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Things To Do In Orkney Islands
Orkney is a group of 70 islands, only 20 of which are inhabited, situated in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands are made up of ancient monuments and settlement sites, majestic rock formations, splendid coastlines and stunning landscapes that form an idyllic setting for a nature-based vacation. The region is intensely green and ringed with vibrant red sandstone cliffs, and is home to some amazing species of indigenous wildlife. The prehistoric villages and age-old stone formations make up some of the main highlights of Orkney, where visitors will find themselves enchanted with the mystical elements and tranquil ambience of the region. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes here as well for those looking to indulge in some amazing local food and shopping sprees. Here are our recommendations on the top things to do while in Orkney.
Tour of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’
The area west of Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, was given the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and termed the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’. Most of the islands that make up Orkney contain prehistoric monuments that are popular tourist attractions, but the biggest concentration of ancient Stone Age structures can be found on the mainland itself. These include the Skara Brae, Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, the tombs of Maeshowe and the archaeological excavation site, the Ness of Brodgar.
The Skara Brae is a 5000-year-old village from the Stone Age where visitors can see houses and streets left almost intact through intensive preservation of the region. Even the furnishings of the housings are still visible today. Maeshowe is a burial ground and cairn where the dead have been residing since 2500 BC. But apart from that, the cairn also has a fascinating design such that the winter solstice sun illuminates its interiors every time it touches the entranceway. The Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar are a formation of giant stones in the shape of the circle, the purpose of which is still currently unknown.
Enjoy a Trek Across the Islands
With impressive coastlines and a vibrant display of flowers and greenery all over the islands, hiking across the plains and rocky surfaces of Orkney will surely be one of the memorable things you do here. On the western side of Mainland, the coastline is extra rugged; there is a 16-km path here that allows trek enthusiasts to embark on an exciting hike all the way to edge of the island’s cliffs. Enjoy fantastic views of the sea stacks – rock formations created by the waves on the edges of the island – and continue your hike to other islands in the group.
The Westness Heritage Walk on the island of Rousay entails a 7-km long rough coastal route and includes several ancient archaeological sites in the region. Climb Ward Hill on the island of Hoy for a lovely view and the thrill of the ascent, which is known to be the highest point in Orkney. Birsay may be an uninhabited island, but the Brough of Birsay is brimming with great walking trails that include ancient settlement ruins and numerous bird spotting opportunities.
Be a Part of the Local Festivals
Orkney has its own share of local festivals that give tourists the chance to experience the region’s culture and celebrate it with the native population. The Orkney Folk Festival is a four-day event celebrated in the month of May; it includes folk concerts, ceilidhs – a form of traditional Scottish entertainment – and celebratory pub sessions. The island is often packed with visitors during this time and it is preferable to make prior booking arrangements. The Saint Magnus Festival is held for a week in midsummer; it is a vibrant event that celebrates music and the arts and includes orchestral performances as well. The festival holds events in several venues around Kirkwall.
Spend the Night in Kirkwall
Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney and the city where most people begin their exploration of the island archipelago. It is a city rich in culture and history and has been recorded as an important trade centre from way back in the 11th-century. Kirkwall today is very different from what it was in the past and is packed with bars, theatres, restaurants and cafes, and a wide variety of stores that sell everything from jewellery to clothing and crafts. There are numerous historic attractions worth checking out in this bustling commercial hub, like the ruins of Earl’s Palace that was once one of the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture in the country. Also, visit the St. Magnus Cathedral where guided tours are available for visitors.
Camping in the Summer
All the glorious open space in Orkney means it is the perfect spot to go camping during the summers. Sleeping under the stars during the warmer months of the year makes Orkney a Scottish hotspot for nature lovers. Wheems Organic Farm is a 200-year-old working farm with an eco-lodge where visitors can book campsites and enjoy the spectacular outdoors. Located on the island of South Ronaldsay, the property faces the sea and offers brilliant views of the majestic cliffs. There are numerous other remote spots all over the Orkney Islands that make great camping locations. Depending on the time of the year you visit, you may even get to witness the magical Northern Lights.
Take the World’s Shortest Flight
Getting around in the Orkney Islands usually means travelling by bus, inter-island ferries or cruising around in a rental car. But there are also inter-island flights available as an option if you are looking for a quick route to explore most of the holiday-worthy inhabited islands in a short span of time. In fact, one of the most fascinating activities worth trying here is catching a flight from the island of Westray to Papa Westray. The small distance of about 3 km between the two islands allows passengers to get onto a hilariously short 2-minute flight, which is the shortest scheduled passenger flight on the planet. This flight is operated only by Loganair and if weather conditions are good, the actual flight time lasts just a minute.
Visit the Islands’ Ancient Sites
While the Mainland is Orkney’s treasure of heritage sites, there are numerous other locations across other islands in the group that boast just as remarkable prehistoric spots. Some of the major archaeological sites on the island of Rousay include burial Cairns like Taversoe Tuick, Blackhammer and Knowe of Yarso. Taversoe Tuick is a burial ground that has been constructed on two levels and also has separate entrances, while Knowe of Yarso is located on a hill that requires some climbing. On the island of Papa Westray, the Knap of Howar consists of a farmhouse and storeroom made entirely in stone and dating back almost 5500 years. It is easily one of the most well-preserved Neolithic structures in Europe where visitors can also see furnishings and rooms within the structures. Tour agencies offer excursions to many other such spots all over the islands, which have often been nicknamed the Egypt of the North due to the number of historic sites here and new ones constantly being discovered.
Explore the Museums of Orkney
Orkney is filled with so many museums that history and archaeology lovers will find it hard to leave. The Stromness Museum has numerous relics from natural history and maritime exhibitions, including some recent finds from the excavations that have been carried out at the Ness of Brodgar. The Fossil and Heritage Centre is an eclectic museum where you will find some excellent Devonian fish fossils that date back to millions of years ago, along with exhibitions that revolve around the World Wars and the Churchill Barriers that were built here during the Second World War.
Scapa Flow is a natural harbour that served as a Naval base for the British fleet during the first and second World War. There is a visitor centre here that also serves as a museum with exhibits and photographic displays of Orkney’s military history.
Tasting Tour of the Local Distilleries
Like most Scottish locales, Orkney has its own share of whiskey distilleries. The most famous of them is the Highland Park Distillery, which has been making liquor since 1798 and whose single malt has won several awards. The distillery malts its own barley, and during the hour-long tour, visitors get to learn all about the process of whiskey-making. The tour also includes a tasting session where visitors get to taste a 12-year-old soft malt – perfect for novices, with the 18-year-old and even older malts being reserved for the specialised and costlier tours. Scapa is another distillery just a couple of kilometres south of Kirkwall’s centre, and while it may not be as famous as the Highland Park, it does produce exquisite quality, well-balanced malts. Scapa offers a ‘standard’ tour and an ‘experience’ tour; it is preferable to call ahead and book a spot.
Follow the Creative Orkney Trail
The Orkney Islands have a thriving creative scene and visitors here will find a wide variety of independent businesses led by local craftsmen. The artisanal skills owned by the people of Orkney can be seen in the form of jewellery, woodwork, pottery, textiles and many other forms design and handiwork. A map of the Creative Orkney Trail can be obtained from anywhere on the island and travellers can then embark on a day trip visiting all the brilliant craft studios around Orkney. The craftsmen and women are extremely friendly and are welcoming with sharing the knowledge of their skills. Getting a souvenir or gift for loved ones back home from these places is also a great way to support these local businesses.