You’d be hard-pressed to find a region with a longer or prouder history than the Orkney Isles. From Stone Age villages and Vikings to Picts and peculiar place names (I like Balaclava, Dog Bones and Tongue of Gangsta), this archipelago of islands really is unique. The new Tourism in Scotland’s Regions 2012 report has revealed the five most-visited attractions in Orkney for last year*, and the results reflect the rich and varied culture of this fascinating region:
1. St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall – there are a lot of churches in the world, but how many were built by a Viking poet? Known as the ‘Light in the North’, this striking Romanesque church was founded in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Norse leader and writer. A grand total of 127,516 people came to see it last year, making it Orkney’s most-visited attraction of 2012.
2. Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm – Italian prisoners of war constructed this stunning ornate chapel on the uninhabited island of Lamb Holm while stationed in Orkney during the Second World War. Just last month 93-year-old former prisoner Gino Caprara, who helped with its construction, returned to the island to give thanks for the kindness he was shown during his time there.
3. Skara Brae, Sandwick – perhaps Orkney’s most famous visitor attraction, Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement of eight houses occupied from around 3180-2500 BC. It was uncovered by a storm in 1850 and gives a unique insight into Stone Age life, with remarkably well-preserved beds, furniture, jewellery and even gaming dice.
4. Skaill House, Sandwick – this 17th century mansion now serves as a museum, exhibiting artefacts from neighbouring Skara Brae and family heirlooms such as a Norse calendar stick and a crockery set used by Captain James Cook. It’s rumoured to be haunted, but that clearly hasn’t put off the visitors!
5. Orkney Museum, Kirkwall – the islands’ fascinating history is recounted at the Orkney Museum in Tankerness House, a 16th century town mansion. It features an impressive collection of locally-discovered artefacts, old photographs, activities for kids and more. Don’t miss the remarkable Viking combs, gaming pieces and whalebone plaque, excavated from a boat burial.
As if these five must-see attractions weren’t enough, there are loads more things to see and do in Orkney this winter: December is a fantastic time to visit the Maeshowe Cairn, when the winter sun illuminates the stone chamber; there are craft trails, art galleries, birdwatching and walks to enjoy; and if you’re a bookworm, make sure you read up on renowned Orcadian writer Edwin Muir, one of Scotland’s finest poets. Check out Orkney itineraries and accommodation for inspiration for your next trip, and feel free to leave a comment with your own favourite attractions.
* Source: Moffat Centre Visitor Attraction Monitor, Glasgow Caledonian University