United Kingdom
Orkney Islands

Here you’ll find travel reports about Orkney Islands. Discover travel destinations in the United Kingdom of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.

24 travelers at this place:

  • Day126

    Day 126: Orkney

    June 21, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    Extra long day today! Our alarms went off at 6am and we were out the door by 6:30, heading back into Inverness and the bus station. Today was the day for visiting the Orkneys, a small group of islands just off the northern tip of Scotland. We'd debated driving up ourselves, but just getting to the ferry location at John O'Groats was a 200-mile round trip, not to mention the difficulty of getting around once on the island. So we decided on a bus trip.

    The bus left fairly promptly at 7:15am and wound its way up the north-eastern coast of Scotland. Plenty to look at, with small villages, rugged coastline, forests and little mountains all making an appearance. Finally we arrived at John O'Groats just after 10am, leaving us a little bit of time to grab a coffee, have a pee and then take a photo with the sign. In popular opinion John O'Groats is the northern tip of the mainland, but it's actually not! Dunnett Head a little further west is more northerly, but it's basically the most distant point of the mainland from Land's End in Cornwall. I'm not sure why that's so important, but there you go! Definitely much less touristy than Land's End, that's for sure!

    The ferry over took about 40 minutes and was fairly smooth, and we were soon on a pair of coaches for our journey around the island. The mainland of Orkney is surprisingly large - at least an hour's drive from end to end, and has a (increasing) population of approx 25,000. Also very little unemployment too which is unusual for distant rural spots like this.

    Anyway, our coach drove us around most of the sights here. First up was the Churchill Barriers, a series of causeways blocking the entrance to the huge harbour. During WWI and WWII much of the British Atlantic fleet was based here in Scapa Flow, and although it was closed off from two directions (and a third for the entrance), the fourth was basically a series of small inlets. During WWI they blocked these off with scuttled cargo ships, and later during WW2 they upgraded to actual causeways after a submarine got through.

    Next the bus dropped us in the main town of Kirkwall, where most people went souvenir shopping. We weren't super interested, so grabbed a pie for lunch and wandered around the local museum. Fairly interesting, as Norway (through the Vikings) has quite a lot of historical influence here, and it was cool to see how that has shaped a unique local culture.

    Back on the bus where we headed to the main reason for coming to Orkney: a UNESCO world heritage site! It's the prehistoric village of Skara Brae; dating back to around 3500 BC. Older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge! And still remarkably well-preserved, you can see where each of the stone houses had things like furniture, beds, entrances, the hearth and so on. It was occupied for about 600 years before being abandoned, and likely buried by the sand soon afterwards. It was only uncovered in 1850 after a massive storm blew a huge chunk of the sand away (it's right on the beach).

    Did a bunch of filming as we had a bit of free time, though the wind played absolute havoc with our pieces to camera unfortunately.

    Back on the bus where we visited the other half of the UNESCO site - the Ring of Broda. This is another large stone circle like Stonehenge and Avebury, more like the latter than the former. About 100m in diameter, it originally had 60 stones though only 27 of them remain. Interestingly, the stones are have slightly different composition, meaning that they're from different parts of the island. Maybe a meeting place for pacts and important ceremonies? We don't know! It wasn't a burial ground though, no remains have been found there.

    On the bus again where we drove tantalisingly close past the other two bits of the world heritage site: the Stones of Stenness and the burial mound of Maeshowe. Wish we could've stopped but alas - the drawback of a coach tour. Also that whenever you arrive somewhere, 100 other people arrive at the same time!

    Last stop for the day was the Italian Chapel - a shrine built inside a WW2 aircraft hanger by Italian POWs. Apparently the carvings inside are very beautiful, but it was five pounds to enter and we decided not to. Also the bus was running a bit late for the ferry back by now, so it felt a bit rushed.

    Made it back to the ferry where we boarded and made the 40 minute journey back to John O'Groats. Very rough passage this time with probably a 3-4 metre swell. Onto the other bus where we drove back to Inverness over the next 3 hours, thankfully we'd ordered a sandwich each for dinner! Arrived back at 9pm, very exhausted but satisfied. Quick stop at Nandos for some chips as a late supper, then home where Schnitzel was happy to see us after being looked after by our Airbnb host (who'll be very sad to see him go!).

    Overall we had a great trip and really enjoyed it. Orkney wasn't at all like we expected - very green but treeless (the wind just blows them right over). Our coach driver was funny and informative, and it was nice to have someone else doing the driving and navigating for a change!

