Welcome to my 100th post on An Orcadian Abroad! What better way to celebrate than by writing about my own home town – the reason behind the name of my blog?
Orkney is hideously overlooked when it comes to Scottish islands, particularly amongst travel bloggers, so it’s about time someone shone a light onto it.
After all, if you’re interested in history – and I mean any history, from 5000 years ago to the Vikings to WW2 – this is one of the best places you could ever visit. There’s an uncovered village that pre-dates Stonehenge; we’ve got neolithic tombs you can climb into with Viking graffiti on the walls; shipwrecks, palaces, a be-a-utiful cathedral, and that’s just the start of it.
If rugged nature is more your thing, let me tell you: you have come to the right place. We have incredible cliff walks, puffins, uninhabited islands and an abundance of sea birds and seals. You might even see dolphins, orcas and otters.
Are you a foodie? Expect only the best in seafood and beef, not to mention ice cream and fudge. We have world class whisky (you might have heard of Highland Park), we have oatcakes, cheese, chutney, ales from two breweries… and even gin, wine and buffalo are making their way onto the Orkney foodie radar. (FYI: Orkney fudge cheesecake is the best, and you can quote me on that!)
Tie all this in with cosy towns and very welcoming locals, and Orkney makes for an almost perfect destination. (But it’s Scotland, so it’s a shame about the weather!)
Moving away made me realise just how valuable a place this is. As if I haven’t just outlined a million reasons above, here are my top 5 ultimate reasons to visit.
1. Neolithic history: Skara Brae, Ring Of Brodgar & other archaeological breakthroughs
History is the number one reason tourists flock to Orkney. Whether it’s war time history or archaeological sites from the Stone Age, a cathedral built by Vikings or some of the world’s best (but most dangerous) dive sites for shipwrecks, it really is one of the best. But one era is probably the most fascinating of all because we still know so little about it – the neolithic age.
Stonehenge, as everyone knows, is a bunch of stones mysteriously put together. You can find a few of those scattered around Scotland, including lots of standing stones in Orkney (Ring Of Brodgar, pictured above, is set in a circle and no one really knows why).
Skara Brae is a freaking neolithic village that predates Stonehenge by over half a century. And a well-preserved one at that – the houses remain complete with furniture!
And how many of you have heard of Skara Brae? Exactly.
Yet there’s no reason that it should be so overlooked. Groundbreaking archaeological sites are popping up all over the place in Orkney – several huge projects are being undertaken at the moment, and one is uncovering what experts believe may be a central community point within a Stone Age village. (free tours of the dig are available during the summer, although I recommend donating to their cause)
In fact, a recent BBC programme explored the likelihood of Orkney once being the capital of ancient Britain. Pretty fascinating, huh?!
2. WW2 history: shipwrecks, Italian Chapel & Scapa Flow
As well as neolithic history, Orkney is also (literally) littered with war history.
Almost every day, I drive past a bunch of shipwrecks. How cool is that? These particular ones were deliberately sunk in order to cause obstruction for German submarines trying to infiltrate the navy base in Scapa Flow.
Eventually, barriers were built – huge concrete blocks holding up a road that would revolutionise transport in Orkney. As a result, all the south isles (including the one I grew up on) are now connected to the Orkney mainland by road.
These barriers, named the Churchill barriers, were built during WWII with help from the hundreds of Italian prisoners of war being held on one of the smaller islands. During their time in Orkney, the prisoners managed to build a chapel out of two Nissen huts and any scrap metal they could find, and the chapel remains to this day to be one of Orkney’s best-loved attractions.
If you want to further your war history, there are plenty of lookout points and old concrete “pillbox” huts scattered around Orkney. The best preserved (and probably most easily accessible) are located at Hoxa point, South Ronaldsay. You can see them from the boat if you come from Gills Bay to St. Margaret’s Hope, but otherwise it’s easy to park up and walk the track to the old barracks.
And if you really want to experience some wartime history, you can dive some of the wrecks of Scapa Flow. You can’t dive the most famous one, the Royal Oak, as it’s protected as a war grave where 833 people died in the torpedo attack. However, the dangerous waters mean people have also died diving in Scapa Flow so it’s not a beginner’s area, though if you want to try a dive, these guys will take you to the blockships by the barriers.
Plus Lord Kitchener (you know, the one from the “your country needs you” posters) died just off the coast of Marwick, and you can visit a poignant memorial to him and his crew. It’s actually on my favourite coastal walk in Orkney, which leads me on to…
3. Stunning coastal views & wildlife
You’re never far from a beach in Orkney. And if Scottish beaches aren’t your thing? (after all, there’s no way you can swim in the sea unless you’re crazy enough to take part in the Boxing Day dip)
Well, I’d say the rugged coast is pretty spectacular.
In fact, on the very beach below that last photo, the rocks are LITTERED with seals in the winter! And even better, pups!
