Whisked away by the brisk winds of the North Sea, just off Scotland’s rugged northern coast, lies a scatter of 70 islands where history, mystery, and serenity dance together under expansive skies: the Orkney Islands. A place where echoes of a Neolithic past stand proudly amid thriving, windswept meadows, Orkney is a tapestry of rich heritage and unparalleled natural beauty—a timeless testament to Scotland’s diverse allure.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Orkney has a charm that extends beyond its silent stones and historical whispers; it is a living, breathing community where traditional music flows as freely as the local ale. From the local craftspeople weaving tales into their work to the fishermen braving the waves for the day’s catch, the islands are a hub of cultural richness waiting to be explored.
This article will take you through the stone-laden paths of Skara Brae, into the heart of ancient standing circles, and along the cliffs where seabirds call their haunting tunes. We will discover a land where the past is present, where Viking runes still whisper old tales, and where every fold in the land and waves at sea tell a story.
The Orkney Islands are an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, situated off the north coast of the mainland. This cluster of islands is composed of around 70 islands, collectively with an area of 990 square kilometres. Only 20 of those islands are inhabited by about 22,400 people as of 2021.
The largest of the Orkney Islands is Mainland Orkney, with an area of 523 square kilometres. This is the most developed and most populated one, where over 17,000 people live. Kirkwall is the largest town in Mainland Orkney.
Orkney’s culture is a unique blend of Scottish and Norse influences, with a strong community spirit and a vibrant tradition of music, arts, and crafts. The islands have their own flag and a dialect known as Orcadian, which includes words derived from the Old Norse language.
Modern-day Orkney is a blend of old and new, with traditional farming and fishing industries existing alongside renewable energy projects, making the islands a leader in sustainable energy. With its distinctive identity, rich history, and stunning landscapes, Orkney stands out as a unique and enchanting destination.
Speaking of the weather, the average summer temperatures range from 10°C to 15°C, while winter temperatures typically hover between 2°C and 7°C. It is rare for the temperature to drop below freezing because the Gulf Stream warms the climate. The islands experience rain throughout the year, with October to January being the wettest months. Rainfall is often light but persistent.
That said, Orkney can be surprisingly sunny, with May to July being the sunniest months. Due to its high latitude, Orkney experiences very long daylight hours in the summer, with the phenomenon known as the “simmer dim,” where it never gets completely dark. Conversely, winter days are short, with limited hours of daylight.
The history of Orkney is a fascinating journey through time, deeply etched into the islands’ landscapes and monuments. The roots of Orkney’s human settlement are ancient, stretching back at least to the Neolithic period, some 5,000 years ago.
The Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney were remarkable farmers, builders, and artisans who left behind a legacy that has captured the world’s imagination.
Skara Brae is perhaps the most vivid of these legacies. This well-preserved stone-built settlement was occupied approximately between 3180 and 2500 BC and offers a stunning glimpse into prehistoric domestic life. The site was revealed in 1850 after a storm stripped away grass from a high dune known as Skerrabra.
The houses in Skara Brae consist of stone furniture, hearths, and even a primitive drainage system, showcasing a high level of craftsmanship and community planning.
The Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness comprise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are testaments to the ceremonial and metaphysical importance of the area.
The Ring of Brodgar, a great stone circle probably used for rituals or astronomical observations, dates from around 2500 to 2000 BC. The circle originally comprised 60 stones, of which only 27 remain standing today. Its exact purpose remains a mystery, but its precision and scale reflect a society of surprising sophistication.
The Standing Stones of Stenness, even older than Brodgar, is one of the earliest stone circles in Britain and is thought to date from around 3100 BC. It originally consisted of 12 stones, with a massive central hearth, hinting at ceremonial gatherings and social rituals.
Viking Orkney and Medieval Period
The arrival of the Norsemen around the eighth century marked a new chapter in Orkney’s history. The Vikings used the islands as a strategic base for their excursions and integrated with the local population. They left behind a rich heritage that can be seen in the Orkneyinga Saga—the historical narrative of the islands’ Viking Age—and in the many Old Norse place names still used today.