    Back south tomorrow to the Isle of Skye, after an amusing coincidence that we went the furthest north you can get in the UK on the longest day of the year! Apparently on Orkney they have a midnight golf tournament tonight, since you can basically play all night (it's still twilight well after midnight, and sunrise is around 4am with a couple of hours twilight before that).
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  • Day21

    Heart of Neolithic Orkney

    August 25, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    Not only mainland Scotland but its northernmost isles have been on my list of places to visit. Being only an hour and a half by ferry from Scrabster (on the mainland), the Orkney Islands are readily accessible, even for a day trip. Comprised of around 70 islands, less than a third are occupied by Orkney's 21,500 inhabitants. Our rather grand ferry took us past the Old Man of Hoy, a 137m vertical stack of the west coast of the island of Hoy, apparently popular with rock climbers (presumably when the weathers a bit finer!).

    With only 2 and a half days to explore, we deferred exploration of the pretty town of Stromness, instead heading straight to Orkney's capital Kirkwall, where we would pick up our hire car and settle into our B and B. In contrast to our previous few days amongst the beautiful Scottish Highlands, Orkney's agricultural expanses were somewhat of a culture shock. However, we weren't there for the scenery. The Orkney archipelago boasts the densest concentration of archaeological sites in Britain, and this would be the focus of our exploration.

    After settling in to our B and B, we easily navigated our way to the car hire venue, only to be met by a rather dour Scottish woman. Having exhausted all other car hire options, I had booked with this company, knowing that we'd only have the car for just over a day. "We're not open on Sunday" she reiterated and "No you can't drop the vehicle and keys off - I have to check the vehicle myself when you return it". Deciding against paying an extra £40 for 4 hours, we opted to return the car 24 hours later, hoping to locate another vehicle for the remainder of our trip.

    What this meant was that we then spent the next 10 hours trying to squeeze in as many of the neolithic attractions as we could. Luckily many are a relatively short distance from Kirkwall and before long we'd come across Cunween Hill Chambered cairn. Perched well above the surrounding farms, this 5000 year old communal burial chamber was used for generations and then seemingly abandoned. Feeling as if we were in the Great Race, we dashed to the hugely impressive Standing Stones of Stenness, giant monoliths that tower above their surroundings, their circular arrangement perplexing generations of archaeologists. A nearby pre-historic Barnhouse Village gave us a prelude to the Stone Age village of Skara Brae (which we would visit later that evening). The equally impressive Ring of Brodgar rose hauntingly in the setting sun. Along with the Maeshowe burial mound, these Neolithic remains comprise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, declared a World Heritage site in 1999. While this collective name is a modern idea, the area was clearly an important place in the past.

    Driving further north and coastward, the single lane roads were largely devoid of traffic. The local horses offered a short respite, as did a walk along the beach at Marwick Head, Kitchener's Memorial reminding us of the loss of the HMS Hampshire (and Minister of War Lord Kitchener) to a mine off the coast in 1916.

    Despite our best efforts, we failed to find dinner in the sparsely populated north. Arriving back in the "metropolis" of Kirkwall after 9pm proved equally challenging! Luckily a friendly "local" (ex-South African Enzo) guided us to a passable curry house. Satiated, we finally collapsed into our bed, wondering what the morrow would bring.
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  • Day21

    Skara Brae and Maeshowe

    August 25, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    Orkneys' prehistoric sites provide a remarkable insight to ancient civilisations. Amongst the most impressive for us was Skara Brae. Considered by many to be the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe, this amazing collection of still-furnished ancient buildings was uncovered by a storm in 1850. Long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids were built, Skara Brae was a thriving village.

    Little is known of the early exploration of the site, as records were not kept, though artefacts were collected by the landowner of the nearby Skaill House. Subsequent investigations have yielded considerable information, and the site continues to be a source of new knowledge on the early history of these islands.

    Visitation of this site is normally limited to peering from above into the various houses that have been partially excavated. We were fortunate to happen upon a twightlight tour, which meant we could enter rooms just as it's inhabitants would have done 4500 years ago. Our informative guide wove a story of life during those times, highlighting artefacts and markings that supported current theories. The individual houses, linked by passages, cluster together, forming a close-knit community. Small doorways open to larger spaces, an effective means for keeping heat in. The same basic layout could be seen in many of the houses - a central hearth, a large "dresser", bed enclosures and limpet boxes (watertight stone boxes sunken into the floor and thought to have been used to soak limpets for fish bait). Being on the coast, seafood would have been an important food source and is well-represented in the numerous middens on site.