Orkney also attracts bird enthusiasts from all over the world. As well as the elusive puffin (known here as the “tammie norrie”), Orkney is home to absolutely tons of sea birds such as guillemots, razorbills and skua.
If you’re really lucky, you might spot the family of orcas circling our waters, or some otters splashing about, or the pair of sea eagles living on Hoy.
One of the most iconic natural landmarks of Orkney is the Old Man Of Hoy. Most people don’t get to see it due to its location, but you can pass it if you get the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. Otherwise it’s a moderate hike from Rackwick – and even getting to Rackwick is a journey in itself.
There’s also an island you can walk to in low tide, the Brough Of Birsay, which is one of my favourite places to explore – not to mention the fact there’s a Viking settlement there. And puffins. And incredible cliffs. Am I selling it to you?
For more, read my guide of the best coastal walks you can take in Orkney!
4. St Magnus Cathedral
Apart from the neolithic sites and perhaps the Old Man Of Hoy, Orkney’s most iconic site is the focal point of the main town, Kirkwall – St Magnus Cathedral. It was founded by Earl Rognvald (pronounced Ronald) as a tribute to his nephew. Building began in 1137 by Vikings and was completed with two types of sandstone to give it its textured look. It’s free to go in and look around – you can pay tribute to those lost in the Royal Oak torpedo disaster or sit in on one of the services.
It’s also a beautiful place to get out of the cold!
There’s lots of other Viking history in Orkney too – opposite the cathedral lay two palaces in ruin. Bishop’s Palace is the oldest, built for a companion of Rognvald. Next to it Earl’s Palace, built after Orkney became part of Scotland, was never even completed, and was used for less than a century (1615 until 1705). There is a second Earl’s Palace in Birsay.
One of my favourite pieces of Viking “heritage” in Orkney comes in the form of graffiti. Our most famous neolithic tomb, Maeshowe, was pillaged by Vikings who left their mark all over the tomb, including a dragon carved into the stone.
Orkney retains a strong connection to its Norse history. Many street names in Kirkwall are Viking names; even “Kirkwall” itself derives from “Kirkjuvagr” which translates to Church Bay. The ferries from Aberdeen are named Hjaltland and Hrossey (“Shetland” and “Orkney”). Popular names to this day include Thorfinn, Magnus, Ingrid and even Rognvald with the traditional spelling.
5. The sky (including the northern lights!)
Northern lights are never guaranteed in Orkney simply due to the fact that it clouds over so often! That said, this is one of the few places in the UK that you can regularly experience them in winter.
And probably one of the most picturesque places to view them in the world.
All year round, however, the sky does give Orcadians something pretty spectacular – and not just a phenomenal night sky full of stars when it’s clear.
I compared sunsets around the world without realising that some of the best ones are right on my doorstep. Every time we have a clear day (it does happen more than you would think), we get a brilliant light show of pink, purple, orange, red and every shade in between!
There are tons of reasons you should visit Orkney. There is no way I’ve outlined everything.
I wouldn’t say that winter is the best time to visit Orkney overall, but if you do happen to be here over Christmas or New Year, it’s definitely worth checking out one of our craziest traditions: the Ba! This mad street “football” game is featured on many weird festival lists, and it’s definitely an experience to remember! There is an ongoing debate on what signifies your team, but the most popular one is if you arrive by plane, you’re an uppie; if you arrive by boat, you’re a doonie. Make your choice wisely, because this is the ultimate competitive game!
In fact, the BBC has described it as “not so much a game… more a civil war.”
I’ve missed out the fact that my favourite unhealthy food, apart from Orkney fudge cheesecake, is pattie and chips (battered mince & tatties) which you can only get here… and Hull (why Hull? I don’t know).
I haven’t told you about how you can take the world’s shortest commercial flight between two of the northern isles: Westray and Papa Westray. I haven’t even mentioned the famous Twatt sign (if you’re a regular user of The Internet, you’ve probably seen it).
Oh, alright. Here’s a picture of my Dad with one of them.
And I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the different islands that offer their own history and traditions. In fact, there are over 70 islands in the Orkney archipelago, 20 of which are inhabited. There is a lot to explore, and I hope to see more of them in 2017.
Have I whet your appetite for a Scottish island adventure?
There are several ways to reach Orkney:
Northlink ferries run from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Scrabster (Thurso) to Stromness
Passenger-only ferries go from John O’ Groats to South Ronaldsay throughout the summer (including day coach tours)
Pentland Ferries provides a car ferry from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope
You can also fly from most main Scottish airports with Flybe
Plus Orkney is becoming an increasingly popular destination on cruise trips (in 2017 our cruise ships almost doubled from 90-something to 144!!)
Want any more advice? Feel free to contact me or comment below! I’d be happy to help.
Is Orkney somewhere YOU’D like to visit?