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Orkney Itinerary and Road Trip
This Orkney itinerary involves a road trip across a wild and rugged island. Wildlife havens, craggy cliffs, mesmerising scenery, lush fields, ancient settlements and Standing Stones, all combine to create the mysticism that is Orkney.
You cannot help but be drawn into the past when you visit Orkney and wonder about the lives of those who’ve walked the island before you.
Suggested 3-Day Mainland Orkney Itinerary
Day 1 Orkney Itinerary
- Kirkwall Visitor Centre
- St. Magnus Centre
- St.Magnus Cathedral
- Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces
- Orkney Museum
- Binscarth Woods
- Standing Stones of Stenness
- Ring of Brodgar
Day 2 Orkney Itinerary
- Skara Brae
- Brough of Birsay
- Birsay Earl’s Palace
- Marwick Head
- Yesnaby Cliffs and Sea stacks
Day 3 Orkney Itinerary
- Italian Chapel
- Churchill Barriers
- Dingieshowe Bay
- Mull Head, The Gloup and Brough of Deerness
- Kirk Gallery and Cafe
- Scapa Beach
- Scapa Flow Museum
We have put together this suggested itinerary for a visit to Orkney, but you may need to adjust according to the weather, tidal times and the time of year you visit Orkney.
On our Orkney road trip, we tried to do any ‘indoor’ activities when it was raining and played it by ear depending on the expected weather conditions. Luckily Orkney mainland is relatively small, so adjustments and double backs are easy to do if necessary.
Orkney Itinerary Map
Mainland Orkney Itinerary: Things to See and Do
We would suggest arriving early at certain popular tourist spots on Orkney because many cruise ships and tourist coaches visit the island and these spots can become very congested.
The tour buses tend to arrive from around 10 am to mid-afternoon. So we suggest arriving as soon as they open or near closing time to avoid the crowds. You can also check the cruise ship schedules at the iCentre tourist information centre in Kirkwall.
The most popular tourist spots in Orkney that can often be seen swarming with visitors are:
- Italian Chapel
- Skara Brae
- Ring of Brodgar
- Stones of Stenness
Orkney Itinerary: Day One
Kirkwall Visitor Centre
The first stop on your Orkney Itinerary should be at the Kirkwall Visitor iCentre to pick up the latest free Islander Magazine and to get a rundown of any local events that may be happening while you are in Orkney.
You can also pick up an updated leaflet that gives you all of the opening times of the attractions on the island.
The staff at the visitor centre were extremely helpful and there are also plenty of brochures covering all interests.
Kirkwall St Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral, otherwise known as the Light of the North, is the most northerly cathedral in the UK. Viking, Earl Rognval, commissioned this impressive red and yellow sandstone building, in memory of his martyred uncle, St. Magnus, in 1137, (now Orkney’s patron saint).
St. Magnus Cathedral took an incredible 100 years to build and is the only wholly medieval cathedral in Scotland. Unusually, it is not owned by a Parish, but by the people of Orkney. King James III of Scotland gave the cathedral to the people of Kirkwall in 1486.
You can book a tour of the cathedral, or once inside the cathedral, you can download the St Magnus App, which contains, audio descriptions, images and videos, (remember to bring your earphones).
If you don’t want to do either of those, and you enjoy a good treasure hunt, grab the ” Graffiti, Carvings and Inscriptions in St Magnus Cathedral‘ leaflet, either in the cathedral itself or in the visitor centre. In the leaflet, you’ll find a map detailing interesting marks and writings found in various places inside the cathedral.
We had a lot of fun hunting down the different markings and learning about what they might have meant.
The cathedral’s Visitor Centre is just a minute’s walk away and there you can watch a 15-minute video about the Saga of St Magnus and the history of the cathedral. It’s well worth a quick stop and might be good to do before you visit the cathedra,l giving your visit more context as you wander around this impressive building.
Free Entry to St Magnus Cathedral.
