Travel

Top things to see and do in Orkney

As the Orkney Overlanders, we thought it was only fitting that one of our first travel posts should be about the Orkney Islands!

Having both spent the largest portions of our lives living in Orkney we can get a little complacent when it comes to the wonders of this little group of islands. However, they truly are spectacular and well worth visiting.

Orkney – Where’s that?!

Located approximately 10 miles north of the top of mainland Scotland and comprising of around 70 islands, Orkney has a lot more going for it than most people would think.

The islands are mostly composed of agricultural land and heathery moors. The rolling landscape is encompassed by miles upon miles of beautiful beaches and rugged cliffs, and there’s wildlife everywhere you look.

Scattered across the landscape there are so many interesting sites and beauty spots to visit.

Here are some of our favourites:

(Disclaimer: many of these sites and services still have limited or no access currently due to Covid. Please check site-specific websites for up-to-date information, and follow the official guidelines for visiting. Parking/ticket prices checked 2021)

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney at sunset
The Ring of Brodgar

Ancient sites

The Ring of Brodgar

This is definitely our most visited historical site! It’s an impressive, Neolithic stone circle and henge that rises up out of the heather between the Harray and Stenness Lochs. Built over 5,000 years ago, it’s comparable with Stonehenge and is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Brodgar is one of the first places I suggest for people go and check out when visiting the islands. The inside of the circle is sometimes closed for environmental regeneration, but you can still walk around the henge and explore.

There’s a spacious car park easy access, and bonus – it’s free to visit!

Skara Brae

This is one of Orkney’s most impressive sites. A prehistoric village perched on the edge of Skaill beach. The village was inhabited long before the pyramids were built but was only discovered in the 1850s after a storm unveiled it. Looking at it now you can clearly see the different houses, drainage and even stone furniture inside! It’s actually Europe’s most complete Neolithic village.

Standard adult tickets are £7 (visit Historic Scotland for more information and tickets). There is a good size car park and facilities on site.

Maeshowe

It might not look like all that much from the roadside but Maeshowe is another important historical site on Orkney. Maeshowe is a 5000-year-old, earth-covered chambered cairn or tomb. Around the Winter Solstice the setting Sun shines along the long, narrow entrance passage and illuminates the chamber inside. It’s pretty impressive in its own right, but there’s more! When the Vikings broke in, way back when, they left behind the largest collection of runic inscriptions (graffiti) outside Scandinavia!

You can only visit this site as part of a tour. Go to the visitor centre in Stenness to park and catch the shuttle bus. Tickets are £9 and there is a decent size car park although the entrance is rather narrow.

Ness of Brodgar

For such an ancient site this one’s actually pretty new on the scene. It was only discovered in 2002 and it’s still in the process of being excavated. Visiting hours are limited to within the dig season as it is an active archaeological site. However, the chance to explore the history of this site as it’s being discovered is one you should definitely take.

You can park at the Ring of Brodgar Parking.

Historic Sites

St Magnus Cathedral

This is my first suggestion that is actually in the city of Kirkwall. Yes, it’s small but it is officially a city because look: it has a cathedral! The St Magnus took about 300 years to build, beginning in 1137. It’s Scotland’s only complete medieval cathedral and holds the remains of its own patron saint – St Magnus – not a very common thing! The red and yellow sandstone makes it stand out and you can take tours into the upper levels and look out across the whole of Kirkwall from the top.

There are a number of parking options nearby – both free and paid – but if you have a larger vehicle then the best option is the car park opposite Lidl, which has specific campervan bays. Visits and smartphone guides are free. There is a charge for tours which you can book through the Custodian on 01856 874894.

The Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces

Right opposite the St Magnus Cathedral are two more interesting historical sites, right in the heart of Kirkwall. The Bishop’s palace was built in the 1100’s and is where King Hakon of Norway died after a battle at Largs in 1263. You can explore the remains of this two-storey house and climb up the ‘Moosie Toor’ for views across Kirkwall.

Across the road is the Earl’s palace, built around 1606 by the then Earl of Orkney. It was an impressive site with elaborate staircases and huge fireplaces which you can still see today.  The Bishop’s palace for incorporated into the palace complex during construction.

Parking is as for the St Magnus Cathedral and standard tickets for the combined site are £6.

Birsay Earl’s Palace

For a small group of islands there does seem to be an excessive number of palaces! The Birsay Palace was built in the late 1500’s by the half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots. It might be hard to imagine it in its original condition as you walk through the ruins, but you can see that it was designed with defence in mind. This Earl was an oppressive man who seemed to forever expect a local rebellion.

Nowadays you can explore the site for free; we enjoy wandering around here with an ice cream when the weather allows! There’s a small car park in the village but larger vehicles should park at the Brough of Birsay car park. It’s only a short walk back along the coast.

