Area overview - Orkney

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Orkney 2014 guide
E-brochure ››

Download an e-brochure of your free Orkney Visitor Guide

  • Calf Sound, Eday
    Calf Sound, Eday
  • Noltland Castle
    Noltland Castle
  • Ring of Brodgar
    Ring of Brodgar
  • Skara Brae
    Skara Brae
  • Warebeth beach, Mainland
    Warebeth beach, Mainland

Orkney has fascinating discoveries around every corner, resulting in countless places to visit and things to see and do. With around 70 islands and skerries, 20 of which are inhabited, each island has its own unique character and individuality, with fascinating history, wildlife and attractions. Orkney is situated 6.2 miles from the north-east tip of the Scottish Mainland. The largest island, known as the Mainland is home to most of the total 20,000 population.

Local economy and climate

With over 1,000 miles of coastline to discover, you can explore by foot, bike, boat or even kayak. The islands are mainly low lying - a gently rolling landscape of green fields, heather moorland health and lochs. Much of the landscape is farmed, growing mainly grass for animal feed. The island of Hoy is the exception with dramatic hills and valleys.

Farming, fishing and tourism are three of the main industries in Orkney which provide a wide variety of employment and income. The renewable energy industry (wind, wave and tidal) is also emerging as a major employer, providing a base for a number of leading companies in this field. The oil industry has made its mark on Orkney with the large oil terminal on the island of Flotta. The arts and crafts industry also supports a large number of employees and Orkney is one of the major jewellery producing counties in the UK.

Being surrounded by the sea has a huge influence on Orkney’s weather. The relatively warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift (or Gulf Stream) only varies by roughly 5 degrees throughout the year. As a result the mean air temperature fluctuates by less than 10 degrees from summer to winter.

The climate is described as temperate with relatively low rainfall and not a great amount of snow and ice in the winter months. The most noticeable feature about Orkney weather is the wind given the open exposure to the Atlantic and North seas. It can be windy at any time of year but the calmest, sunniest spells tend to be in May to September.

Orkney’s latitude at 59 degrees north means in summer the sun is above the horizon for 18 hours. The sun rises at around 4am and sets at about 10.30pm, with the twilight period throughout the night known as the ‘simmer dim’. 

The Mainland

The Orkney Mainland is divided into two regions, East and West Mainland.

Kirkwall is Orkney’s capital, a vibrant town with a selection of restaurants and cafés, shops, crafts and culture. The town is home to St Magnus Cathedral, one of Orkney’s most impressive landmarks, the Earl and Bishop's Palaces, Orkney Museum and the Highland Park Distillery. Kirkwall is also the departure point for the majority of the North isles ferries and is also served by Kirkwall Airport.

East Mainland

The East Mainland contains the parishes of Holm, St Andrews and Deerness. St Andrews itself is divided into two districts, Tankerness and Toab, whilst Holm also includes the small island of Lamb Holm.

The area stretches 12 miles east from Kirkwall to Skaill in Deerness and 10 miles south from Rerwick Head in Tankerness to Rose Ness in Holm. The island of Copinsay can be reached by private boat from Skaill. To the west of Copinsay are Corn Holm, Black Holm and Ward Holm. This group of islands is now owned by the RSPB, the nesting sites of some 10,000 pairs of guillemots and kittiwakes on their mile long stretch of cliffs.

The tranquil beauty of nature is evident all around the East Mainland. The area is low-lying and ideal for exploring the coast with routes taking you to beautiful sandy beaches, such as Dingieshowe and Newark, and to the magnificent cliffs of Mull Head RSPB Reserve, where you will also find the Gloup and the Brough of Deerness. You can visit Sheila Fleet's workshop in Tankerness and take a tour to see displays of her beautiful jewellery.

Although Burray and South Ronaldsay are islands, they are connected to the Mainland by causeways called the Churchill Barriers, which were built during the Second World War. After the war, a road was built on top of the barriers allowing the south isles of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay to become part of the main roadway network.

Lamb Holm boasts the first Churchill Barrier and is also home to the beautiful Italian Chapel. The second barrier will take you to Glimps Holm, home to nesting Arctic terms. Follow the third barrier to reach Burray, a popular spot for divers exploring the sunken blockships and also home to the Fossil & Heritage Centre. Explore the uninhabited island of Hunda to the west, which is a haven for wildlife. The fourth barrier will take you to South Ronaldsay and the picturesque town of St Margaret’s Hope, which grew around this sheltered bay and is a ferry arrival and departure point.

South Ronaldsay has a selection of beautiful beaches to explore such as the Sands of Wright, along with a selection of visitor attractions including the Tomb of the EaglesHoxa Tapestry Gallery and the quaint Loft Gallery, where you will find a selection of local crafts.

West Mainland

With a variety of attractions, wonderful wildlife and amazing scenery, the West Mainland is difficult to rival.

Parishes include Birsay, Evie, Firth, Harray, Orphir, Rendall, Sandwick and Stenness, and there are the villages of Dounby and Finstown.

The West Mainland boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, where you can visit the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae.

Explore spectacular cliff scenery such as Marwick Head RSPB Reserve or enjoy walking along the cliffs at Yesnaby, where you can look out over sea stacks and fascinating rock formations. This contrasts with beautiful sandy beaches including Bay of Skaill, Aikerness and the Brough of Birsay, while the rich farmland and moorland provide habitats for numerous birds, plants and mammals.

