Islands

So, what awaits you in Orkney and Shetland? For starters, each has a distinctive culture, natural wonders and a number of fascinating geological sites. Lying off Scotland's north coast, surrounded by crystal-clear waters, these two archipelagos are rather special places indeed.

Take a 12-day trip through this charming scattering of islands where you'll discover some of the most stunning coastal scenery in the world, remarkable wildlife, ancient archaeological sites, pristine beaches and much more.

Transport

Ferry Car Walk

Days

12

Miles

398

Route

Travel around the Orkney Isles then head north to discover Shetland's best bits.

Highlights

Geological wonders, museums, island towns and villages, heritage attractions, nature reserves, sea birds, ferry rides

Areas Covered

North

see full route

Day 1

overview

Orkney - Kirkwall & Stromness

It's the first day of your adventure and it's going to be a good one! Get your bearings on Orkney Mainland, the largest of the islands in Orkney, and explore town, coastline and the famous Skara Brae.
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Kirkwall, Orkney

Kirkwall

Your journey starts 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.

Nearby you'll find the remains of Bishop's and Earl's Palaces. In spite of its architectural splendour, 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. The ruined Bishop's Palace dates from the 12th century and is the site where Norwegian King Haakon the Old died following his defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263.

Stromness

Continue onwards to Stromness. Stroll around the pretty town and pop into Stromness Museum to learn about Orkney's natural and maritime history. Feeling peckish? Then grab a bite to eat at one of the town's excellent cafés and bistros.

Yesnaby

Follow the road 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.

Skara Brae

Time for one more stop before the day is over, and boy, it's a spectacular one! Visit Skara Brae, one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in the world. Older than the Egyptian pyramids, the Neolithic settlement 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.

Day 2

overview

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Dedicate your second day in Orkney to unearthing the other archaeological treasures which form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might feel like you're Indiana Jones by the end of today!

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Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Brough of Birsay

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 remains of a Viking monastery, an 11th century sauna, and the cast of a Pictish standing stone with its engravings still visible (the original is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).

Maeshowe

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.

Ring of Brodgar

Afterwards you can head to the magical 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, take a moment to ponder what purpose these mysterious stones served to Orkney's ancient inhabitants.  Makes you think!

Day 3

overview

Isle of Hoy

Set off by ferry from Houton and head to the Isle of Hoy. Today you'll explore the second largest island in Orkney and enjoy its coastal delights.
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    Ferry Car

Old Man of Hoy

Once you've arrived in Hoy, you can drive to Rackwick Bay where you'll be met by some of the most spectacular coastal scenery Orkney has to offer. Enjoy a bracing 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.

For detailed information about this walk, please visit the Walk Highlands website.

Scapa Flow

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 harbour of Scapa Flow served as a vital base for the British Royal Navy.

Day 4

overview

Lamb Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay

Today you'll cross back to Orkney Mainland, before heading to other islands via the causeways known as the Churchill Barriers and getting a further insight into two very different eras of Orkney's history.
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    Ferry Car

Sands of Wright, South Ronaldsay

Italian Chapel

From Kirkwall, head 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 by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War.

Tomb of the Eagles

Head further south through Burray and South Ronaldsay to reach the Tomb of the Eagles. The fascinating site is a Neolithic chambered tomb which was first discovered by a local farmer. 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.

Day 5

overview

Westray

Take a ferry from Kirkwall to the Isle of Westray, where you can discover this island's natural beauty and unique heritage.
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    Ferry Car

Westray, Orkney

Westray Heritage Centre

Westray is famed for being the site of the discovery of the Orkney Venus. Also known as the Westray Wife, it's 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. Never has archaeology tasted so scrumptious!

Westray

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. On the coastline, you might spot puffins or other seabirds. Pop into one of the island's art galleries and see artworks and crafts inspired by Westray's beautiful blend of coastline and landscape.

Day 6

overview

Kirkwall

It's been a busy few days in Orkney, but your last day on these islands has finally arrived. Before you set off for Shetland, explore more of Kirkwall's cultural offerings.
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    Walk

Orkney Museum, Kirkwall

Arts and crafts

Upon returning to Kirkwall, uncover more of Orkney's flourishing arts and crafts scene, where everything from jewellery to furniture is made. Explore the town's many galleries and shops and keep your eyes peeled for unique items.

Orkney Museum

Spend some of your last hours in Orkney having a wander around the Orkney Museum. It's housed inside a beautifully restored merchant's residence that offers a fascinating insight into Orkney's rich archaeological heritage.  Before you know it, it'll soon be time to catch the overnight ferry service to Shetland!

Day 7

overview

Lerwick

You are now 100 miles from the Scottish mainland on the most northerly of the British Isles! Wake up and disembark from the ferry in Lerwick, the main port and bustling capital of Shetland. Spend today getting to know this harbour town and see its sights.
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    Ferry Car Walk

Lerwick, Shetland

Shetland Museum and Archives

Lerwick is 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 boasts 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.

In the three-storey Boat Hall, admire beautiful vessels suspended from the ceiling. These have been crafted by locals using skills and techniques passed down through the centuries from their Viking forefathers. Once you've worked up an appetite, pop to Hay's Dock Café Restaurant. It serves simple yet delicious dishes prepared using the finest Shetland produce. Yum!

Clickimin Broch

After enjoying a hearty lunch, it's time for some fresh air. Make your way to Clickimin Broch, the remnants of an Iron Age defensive tower located just outside Lerwick.

Fort Charlotte

If time allows, see a building from a much later period of history. In the heart of Lerwick you'll find 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.