Recent-historic Sites

The Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel was built during WW2. After a German ship snuck into Scapa Flow and sank the HMS Royal Oak it was decided that some of the southern Isles should have barriers built between them to help prevent attack. Italian prisoners of war were brought in to carry out this laborious task but they requested a proper place to worship while there. They were allowed to build their chapel out of two Nissen huts in their free time. The impressive craftsmanship was a labour of love for these men and there are still strong ties between Orkney and Moena – the home of Domenico Chiocetti – a leader amongst the prisoners. I (Charlotte) actually visited this mountainous municipality on a school exchange years ago and got to learn more about these men and their home.

Anyway – there’s good parking, including separate, large spaces for motorhomes. Standard tickets are £3.

The Fisherman’s huts

There are a couple of examples of these fisherman’s huts along the Orkney coast. A short walk from the Marwick Bay carpark near Birsay takes you to three little huts, built into the side of the low cliffs. They were built and used in the 1900’s to store fishing equipment and boat ‘nousts’ were cut into the earth with a winch to pull their small boats up out of the way of the rough seas.

The huts have been carefully restored and can be visited at any time for free.

Fisherman's huts, Birsay, Orkney
Fisherman’s huts, Birsay

Corrigal Farm Museum and Kirbuster Museum

These two museums in the west mainland are both brilliant examples of Orkney life as it was until very recently. Step back in time and really experience a bit of recent history. Corrigal Farm near Harray is a traditional but-and-ben farmstead with working kiln, machinery, and livestock.

Admission is free and there is a small carpark, though large vehicles may struggle to fit.

Meanwhile, Kirbuster museum near Birsay is a traditional ‘firehoose’, the last un-restored example in Northern Europe! There is a hearth in the centre of the house where an open peat fire would have always burned. The house is full of traditional furnishings and memorabilia, while the outbuildings and gardens have remained mostly unchanged since the last residents lived there.

It’s free to visit and there is some parking but, again, it may not be suitable for large vehicles.

Beauty spots

Brough of Birsay and Skibageo

This is one of our favourite places to go when we have a free weekend in Orkney. The Brough is a small tidal island off the north-west coast of the Orkney mainland. At low tide you can walk over the narrow causeway to visit. There are the remains of Pictish and Norse settlements, as well as an 11th century monastery! There’s a lighthouse on the far side of the island and if you time it right you might get to see puffins!

Please remember this is a tidal island. You must check the tide times and ensure you have sufficient time to get back before the tide starts coming in – the water moves fast, and you can get stuck.

On the ‘mainland’ shore there is a nice coastal walk around to Skibageo where there is an old fisherman’s hut, the Birsay whalebone (erected in 1870) and a couple of lovely rocky bays. Relax in peace or go for a swim!

There’s a large car park with room for campervans but it can get busy when the weather’s nice.

Mull Head, The Gloup and the Brough of Deerness

This nature reserve out in the East Mainland is definitely worth checking out if you have time. There’s a lovely circular walk around Mull Head itself which can include a visit to the Covenanter’s Memorial – a dedication to over 200 prisoners who died in a shipwreck off the Deerness coast en route to the colonies.

The Gloup is a collapsed sea cave with a small land bridge separating it from the sea. Looking down into the chasm at the waves crashing against the rock is an impressive sight. You sometimes get to see seabirds perched down on the cliff edges too.

The Brough of Deerness is a small rocky outcrop that you can access from a rocky bay between the Gloup and Mull Head. You can climb up the side of the cliff-face using the cut-in steps and chain rail fastened to the rock. There is a ruined 11th Century chapel on the Brough and it’s a great spot for bird watching and looking out to sea.

These areas are all free to visit. There is good parking at the Covenanter’s Memorial and The Gloup where there is also a visitor centre and toilets.

Inganess beach

There are so many gorgeous beaches on Orkney it’s hard to pick favourites! Inganess is only about 3km from Kirkwall centre and is a beautiful sandy bay with a difference. The remains of the MV Juniata – a WW2 blockship – sits beached right inside the bay, dominating the view. We enjoy visiting this beach to go swimming sometimes and Stuart has swum out to the wreck a couple of times.

There is free parking, with plenty of space if you’re sensible.

Waulkmill Bay

This beautiful sandy beach near Orphir is definitely worth a visit. It is a bit of a steep walk down and back up but once at the bottom it feels like the bay stretches out to sea for miles. If it weren’t for the heather topped cliffs it would seem almost tropical! Even if the tide’s in the salt marshes behind the beach are interesting to explore too.

There are toilets and a couple of parking spots on the roadside above the bay but it’s not suitable for large vehicles. Instead, you could park about a kilometre away at the RSPB Hobbister Reserve car park. From there you can take a meandering walk through the heather to the beach.