While in the West Mainland, follow the Craft Trail to find a selection of talented locals, from Fursbreck Pottery in Harray to the Yellowbird Gallery in Birsay and Jane Glue in Finstown. Visit Orphir and discover the unique Round Kirk which is just one part of the extensive Viking remains. Nearby Waulkmill Bay is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The West Mainland is a great base for fishing. Orkney’s brown trout fishing is some of the finest in Britain and you will find a selection of well stocked lochs including Stenness, Swannay and Harray.

Stromness is the second biggest town in Orkney and one of the most picturesque. The town grew up around the sheltered harbour of Hamnavoe, with a narrow winding street following the shoreline with many lanes and alleyways leading off. The Pier Arts Centre and Stromness Museum are must-see attractions. If you’re looking for something a bit more active then enjoy a round of golf at the local golf course and enjoy the spectacular views of the Hoy Sound at the same time.

Outer Islands

The Outer Islands of Orkney are mainly low lying with a gently rolling landscape of green fields, heather moorland heath and lochs. The island of Hoy is the exception with dramatic hills and valleys, and spectacular cliffs.

Shapinsay

Shapinsay is low-lying with its highest point Ward Hill at 210 ft (64 m) which offers a breathtaking view of almost all of the other outer islands on a clear day. Highlights include Balfour Castle, now the world's most northerly castle hotel, the Shapinsay Heritage Centre and Mill Dam RSPB Reserve.

Stronsay

Stronsay is about 7 miles long from north to south and is often described as being 'all arms and legs' resulting from the three large bays which bite into the island. Explore the beautiful sweeping beaches and see the spectacular rock arch, the Vat of Kirbuster. To the north, Papa Stronsay is now as it was in ancient history, a monastic settlement. To the south, the tiny island of Auskerry is home to North Ronaldsay sheep.

Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre

Together, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre encompass the unique heritage of Orkney. Rousay is known as the 'Egypt of the North' as it is home to dozens of fascinating sites including brochs, Norse settlements and 15 chambered tombs. Egilsay is the site of the martyrdom of St Magnus and a round-towered church in his memory. You can find the ruins of one of Scotland's oldest stone castles, Cubbie Roo Castle, on the island of Wyre. Eynhallow is now uninhabited but it was once a holy isle of monks and, according to legend, was home to the magical Finfolk before that.

Eday

Situated centrally among the islands and north east of Kirkwall, Eday is 8 miles long and offers panoramic views and beautiful beaches. Heathland sits next to luch pasture, while the golden beaches merge into red cliffs. Eday is home to the Neolithic Setter Stone and has an ancient freestone quarry, which provided the stone for the St Magnus Cathedral.

Sanday

The attractive island of Sanday is the largest of the islands and its most outstanding features are the sweeping bays with their white sandy beaches and the fantastic wildlife-spotting opportunities with seabirds, seals and the occasional otter. To the south of the island, at Start Point, you will find Sanday's tall lighthouse.

Westray

Known locally as ‘Queen of the Isles’ due to its rich fertile farmland, fishing boats and profusion of craft industries, Westray has many Neolithic and Norse settlements and Noltland Castle. History suggests that Westray was one of the first parts of Orkney where the Vikings settled.

Papa Westray

Papa Westray, or Papay as it is often called, is famous for its birds and North Hill, a top-rated nature reserve. It is also home to the Knap of Howar, regarded as the oldest standing house in north west Europe. The island is also famous for the world's shortest scheduled flight to Westray, which takes less than two minutes.

North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay is the most remote of Orkney's outer islands. The island supports an extremely rich and diverse population of wild flowers, mammals and birds and is well known for its native breed of sheep that live entirely on seaweed. Visit the Bird Observatory, as the island is popular with migratory birds, and the new Lighthouse Visitor Centre, to find out about the UK's tallest land-based lighthouse.

Hoy, Graemsay and Flotta

The south islands of Hoy, Graemsay and Flotta are also populated. Flotta is the gateway to Scapa Flow and offers spectacular panoramic views. Explore the island following a new 8 mile circuit. Graemsay has a charm all of its own, with almost no traffic to disturb the tranquility. The neighboring island of Hoy owes its distinct character to the hilly scenery in the north and west, while the south and east are more low-lying and fertile. Hoy provides a wide variety of activities with walking, flora and fauna, rock climbing, and wildlife watching. Explore the coast and see the Old Man of Hoy and St John's Head, the UK's tallest vertical cliffs, or visit Lyness Museum, Martello Tower and the Battery at Hackness, which all provide insight into the part played by Orkney in both World Wars.

Take a look at the ebrochure on the Islands of Orkney.       

The Islands of Orkney Guide

Webcams

Watch colonies of seals, look out over Scapa Flow or simply check the weather with the help of webcams around Orkney. Filmed in different locations around the islands, these live streams provide an up-to-the-minute glimpse of the beautiful Orkney archipelago.

Discover Orkney: Tune in to Discover Orkney's seasonal webcams to watch the sun set over the Maeshowe Tomb, watch grey seal breeding beaches on Sanday and more.

Highland Aviation: Catch planes coming in to land at airports around Scotland via Highland Aviation's live streams, including Orkney's own Kirkwall Airport.

The Kirkwall Hotel: See the comings and goings of Kirkwall's busy harbour, filmed from a webcam outside the Kirkwall Hotel.

Stromness Pier & Scapa Flow: Bloggers Tim and Jenny have set up cameras to capture a range of views around Orkney, including Stromness Pier and Scapa Flow.

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