In medieval times, Orkney became an ecclesiastical power centre, with the impressive St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall dating back to the 12th century, reflecting the islands’ status and wealth.
Orkney’s strategic importance during the World Wars stemmed from its geographic location. Its sheltered harbour, Scapa Flow, is one of the world’s largest natural harbours, surrounded by the Orkney Islands and thus naturally protected from the open sea. This made it an ideal naval base for the British Royal Navy.
During World War I, the British Grand Fleet was stationed at Scapa Flow to deter the German Imperial Navy. The presence of the fleet was crucial in maintaining British naval dominance and blocking German access to the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet stationed there played a significant role in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the war’s largest naval battle.
The importance of Scapa Flow was highlighted early in World War II when a German U-boat managed to infiltrate the anchorage and sink the HMS Royal Oak, resulting in the loss of 833 lives. This attack revealed the vulnerability of Scapa Flow and led to bolstered defences, including causeways known as the Churchill Barriers, which still stand today.
Additionally, Orkney served as an airbase for maritime patrols and a staging post for Arctic convoys, which were vital in delivering supplies to the Soviet Union.
The natural environment of Orkney is equally impressive, from the soaring sea cliffs of Hoy to the gentle, sandy shores of South Ronaldsay. The islands are a haven for seabirds, making them a prime spot for birdwatching, and the surrounding seas are home to seals, whales, and dolphins.
Hoy, the second-largest of the Orkney Islands, is distinguished by its stark, rugged cliffs that rise majestically from the churning North Sea. The Old Man of Hoy, a 137-metre-tall sea stack, is a striking but challenging beacon for climbers and an iconic sight for visitors. In contrast, South Ronaldsay offers a gentler beauty with serene beaches, inviting peaceful walks and relaxation and providing views across the Pentland Firth.
The wildlife of Orkney is as diverse as the landscapes they inhabit. The islands are a birdwatcher’s paradise, with cliffs and sea stacks providing perfect nesting grounds for a variety of seabirds, including guillemots, kittiwakes, and the charismatic puffins with their colourful beaks and clownish gait.
The coastline and surrounding waters are also home to a rich marine life. Grey and common seals are regular sights, often seen lounging on the rocky shores. The clear waters around the islands are also one of the few places in the UK where one might spot orcas, with several pods visiting regularly, usually between May and September.
Beyond its natural wonders, Orkney is also at the forefront of renewable energy development. The archipelago is a leading centre for wind and tidal power, harnessing the relentless winds and powerful sea currents that characterise its environment.
The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney is the world’s first and foremost facility for the testing of tidal and wave energy devices. The islands produce more energy from wind turbines than they need to use, making them a net exporter of electricity and a model for sustainable practices.
Orkney’s cultural life is a rich tapestry woven from the threads of its Scottish and Norse heritage, creating a distinct identity that permeates the music, arts, and everyday life of the islands.
The music scene in Orkney is vibrant and deeply rooted in the islands’ history. Traditional Scottish folk music merges with Norse influences to create a unique Orcadian sound. This is characterised by a mix of fiddles, accordions, and traditional ballads that often tell tales of the sea, reflecting the islands’ strong maritime culture.
Contemporary musicians and bands also draw on these traditions, infusing them with modern influences to create something that is both new and deeply reflective of Orkney’s past.
The arts scene is equally dynamic, with a thriving community of artists, craftsmen, and writers. The stark beauty of the islands serves as inspiration for a range of creative expressions, from painting and sculpture to pottery and jewellery making, often incorporating local materials such as Orkney sandstone and driftwood.
The literature is also influenced by the island’s lore and landscapes, often exploring themes of nature, isolation, and the blend of old and new worlds.
Festivals play a central role in Orcadian cultural life, bringing together locals and visitors to celebrate the islands’ arts and heritage. The St Magnus Festival is one of the most prominent, a midsummer celebration of the arts founded by Orkney’s distinguished composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The festival showcases a programme of classical music, dance, drama, and literature set against the backdrop of Orkney’s long, simmer-dim nights.
The Orkney Folk Festival is another key event, drawing musicians from across the globe to join local artists in a celebration of folk music. It is a lively event that sees performances in venues ranging from the grand to the intimate, including pubs and community halls across the islands.