Best Orkney islands to visit

Rachwick Bay, Hoy, Orkney
Rackwick Bay, Hoy

Hoy

Personally, I would say if you could only visit one of the islands around Orkney this is the one you should pick. This island has everything. The Hoy hills tower over the rest of the archipelago and the cliffs stand higher than any others across the UK.

Rackwick Bay is a beautiful, rugged spot, nestled between the cliffs, with a small stone camping bothy right on the shore. From the bay you can walk up to see the Old Man of Hoy – a towering sea stack made famous when it was climbed live on television in the 60’s.

Hoy is also home to Britain’s most northerly natural woodland, a 5000-year-old rock cut tomb called the Dwarfie Stane, and not to mention the array of World War Two sites around the island.

To visit, you can get a ferry from Houton to Lyness or a small passenger ferry from Stromness to Moaness at the north end of the island.

Rousay

Rousay is the largest of Orkney’s islands (aside from the ‘Mainland’). It is full of important archaeological sites and it is still relatively unknown to those outside of Orkney.

Midhowe Broch is an old Iron Age site that’s in great condition, with 5m walls still standing and features such as water tanks still visible!

There are numerous chambered cairns including the two-storey, 5000-year-old Taversoe Tuick. Luckily, the short Westness Heritage Walk gives you the chance to see a huge selection of historical sites, over 5500 years ago to the early 1800s, in about a one a half kilometre stretch of coastline!

To visit Rousay you can catch a ferry from Tingwall.

Sanday

Sanday is the island of choice if white, sandy beaches are your thing. There are so many beautiful stretches of coastline in Orkney, but this island really does have some tropical looking sites.

Tresness is a great example, where only a narrow strip of dunes separates the beaches of Cata Sands and the Bay of Newark.

Doun Helzie meanwhile, is a sprawling, shallow bay with some great sea caves and cliff arches to explore.

The island is teeming with wildlife and they even have Quoyness chambered cairn in case you wanted to check out some more of the archipelago’s impressive Neolithic history!

To get to Sanday you can catch the ferry for Kirkwall harbour.

What else is there to see in Orkney?

There are plenty more historical sites, beaches and other interesting places to check out, but it would take forever to list them all. And if you prefer to get active there are miles of coast and countryside to explore – whether you’re a cyclist, walker or sea swimmer!

You can often see seals hauled up on the rocky shores around the islands and there are thousands of sea birds and waders nesting on Orkney. You might even get to see a white-tailed eagle or a corncrake if you’re very lucky.

Depending on when you choose to visit you could be enjoying long, warm summer days or aurora filled night skies!

While you’re on Orkney there are loads of opportunities to support the island community. There are some award-winning restaurants, shops and small businesses to visit. Some of our favourites are:

  • Castaway Crafts, Dounby: This shop is full of all sorts of locally made knits and gifts and owned by Stuart’s mum! There’s a large, free car park in the village.
  • The Auld Motorhoose, Kirkwall: A quirky, old-car-themed pub with a good atmosphere and live music on regular weekends. You’re best to park and overnight in one of the campervan bays in the car park opposite Lidl.
  • The Lynnfield Hotel, Kirkwall: If you want to treat yourself this would be a good place to go. It’s not the cheapest place around but they provide tasty food using local produce and a lovely country-house setting. There is a spacious car park on-site.

There’s also a great Creative Trail that takes you to loads of amazing little businesses! From painters to jewellers, who knows what you might find!

How to get there? Where to stay?

It is easy to visit with ferries from near John O’Groats, Thurso and central Aberdeen. Other options include a seasonal passenger ferry from John O’Groats itself, or you can fly from Scotland’s main airports.

There are a number of great accommodation options across Orkney. There are tonnes of hotels, hostels and AirBnBs, but for Overlanders there are also a few nice campsites including:

  • Point of Ness Caravan and Camping Site, Stromness: It’s handy for the ferry with great views over to Hoy. But drive around the village, not through the main street because you probably won’t fit, and the locals will laugh/shout at you.
  • Birsay Outdoor Centre Campsite: It’s well placed for visiting all the historical sites in West Mainland, and provides impressive views across to the Brough of Birsay.
  • Orkney Caravan Park, Kirkwall: Centrally located and attached to the local leisure centre with tonnes of facilities.
  • 59° NORTH, Sanday: A great base for exploring Sanday, Orkney’s first motorhome aire and campsite also does homemade wood-fired pizzas!

There are also some great free park ups at the Brough of Birsay, Skaill beach and Burwick pier which are ideal for responsible overnighting.

There may appear to be a lot of free space for Overland camping, especially at beaches, and there is. Just remember to be considerate towards the environment and the local landowners – many are happy to have you if they know what you’re up to.

So, should I visit?

With dozens of interesting sites and beauty spots, there really is something for everyone. Well unless you’re only interested in fast food chains and amusement parks… there’s none of that on Orkney. You should definitely make time to hop on a ferry and visit Orkney.

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