West Mainland - Orkney

Enjoy a two day tour of the West Mainland and marvel at the variety of plants, animals, scenery and prehistoric settlements. This circular driving route can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace with plenty of time to explore and enjoy the wonders of this part of Orkney.

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  • People admiring the Broch of Gurness, Evie
    Broch of Gurness, Evie
  • The causeway to the Brough of Birsay, West Mainland
    The causeway to the Brough of Birsay, West Mainland
  • Looking over a field to Maeshowe, Stenness
    Maeshowe, Stenness
  • Ring of Brodgar, Stenness
    Ring of Brodgar, Stenness
  • Looking onto Skara Brae at the beach of the Bay of Skaill
    Skara Brae

Begin your journey with a visit to Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in Western Europe, built over 5,000 years ago. Book a tour in advance to avoid disappointment and spend the morning exploring one of the finest architectural achievements of prehistoric Europe. Situated in Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, Maeshowe is a spectacular place to begin your tour of the West Mainland.

Continue on a five minute drive to the Standing Stones of Stenness, one of the most famous sites in Orkney, the stones make up a small circle dating from the third millennium BC. Originally the circle consisted of twelve stones, though only four still stand in the circle. Situated on the edge of the Ness of Brodgar, a thin strip of land separating Loch Harray and Loch Stenness, the stones are perfectly situated for a spectacular walk.

Continue just moments down the ness to visit another spectacular henge. One of the finest stone circles in the world, the Ring of Brodgar has become an iconic part of Orkney’s identity. The stone ring was built in a true circle, 104 m wide and originally contained sixty megaliths; today only twenty-seven of these stones remain. Part of Orkney's World Heritage Site, free walks around the site are provided by Historic Scotland rangers.

Take the scenic drive over the Ness of Brodgar and through the heart of Neolithic Orkney. There are plenty more historical sites and artefacts to discover, including the remains of the Barnhouse Settlement, the shell of a Neolithic village of houses and buildings with kerbed hearths and stone furniture. You may prefer to leave the car and walk through the heritage site, enjoying the combination of impressive scenery and fascinating history.

Finally visit the last and possibly most remarkable of the Neolithic remains in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, Skara Brae. Concealed beneath sand dunes until 1850, Skara Brae is an impressive complex of Neolithic dwellings connected by low, covered passages. The protection of the sand has ensured that the buildings and contents are incredibly well-preserved, giving an unparalleled glimpse of life as it was in Neolithic Orkney. Discover more in the visitor centre with touch-screen presentations, quizzes and artefacts from excavations. Finish your visit to Skara Brae with an afternoon snack in the café and a browse through the well-stocked gift shop.

Finish your day with a tour of the Orkney Brewery, located a short drive away in Quoyloo. Try out the local ales and enjoy a delicious meal.

Begin your second day exploring the parish of Birsay, one of the most historically significant settlements in Orkney. Birsay has been home to Neolithic people, Picts, Vikings and Scottish Royalty and each has left their mark on this small coastal village. Explore St Magnus Church, Barony Mill and the Earl’s Palace and take a stroll along one of the scenic coastal paths. Birsay is home to two RSPB protected areas and has a wealth of fascinating birds and animals to see.

Next, pay a visit to the Brough of Birsay, a small, uninhabited tidal island of the north coast of Birsay. Cross the causeway at low tide and explore the remains of both Pictish and Norse settlements. A walk to the far side of the brough brings you to the lighthouse and cliff face.  This is a good place for watching migratory birds and a chance to see puffins. Keep your eyes peeled for whales off the shore and for the popular groatie buckies or cowrie shells.

While in Birsay, visit the Kirbuster Museum, the last example of a traditional ‘firehoose’, an early 19th century farmhouse and steading. The museum contains Orkney’s last peat-fired central hearth, stone neuk beds and a collection of ancient farming utensils. The site also has an Edwardian parlour and Victorian Gardens. Visitors can enjoy a game of putting on the green and also explore the new Trowie Trail in the back garden.

Enjoy a coastal drive around the very north of the Mainland, with spectacular views across to Rousay before arriving at the Broch of Gurness. Situated at the tip of Aikerness, with magnificent views across to Eynhallow Island, the broch sits in a spectacular location. The most impressive and best surviving example of a broch in the Orkney Mainland, the broch stands in the centre of a small stone village surrounded by houses and ramparts. The village at Gurness is the best-preserved of all broch villages, with numerous houses. Each had an entrance leading to a large room, off which lay smaller side rooms. The main room had a hearth, a large tank set into the floor, cupboards and sleeping spaces. Some houses had a yard outside, open to the sky, and a separate shed.

Finish your journey with a scenic drive through the heart of the West Mainland, heading back to Loch Harray. Enjoy a delicious meal at Merkister Hotel’s Skerries Restaurant, one of Orkney’s finest dining experiences, including the freshest local seafood. With a spectacular view over the Loch Harray and the hills of Hoy, the restaurant boasts some of the finest sunsets in Scotland.