The Orcadian dialect itself is a living link to the islands’ Norse past. While it is primarily a dialect of Scots, it retains a number of Old Norse words and phrases, a legacy of the Viking Age when Norsemen settled the islands. This Norse influence is evident in place names, surnames, and the everyday language of the Orcadians, serving as a daily reminder of the islands’ rich and layered history.
Orkney’s cultural life reflects its unique position in the North Sea—a place that has been a crossroads for travellers, settlers, and invaders for millennia. This cross-pollination of influences has created a distinctive cultural milieu where the ancient and the contemporary exist side by side, celebrated through music, art, and festivals alike.
Visitor’s Guide to Orkney
Orkney’s peak tourist season typically falls in the summer months, from June to August. This is when the islands experience the mildest weather and the longest days, as a full range of tourist services are available. Attractions are all open, and there are many cultural events and colourful festivals, such as the St Magnus Festival, which contribute to the appeal of visiting during this time.
Usually, during the peak season, you can expect more visitors and generally busier sites, especially the most famous attractions like Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, and St Magnus Cathedral. Accommodations can fill up quickly, so it is advisable to book well in advance if you plan to travel to Orkney during these months.
However, if you prefer a quieter visit, consider the shoulder seasons in late spring (April to May) and early autumn (September to October). While the weather can be less predictable and some services may have reduced hours, you will encounter fewer tourists, and the natural scenery can be equally, if not more, impressive.
Spring in Orkney brings longer days and bursts of wildflowers, making it an excellent time for birdwatching and nature walks. In autumn, the landscape begins to change colour, and the Orkney skies can be particularly dramatic, which is perfect for photographers and those who enjoy atmospheric scenery.
However, some tourist services may operate on reduced schedules, and certain accommodations may close or offer off-peak rates, so it is a good idea to check in advance when planning activities or choosing where to stay.
When planning your trip to Orkney, it is wise to book accommodations and transport well in advance, especially if you are visiting during the summer months. While on the islands, embrace the slower pace of life, the rich history, and the stunning natural beauty that make Orkney a truly special destination.
However, tourists do not necessarily have to get there by plane, as there are several ferry routes to Orkney operated by NorthLink Ferries and Pentland Ferries. The most common routes are from Scrabster on the Scottish mainland to Stromness and from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. There is also a longer ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall.
Orkney has a reliable bus service that connects the main towns and attractions, although services may be less frequent on weekends. Car rental is also a convenient way to explore the islands at your own pace. Cars can be rented on the mainland or in Orkney itself.
That said, the town has relatively flat terrain and low traffic, which makes cycling a pleasant option for seeing the islands. To visit the smaller islands, you can use the inter-island ferry service operated by Orkney Ferries.
Orkney offers a wide variety of accommodations suitable for different preferences and budgets. Visitors can choose from historic hotels to modern establishments and from cosy bed and breakfasts to luxury retreats with views of the sea.
There are also other more budget accommodation options, such as self-catering properties. Renting a cottage or apartment is especially ideal for families or those wanting more space and the option to cook for themselves. Guesthouses, hostels, and campsites are also available at much lower prices.
Top Sights and Activities
Orkney is brimming with activities that cater to diverse interests. For instance, visitors can take a boat tour to see the dramatic coastline sea stacks and maybe even spot some wildlife, join a guided walk or wildlife tour to see birds, seals, and, if they are lucky, orcas, follow the trail to visit local artisans and craftspeople or taste the local spirits by visiting Orkney’s whisky distilleries.
Speaking of attractions, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is definitely a must-visit. This is Orkney’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising well-preserved ancient monuments like Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar.
Other attractions also include the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall, the Italian Chapel—this was built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II—St Magnus Cathedral and Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, which is basically a Neolithic tomb.
A trip to Orkney is an experience where the past and present, the wild and the welcoming, and the profound and the simple converge. Whether you have walked in the footsteps of Vikings or savoured the warmth of Orcadian hospitality, you carry away not just memories but a piece of Orkney as well, a timeless connection to a place where history is home and the horizon calls for return.