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Wonder if one day is enough to visit Orkney?
Want to travel to Orkney, but don’t have a lot of time at your disposal? We pondered the same questions while figuring out if we should squeeze in time to explore Orkney while on our Scotland tour.
This was a bucket list item for one of us who reminisced about Annie Lenox singing atop the cliffs nearing the Old Man of Hoy in the video “Here comes the Rain Again.” With so many sites to see while on our 2-week road trip around Scotland, the Orkney islands seemed a bit too out-of-the-way.
But when there’s a will, there’s a way! So, on we went to make this happen and visit Orkney. Phil especially looked forward to seeing the infamous sea stack structure on the way back.
Feature Image Ring of Brodgar Spring Equinox~ photo credit to Mark Woodsford-Dean
About the Orkneys Islands
The people of Orkney, the Orcadians, have been there for many generations. With the Orkney islands history stretching over 8,800 years, dating all the way back to Mesolithic and Neolithic times, it’s no wonder it’s a haven for archaeology and history enthusiasts alike. Orkney points of interest include Wolrd War II history but also stories of Vikings, you can feel the strong Norse heritage.
As for the weather, it actually benefits from a cool but temperate climate due to the Gulf Stream. But one thing the Orkney islands get a lot of is wind! With a reasonably flat and treeless terrain, the winter can be challenging with frequent gale force winds. Rain is part of life here, so do bring waterproof shoes and appropriate rain gear.
The Mainland island is more densely populated, where 75% of the Orkney Islands population lives. This main island offers much of the fertile farmland with many sheep and cattle ranches which can be found throughout.
Orkney’s Wooly Pigs ~ photo credit to Mark Woodsford-Dean
Here’s what you’ll get from this post
Table of contents
Lots of beautiful pictures of our Orkney Island Tour
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Travel to OrkneyHow to get to Orkney is actually simpler than you might think. Kirkwall and Stromness, the two major towns on this island, are at the heart of Orkney’s Islands transportation system, with ferry and air connections to the other islands and to the outside world. If your budget allows it then travel to Orkney by plane and rent a car for the day. If not, the popular tourist routes for getting to Orkney usually involve departing from Inverness by bus, ferrying from Thurso, in the northern part of the Scottish Highlands.
The traditional car ferry to travel to Orkney is the 3-hour long lunchtime ferry from Thurso to Kirkwall, but you also have the option of taking the afternoon Aberdeen to Orkney ferry, as we did.
If you plan to use the North Link ferry, you can save up to 30% by joining the Friends & Family Saver (certain date restrictions apply).
By choosing the latter it gives you all day to enjoy Aberdeen city sights or go visit the close-by Dunnotar castle before embarking on this 6-hour route. Don’t fret the longer crossing as the ferry is well appointed, with comfortable lounges and bar areas, you can even reserve a cabin on board if you so desire. Selecting the afternoon Aberdeen to Orkney ferry, you’ll be getting into Kirkwall around 11 pm. Make sure to notify your accommodation hosts of your late arrival.
Another option is to join the locals from the mainland and hop on a bus to reach the Orkney islands. The Citylink system goes from John O’Groats, Gills Bay or Scrabster with ferry services for getting to Orkney. Alternatively, if you wish a more all-inclusive service, the Orkney Bus operates from Inverness to Kirkwall, via John O’Groats Ferries (from June to September). Get the details on visitorkney.com
Visit the Dunnotar Castle before taking the Aberdeen to Orkney ferry
Great view from our ferry seats
Orkney island tours from Kirkwall
There are many tour operators from which to choose from in Kirkwall for Orkney island tours. In addition, if you want to leave your car behind, you can see many Orkney points of interest and explore Orkney from the comfort of a motor coach. If you prefer a smaller group or being by yourselves, hiring a private guide is the way to go.
Getting a guide…or not
Explore Orkney in one day… What to see
Obviously, there are many more sites than the following to visit while touring Orkney, but this is a short list of the attractions that can easily be seen in a day. Start your day at 9:00 in Kirkwall.
World War II History:
Many of us North Americans know about the rich Norse and Viking heritage of the Orkney islands, but we forget that it also held a key role in World War II. Our guide shared many facts filled stories that included suicide maneuvers, strategic chess-like moves and courageous acts by all of the soldiers that were involved.
The sheltered waters of this natural bay have been employed by ships since prehistoric times and were particularly used as a base for the United Kingdom naval fleet during both World Wars.
Churchill Barriers:Winston Churchill ordered the creation of these cement blocks by Italian prisoners of war during WW2 and had them barricade the inlets with man-made boulders and sunken ships to protect the bay and its naval fleet from German attack – especially u-boats.
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The Italian Chapel:
Magical and Spiritual Orkney:
Carrying on our tour, we were anxious to see some of the mystical stone displays on the island. As quoted by our guide Helen: “Orkney is acknowledged as one of the world’s «thin places»: a place where the veil between this world and the others is especially permeable.”
It then comes as no surprise that with the success of TV series like Outlander, based on the Diane Gabaldon’s novels in which the main character travels back in time by falling through a circle of stones (fictionally based in Inverness Scotland) that we easily imagine the many rings of stones in Orkney as potential time portals.
Standing Stones of Stenness:Pointing out that none of the stone placements is random, Helen explained how each stone seemed planned and strategically placed to align with other landmarks on the island.
Ring of Brodgar:The most famous circle of the Orkney Islands. Many of the stones had 20th-century carvings on them, which oddly enough didn’t trouble our guide, an archaeologist herself. She pertinently pointed out that, as much as we find Egyptian or Picts carving interesting, these “new” carvings will probably be so too in hundreds of years from now. Makes you think!
~ photo credit to Mark Woodsford-Dean
Skara Brea: In the heart of Neolithic Orkney, this Unesco site on the shore of the bay of Skaill is the most popular one on the island. Skara Brea is actually accorded the same status as the Egyptian pyramids which are circa 2700bc, even though the village is actually much older, dating back to 3200bc. It’s fascinating to see how ancient residents constructed tunnels which are all interconnected to each other ‘’residence’’ to protect themselves from the elements.
Another great and very sought after Orkney point of interest to visit is the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. Since there was a long waiting line to get in, which is often the case, we opted to visit, on the advice of our guide, a similar but less popular site called Unstan. These chambered cairns, found extensively throughout Ireland and Northern Europe are thought to be burial grounds and possibly ceremonial venues. They are architecturally speaking, quite spectacular, considering that the convex shape is held together without mortar.
Finish up the day with a dram at Highland Park
Orkney accommodations – Where to stay
Where to eat
And let’s not forget about our initial reason to visit this distant isle, the Old Man of Hoy!
For those wishing to see it up close and personal, a day-hike will be necessary. That option would have required too much of our precious time while in Orkney for a day. We still had the opportunity to see this monumental free-standing structure the next morning, on the ferry ride back to the mainland.