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Monday, January 4, 2010

Orkney Islands "Historical Island for Celts and Vikings and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site"

Very few places in the world enjoy so harmonious a marriage of landscape and seascape as does Orkney, and very few can boast such a profusion of archaeological wonders and variety of wildlife. Orkney consists of some 70 islands in total, of which only 17 of them are inhabited. However, they have been inhabited for more than 5000 years and can boast Northern Europe 's greatest concentration of prehistoric monuments. For the lover of archaeology Orkney is paradise, offering an uninterrupted continuum of mute stones ranging from the Neolithic period of about 4500 BC, through the Bronze and Iron Ages unto about AD700. The following centuries continue this line providing us with evidence for successive occupation of the islands by Celts and Vikings.
Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, and the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Stromness (pop. 2,800) is the second-biggest town on Mainland island and serves as the main ferry terminal for the archipelago. Although the narrow cobbled lanes and gray stone houses look older than those in Kirkwall, the town actually dates from more recent times. The growth of Stromness started at the end of the 17th century when the Hudson Bay Company set up a base at the port and recruited sailors to crew the vessels that plied across the North Atlantic to northern Canada. During the 18th century whaling fleets called in for supplies on their way to the coast of Greenland. Orkney islanders, always recognized for their seafaring skills, were among those who signed up to serve on such famous vessels as Scott's R.R.S. Discovery and the legendary HMS Bounty of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame.

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St Magnus Cathedral - Britain’s most northerly Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral known as the ‘Light in the North’ was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in order of his uncle St Magnus. The Cathedral belongs to the people of Orkney and its doors are open to all. The Cathedral, set in the heart of Kirkwall, the capital city of the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, is a place of stillness, of serenity, of warmth, of the presence of God. We invite you explore this website which contains information about many aspects of the Cathedral’s life.

Corrigall Farm Museum

About 12mi/19.2km to the south of Gurness Broch near the tiny village of Brough (signposted on the A986) lies Corrigall Farm, a museum which documents rural life on the Orkneys during the 19th century.

Hoy - Bird Reserve

The 9,000acre/3,700ha of land around Ward Hill has been designated as a bird reserve (RSPB) and it makes an ideal spot for observing the great skuas and Arctic skuas that breed on the island.

Old Man Of Hoy

The section of coastline at St John's Head is noted for the sheer stack known as the Old Man of Hoy a little further south. Fulmars, auks, shearwaters and gannets glide gracefully around the red sandstone column while the waves crash relentlessly against the base.

Hoy - St John's Head

The landscape of Hoy could be described as harsh and mountainous but the 1,134ft/346m drop down to the sea at St John's Head on the northwest corner of the island is a stunning sight.

Kirkwall - Bishop's Palace

Diagonally opposite St Magnus Cathedral in Watergate stand the ruins of the Bishop's Palace which was started in the middle of the 12th C by Bishop William the Elder to provide alternative accommodation for the cathedral's guests. It was here in 1263 that King Haakon died. The palace was restored in the late 15th C and then again in the middle of the 16th C by Bishop Robert Reid, the founder of Edinburgh University.

Kirkwall - Earl Patrick's Palace

Earl Patrick's Palace serves as one of the finest examples of 16th century Scottish secular architecture. The light sandstone structure, now a ruin, was completed in 1607 by the tyrannical Earl Patrick Stewart. The mature trees in the garden, mostly maples, were planted ca. 1840.

Knap of Howar

To see two of the oldest stone houses in Europe will require a trip to the tiny island of Papa Westray which lies just off the northeast coast of Westray. Thought to be 5,000 years old and, like Skara Brae, protected for centuries from the elements by a thick layer of sand, they were exposed after a fierce storm. Spoons, mallets and drills made from whalebones were found during the excavations.

North Hill Reserve

As well as many other seabirds, a huge colony of Arctic terns breed here.

Maes Howe Chambered Cairn

Nowhere provides a better insight into the Orkneys' prehistoric past than the Stone Age burial chamber at Maes Howe, situated on the road to Stromness about 9mi/14.4km west of Kirkwall. Dating from 2500 B.C., it is almost certainly the best-preserved late Stone Age site of its kind anywhere on the British Isles. The interior of this grass-covered grave is vast; it measures a full 115ft/32m in diameter. The low and narrow entrance tunnel, almost 36ft/11m long, is built from long stone slabs up to 16ft/5m in length and it leads into a main chamber and three adjoining chambers; however, as some runic inscriptions indicate, the contents were plundered by the Vikings in the 12th century. "Haakon alone took the treasure from this hill" is just one of the many examples. Some researchers maintain that Nordic crusaders sought shelter here from a storm.

Noup Head

Noup Head, some 5mi/8km in length and boasting a rocky north coast, is home to vast numbers of seabirds. The thousands of petrels, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills that gather here for the breeding season constitute one of the biggest bird colonies in Great Britain.

Quoyness Cairn

The sandy grassland and dunes on Sanday make excellent breeding grounds for sea birds, while Otters Wick Bay is noted for its seal colony. There are some fine bathing beaches on the island and amateur archaeologists ought not to miss the burial chamber at Quoyness which dates from 2900 B.C.

Ring of Brodgar

The 5,000 year old Ring of Brodgar, about 2mi/3.2km higher up from the standing stones by Loch Stenness, provides further evidence of the islands' earliest inhabitants. It remains a mystery as to what precise function these 27 (originally 60) stones performed. The monoliths, ranging in height from 6.5ft/2m to 15ft/4.5m, are arranged in a perfect circle 340ft/103.7m in diameter. On the northern side of the circle a stone bears the runic symbol for the Nordic name "Björn". The stunning interplay of water, countryside, cloud and stone pillars leaves a lasting impression.

