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Visiting Orkney

“I guess you’re not visiting Orkney for its weather”, laughed our host Ian, as we arrived wind-blown and bedraggled at our accommodation for our time on Orkney mainland.

But although a guarantee of fine weather may be off the table, the wild splendour of Orkney more than makes up for it.

Orkney is a visual treat. The colours of nature saturate the island. Lush greens are a given and, depending on the time of year you visit, colourful wildflowers grace the landscape, seabirds flock to its shores and spring bulbs and wildflowers brighten the roadside verges.   

Orkney’s coastline lays claim to sandy beaches, rocky crags, and spectacular ocean stacks that endure amidst the blue-green hues of a swirling ocean and dramatic waves. 

Yesnaby Sea stack
Yesnaby Sea Stacks

What’s in this Visiting Orkney Travel Guide?

  • Interesting facts about Orkney
  • Reasons to visit Orkney
  • Places to Visit in Orkney
  • What to pack for a trip to Orkney
  • How to get to Orkney
  • What type of Orkney weather to expect

About Orkney

Orkney (do not call it the Orkneys … that’s a real faux pas), sits about 16 km off the north coast of the Scottish mainland; across the stretch of water known as the Pentland Firth.

The name, Orkney comes from the old Norse word Orkneyjar, which means ‘Seal Islands’. There are a total of 70 islands that make up the archipelago of Orkney but only 20 of those are inhabited. The largest of the Orkney Islands is known as the mainland, where you will also find Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall.

Famed for its UNESCO-listed Neolithic settlements and standing stones, Orkney has been home to man for many thousands of years.

Ring of Brodgar Standing stones
Ring of Brodgar Standing Stones

Orkney Timeline

  • 8500 years ago: Stoneage settlements
  • 297 AD: Pictish Settlements
  • 875 AD Norse invaders arrived and then Norse settlers colonised the island and both Norway and Denmark ruled
  • 1472 AD: Orkney passed to Scottish rule (as a dowry for the Danish Queen of the Scottish King James III)

The Local Orkney Accent

You may be surprised to learn that Orkney has a strong Scandinavian connection which is apparent in its flag, place names and the local dialect.

One local told us that Orcadians, (the people of Orkney) feel more aligned to Scandinavia than to Scotland. And this rings true because Orcadians don’t speak Gaelic and you don’t come across Scotland’s iconic tartan colours and talk of clans which is so prominent on the mainland of Scotland, and other Scottish Isles.

Highland Cows in Orkney
Highland Cows in Orkneynot sure if their moo had a different different ‘accent’ to those on the Scottish mainland;)

Orkney Lingo

Interestingly the Orcadian accent was one of the first things we noticed when we arrived in Orkney.

We have lived in Scotland for almost a year now and have adjusted to the Scottish accent, which can sometimes be challenging to understand. We’ve also lived in Norway and are very familiar with the Scandanavian English accent.

Hearing an Orcadian accent wasn’t like a Scottish accent — it had a predominantly Scandanavian touch to it. Locals told us that when they are travelling their accent is mistaken as Welsh.

Accent aside, here are some words that may help you understand a local in Orkney:

  • Blether: to chat, chatterbox
  • Cairn: a pile of stones
  • Moppie: child’s word for a rabbit
  • Muckle: big
  • Peedie: small
  • Selkie: grey seal
  • Stane: stone
  • Swadge: rest and relax after a meal
  • Unkan: strange, unknown

The Orkney Flag

The flag was redesigned in 2007 when a competition was held and the Orcadian public voted on their preferred design. The red and yellow cross designates the red and yellow in both the Scottish and Norwegian Royal Coat of Arms and the blue is taken from the Scottish flag.

Orkney-national-flag
Orkney Flag

Why Visit Orkney?

If you are a lover of nature, wildlife, photography, history and the ocean then visiting Orkney will satisfy all of these passions. We’ve gathered together a few reasons to visit Orkney and places to visit to get your fix of what you love.

Whether you are a foodie and love to try the local fare, a passionate wildlife photographer, a bird lover, a hiker, a history buff or just simply seeking solitude and the wildness of Orkney, this Visiting Orkney Guide will help you focus your trip towards what you love.

We’ve listed the main reasons to visit Orkney and categorised places to visit on our map below.

