Island hopping in Orkney

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  • Seals on North Ronaldsay
    Seals on North Ronaldsay
  • St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney
    St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney
  • Stone of Setter, Eday
    Stone of Setter, Eday
  • View along Whitemill Bay, a beautiful sandy beach in Sanday
    Whitemill Bay, Sanday

There are around 70 islands and skerries in the Orkney archipelago, which is situated about 6.2 miles (10 km) from the Scottish mainland. Starting from the Mainland, you can explore the southern islands using the Churchill Barriers or head north to the Outer Islands via ferry or plane.

Mainland

With a variety of attractions, wonderful wildlife and some amazing scenery, the West Mainland is difficult to rival. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site - the Heart of Neolithic Orkney - where you can see the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe and Skara Brae.

Explore the quaint alleyways of Stromness, an 18th century settlement which boasts an array of shops and cafés, as well as the Stromness Museum and acclaimed Pier Arts Centre.

From this town you can reach the dramatic contrasts of the southern islands, where Hoy’s rugged cliffs overlook Flotta and Graemsay. Hoy’s landscape offers excellent hillwalking, while Flotta, from the Norse for Flat Isle, sits at the gateway to Scapa Flow. Graemsay has thousands of wild flowers which carpet the landscape.

Head back to the Mainland and to Orkney's capital, the town of Kirkwall, which is home to a wonderful selection of craft shops, restaurants and cafés, and the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, built with local sandstone.

Relatively low-lying, the East Mainland is characterised by the two peninsulas of Tankerness and Deerness which provide beautiful views towards the northern islands. Copinsay is a dramatic isle lying off the coast, which is home to a vast seabird colony.

South Isles

From here you can head over to Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay, which are all easily reached by the Churchill Barriers, defensive bridges built following the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in these waters in 1939.

Lamb Holm boasts the first Churchill Barrier and the beautiful Italian Chapel, built by prisoners of WWII while Glimps Holm is inhabited by a variety of birds.

Burray is a popular island for watersports including diving in the world-famous Scapa Flow, canoeing, sailing and water skiing. While you are there explore the uninhabited island of Hunda in the west, which is a haven for wildlife and perfect for admiring birds and seals as you take a stroll.

South Ronaldsay lies just 6 miles from John o’ Groats making it the closest of Orkney’s islands to the mainland. Visit the Tomb of the Eagles to see objects and artefacts which are 5,000 years old.

Head back across the Churchill Barriers to the Mainland and catch a ferry or plane from Kirkwall to the Outer Isles, which should not be missed as they boast the beautiful white beaches of Sanday and Stronsay and seaweed-eating sheep in North Ronaldsay.

Outer Isles

Just 25 minutes from Kirkwall by boat, Shapinsay is a fertile and green land which is also home to the most northerly castle hotel in the world. Admire the turrets of this Victorian structure as you take a stroll, or head to the Mill Dam to see little grebes and whooper swans at the RSPB reserve.

Further north than the southern tip of Norway, but with a mild climate, North Ronaldsay is the furthest flung of the Orkney isles. Old traditions are still very evident here and you can discover a wealth of flora and fauna, from mammals and birds to beautiful wild flowers.

It is easy to get around on Westray and you can explore the whole isle in one day - either by bike, car or organised tour - although there is enough to see and do to warrant a longer stay. This was one of the earliest parts of Orkney to be settled by Vikings and the historical highlights include both Neolithic and Norse settlements.

Generations of settlers have been attracted to the peaceful calm of Papa Westray, which may be due to its small size. From the dramatic cliffs to the rolling agricultural land, the scenery is varied. Visit Holland Farm and the bothy museum for a fascinating insight into the history of this isle.

Rousay boasts some of the best preserved monuments in Scotland, earning a reputation as the ‘Egypt of the North’. The distinctive hilly scenery on the isle was carved out when glaciers spread across the land.

Egilsay houses a round-towered church in memory of St Magnus, on Wyre you can see a Viking chieftain’s stronghold and Eynhallow was once a holy isle with evidence of a 12th century monastic settlement.

Three large bays and several sweeping beaches define the character and shape of Stronsay. Whitehall village was formerly one of the busiest ports in Britain where herring boats landed their catch. Today you can glimpse this history with a visit to the heritage centre based at the old Fish Mart.

The largest of the Outer Isles, Sanday is perfect for wandering the beaches or fishing in the lochs, with an abundance of wildlife to discover as you explore.

Eday is a surprisingly hilly isle with beautiful panoramic views and farms and crofts adorning the coastal strip. The Setter Stone is an interesting landmark and Neolithic monument, standing out against the landscape. Points of interest include well-preserved chambered tombs and Iron Age houses.

With excellent ferry links and captivating discoveries around every corner, island hopping is an enjoyable and accessible way to discover all that Orkney's islands have to offer.

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