The Bishop’s and Earl Palaces
In the heart of Kirkwall, opposite St. Magnus Cathedral, is the Bishop’s Palace, originally built in the 1100s. However, later, in the early 1600s, it became part of a larger Renaissance Palace built for Earl Patrick Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Orkney.
Patrick Stewart and his father Robert, the 1st Earl of Orkney were ruthless, and violent rulers who oppressed their people and used local slave labour for their building projects.
Patrick, or Black Patie, as he was known, was the illegitimate cousin of James VI. Luckily, for the Orcadians at the time, Patrick was beheaded for treason in 1615. Interestingly, the beheading was delayed so that the earl could learn the Lord’s Prayer!
The palace, one of Scotland’s finest Renaissance buildings, was then transferred to the Bishop of Orkney.
The Orkney Museum tells Orkney’s story, from the Stone Age to the Picts and Vikings, and through to the present day. The museum, once Tankerness House, is a listed building and was once the Baikie family home. The house opened as a museum in 1968 and its gardens, Tankerness Gardens, are now a walled public space to enjoy, sheltered from the Orkney wind.
The museum holds many interesting and informational relics. The information is organised chronologically, taking you through thousands of years of Orkney history.
Entrance is free
If you are visiting Orkney in Spring, make sure to plan a trip to Binscarth woods. Orkney is renowned for its lack of trees, but you will find a few pockets of woodland, and this was a gem of a find.
A beautiful array of bluebells carpeted the woodland floor and even the sun played ball by casting dappled sunlight through the trees to highlight their brilliance.
Even if the bluebells aren’t flowering, the woodlands surround a pretty burn (Scottish for stream) and the trail makes for a lovely looped walk, or you can choose to take a longer stroll and walk further on to the nearby Loch of Wasdale.
You can read all about this little piece of woodland wonder in our post, Bluebells at Binscarth Woods.
Standing Stones of Stenness
The Standing Stones of Stenness are part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney which was granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO in 1999 as a location of outstanding universal value.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney includes:
- Ring of Brodgar,
- Skara Brae and
There are only four of the original twelve stones standing, with the tallest reaching six metres in height. These Neolithic stones are believed to have been erected in 3300 BC.
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is said to be one of the oldest stone circles in the world, dating to about 2500 – 2000 BC. So it is of no wonder that this bewitching ring of stones, with a diameter of about 100 metres, is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
Standing by these ancient pillars, there seems to be but a thin veil between the present and the past. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many episodes of Outlander, but I’m sure on a moon-filled night … you might just stumble into another world, into another time.
The Ring of Brodgar stones is the largest stone circle in Scotland. Of the original 60 stones, only 27 remain, ranging in height from two metres to four and a half metres tall.
No one is sure about the purpose of the stones. However, many believe that this was a place of worship or celebration and that it was aligned to the solstice and equinox, (the changing of the seasons in summer and winter).
It would be a magical place to stand at Summer Solstice.
This stunning landscape, of ancient standing stones amidst lochs Harray and Stenness is home to RSPB Brodgar Nature Reserve. If you keep an eye out you may spot curlews, drumming snipe, lapwings, dunlins, redshanks or oystercatchers.
Orkney Itinerary: Day Two
Skara Brae must be the most famous of Orkney’s landmarks. This neolithic treasure, on the banks of Skaill Bay, was only discovered in 1850, when high tides and storms ripped off the turf on a small hill and uncovered some of the ruins.
What does Neolithic mean?
The Neolithic period (also known as the new Stone Age) begins a transformation from a culture of hunting and gathering to farming and agriculture and to the widespread use of bronze (about 2300 BCE)
There are three stone age periods:
- Paleolithic (or Old Stone Age),
- Mesolithic (or Middle Stone Age), and
- Neolithic (or New Stone Age),
The village of Skara Brae, hidden under the sand for thousands of years, revealed furniture, tools and jewellery of that time. Eight buildings exposed the secrets of how life was once lived in these ancient houses.
