Orkney is a place of real contrasts. One minute you can be wandering through one of the islands’ bustling towns or villages, the next you’re standing on the edge of a dramatic coastline with nothing but salty sea air and beautiful scenery for company. VisitScotland asked Andrew Learmonth from the Orkney Marketing Group to share some photos of his favourite places. We think you’ll agree that Andrew’s selection highlights just how special these islands are.
The great natural harbour of Scapa Flow is one of Orkney’s best and most beautiful assets. It attracts divers from around the world, keen to plunge into the cool, clear water and descend to the remains of the scuttled German High Seas Fleet on the seabed. The pristine marine environment is also a haven for wildlife, with regular porpoise and orca sightings, and some of the best shellfish in the UK. Visit one of the idyllic beaches next to the Churchill Barriers or take a trip on the calm waters of the Flow, sheltered by a circle of low-lying islands.
Old Man of Hoy
The view of this iconic sea stack makes leaving behind the spectacular Rackwick Bay in Hoy worth it. Take the three hour round-trip from the beach, tearing yourself away from the stunning sea views, and you’ll eventually come to the island’s wild west coast—and one of Orkney’s most famous sites. The Old Man of Hoy still stands tall, surrounded by swirling seabirds and sandstone cliffs as the waves crash onto the rocks below. Sunset is the perfect time to visit before heading back to Rackwick and the stillness of the night.
Hidden beaches & island hopping
The beauty of island hopping is getting the chance to explore Orkney away from the towns, villages and popular sites. Walk on unspoilt beaches, swim in the blue sea, enjoy a wave from local folk as they pass, and experience island life in all its peace, quiet and tranquillity. If you use your powers of persuasion you might even encourage someone to take you to an uninhabited island where you’ll have the place to yourself—but then it might be more island stopping than island hopping.
The Orcadian author and poet George Mackay Brown wrote that his hometown’s streets ‘uncoiled like a sailor’s rope from north to south’. It’s an apt description for this bustling harbour settlement, full of narrow closes and buildings, huddled together above flagstone streets with ancient piers stretching out into the sea. Stromness hosts a number of attractions including the renowned Pier Arts Centre, and there is a real beauty exploring all the nooks and crannies of this old maritime town.
Orkney has fantastic accommodation options, from traditional hotels to purpose-built guest houses and welcoming bed and breakfasts. But sometimes you want to get off the beaten track and discover your own piece of the islands, where it feels like no-one has ever been before. Hoy’s long and dramatic west coast is the perfect place to explore. The chances are you’ll be by yourself and will have to make do with stunning views over the Pentland Firth and the Atlantic Ocean beyond for company.
The Ring of Brodgar
The sheer scale of this impressive circle of ancient stones takes the breath away. The Ring of Brodgar is made up of twenty seven remaining stones, some up to fifteen feet high. It was the last of the great Neolithic monuments built in the area, close to the Ness of Brodgar excavations and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Thousands of years of history within just a few hundred yards. Take a tour with the Historic Environment Scotland Rangers and discover the secrets of this stunning Stone Age site.
Orkney’s landscape can be dramatically different from our near neighbours in Shetland and Sutherland. Our fertile farmland is relatively flat with gentle, rolling, green hills leading you to the high cliffs of the west coast. This means that, no matter where you are, you can see for miles around and above you. This is big sky country. Get out in the golden hour, or ‘the grimlings’ as we call it here, and soak up the atmosphere under the setting sun.
St Magnus Cathedral
The centrepiece of Orkney’s capital and Britain’s most northerly cathedral, St Magnus Cathedral dominates the skyline of Kirkwall. Founded by the Viking Earl Rognvald in 1137 this impressive sandstone structure watches over the bustling heart of the town and glows in the evening light. Step out of the summer sunshine into the cool interior of the Cathedral for a tour of the upper levels, with superb views available from the base of the spire.
Island life brings plenty of benefits, especially for beach lovers. Our parishes are littered with beautiful beaches featuring sloping sand dunes, scattered shells and the surf rolling into the shore. Dingieshowe in Orkney’s East Mainland is one of the best. Leave the small car park and head down to the beach to be greeted with a sharp blast of sea air. You’ll probably be watched carefully by a seal, bobbing gently in the water, as you stroll along the sand.
No visit to Orkney would be complete without going on the hunt for a glimpse of these little characters. You’ll find puffins—or ‘Tammie Norries’ in local dialect—at a number of sites, including Marwick Head in the West Mainland, the Castle o’ Burrian in Westray, and on the west coast of Hoy. They are fantastic to watch, with their brightly coloured beaks and big orange feet standing out amongst the seabird cities of Orkney’s cliffs.
The site of many a school trip for Orcadian pupils, some local folk might be guilty of overlooking Skara Brae in their later years. But a trip back in time at the site is an absolute must when in Orkney. The 5,000 year old village was uncovered by a winter storm in 1850—the sand and grass was stripped back to reveal a network of houses complete with dressers, stone beds and hearths, shining a light on how ancient Orcadians lived and worked. The structures are perched above the beach at the Bay of Skaill. Visit during a wild westerly gale for a real, invigorating Orkney experience!