Some of you might already know Gerry and I went to the Orkney islands north of Scotland for our honeymoon. I’ve been wanting to go to Orkney since I spotted the islands on a map back in Jakobstad many, many years ago. Flying out there for two weeks was a dream come true.
A couple of weekends ago I met a nice lady who was going to Orkney for a couple of weeks and I realised I had plenty of travel tips to share.
How to get there
We flew from London to Aberdeen and then took a small Flybe flight to the Orcadian capital Kirkwall. The journey from Aberdeen to Kirkwall takes about an hour and the plane is tiiiiny. Luckily the weather was perfect on the journey there, a smooth flight and a lovely swoop over blue water and the green island before we landed. Unless you really, really enjoy flying it can be quite a tense journey in rough weather. I’m personally not a huge fan of flying (turbulence is my kryptonite) and would perhaps feel less stressed about taking one of the many ferries that go to the island.
Plenty of ferries go from the northern tip of Scotland (Scrabster/Thurso/Gills Bay) to Kirkwall, Stromness and St Margaret’s Hope. NorthLink Ferries will take you from Aberdeen to Stromness or Kirkwall. The journey takes about six hours.
One advantage of taking the ferry is that you can bring your own car. The journey up to north Scotland will be long and tiring (especially if you start somewhere in the south). But on Orkney you will need a car. There are buses, but they wont go everywhere and a car (or bike) will give you the freedom to explore the place fully. If you google Orkney car hire there are plenty of places that will offer you a good deal on a car. We rented a small Ford for around £400 for two weeks.
Where to stay?
First you have to choose between staying in a town or on the countryside. We chose to live in Stromness, because we wanted to go out for a pint and not have to worry about one of us being able to drive. A rural location might be great if you’re looking for a quiet retreat, but it’s so easy to get away from the towns and nature is everywhere around you anyway. I was super happy with our choice, because there were cats everywhere in Stromness.
Stromness (from norse Straumsnes) is a small town with a population of around 2000, it’s been around since the late 17th century. If someone had to create a quaint seaside town for a role-playing game about pirates they would totally model it on Stromness.
We stayed in a self-catering apartment on Dundas Street, which is the main street down by the harbour. From our bedroom window we could see ships coming in to dock, we saw seals bobbing around and more seabirds than I could identify.
The scent of the sea was everywhere. As you walked along the narrow streets it followed you around in gusts.
There are plenty of cute small shops in Stromness, a good number of artists and a few restaurants (and a great chippy).
The other main town on mainland Orkney is the capital Kirkwall, which feels a lot more like your average small town. I could have written an average British small town, except that’s not really true. It felt like a Nordic small town. There were as many Norwegian flags as the yellow, red and blue Orcadian flags flying over the houses.
Kirkwall is a place where things happen on Orkney, where we could glimpse a bit of everyday city life, where the big shops were and you weren’t totally stunned by the amazing scenery wherever you turned. And here I feel like I need to add a tiny warning, the scenery on Orkney is exhausting. The first few days the beauty of the place was almost too much. The clean air, the wind, the bright, bright blue sea. It almost hurt. Take it all in in small doses, you don’t have to try to see all the amazing sea cliffs at once like we did.
What to do?
Archeology and historic stuff
Orkney is a great place for anyone interested in archeology and history. There are plenty of neolithic settlements, a stone circle that you can walk up to, old viking villages, tombs filled with runes and abandoned naval bases from WW2.
This is a museum director Wes Anderson would turn into a film set. It’s dusty and small with rooms stuck together like a maze. There are displays of whale hunters, of Orcadian adventurers (there were many of them), plenty of displays of stuffed birds and other animals. It’s hands down one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It’s not pretending to be anything it isn’t.
Skara Brae is one of the best preserved neolithic villages in Europe. It sits in the grounds of The House of Skaill, a mansion (which you can also visit) where the local Laird used to live. During a bad storm in the winter of 1850 the winds blew in from the sea with such a force that the sand dunes along the coast, down from the mansion shifted to reveal eight stone houses.
Skara Brae is a settlement that dates from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. When you walk around it you really get a feel for how people lived during that time. It’s amazing thinking about what they had to do to survive and how ill prepared any of us would be to a live like that today.
