Orkney and Shetland itinerary

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Just off the north coast of Scotland lies the Orkney and Shetland islands, two geologically fascinating and culturally distinct archipelagos set against crystal-clear waters. Follow this 12-day itinerary through the Orkney and Shetland islands and discover some of the most stunning coastal scenery in the world, remarkable wildlife, ancient archaeological sites, pristine beaches and much more.

  • A couple take in the view towards the cliffs of Hoy from Yesnaby, Orkney.
    A couple take in the view towards the cliffs of Hoy from Yesnaby, Orkney
  • Mousa Broch, Mousa
    Mousa Broch, Mousa
  • Looking down at the Orkney coastline and the Old Man of Hoy
    The Old Man of Hoy
  • Ring of Brodgar, Stenness
    Ring of Brodgar, Stenness
  • A Shetland pony foal with its mother
    Shetland ponies
  • St Ninian's Isle connected to the mainland by a tombolo of sand at Bigton
    St Ninian's Isle

Begin your journey around these magical islands in the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall. Immerse yourself in the island’s fascinating history on a visit to its many historic sites including St Magnus Cathedral, a magnificent red sandstone building that dominates the skyline for miles around. Opposite you’ll find the remains of Earl’s Palace, one of the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland. In spite of its architectural splendor, the Earl’s Palace was actually the setting of one of the most infamous periods in Orkney’s past when it was the stronghold of the despotic Stewart Earls. Also nearby is the ruined Bishop’s Palace which dates from the 12th century where the Norwegian King Haakon the Old died following his defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263.

Continue onwards to the charming town of Stromness. Take a stroll around the town and learn about Orkney’s natural and maritime history at Stromness Museum before stopping for a bite to eat at one of its excellent cafés and bistros.

Afterwards, head north to the rugged coast at Yesnaby. Here you can gaze out at the remarkable rock formation of Yesnaby Castle, a two-legged sea stack popular with climbers. Bring along binoculars and see how many different kinds of bird species you can spot while enjoying a revitalising coastal walk. Yesnaby is also one of the few places where the rare and delicate flowering plant primula Scotica – more commonly known as Scottish primrose – grows. Visit in the summer when the clifftops are dotted with these vivid magenta flowers.

Bring the day to a close with a visit to one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in the world – Skara Brae. Older than the Egyptian pyramids, the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae is located on the Bay of Skaill. Uncovered by a sandstorm in 1850, it offers an unparalleled insight into how life was lived by Orkney’s earliest inhabitants between 3200 and 2200 BC.

Dedicate your second day in Orkney to unearthing the other archaeological treasures which form The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make your first stop the Brough of Birsay, the remnants of Pictish and Viking settlements which span the 7th to the 13th century. Here you’ll find traces of Viking and even older Pictish homes, the cast of a Pictish standing stone with its engravings still visible, the original is on display at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh – the remains of a Viking monastery and even an 11th century sauna!

Next pay a visit next to the atmospheric Maeshowe, a Neolithic chambered cairn and tomb. Constructed around 5,000 years ago, it was originally broken into by Vikings in the mid 12th century who carved runic graffiti into the walls of the main chamber. Afterwards you can head to the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle and one of the largest and best-preserved in the British Isles. As the sun begins to set, ponder what purpose these mysterious stones served to Orkney’s ancient inhabitants.

Board the ferry at Houton and set off for the Isle of Hoy. Once here, you can drive to Rackwick Bay where you’ll be met some of the most spectacular coastal scenery Orkney has to offer. Enjoy a refreshing walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a dramatic sea stack which is the tallest in Britain and considered one of the most challenging ascents in the UK by climbers. If time permits, and you still have enough energy, why not explore the southern end of Hoy? At Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum you can discover the major role Orkney played during both World Wars when the natural of habour of Scapa Flow served as a vital base for the British Royal Navy. 

Upon returning to the Mainland, head east toward Kirkwall and then south to the island of Lamb Holm. Here you can visit the Italian Chapel, a highly ornate Catholic chapel which was constructed at the same time as the Churchill Barriers were by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War. Built using only limited materials, the chapel was constructed from two adjoining Nissen huts while its lovely front façade, alter and alter rail were created from surplus concrete left over from the construction of the barriers. Its corrugated interior was coated in plaster and adorned with beautiful hand painted frescoes. These serve as unique reminders of the conflict which contrast greatly with the stark remains of the gun emplacements and watchtowers overlooking Scapa Flow.

Head further south until you reach the Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic chambered tomb which was first discovered by a local farmer named Ronald Simison. Subsequent archaeological excavations have uncovered human skeletons alongside the bones and remains of white-tailed sea eagles and Stone Age artefacts. You can get inside the tomb by crawling through the narrow entrance. Once inside, the interior is surprisingly large, the distance from the floor to the roof measuring 3 m in height, with skylights providing illumination. 

Catch the ferry to the island of Westray, famed for being the site of the discovery of the Orkney Venus, also known as the Westray Wife, a small Neolithic figurine which is the oldest representation of a human form ever found in Scotland, and the oldest depiction of a human face ever uncovered in the UK. At the Westray Heritage Centre in Pierowall, you can even pick up scrumptious shortbread biscuits in the shape of the Orkney Venus.

One of the first places in Orkney to be settled by the Vikings, Westray is small enough to explore by bike or car over the course of a day. Its breathtaking natural beauty serves as a constant inspiration to resident artists and craft makers whose work you can view in galleries and studios spread throughout the island.

Upon returning to Kirkwall, uncover more of Orkney’s flourishing arts and crafts scene on visits to the town’s many galleries and shops. See if you can fit in a visit to the Orkney Museum, housed inside a beautifully restored merchant’s residence that offers a fascinating insight into Orkney’s rich archaeological heritage, before catching the evening ferry service to Shetland. 

