Orkney is a fantastic place for a holiday. If you are travelling by public transport, the islands of Orkney are generally within easy reach. A lot of the islands can be reached from Kirkwall, the main settlement on mainland Orkney. it is not without foundation to call Orkney, ‘the archaeological capital of the UK’ due to it’s rich neolithic heritage and ongoing excavations. I have not included the Old man of Hoy as this would be too obvious!
Below, I have highlighted what are, in my opinion, the top 5 attractions (or areas to visit) within the Orkney Islands.
1) – Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Probably the most famous of Orkney’s attractions. The Orkney Islands have preserved some of the most impressive prehistoric sites in Europe. They boast standing stones, settlements, cairns and archaeological landscapes that have survived for at least 5000 years. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney site is made up of the chambered tomb of MaesHowe, the Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Stone, the Watch Stone, the Ring of Brodgar and the Skara Brae settlement. Together these form one of the richest surviving Neolithic landscapes in western Europe.
Skara Brae is located on the southern shore of Sandwick, Skara Brae was inhabited between 3200 and 2200 BC. Within the complex are eight prehistoric houses, connected by low covered passageways.. The village was revealed by a winter storm in 1850. A series of archaeological excavations uncovered the Neolithic village. There is also a recreation of one of the dwellings as you approach the village.
If you are visiting all the archaeological sights on Orkney, it may be a good idea to purchase a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass, or alternatively become a member of Historic Scotland. They are available here.
MaesHowe is a Neolithic chambered tomb close to the Ring of Brodgar on mainland Orkney. The tomb dates from around 2800 BC. The chambers and entrance passage at MaesHowe are formed by massive stone slabs that were carefully positioned. The long entrance passage is aligned so that the sun shines straight through it at the winter solstice, lighting up the main chamber. You can see this at the MaesHowe website, where there is also a ‘live’ feed.
The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic stone circle, which lies on a strip of farmland between two large freshwater lochs on mainland Orkney. It was built between 2500 and 2000 BC. The standing-stone circle has a diameter of around 104 metres. There are 36 of the 60 original stones still standing.
The Standing Stones of Stenness are a Neolithic monument built between 5,400 and 4,500 years ago on mainland Orkney. The stones are 30cm thick and up to 5m high. They were part of a stone circle of 12 stones, which were laid out on a levelled platform surrounded by a ditch.
2) – Flight from Westray to Papa Westray. This is the world’s shortest scheduled flight and lasts between 1-2 minutes (depending on the end). If you book the flight in advance, you will receive a certificate and a small miniature of Highland park Whisky to commemorate your ‘achievement’. Flights can be booked through Logan Air by ringing (01856) 872494/873457 or by e-mailing [email protected] Another good thing about this flight is that you get to spend time on Westray beforehand and Papa Westray afterwards. On Westray, you could visit Noltland castle or the Heritage Centre to learn about recent archaeological finds on the island. On Papa Westray, you could visit St Boniface Kirk, one of the oldest Christian sites in Scotland. Also on Papa Westray is the Knap of Howar. This dwelling is the earliest standing house in Northern Europe and was occupied over 5000 years ago.
3) – The Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay. The Old Beacon was featured in the BBC’s Restoration programme in 2006, where it actually came third. It is one of the least known of Orkneys attractions. The Lighthouse is Grade A Listed and a scheduled monument. Construction of the Lighthouse began in 1788. It is constructed of stone and stands 70ft tall. It was built by Thomas Smith with assistance from Robert Stevenson, the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. After the revolving light on the nearby Isle of Sanday’s new Start Point Lighthouse was lit in 1806, the Old Beacon’s light was extinguished and the top was replaced by a stone ball. The New Lighthouse, close to the Old Beacon, is the tallest land-based lighthouse in Britain, rising to a height of over 100 ft.
4) – The Italian Chapel on the tiny island of Lamb Holm connected to mainland Orkney by one of the Churchill barriers. This beautiful Chapel was constructed by Italian Prisoners of War from two Nissen huts in 1943-44, using material from sunken blockships in Scapa Flow. The prisoners were permitted to make their camps more homely with a few leisure facilities and they were allowed to build their own Chapel. The main artist was a master painter called Domenico Chiocchetti. He returned to the Chapel in 1960 to restopre some of the paintwork. The Pope recently sent a special blessing to mark the 70th anniversary of the Chapel. In his message, Pope Francis prayed that “this chapel, built in time of war, may continue to be a sign of peace and reconciliation”.
5) – Scapa Flow Visitors Centre on the island of Hoy. The Visitor Centre is reached by a short ferry trip across Scapa Flow from the Orkney mainland and is only a five minute walk from the ferry terminal. There is also a small cafe and shop where books, videos, gifts and souvenirs are available. This Museum tells the story of the naval anchorage in World Wars 1 and 2. A vast photographic collection tells the story of the base during the two world wars. Other exhibits include the flag from the Hindenburgh, a torpedo and a name plate from HMS Royal Oak. An Oil tank is used as an interpretation centre and houses some of the larger artefacts such as a bren-gun carrier, a searchlight and military vehicles. There is also a great heritage walk starting at the visitor centre, leading to an air raid shelter and a military cemetery.
There are many other attraction around the orkney islands. But, for me, these are the 5 ‘must see’ attractions that if you have the time, should be on any itinerary of a trip to the Orkney islands. NB – this is now closed until 2021 for major renovations