Skara Brae is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the “Scottish Pompeii” because it’s so well-preserved. Outside the village the museum has built a replica of the stone houses so visitors can get a feel for what it is like stepping inside an actual neolithic house. The walls are thick and the houses themselves seem really cozy.
Maeshowe is one of the many neolithic tombs, or chambered cairns as they are called, in Orkney. It’s one of the more famous ones and plenty of visitors cram into the tiny cavern every day. It was probably built in around 2800 BC and looks like a hill from the outside. It’s aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber is lit up by the winter solstice (which you can see on a video the visitor centre puts up online every year).
We went to Maeshowe on a dark evening when the rain was pouring down. A group of around twenty tourists in damp rain coats squeezed through the tiny opening. We had to crouch down to crawl through a narrow corridor and finally ended up in a dark dome-like space.
It was hot and sweaty and after the first five minutes I felt a panic attack surfacing. Standing in a space like this with around twenty other people is not great if you’re slightly claustrophobic. Unfortunately I spent most of my time in Maeshowe focusing on my breathing and wasn’t able to pay much attention to the guide. But I did pick up that at some point in the 12th century vikings broke into the tomb, perhaps sheltering from bad weather, and everywhere around you there are runes, ancient graffiti.
Even though I found Maeshow slightly panicky both Gerry and I wanted to explore more cairns. Someone somewhere told us about a “secret one”, Cuweens Cairn which is slightly more difficult to find. It’s not marked on the map and there aren’t many signs to tell you where it is.
The best way of finding it is to go to Finstown and then drive up to the parking lot at Cuween hill. After that you have to start walking. At the top of the hill is a stile and behind it the entrance to the cairn. There is a post box with a flashlight (which luckily had working batteries). You’re pretty much able to do as much exploring as you want on your own.
We crawled into this cairn, which is a lot smaller than Maeshowe. But the absence of other people made the whole experience a lot easier. The space inside really does feel like a tomb, it’s dark and dry. If you’ve ever read Ursula Le Guin’s “Tombs of Atuan”, Cuween cairn is pretty much how I imagined them to be.
The Ring of Brodgar is another Orkney site you don’t have to pay to enter. The stones greet you as you drive between the lochs of Stenness and Harray. According to Wikipedia the site hasn’t been dated. It is generally thought to have been built between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. As with Stonehenge and similar monuments the experts are still debating what it was used for.
Now I’ve written about being slightly hippie-ish before on the blog. When I was fifteen and visited Stonehenge for the first (and only) time I was expecting it to be some kind of amazing spiritual experience, I thought the place itself would have some sort of strange atmosphere (the way old churches have) just because it might have been an important religious site all those years ago. But Stonehenge felt dead, killed by the thousands and thousands of tourists who come there every year. I was just another one.
The Ring of Brodgar is different. Not only can you walk up to the stones and trace your fingers along the graffiti that have been carved into the rock over the centuries. Because the site is almost empty, surrounded by fields and lakes, it’s easier to get a feel for what it might have been like when it was being used.
Gerry and I went back several times, one of them at four in the morning to catch the sunrise at the stone circle. It was pretty amazing.
Abandoned naval bases
There are several abandoned World War II naval bases on Orkney and I can’t for my life remember which one it was we went to. Only that it was somewhere on the west side of the main island. The most famous sites are of course in and around Scapa Flow, a bay surrounded by the main island and the island of Hoy. It was the UK’s chief naval base during World War I and II. In the bay itself there are several sunken ships, rusty metal wrecks poking up from the water when the tide is low.
Across it the Churchill barriers connect the mainland to a couple of islands that used to only be accessible by boat or ferry. During the war Italian prisoners of war were set the task to build the causeways to defend Scapa Flow, but the structures of course worked really well as a road.
The naval base we visited was like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Several empty metal huts with puddles of water on the floor, a fireplace randomly surviving among the weeds, with half a chimney still attached. There were concrete structures that once held cannons and along the sea cliffs there were many look out towers, which we carefully climbed into, trying to not think too much about the cliffs and sea below.
One of perhaps the more surprising things to come out of the war on Orkney is the Italian Chapel. The same Italian prisoners of war that built the Churchill barriers also built their own chapel. They used the materials at hand and transformed two Nissen huts (a prefabricated steel structure) into quite a moving chapel.