READ MORE: For a full Orkney Itinerary check out our 3-day Road Trip Here

Visiting Orkney Map

The key for the map is as follows:

  • Orkney Wildlife Locations: Purple
  • Food and Drink: Yellow
  • Orkney Hikes and Walks: Orange
  • Historical Locations: Brown
  • Orkney Crafts: Turquoise

Orkney’s Wildlife

We love photographing birds and could have spent hours on the cliffs capturing the hundreds of breeding birds preparing for their new family additions when we visited Orkney in May.  

But whatever time of year you visit Orkney, the RSPB has 12 Nature Reserves, totalling over 30 square miles for you to explore. There aren’t any foxes or badgers on the island so without these predators, it is a haven for ground-nesting birds.

Brough-of-Birsay-cliff-Guillemots
Guillemots in Orkney

However, within the last few years, an invasive species of stoat has been threatening this ecosystem. As a result, you may stumble upon some wooden stoat traps that are strategically placed around the island.

Stoat trap on side of Gloup in Orkney - Rectangular wooden box
Wooden stoat trap near The Gloup, Orkney

Among some of the birds, we saw on the cliffs were fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, black guillemots, skuas, cormorants, gannets, razorbills, and the ever-cute clowns of the sea, puffins, (known locally as Tammie Norries).

READ MORE: While in the Northern end of Scotland, you may like to visit Handa Island, a haven for seabirds, particularly guillemots, just off the Sutherland coast, northwest Scotland. Puffins also nest there in the summer months.

 The seas around the coast boast plenty of seals. Orcas, minke whales, walrus and dolphins are also occasionally spotted.

For more on Orkney’s wildlife pop over to the Orkney Native Wildlife site.

Razorbill about to land on a cliff ledge in Orkney
Razorbill on final approach for a cliff ledge landing at the Brough of Birsay, Orkney

Places to Visit in Orkney for Wildlife

  • Brough of Birsay
  • The Loons RSPB Site
  • Marwick Head Cliffs
  • Yesnaby Cliffs
  • Birsay Moors
  • RSPB Brodgar (By Loch Harray and Stenness)
Puffin flying across the cliffs at Brough of Birsay, Orkney
Puffin flying by the cliffs at Brough of Birsay, Orkney

Orkney Food and Drink

It’s hardly surprising that fish and seafood are popular in Orkney, and as with mainland Scotland, you’ll also find the classic whisky distilleries. If whisky isn’t your thing, there are also a few craft breweries and craft gin distilleries.

Whisky Distilleries in Orkney

Craft Gin Distilleries in Orkney

Orkney Breweries

Places to Eat in Orkney

Sheila Fleet cafe
Kirk Gallery Cafe, with Orcadian dishes and fresh cakes

Orkney Walking and Hiking

We could have spent days walking all the cliff-top trails, beaches and grassland hills but as visitors, we only had a limited amount of time. You too will likely be time-constrained, so we’ve picked out the best locations to walk throughout the island below.

Always remember, when out walking in Orkney, that the weather can change in an instant. So always be prepared for rain and wind and wear waterproof walking shoes/boots because the paths and trails become wet and muddy.

Halls Head Coastal Trail
Halls Head Coastal Trail

Places to Visit in Orkney for Walking and Hiking (see

Bisnscarth Woods with a carpet of bluebells across the ground
Binscarth Woods, Finstown, Orkney
Yesnaby Cliffs and swirling ocaen
Yesnaby, Orkney
The Gloup Orkney
The Gloup, on the Halls Head Coastal Trail

Orkney History

Visiting Orkney means that you can encounter some of the oldest prehistoric remains in Europe.

Orkney’s UNESCO-listed sites, which represent the heart of Neolithic Orkney dating back 5000 or so years, are:

  • Skara Brae (A group of eight stone age houses)
  • Maeshowe (A burial mound)
  • Stones of Stenness (Standing stones)
  • Ring of Brodgar (Standing stones)

For more information, you may like to check out the BBC documentary, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney.

Skar Brae houses with ocean in background
Skara Brae, Orkney
Ring-of-Brodgar-Orkney standing stones
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Along with these impressive sites, Orkney has many historical remnants and memorials dotted around the island, dating from the ancient stone age, bronze age, and Viking settlements to the first and second world wars.