Wake up in Lerwick, the main port and bustling capital of Shetland. Overlooking a busy harbour, it consists of a network of narrow lanes that lead out from the shop-lined Commercial Street. Victoria Pier is a hub of activity during the summer months with sailing races and regattas regularly taking place in the harbour, while the town centre hosts street markets and live concerts throughout the year.

As well as a fantastic choice of cafés and shops, Lerwick boast a number of must-see attractions including the fascinating Shetland Museum and Archives which offers entry free of charge and brings to life the story of Shetland and its people. Visit the three-storey Boat Hall and admire beautiful vessels suspended from the ceiling that have been crafted by locals using skills and techniques passed down through the centuries from their Viking forbears.

Located within the museum, Hay’s Dock Café Restaurant serves simple yet delicious dishes prepared using the finest Shetland produce. After enjoying a hearty lunch, make your way to Clickimin Broch, the remnants of an Iron Age defensive tower located just outside Lerwick.

If time allows, you can also pay a visit to Fort Charlotte, an 18th century five-sided artillery fort which was named after the wife of George III. Originally built to protect the Sound of Bressay from the Dutch, Fort Charlotte is now a training base of the Territorial Army.

Spend the evening in one of Lerwick's cosy watering holes where you can sit back and relax with a locally brewed ale. If you're lucky, you might even stumble upon a lively jam session held by local musicians. Shetland boasts a thriving local music scene and you'll find that many of its musicians gather in pubs and bars during the evenings.

Head south to experience more of Shetland’s remarkable historic attractions. Pay a visit to the Shetland Crofthouse Museum, a restored 19th century Shetland croft which offers a rare insight into a traditional way of life which has long since vanished. Step even further back in time on a visit to Jarlshof, an ancient settlement that spans thousands of years. Here you’ll find the remains of an Iron Age broch, Pictish wheelhouses, Norse dwellings, and a medieval farmstead, all located within close proximity to one another.

Another amazingly well-preserved archaeological site is Old Scatness Broch, the remnants of an ancient village which lay buried for almost 2,000 years before being unearthed by archaeologists. Find out about the Neolithic, Pictish and Viking people who lived here at the site’s excellent interpretive centre, and on guided tours which are available through the summer months.

Visit the cliffs of Sumburgh Head to take in spectacular coastal views and witness the incredible sight of thousands of nesting seabirds including gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and puffins.

You can then take a boat out to see one of Europe’s finest archaeological marvels. Standing at a height of more than 13 m, Mousa Broch is the most impressive and best preserved Iron Age tower in Scotland. After a short boat crossing from Sandwick, you can climb the narrow steps to the top of the broch and take in breathtaking views across Mousa Sound. Visit in the evening for the chance to witness another of Shetland's natural spectacles, as swarms of storm petrels return under cover of darkness to their nests inside the broch.

Bring the day to a close with a walk along the largest active sand tombolo in the UK to St Ninians Isle, where a horde of silver Viking treasure was discovered hidden beneath the island’s chapel in 1958.

Located only a few minutes from Lerwick, discover Scalloway, the capital of the islands till 1708. The Scalloway Museum tells the story of the Shetland Bus, the name given to the covert wartime operation conducted between the Royal Navy and the Norwegian Resistance in which Shetland fishing vessels helped transport supplies, weapons and Allied agents out of Nazi-occupied Norway.

See the haunting ruins of Scalloway Castle, built in 1600 by the Earl Patrick Stewart, and head to Tingwall where the Vikings are said to have held their annual parliament. Afterwards, you can make your way to Whiteness and Weisdale, popular walking spots which boast an abundance of indigenous flora and fauna.

Follow the road north to Hillswick and Eshaness. Here you can visit the Tangwick Haa Museum, a former laird’s house which displays exhibits relating to the development of Northmavine and its people.

Soak up the area’s natural beauty on the picturesque route leading from Eshaness Lighthouse, or explore the exposed landscape of Ronas Hill to the north, keeping a look out for rare alpine plants such as alpine lady’s mantle, spiked woodrush and mountain azalea.

Ronas Hill is the highest point in Shetland, its summit awarding climbers with spectacular views across the whole of Shetland. Crowned with a Neolithic chambered cairn, on especially clear days you can sometimes see as far as the tip of the Fair Isle.

Head further west to the black volcanic cliffs at Eshaness, where the powerful Atlantic swell has carved immense rock stacks out of the shoreline which are home to thousands of seabirds. From here make your way to Unst, Britain’s most northerly island which can be reached by a 10 minute ferry crossing from the neighbouring island of Yell.

In addition to two National Nature Reserves – Hermaness and Keen of Hamar, the island has the distinction of being home to the highest number of Viking longhouse remnants in the world. Fully excavated Viking longhouse sites can be seen at Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont. It also boasts the rare geological phenomenon of an ophiolite, the remains of an ancient ocean floor that has been ‘thrust’ over the continental shelf.

Find out how life on the island has evolved throughout the ages at the Unst Heritage Centre, learn more about Shetland’s boat-building heritage at the Unst Boat Haven, and explore the ruined 16th century Muness Castle.

Begin your return journey south, driving almost the entire length of Shetland, in time for an evening ferry departure from Lerwick. If you have time to spare, why not stop at Yell along the way?

Home to some of the best beaches in the UK, including the award-winning West Sandwick and Sands of Breckon, the Shetland Gallery at Sellafirth Business Park is the perfect place to pick up a last-minute gift or souvenir of your visit. Choose from a fantastic array of arts and crafts that showcase the breadth and diversity of Shetland’s creative talent. You can find out more about the history of Yell at the Old Haa, another former laird’s house that has been converted into a museum.