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Tourist Places To Visit In Orkney Islands
Situated in the Northern Isles of Scotland, the Orkney Islands are made up of an archipelago of 70 separate islands that lie off the coast of Great Britain. Here, visitors get the chance to explore heritage sites that are thousands of years old, stroll along idyllic coastlines, and enjoy the local cafes and restaurants that form an inherent part of the Orcadian culture. The largest settlement and the capital of the islands is Kirkwall, which is a thriving tourist region with daily ferry services that carry visitors to and from the islands. These islands are also where you will find the continent’s highest concentration of age-old Neolithic sites, which make up some of the top attractions in Orkney. Check out our recommendations of the top places to visit when in Orkney.
St Magnus Cathedral
Constructed entirely in red sandstone, the Cathedral of St. Magnus is one of the most impressive structures in Kirkwall. While it was originally built in the year 1137 when Orkney was under the rule of the Viking, Earl Rognvald, it has been continuously adapted with new modifications constantly being added. Known as the ‘Light of the North’, the Earl built the cathedral in memory of his uncle, St Magnus. The interiors of the church are just as impressive as its gorgeous exteriors. The walls of the cathedral on the inside are lined with ancient epitaphs of the dead, with translations to the inscriptions placed next to the headstones that offer an insight into the lives of these people who lie here. Visitors will also find numerous Orkney relics in the church along with graves of important locals.
Standing Stones of Stenness
The Standing Stones of Stenness are part of the concentration of Neolithic monuments on the mainland. The tallest stone in this formation is almost 6 metres in height, with only four remaining out of a circle formation that once possibly numbered 12. The ring encircled a massive hearth and was guarded by a bank and a ditch, which was ploughed away over time. According to research, these stones were possibly erected around 3300 BC, making them more than 5000 years old. Much like the Ring of Brodgar, this ancient structure is believed to have served as an important ritualistic monument; but the truth is still shrouded in mystery.
The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar was possibly a site of ritual, but it is unknown what the ritual was for. There are also some theories that it may have been constructed for astronomical purposes. About 104 metres wide and covering an area of 8500 metres, the ring forms a true circle and was possibly originally made of 60 stones, out of which only 27 remain today. The impressive size of the circle and the height of the stones is a testament to the kind of knowledge and expertise that was owned by the prehistoric population who lived here; to be able to create something of this calibre thousands of years ago would have been no small feat. Built around 2500-2000 BC, this archaeological gem is one of the oldest stone circles in the world and is the last of the three stone monuments in Stenness. The entire structure creates a mystical sight, especially on dark cloudy days.
One of the world’s oldest prehistoric sites that possibly predates the Stonehenge and also the pyramids of Giza, Skara Brae was discovered way back in 1850 after a severe storm blew away the sand that had been covering the site for hundreds of years. Skara Brae is Europe’s most well-preserved Neolithic village and consists of streets and nine identical houses that have been made completely out of stone. The interiors of the houses still contain furnishings like beds, dressers and even areas created for indoor heating with fire. It is believed these structures are about 5000 years old and were occupied for more than 600 years. The residents who once lived here have simply left behind little belongings like jewellery, pots and ordinary tools, but it is still not known who actually lived in Skara Brae or why it was abandoned this way.
To preserve the area, visitors are not allowed to walk among the ancient buildings; however, there are after-hours tours in the evenings during the summers, where visitors can enjoy a guided tour the site itself. There is also a visitor centre here, the entry fee to which includes the nearby Skaill House. Skaill House is a 17th century Orcadian mansion that was originally built for the bishop and is an interesting sight to visit as well.
The Island of Hoy
The second-largest island in Orkney, Hoy boasts some dramatic scenery and resembles the Scottish Highlands considerably in its landscape. The island’s most popular attraction is the Old Man of Hoy – a sea-stack almost 140 metres in height made of rock formations that have been carved by the waves of the ocean. This well-known sight on Hoy is one of the tallest sea-stacks in the UK and can be visited through a three-hour return hike on the island; although, the climb is tough and is probably best embarked on by seasoned hikers. The spectacular scenery encountered on the way to the Old Man of Hoy truly makes the difficult trek a scenic one.
The ‘Orkneyinga Saga’, written in the 12th century in Iceland, is a documentation of the Viking’s rule on the islands. Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, believed to be the most powerful of all Viking Earls, had his seat in the village of Birsay, which is located along the north-west coast of Orkney. The Brough of Birsay is a small tidal island here that is accessible only at low tide through a causeway. The best time to come here is usually between the months of June and September. Visitors can check out the Earl’s Palace and the unusual but locally famous Whalebone sculpture.
Located on West Mainland, Stromness boasts immense historic significance; the Vikings named it ‘Hamnavoe’, which means ‘safe haven’. As Orkney’s second-largest and second most populated town, Stromness features iconic shops that sell handmade arts and crafts, stunning houses crammed together on winding stone streets, and a beautiful harbour that completes the picture of an old-school charm that makes this town stand out. Stromness is quirky yet traditional, which has been a constant source of inspiration for creatives who come to Orkney looking for their muse. The Pier Arts Centre is a world-renowned attraction here that was established by Margaret Emilia Gardener, a British patron of art. The centre has a wonderful collection of modern art that was left behind by Gardener and donated to Orkney.
The Italian Chapel
In the year 1942 during the Second World War, about a thousand Italian Prisoners of War were brought to Orkney to construct the Churchill Barriers – a defence system for Scapa Flow, which was the Naval Base for the British fleet during the war. The prisoners were held on a small island called Lamb Holm and while they were there, they convinced their camp commander to allow them to build a chapel. What they managed to build was more impressive than anyone would have imagined. They were given two Nissan huts to use as the chapel, and they lined it with plaster and created a beautiful façade. Scrap metal was used for candelabras and other types of furnishings. One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiochetti, painted the chapel to make it look like brick walls, paintings and stonework inside the chapel.
The prisoners of war were released and sent back to Italy after the war, but Chiochetti stayed behind to finish his work on the chapel. The church is a beautiful work of art that should be paid a visit on your trip to Orkney.
Ness of Brodgar
The Ness of Brodgar is a narrow island between the lakes Harray and Stenness. There has been evidence of a major settlement that resided here between the period of 3500 BC to 1800 BC, and regular excavations on this site have unearthed some brilliant treasures and revolutionised the understanding of Stone Age in Britain. It was in 2002 that the World Heritage Site revealed that there must be several spectacular finds beneath the ground here, and archaeologists have been working to uncover these treasures for more than a decade now. The digs mostly happen during the summer season for around 6-8 weeks, so if you are in Orkney during this time, the Ness of Brodgar becomes a must-visit. Only about 10% of the total area of the island has been excavated, but there is so much that has been discovered already and goes on to prove that the people living in Orkney during this time were anything but primitive; it was a sophisticated community that is slowly being unearthed.
Highland Park Distillery
Considered one of the best spirits in the world, Highland Park is a single malt whiskey that is distilled in the Highland Park Distillery situated just south of Kirkwall; this also makes the distillery the northernmost single malt distillery on the planet. What sets the Highland Park whisky apart is the peat from Orkney that is used to smoke the hand-malted barley. Moreover, Highland Park uses European and American sherry-seasoned oak to mature its whisky, which contributes to 60-80% of the flavour. Excellent hour-long tours of the distillery allow visitors to see how the barley is malted into some of the finest whisky in the world; tastings are also part of the tour for varied rates.