    A full size replica house, complete with roof, gave us a very good impression of what it must have been like living in these houses. An equally impressive exhibition provided further insight. This site is so important that Indiana Jones lectured about it (according to our guidebook)!

    Another remarkable site is that of Maeshowe. Considered to be the finest Neolithic building in north-west Europe, this chambered tomb is ingeniously aligned so that its interior is illuminated by the setting of the mid-winter sun. Built around 5000 years ago, humongous stones (upto 3 tonnes) line the walls. It must have required significant community involvement to construct such a sophisticated and complex building in an age before machinery or even metal tools. Abandoned for many centuries, it was rediscovered in the 1100s by the Vikings, who left their mark in the form of graffiti! Indeed, Maeshowe is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga (the historical narrative of the history of the Orkney Islands written in the 1200s).
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  • Day22

    Brochs and Broughs

    August 26, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    Through our very helpful B and B hosts we had managed to secure another hire vehicle - a lumbering Citroen Relay van which would do us until our late night ship to Shetland Islands the next day. Prior to pick up however we had a morning to fill and so decided to explore the Broch of Gurness. Brochs are unique to Scotland. There are over 500 of these towers throughout northern and western Scotland and the islands.

    The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age settlement, one of 6 on the mainland, which faces 5 on the shores of the nearby island of Rousay. Between them lies the shores of Eynhallow Sound, an important navigational route and food source. Before excavation in 1929, Gurness was simply a large, grass-covered mound. Indeed there are yet-to-be-discovered settlements lurking amongst the mounds on Orkney - Orcadians have a bit of a thing about mounds.

    We found that the best way to really get a feel for this site was to walk down what would have been the entrance way (this is more effectively captured by video than photograph). Partially eroded by the sea, the layout of the village is still very evident and if you close you're eyes it's almost possible to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of this productive village.

    Further north lay the Brough of Birsay. Both Brough and Birsay derive from the Norse word borg, meaning fortified place and it's easy to see how this fortified island village would have been an effective barrier to invasion. Accessible only for a couple of hours either side of low tide, this island village shows evidence of Pictish, Norse and medieval occupation. Picts (meaning Painted People) lived in northern Scotland between 300 and 800 AD and were probably descendants of the Iron Age population. They left no written records so little is known about them. We found it difficult to differentiate between buildings from the different periods, which were sometimes built on top of earlier occupations. Either that or perhaps we'd saturation point on the historic front. A long walk to a spectacular lighthouse overlooking an equally spectacular coast line revived our enthusiasm. Sufficient at least for us to head out for a night of traditional Orcadian music at a local pub.
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  • Day22

    A touch more modern

    August 26, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    With a couple of hours to spare we decided to wander the streets of Kirkwall. By day a thriving metropolis, after 9pm the streets are pretty much deserted. The town is first mentioned in Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046 when it is recorded as the residence of Rögnvald Brusason the Earl of Orkney, who was killed by his uncle Thorfinn the Mighty. Just love those names!

    We'd bought an Orkney Explorer Pass which gave us access to 7 of the main attractions on Orkney and Shetland Islands. In Kirkwall this included the St Magnus Cathedral and the Bishop and Earl Palaces. The Bishop's Palace is a 12th-century palace built at the same time as the adjacent St Magnus Cathedral. It housed the cathedral's first bishop, William the Old of the Norwegian Catholic church. It looked a lot like a castle.

    The Earl's Palace is a ruined Renaissance-style palace and was built by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, with construction beginning around 1607 and being largely undertaken via forced labour. The palace was built after he decided that the nearby Bishop's Palace didn't suit his needs. He's considered one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scotland's history. and was eventually executed for treason (along with his son).
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  • Day23

