The Orkney Islands, a mere forty minute flight north of Inverness, Scotland, are worlds apart from the mainland. They’re wild, rugged, and remote. Orkney comprises 70 islands, 20 of which are inhabited. Kirkwall, the island chain’s biggest town, has only 9,000 year-round residents, while Stromness, twenty minutes away, has 2,200. 75% of the population of Orkney lives on the Mainland, what Orcadians call the biggest island.
history and language
The first mention of Orkney is around 300 BCE, by Pytheas of Massilia, but it isn’t until the 1st century AD that Mela writes that Agricola visited the island. Norse settlers came in the 9th century, dubbing it “Orkneyjar,” or “Seal Island,” while “orc” could either be “pig” or “boar” in Pict and Irish.
Of course, the islands had been settled thousands of year before that. Skara Brae, one of the most well-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, is on the western edge of the Mainland. It is believed to have been settled around 3100 BCE while Knap of Howar, on Papa Westray island, is the earliest known Neolithic settlement, from 3500 BCE.
what to do on orkney
There is no shortage of things to do in Orkney. History buffs will find a plethora of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, from Skara Brae’s prehistoric village to Maes Howe burial site to the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness stone circles. Recently, in 2002, one of the most significant prehistoric finds was discovered between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The Ness of Brodgar site is only open in July and August and otherwise covered to protect it from the strong, harsh Atlantic elements.
Viking and Pict history is also rampant here. From the 12th century settlement on the northwest coast at the Brough of Birsay to St. Magnus’ Cathedral in the centre of Kirkwall, visitors are encouraged to learn about the Viking culture that shaped much of the northern islands.
More recent history claims a fraction of Orkney as well. In both World Wars, Orkney played a strategic part. The British Home Fleet was stationed here during both wars. 1918 saw the German fleet interned, and subsequently sunk, in Scapa Flow. Divers can scuba to some of these wrecks and on a clear day, it’s possible to see the faint outlines of the ships while flying into Kirkwall. The Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm is another spectacular wartime relic: built by Italian prisoners of war, the chapel is a stunning work of art.
A remote island chain in the middle of the Atlantic is sure to attract wildlife. Puffins, arctic terns, barnacle geese, seals, and whales come past the islands on their migrations. There are 13 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sites on Orkney. There are also incredible natural phenomenons. The Old Man of Hoy is one such: a 450 foot sea stack made of red sandstone on the small island of Hoy.
how to get here
Flybe has direct flights from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Inverness ito Kirkwall. Ferries from the mainland Scotland arrive into Kirkwall, Stromness, St. Margaret’s Hope, or Burwick. The Orkney ferry system runs between the 13 inhabited islands daily (unless weather restricts.)
Photo by Robert Moran.