Orkney has always been a popular destination for those who have special ties to the island, however, in recent years many more people are discovering its charm and it has became quite a popular visit for cruise ships and holiday makers.
If you’re not bothered by throw of the dice weather then I would really recommend a visit. If anything, it makes you appreciate when you get a beautiful dry day on the island. Here’s 10 things you can do/see (most of them outside, sorry) if you visit the Orkney Islands.
1. Skara Brae
Located on the Bay of Skaill, Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement made up of 8 clustered houses. The story I’m told whenever I go is that it was rediscovered after a storm revealed the outline of the houses that had been covered by sand and grass – often called the “Scottish Pompeii” due to how well preserved it was. I’m going to bore you with one of those stories of “when I was young” (even though I’m technically still young) but many years ago, you could adventure through the old settlement of Skara Brae, use tools in their kitchens and walk through the houses where the families would have lived. This obviously had to stop for preservation reasons and the amount of people that now visit the site but still well worth the visit even just for the views over the Bay of Skaill.
2. The Italian Chapel
The Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm was built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II after being given permission to build a place of worship. It is held in high regard by island residents and visitors due to the incredible level of artistry and workmanship. Once a free site to visit, it now costs £3 to go inside the chapel. This is to help towards the upkeep and maintenance needed and also because someone stole three of the Station of the Cross in 2014 but lets not get into that. Replacement Plaques were however carved in Moena, Italy and replaced those in the chapel.
3. The Churchill Barriers
One of my favourite things in Orkney are the Churchill Barriers. There’s nothing like the rush of being overtaken in the car when crossing the narrow road (this is a joke, please don’t do this to people, speaking from experience here). The Churchill Barriers are 4 causeways that link the mainland to smaller islands. They were built during WWI as a defence for Scapa Flow that then housed the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. They’re hella cool and you’ll most likely see a few shipwrecks each side of them.
4. The Ring of Brodgar
Believed to outdate Stonehenge in England, is The Ring of Brodgar. Originally a ring with a diameter of 340 ft and consisting of 60 megaliths, 27 stones remain today ranging from 7 – 15 ft. Also, it’s pronounced Broa(d)yeur not Brogar and is free to visit woooo.
Maeshowe is a chambered cairn the history of which is a little sketchy but it is known that the Vikings entered the mound during the 12th century and have left one of the largest collections of runes anywhere, as well as carvings of a dragon, a serpent and a walrus. It has associations with the winter solstice, the sun shines directly into the passage of Maeshowe and for a few minutes it illuminates the back wall quite dramatically. I’d recommend doing the tour where you crawl through the narrow tunnel and enter into the dome shaped chamber.
6. Happy Valley
My Nana and Papa knew the man that started Happy Valley and were so excited to hear that his life’s work had been maintained after his passing in 2005. At his house “Bankburn” in Stenness, Edwin Harrold created an area of forest from 1948 to 1990 – which is quite rare in Orkney due to the high winds. If you visit now, it is an incredibly peaceful and magical place that still includes his small cottage house and a stream. Stepping into the forest you feel as though you are in another land. It is well maintained by the community and perfect for small children as there are windchimes, fairies and hidden treasure.
7. The Craft Trail
The Craft Trail 2018 was one of my favourite things when we visited this year. So much negativity is generally placed on making a living out of a creative discipline but in Orkney, it thrives. My favourite place we visited on the craft tail were Sheila Fleet’s new visitor centre in Tankerness that consists of a shop and café. You may even be lucky enough to bump into the wonderful lady herself there. After browsing her incredible new collection and hearing about her inspiration, she recommended we visit her sisters tapestry workshop which is also incredible – clearly such a talented family!
8. Live Music at The Reel
Nights in Orkney are made for live music at The Reel in Kirkwall created by internationally renowned Wrigley Sisters. There’s a café, bar and a music school. They host plenty of music events such as their Saturday night sessions that allow anyone with an instrument to join in. Even if you aren’t musically inclined, it’s well worth a visit to experience the atmosphere.
9. Go puffin spotting at the Brough of Birsay
If you fancy trying to spot some puffins, the Brough of Birsay is the place you need to go. Only accessible at low tide via a causeway, it is quite a walk up the exposed hill but so worth it! Just don’t go leaning too far over the edge for a good view. May and June are the only months you really see them here though!
10. The Broch of Gurness
Similar to Skara Brae is the Broch of Gurness except here you can really get in about the old Iron Age settlement. A broch is a tall circular tower and there’s estimated to be around 500 in northern Scotland, however, this one also had a broch village and has been excavated so you really do get a real insight to the layout of the settlement. Fun fact, according to my family, there was no fence back in the day but after my dad fell over the edge on to the sand* below, they had to put one in – oops.
*My uncle has since revealed he actually fell head first off the rocks and on to the gravel, not sand… Double oops