    Rousay - Egypt of the North

    August 27, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    With so many options on where to spend our final day on Orkney, we opted for a visit to the nearby island of Rousay. Due to its archaeological diversity and importance it's received the nickname of "Egypt of the North". With a population of 205, it's home to more than 160 archaeological sites - almost 1 per person! As we'd only decided the night before, we had no idea whether there would be space on the small car ferry for our lumbering beast, so we figured we'd just wing it and turn up at the Tingwall jetty. Before long we were making the short journey across the Eynhallow Sound, Richard having expertly backed the Citroen onto the tiny Ro-Ro ferry. After a quick orientation and a browse in the local craft shop, we started along the ring road. Several well-preserved burial cairns are found along this route. Taversoe Tuick is a rare two-storied cairn and is structurally quite complex. The level of preservation was truly impressive. Blackhammer Cairn is thought to date from around 3000 BC. The structure is a stalled cairn, with an interior divided into compartments (stalls) by pairs of upright stone slabs. It has a modern roof and is exposed to light, so algal growth was quite extensive. Further along, the Knowe of Yarso Cairn is situated on a hill overlooking the Eynhallow Sound and must have provided impressive views for mourners. It was another chambered cairn. Apparently when it was excavated in the 1930s they found, along with human bones, remains of red deer, which are longer found on Orkney.

    Lunch beckoned and luckily the Taversoe Tavern was open. With fabulous views over the Eynhallow Sound my Fisherman's Lunch (marine version of a Ploughman's Lunch) proved a fitting meal for such a location.

    Replenished, we headed off in the direction of Midhowe Broch, which we'd seen from the Broch of Gurness only the day before. We were almost starting to feel like locals!
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  • Day23

    The Westness Mile

    August 27, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅

    Described as the most important archaeological mile in Scotland, the Westness Mile on Rousay spans settlements from the first Stone Age settlers, the Pictish Iron Age, the Viking invaders, the period of the Earls and the troubled crofting times.

    We started this history walk with the oldest structure - the Midhowe Cairn. The cairn itself is housed within a large modern semi-circular brick building to protect the delicate structures within. Unfortunately the building was closed but we were able to peer through the windows. What an amazing structure! At around 23m in length, the cairn is divided into 12 chambers, each capable of housing numerous burials. Tombs like this were the collective burial places of communities of Neolithic farmers, dating as far back as 3000BC.

    The nearby Midhowe Broch is more recent, built during the Iron Age as a fortified residence during the Iron Age, and occupied from around 200 BC to 200 AD. Located on a cliff overlooking Eynhallow Sound, it's one of at least nine brochs that stand along the banks of the sound. As with the Broch of Gurness and at Skara Brae, internal fittings such as fireplaces and bed chambers were evident. It's incredible to think such structures could stand for so long in what is a very exposed site. What impressed us the most was the huge external buttressing that had been constructed to support the heavy stone walls (which are apparently more than 4m thick).

    Following the path along the coastline we moved forward in time, passing Brough Farm (once one of the most valuable estates in Orkney, dating back to the 1700s, but uninhabited since 1845), the Wirk, a ceremonial hall thought to date from the 1200s and the ruins of St. Mary's Church (1600s) which is built on the site of a medieval church. By this stage we were tiring (time travel is tiring), so we retraced our steps and continued our road trip. A little further on were remnants of crofting communities, victims of the clearances that we had observed in the Scottish Highlands.

    Rousay is more mountainous than its Mainland neighbour and the remainder of our circumnavigation took us along stunning clifftops with spectacular views. With time to spare for an Orkney ice cream, we boarded our Roro ferry once more before heading into Kirkwall for a quick dinner ahead of our 11.00pm Shetland ferry boarding.
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  • Day86

    A little bit of the past

    August 25, 2018 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Erst ein kleiner Ausflug nach Stromness mit einem schönen Ausblick auf die Insel Hoy, dann zum Unstan cairn (ein kleines begehbares Hügelgrab) und schließlich zu den Standing Stones of Stenness und den Ring of Brodgar. Im Gegensatz zu Stonehenge sind diese Steinkreise kostenfrei zu besichtigen. Auch hier ist man noch am grübeln wofür die stehen. 5000 Jahre alte Geschichte ist schwer zu interpretieren.Read more

  • Day85

    Whisky day

    August 24, 2018 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 10 °C

    2 distillery tours and 8 tastings. I think that's enough for a while. In Scapa and the Highland Park Distillery. I think it's worth a visit.

You might also know this place by the following names:

Orkney Islands, Orkney, ORK, Inizi Orc'h, Illes Òrcades, Orkneje, Orkadoj, Orcadas, Orkney saared, Orkneysaaret, Orcades, Arcaibh, Órcadas, Orkneyski otoci, Orkney-szigetek, Orkneyjar, Isole Orcadi, オークニー諸島, 오크니 제도, Orknio salos, Orkney-eilanden, Orknøyane, Orknøyene, Orkady, Órcades, Оркнейские острова, Orkneyöarna, Orkney Adaları, Оркнейські острови

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