Another, but quite different, religious building is St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. It’s the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles and the construction started way back in 1137 and the cathedral was added to over the next 300 years. I have a thing for British cathedrals and this is definitely one of the finest I’ve been to. Perhaps because it’s a cathedral that connects the UK with the Nordic countries. Magnus was one of the Norse rulers of Orkney. The islands belonged to Norway between 875 and 1472.
Whisky & other alcohol
Highland Park is the most well-known whisky distillery on Orkney. It’s in Kirkwall and is well worth a visit. If you go on a tour they can even arrange a driver to pick you up and take you home, so you can sample as much of the produce as you like.
We went along for a tour one morning. A couple of blocks from the distillery the air turns slightly yeasty and smokey. I really like Highland Park whisky, it’s salty, which is something I enjoy in a drink. Visiting a distillery is also pretty much a must if you’re in Scotland. But if you want to go slightly off-road, then there is…
Scapa, the second northernmost distillery in Scotland (Highland Park being half a mile up the road).
And if you’re not a big fan of whisky there is the new and shiny Orkney brewery, which prides itself on making ye olde style beer with names like Northern Lights and Skull Splitter. You can find their bottles in most of the larger shops on the mainland and the beer is very tasty.
You can’t go to Orkney and just visit the mainland. Or I guess you can, but why would you want to when there are 70 different islands to choose between (20 if you just count the inhabited ones). There are daily ferries from Kirkwall to the larger islands, check out Orkney Ferries for timetables and more info.
We only had time to go to one other island and chose Westray, because the ferry timetable worked with the rest of our schedule. In order to get a feel for life on Orkney it’s definitely worth venturing out from the mainland. These small islands are so far removed from the rest of the UK it almost feels like stepping back in time. Westray has a population of around 550. There are more sea birds on the island than people. But it seemed like a thriving community. Everyone we met was welcoming and friendly.
The scenery on this island was perhaps the most stunning on our whole trip. There were wild beaches, seals, strange rock formations where the cliffs had been pounded by the sea, basking sharks and amazing sea cliffs, among other Noup Head which is home to thousands of sea birds.
Don’t let the confusing dirt track up to the cliffs (or the sheep on the road) scare you off, NoupHhead is really one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. (Yes, enough with the hyperbole you might say. Sorry. I really liked the place).
The shortest scheduled flight in the world goes between Westray and Papa Westray and takes about two minutes.
Talking about sea cliffs, Yesnaby was one of our favourite places on the mainland and we went there several times. These sea cliffs are only a short drive from Stromness, there is a pretty impressive sea stack and several quite easy walks around the area.
The Brough of Birsay looks like a huge crab rising up from the sea. It’s a small tidal island on the north-west coast of the mainland and it’s only accessible by a causeway during low tide. If you want to visit it’s worth checking the tidal schedule because you don’t want to get stuck on the island waiting for the tide to go out again. There are plenty of interesting norse settlements to look at, including the remains of an old sauna.
Not far from the Brough of Birsay is Marwick head, another set of stunning sea cliffs.
Our main source of sustenance on Orkney was sandwiches, Tunnock’s caramel wafers and lukewarm coffee out of a thermos flask. We spent most of our time driving and walking around the island and made sure to make a packed lunch every morning. However when we did go to a restaurant we ate well.
The Creel is a great restaurant in the tiny town of St Margaret’s Hope south of Kirkwall. It’s also a hotel and since we aimed to go all in and have wine and stuff with our dinner we decided to stay over (which was a good choice as the breakfast is excellent).
The dinner was everything we had hoped for. The restaurant is highly rated in most tourist guides and gets a mention in the Michelin guide. The food is local, seasonal and not that expensive if you compare it to similar places in bigger cities.
It’s one of my top food experiences ever. As I’m editing this post three years later I can still remember the lobster bisque starter and the excellent wine. It might be worth travelling to Orkney just to eat here.
Hamnavoe is a small and cozy restaurant in Stromness. The menu keeps changing and is pretty inventive. For my main course I had a cantaloupe stuffed with lamb stew. For about thirty minutes it was too hot to eat, but when it had cooled off slightly it was very tasty. A really good choice if you’re in Stromness and want to eat out.
Well, if you’ve read this far it’s pretty obvious that I loved Orkney. If I could go back tomorrow I would do it in a heartbeat.