Skara Brae is said to be Europe’s most well-preserved Neolithic village. It is hard to believe that these 5000-year-old Stone Age remnants predate Stonehenge and even the Pyramids.
Archaeologists believe the settlement was in use for about 600 years, but it is still a mystery as to why the inhabitants suddenly left.
I found this Travel Through Time interview with archaeologist Neil Oliver about Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae very interesting.
When you visit Skara Brae, the visitor centre is your first port of call. Combs, needles and mysterious spheres, excavated from Skara Brae, are on display. There is a video presentation about the ruins at the visitor centre, as well as a gift shop and cafe.
Moving on from the visitor centre, you step outside to a replica of a Skara Brae house, where you gain insight into what it was like to live in one of these stone-age houses.
Further along the bay, you come to the actual Skara Brae prehistoric village and a winding path takes you between the houses, which still have their stone furniture of hearths and beds.
The entrance price to Skara Brae also includes access to the adjacent 17th century Skaill House, once the home to William Watt, 7th Lord of Breckness, the man who discovered Skara Brae.
The original building was a manor house built by the Bishop Graham of Orkney in 1620, but evidence shows that there was a Norse burial ground under the foundations of the house.
On the Bishop’s death, the manor passed to his son John, who became the 1st Lord of Skaill. The manor continued to be passed down through the family through twelve generations of Lairds. It was lived in until 1991 and is now open to the public and retains its 1950s decor and memorabilia.
Keep an eye out for any spooky visions or smells as there are tales of strange smells filling the rooms and ghosts inhabiting the manor … but only friendly ones of course.
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
Unfortunately, the cairn was closed for conservation work while we were in Orkney but it opened again a few days after we left.
Maeshowe chambered tomb is one of the four monuments that make up the heart of Neolithic Orkney. From the outside, it looks like a grassy mound, but inside there are huge stone slabs making up a chambered burial tomb.
It was built around 5000 years ago, but thousands of years after it was closed up, the Vikings broke into it and today, Viking graffiti can be seen on some of the walls.
Visits to the cairn are by a one-hour guided tour that leaves by bus from the Stenness Visitor Centre.
The Maeshowe Cairn Tour times are 10 am, 11.30 am, 2 pm and 3.30 pm.
Brough of Birsay
The Brough of Birsay is a small tidal island that can only be reached at low tide by walking across a concrete causeway.
Puffins, along with a wealth of other sea birds, gather on the cliffs here in late April. We spotted some on the western cliffs near the lighthouse. A local also told us that puffins are often seen on the far east cliffs of the island too.
Remaining on the island are the Norse remains of a church that was a place of pilgrimage in Medieval times and remnants of past Pictish and Viking settlements.
Getting to the Brough of Birsay:
Check the low tide times and the island is accessible for two hours on either side of the low tide time.
Check tide times online here.
Or you can visit the tourist information centre in Kirkwall to get a printout of tide times.
Earl’s Palace, Birsay
This palace was built around the 1570s for Earl Robert Stewart, the 1st Earl of Orkney. Robert, the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, was a bully and tyrannical ruler.
The palace was a building with a combination of renaissance architecture and fortifications of cannon holes in all of the palace walls. A sign that the times back then weren’t exactly peaceful.
Marwick Cliffs are a haven for seabirds and are known locally as ‘Seabird city’. Not only are the cliffs full of birds, but you’ll notice a castle-like shape on the cliffs. This is the Kitchener Memorial which was erected in 1926 and stands 48 ft high.
The monument looks over the cliffs where the HMS Hampshire hit a mine and sank in 1916 during WWI. Field Marshall Kitchener died along with 737 men.
Yesnaby Coastal Walk
Yesnaby Cliff walk is one of the wildest, most rugged and invigorating walks in Orkney. Majestic sea stacks withstand the battering waves; the most famous being Yesnaby Castle, one of Orkney’s most photographed sea stacks.