A few you may wish to visit include:

  • The Brough of Deerness (Remains of a Viking age Settlement)
  • Skaill House (Manor house depicting 1950s life and dating back to 1600s)
  • Ness of Brodgar (Archeology site)
  • Kitchener Memorial ( WWI memorial)
  • Churchill Barriers (Built-in WWII)
  • Italian Chapel (WWII chapel built from two Nissan huts by Italian prisoners of war)
  • Brough of Birsay (Pictish and Viking settlements)
  • Birsay Earl’s Palace (Ruins of the palace of the First Earl of Orkney dating back to the 1500s)
  • St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall ( Magnificent cathedral dating back to 1137)
  • The Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace

[Note: These historical locations are all marked in brown on the Visiting Orkney map]

Italian Chapel Inside decoration
Inside the Italian Chapel, Orkney
St-Magnus-church-pew-decoration,-Orkney
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Orkney Craftsmanship

Orkney undoubtedly inspires creativity and there is no shortage of Orcadian artisans and crafters of all kinds on the island. Jewellery, knitwear, furniture, tapestries, pottery, and art are all part of Creative Orkney. You can pick up an Orkney Creative Trail Booklet at the Kirkwall iCentre (tourist office) or you can download a copy here.

The trail leads you to workshops of artisans, where you can get an insight into how their products are made and discuss any bespoke items that you may like.

The design process of the jewellery showing a butterfly design drawing and butterfly
Design Process for Sheila Fleet Jewellery
Sheila-Fleet-workshop,-Orkney
Sheila Fleet Jewellery Design Process

You will likely come across several ‘Honesty boxes’ on your travels around Orkney. These are small cupboards placed near the road where you can buy all manner of goods; fresh eggs, homemade cakes, and handcrafted items.  

Tip: Have cash handy so you can make most of these goodies.

Whether you are looking for inspired Orkney jewellery, tapestries, or art, A few places you may wish to visit include:

Daisy themed jewellery at Sheila Fleet Kirk Gallery
Sheila Fleet Jewellery on display at the Kirk Gallery and Cafe
Sheila-Fleet-jewellery
Orkney Inspired jewellery
Yesnaby Cliffs
Yesnaby Cliffs

What to Pack for Orkney

Whatever time of year you visit Orkney, there is no guarantee on the type of weather you’ll encounter. Generally, it should be warmer in summer but even then temperatures rarely top 16 ℃, but the wind chill can bring that down significantly.

The weather can change in a few minutes from sunshine to horizontal rain and gusts strong enough to knock you off the edge of a cliff. Therefore having the right clothes is of paramount importance when visiting Orkney.

Layering up is the only way to go.

Here is a suggested packing list:

  • Tshirt
  • Long-sleeve top
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Waterproof/windproof jacket
  • Waterproof walking boots (the ground can be wet, boggy and muddy)
  • Waterproof backpack
  • Don’t worry about taking an umbrella — It’s normally way too windy, (our’s ended up inside out, broken and in the bin!)
Dressed up warm with puffer jacket, waterproof trousers and walking boots at the Ring of Brodgar
I’m wrapped up to keep the elements at bay at the Ring of Brodgar (May in Orkney)

How to Get to Orkney


Car Ferry to Orkney Mainland

There are three car ferry routes to Orkney.

  1. 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)
  2. Northlink also runs a ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall. Check Times and prices at Northlink here.
  3. 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 Mainland

Logan air runs flights to Kirkwall, Orkney, from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. 

The Weather in Orkney

Just on our first day visiting Orkney, we had drizzle, sunshine, gale-force winds and torrential rain. You certainly don’t visit Orkney for its beautiful weather. It is pretty much cloudy and windy most of the year. However, for us, May seemed to be the best month to visit Orkney.

Expect four seasons in one day and you can’t go wrong.

Orkney Weather Tables

Orkney Average Rainfall

Rain chart for Orkney weather
© WeatherSpark.com

Orkney Average Temperatures

Temperature chart for Orkney Weather
© WeatherSpark.com

READ MORE: The Best Time to visit Orkney

Where to Stay in Orkney?

We based ourselves in Kirkwall, as it was easy to reach both the west and east mainland of Orkney from there. We were also within walking distance of the town centre. We stayed in a hosted room on Airbnb by Superhosts Ian and Fiona. We had everything we needed and a Breakfast bar is also included in the price. Gorgeous hosts and would thoroughly recommend a stay here if they have availability.

There are plenty of locally run rooms and cottages available to book—

Booking.com

Visiting Orkney … That’s a Wrap

This article, along with our related posts, The Best Time to Visit Orkney and our detailed Orkney Itinerary, gives you a thorough guide on visiting mainland Orkney.

The weather may not play fair in Orkney, but its many attractions and the wonderfully warm welcome of Orcadians will more than make up for the chill in the air and the need to pack for all seasons regardless of the time of year you are visiting Orkney.

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