife, there is a lot of interesting flora and fauna to see around Orkney. It is something of a flower-lover’s paradise – thanks to the winning combination of pollution-free air and diverse natural habitats there are around 500 native plants on the islands. Over the years, orcas, walruses and sea eagles have been spotted around Orkney but many people come to see the lovable puffin. Puffins are called ‘tammie norries‘ in Orkney and they spend most of their lives at sea, returning to their breeding colonies around April or May. One of the best places to see puffins is Castle o’ Burrian, a bulky sea stack off the Westray coast. Puffins flock here in the summer months and the surrounding cliffs provide the perfect vantage points to see them in action.
There is much to be explored in Orkney, whether its the Neolithic wonders, the wildlife, the dramatic scenery, or medieval monuments. It is a great way to spend a few days. If it sounds like a place you’d like to explore, please have a look at our Tracing 5,000 years of Scotland’s history tour, our Scottish Islands and Shetland small group tour and our Seven Ages of Britain tour . All these tours visit Orkney and spend a few nights on the island, visiting sights such as Skara Brae, St Magnus Cathedral and the Italian Chapel.
Articles about the Scottish Isles published by Odyssey Traveller.
The following list of articles published by odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of Scotland when visiting:
- The Scottish Isles
- Shetland Islands Discovered
- Questions about the Outer Hebrides
- How the Atlantic Ocean shaped early life in Europe
- Skara Brae
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to the Scotland Isles
- A Long Love Affair With the Scottish Isles, in Pictures
- The hidden history of Scotland’s Small Isles
- 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Scottish history
The rest of our Scotland-related articles can be found here.
Updated July 2021.
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Tours of Scotland
Prehistoric Britain small group history tour including standing stones
Visiting England, Scotland
This guided tour invites you to explore UNESCO World heritage sites at Skara Brae in the Orkneys, Isle of Skye, and Stonehenge in a prehistoric tour. This escorted tour has trips to key sites in Scotland, and the Irish sea in Wales such as Gower Peninsula and National Museum in Cardiff and England. Each day tour is supported by local guides.
From A$14,750 AUDView Tour
23 daysJul, Sep
Scotland small group tour | Tracing 5,000 years of history
This guided tour of Scotland with a tour leader and local guides includes the isle of Skye, Orkney islands, the Scottish highlands with breathtaking scenery. Edinburgh including the royal mile, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Fort William, Urquhart castle, Stirling castle, loch lomond, Hadrians wall and New Lanark also a UNESCO World heritage site.
20 daysMay, Jul, Sep
Scottish Islands and Shetland small group tours for seniors
An escorted small group tour for couples and solo travellers of the Scottish isles including the isle of Skye draws on local guides to share their knowledge of the destinations in this unique part of Scotland. UNESCO world heritage site are visited as breathtaking scenery and authentic experiences are shared in a group of like minded people on this guided tour of remote Scotland.
From A$14,450 AUDView Tour
5 daysJun, Jul
Edinburgh City Tour
From A$2,450 AUDView Tour
13 daysJun, Aug
Scotland's Great Trails Walking Tour
An escorted walking tour of Scotland. This trip is mainly in the Scottish Highlands. Your tour leader guides you to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond and Craignorms National park with experienced local guides. The tour for mature couples and solo travellers finishes in Edinburgh with time to visit Edinburgh Castle and the Royal mile a UNESCO World heritage site.
From A$9,250 AUDView Tour
22 daysApr, Aug
Seven Ages of Britain, snapshots of Britain through the ages.
Visiting England, Scotland
This guided small group tour starts in Scotland and finishes in England. On Orkney we have a day tour to the UNESCO World heritage site, Skara Brae, before travelling to city of York. Your tour leader continues to share the history from the Neolithic to the Victorian era. The tour concludes in the capital city, London.