Parking is at the site where WWII anti-aircraft buildings were in operation. The buildings are crumbling now, worn down by the persistent winds and harsh eroding sea salt. A few information boards tell you about the area.
But the real experience is walking along the wind-whipped clifftops as the sea churns and shapes the landscape below.
Orkney Itinerary: Day Three
This unusual and exquisite chapel, created by Italian prisoners during the Second World War, is on Lamb Holm Island. To reach it, you cross one of the Churchill Barriers, built by the prisoners during the war.
The Italian prisoners, led by Domenico Chiocchetti converted two wartime Nissen Huts into a beautiful chapel. They used old tin cans to create intricate lanterns and painted the walls in a 3D style replicating beautiful brickwork and plaster work. The craftsmanship is incredible.
Orkney Itinerary Tip: Remember to visit the Chapel first thing in the morning or near to closing as it becomes very busy with tour buses.
The Churchill Barriers were built during World War II to protect the Scapa Flow naval base in Orkney. Before the barriers, block ships were put in place but proved ineffective when a U-boat entered the Scapa Flow and sank the Royal Oak. (See Scapa Bay for the memorial honouring the 835 lives lost.)
Alongside some of the Churchill barriers, you can still see some of the rusting blockships.
At Dingieshowe Bay, you’ll find a mound above the sand dunes where Vikings used to meet to make decisions. Orkney folklore tells of dreaded trolls (trows) living here and that locals once feared the place.
Across the road from Dingieshowe bay, on the opposite side of the promontory, is a more sheltered bay where you can see the remains of a row of ‘dragons teeth’, a WWII defence barrier to prevent tanks from landing onshore.
The Gloup, Halls Head and Brough of Deerness
The wind was blowing a hooley, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the walk at Halls Head. Swallows darted in and out of The Gloup and further along the coast we spotted the ever colourful, orange-beaked oystercatchers, black guillemots (the ones with red feet as compared to plain guillemots with black feet),) and eider ducks nibbling on the seaweed.
The Gloup name comes from the old Norse word, Gluppa meaning chasm. The Gloup is a collapsed sea cave with a drop of 80 feet to where the ocean crashes through the blowhole at the bottom.
This is a stunning part of Orkney’s coastline and is part of the 200-acre Mull Head Nature Reserve. There are walks all along the coast here, and it is also home to the Brough of Deerness.
The Brough of Deerness is an outcrop of rock where you’ll find the ruins of a Norse church and settlement, accessed by rock-cut steps.
Unfortunately, the Brough of Deerness was closed for renovations when we were there.
If you would like a long walk around the coast, an easy to moderate 10 km/6-mile trail takes you on a circular route from The Gloup carpark, along the coast and Mull Head and back. (See map) The approximate time for the full walk is 3 hours.
Kirk Gallery and Cafe
Stepping into the Kirk Gallery and Café in Tankerness, just outside Kirkwall, it is crystal clear where the inspiration for Sheila Fleet’s jewellery has come from. Almost every piece of this beautiful collection, displayed in an old, beautifully renovated church, reflects the Orkney landscape and culture.
I’m quite a simple gal when it comes to jewellery and rarely do I find myself falling in love with almost every item on display. However, the reflection of nature in these beautifully enamelled mini pieces of art captured my interest immediately. The display itself reflects Orkney in all its facets and you can only but be drawn to discover its stories.
We were lucky enough to meet Sheila Fleet, (we started chatting at the Stenness Standing Stones), and she invited us to have a tour of the Kirk Gallery. If you are interested, you can see the whole process involved in her jewellery making here.
You certainly can’t take any of Orkney’s Neolithic treasures home with you, but you can take a little reminder of Orkney in the form of a handmade piece of jewellery.
If you plan to eat at the Kirk Gallery Cafe or even stop for a coffee, make a booking beforehand as the cafe is extremely popular.