Pubs and bars

That was a pretty busy first day in Shetland - it's now time to unwind! Find a cosy watering hole in Lerwick 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.

Day 8

overview

South Mainland

We suggest an early start today - there's a lot to fit in! Today you'll be heading south to experience remarkable heritage sites. Soak up the history and imagine life in eras gone by!
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Jarlshof, Sumburgh Head

Shetland Crofthouse Museum

Pop into the Shetland Crofthouse Museum in Dunrossness, a restored 19th century Shetland croft which was inhabited until the 1960s. It offers a rare insight into a traditional way of life which has long since vanished. See the charming cottage with the carefully maintained thatched roof and smell the burning peat fire. It might be tempting to leave civilisation behind and move in!

Jarlshof

Step even further back in time on a visit to Sumburgh Head to see the amazing Jarlshof, an expansive and 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.

Old Scatness Broch

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.

Sumburgh Head

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.

Mousa Broch

You can 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.  If you take the boat trip in the evening, you might witness a thrilling natural spectacle, when swarms of storm petrels seek the cover of darkness and return to their nests inside the broch.

St Ninian's Isle

Bring the day to a close with a walk along the white sands of St Ninian's Isle, the largest active sand tombolo in the UK. You might even fancy a paddle to refresh your feet; it's been a busy day, after all! This is the location where a horde of silver Viking treasure was discovered hidden beneath the island's chapel in 1958.

Day 9

overview

Central Mainland

Explore the central mainland of Shetland, including the sheltered seaport of Scalloway, only 6 miles from Lerwick. It was known as the capital of the islands till 1708 and has had its fair share of history.
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Scalloway Museum

Visit the Scalloway Museum and discover the fascinating story of the Shetland Bus, the name given to a covert wartime operation. Conducted between the Royal Navy and the Norwegian Resistance, it involved Shetland fishing vessels helping to transport supplies, weapons and Allied agents out of Nazi-occupied Norway.

Scalloway Castle

In the heart of Scalloway you can see the haunting ruins of Scalloway Castle, built in 1600 by the Earl Patrick Stewart.

Central Mainland

Make your way to Whiteness and Weisdale, passing through the Tingwall Valley, where the Vikings are said to have held their annual parliament. Whiteness and Weisadale are popular walking spots. There's an abundance of indigenous flora and fauna, pretty bays and some of the loveliest views in all of Shetland.

Day 10

overview

North West Mainland

Today, explore the north west part of the Shetland Mainland, known as the Northmavine peninsula, and discover local history and stretch your legs and see the best of Shetland's landscape on a rejuvenating walk!
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Tangwick Haa Museum, Eshaness

Tangwick Haa Museum

Follow the road north to Hillswick, home to a small wildlife sanctuary for seals and otters, and onto 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.

Eshaness

Soak up the area's natural beauty on the picturesque circular walking route leading from Eshaness Lighthouse (now a self-catering holiday property) and discover some of Shetland's wildest and most breathtaking coastline.

Ronas Hill

Alternatively, 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 - but at 450m above sea level, it makes a fairly pleasant hill walk. From the summit, climbers are rewarded with spectacular views across the whole of Shetland. Crowned with a Neolithic chambered cairn, on clear days you can sometimes see as far as the tip of the Fair Isle.

Day 11

overview

Unst

Cross from the Mainland to the island of Yell, and then catch the 10 minute ferry crossing to neighbouring Unst, Britain's most northerly island to uncover the remnants of the Vikings, see incredible geology and admire the island's natural heritage.

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    Ferry Car

Baltasound, Unst

Viking heritage on Unst

Explore the excavated Viking longhouse sites of Unst. Highlights of which include the reconstructed longhouse at Hamar and the nearby Skidbladner, an impressive replica Gokstad ship. Managed by the Shetland Amenity Trust, you can find out just what the digs revealed about the Norse Vikings who settled on the islands.

Unst Bus Shelter

On your way to Haroldswicks, stop at Baltasound to see what is probably the most famous bus stop in the world! The bus shelter is carefully decorated each year with a different theme. It's pretty quirky and a real joy to discover.

Unst Heritage Centre

The island has the distinction of being home to the highest number of Viking longhouse remnants in the world. At Unst Heritage Museum and Unst Boat Haven in Haroldswick, find out more about the archaeological digs and Shetland's maritime history.

Valhalla Brewery

Pop into Valhalla Brewery in Haroldswick - it's the most northerly brewery in the British Isles. Get a tour to see where drinks such as White Wife, Sjolmet Stour and Island Bere are brewed and bottled.

Hermaness

Unst is a bit of a nature lover's paradise, and a visit to one of its beautiful National Nature Reserves is a must. Explore the sweeping hillsides of Keen of Hamar or at Hermaness, walk to the dramatic cliff and see thousands of breeding seabirds, such a puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars.

Day 12

overview

Yell

It's the final day! Depart Unst and start to make your way back to Shetland Mainland. Before you leave Shetland and catch the evening ferry departure from Lerwick, you might just have time to catch some of Yell's natural highlights. You'll find some of the best beaches in the UK!
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Sands of Breckon, Yell

Sands of Breckon

In the very north of the island, you can discover the Sands of Breckon, where shell sand dunes are bordered by crystal clear waters and dune grass lands.

West Sandwick

Alternatively, visit West Sandwick on Yell's western coastline, close to the villages of Shandwick and Balintore and enjoy a stroll along unspoilt white sands.

Old Haa

At Burravore in the south of the island, discover the story of Yell's folklore and history at the Old Haa, a museum set in the house of a 17th century laird. You can also see artworks by local creative talents, or tuck into some home-baking in the tearoom.

Summary

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