In the past two World Wars, Orkney was home to thousands of service personnel and Scapa Flow was a strategic Naval base.
Many naval disasters have occurred in the area, but at Scapa, you will find the HMS Royal Oak memorial. It was after the sinking of the Royal Oak, by a German submarine in 1939, with the devastating loss of 835 lives, that Winston Churchill ordered the construction of the Churchill Barriers.
If you are interested in learning more take a visit to the new Scapa Flow Museum.
Other Orkney Historical Places of Interest
If you are interested in more historical places to visit on mainland Orkney, you may be interested in:
- Broch of Gurness — Ramparts of an iron age settlement
- Click Mill — The only remaining horizontal water mill was built in the early 1800s and in use until the 1880s
- Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn — A hillside neolithic tomb
- Earl’s Bu and Church, Orphir — foundations of an early medieval building
- Grain Earth House — an underground chamber of an iron age earth house
- Rennibister Earth house — another example of an iron age house
- Unstan Chambered Cairn — A mound covering a Neolithic stone chamber
You can find more details about these sites at Historic Scotland.
- Fossil and Heritage Centre — A collection of fossils from Orkney
Driving in Orkney
Many of Orkney’s roads are single lanes but there are usually loads of passing places for you to pull in to let others past.
If you are unfamiliar with single-track roads, you will need to know how to use them properly.
These tips will help you to road trip around Orkney more safely.
- Drive on the left in Orkney
- If you are driving slower than the traffic behind you, pull into a passing place to allow traffic to overtake you
- Pull into the passing place on your left to let oncoming traffic pass
- DO NOT pull into a passing place on your right, stay on your left and wait opposite a passing place to allow traffic to pass
- Don’t Park in a passing place
- Look out for cyclists, in the UK you need to give cyclists at least 1.5 metres of passing distance
- Keep a lookout for sheep and wild animals such as deer
- It is illegal to use your mobile phone when driving
Getting To Orkney
Car Ferry to Orkney
There are three car ferry routes to Orkney.
- We took the Northlink car ferry from Scrabster (near Thurso) on the north coast of Scotland to Stromness, on the west coast of Orkney. (See Map)
- Northlink also runs a ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall. Check Times and prices at Northlink here.
- The third option is to take the Pentland ferry from Gill’s Bay, just west of John’O Groats, to St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney
Flying to Orkney
If you are planning your road trip by hiring a car in Orkney, then you may very well consider flying to Orkney.
Logan air runs flights to Kirkwall, Orkney, from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.
Accommodation In Orkney
While road tripping around Orkney we based ourselves in Kirkwall. This made it easy to travel to both the west and east mainland of Orkney. The place we stayed at was also within walking distance of the town centre and we would thoroughly recommend this Airbnb accommodation run by super hosts, Ian and Fiona. We had everything we needed as well as the use of a well-stocked breakfast bar.
There is plenty of locally run accommodation available to book:
- Check out the Booking.com deals available in Kirkwall here, or in other parts of Orkney here.
- Or Find deals for Orkney on Hotel.com here
Orkney itinerary … That’s a Wrap
This Orkney Itinerary was carried out over three days but could easily be stretched out to at least a week or more. As photographers, we would have loved to revisit some of the locations at different times of day and we also love walking and would have taken more time wandering along the clifftops.
Nevertheless, three days was just enough to pack all of this in … and that was without any visits to the surrounding islands.
Our road trip included a mixture of all aspects that a visit to Orkney has to offer.
Enjoy your trip and happy planning x
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- Road Trip Around the Outer Hebrides, Isle of Lewis and Harris
- Scotland Destination Travel Guide
PLANNING YOUR TRAVELS?
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- Travel Gear and Accessories: Check out our top picks here — Lifejourney4two page on Amazon
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- Motorhome/Campervan Rental: We highly recommend the Motorhome Republic
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- Wall Art: Shop our ETSY store
For a more thorough list visit our Travel Resources page here.