Skara Brae Prehistoric Village

Skara Brae (10mi/16.3km north of Stromness) is by far the most important prehistoric site on the Orkneys. It appears to have been inhabited without interruption between 3100 and 2500 B.C. The people farmed the land and bred animals from huts constructed of flat stones and slabs which were then covered with earth. The most remarkable thing about Skara Brae is that some of the Stone Age interior furnishings have survived such as hearths, bed boxes made from stone slabs (filled with straw), a similar stone structure rather like a cupboard and the occasional niche with a drainage channel, probably a toilet. Two buildings from the first phase remain, but the rest of the houses date from the second phase. These were bigger and, unlike the earlier dwellings, the bed box was not built into the wall but integrated into the living space. The houses at Skara Brae were well preserved by a thick layer of sand until 1850 when a fierce storm exposed the ancient site. It is thought that the Stone Age community were wiped out by some natural catastrophe that laid waste their village. The skeleton of a boy and an old man have been found. The main finds are displayed in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.


Pierowall is the main settlement with grocery stores, accommodation, cafe, heritage museum, art gallery. The ruins of Noltland Castle can be seen nearby (now in the care of Historic Scotland). The Noup Head RSPB reserve has huge colonies of seabirds, spectacular cliffs and a lighthouse built by David Stevenson.

Papa Westray

Dating from around 3500 BC, the Knap of Howar is the earliest standing dwelling house in north-western Europe. Other places of interest include St. Treadwell's Chapel, St. Boniface Church and a long chambered cairn.


The Vat O' Kirbister is a natural rock arch formed by the sea - known as a 'gloop' - accessed by a cliff top walk.

Covenanters' Memorial
Off the road near Deerness. The Covenanters' Memorial was erected following the loss of two hundred souls in 1679. Found guilty of religious dissent by Charles II, they were being shipped to America to be sold as slaves, but were hit by a raging winter storm.

Churchill Barrier

During the Second World War, Scapa Flow was protected by "block ships" - old ships which were strategically scuppered to prevent vessels entering through the channels between the string of islands in the east. When a U-boat slipped through these defences and sank HMS ROYAL OAK six weeks into the Second World War, Winston Churchill ordered the sea to be filled in between Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow appears as a huge natural harbour. As well as being the resting place of HMS ROYAL OAK, whose wreck is marked by a single buoy, it is also the graveyard of the German High Seas Fleet. On Midsummer Day 1919, Admiral von Reuter gave the order to scupper his ships. Fifty-four out of seventy-four were sunk, but most were later salvaged and today only 7 remain on the sea bed.

Italian Chapel

The work on the Churchill Barriers was carried out by Italian Prisoners of War who were captured in the North Africa campaign and held at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm. Far from home, they requested permission to turn a couple of old Nissen huts into a Roman Catholic chapel. Trimmed with red, the white angular façade and belfry hide the original shape of the two buildings with an exterior akin to a wedding cake.

Burgar Hill

At the summit are 3 experimental wind turbine generators which can be seen for miles around. Adjacent to them is an RSPB hide overlooking a small loch.

Click Mill
A horizontal water mill used for grinding grain in the 19th century. The name comes from the wooden bit which releases the grain between the stones: it clicks each time it goes around and lets some grain through the hopper.

Marwick Head

Climb to the top and you will find a 200-foot drop straight down into the foaming sea. Many birds nest in the nooks and crannies of the cliffs. Up here is the Kitchener Memorial. It is a tall, square tower which was erected in memory of the 600 men who lost their lives when HMS Hampshire struck a German mine and sank on 5th June 1916 while conveying Lord Kitchener and his staff to Russia.

Yesnaby Cliffs

Formed by layer upon layer of the Middle Old Red Sandstone that makes up most of Orkney, these cliffs are a warm, ochre colour. Be prepared for strong winds coming in off the ocean.
Look carefully at the rocks for fossil "horse-tooth" Stromatolites, blue-green algae that grew in the lake that covered Orkney 350 million years ago. In cracks in the rock you can sometimes see tiny, blue-grey snails that live in the spray zone about fifty metres above sea level and feed on lichen.
On the moorland, you may see some tiny mauve flowers with yellow centres. These are rare Scottish primroses (primula scotica) found only in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness.
If you look south, you might just see the outline of The Old Man of Hoy, the much-photographed sea stack off the Orkney coast.
Walking northwards, climb over a few barbed wire fences and cross a stream. You will come to the Brough of Bigging, a ruined tower, which overlooks the sea stack known as Yesnaby Castle.


Home of Viking burial grounds and broch sites, plus the Quoyness chambered tomb dating from around 2900 BC. Lots of sandy beaches, 2 golf courses and much wartime history.


Famous for St Magnus Kirk (a distinctive round towered church built by the Vikings). A cenotaph marks the spot where Earl Magnus was murdered (the cathedral in Kirkwall was built in his memory).


The father of the author of Rip van Winkle was born on Shapinsay.
Just visible from Kirkwall is Balfour Castle which sits on Shapinsay. Built in 1847-48 it was designed by architect David Bryce. The interior owes much to a team of 30 Italian craftsmen. The castle was run as a hotel until sold in 2009 and is now undergoing refurbishment prior to re-opening as an exclusive use venue



The main airport in Orkney is Kirkwall Airport, operated by Highland and Islands Airports. Loganair, a franchise of Flybe, provides services to the Scottish mainland (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness), as well as to Sumburgh Airport in Shetland.

Within Orkney, the council operates airfields on most of the larger islands including Stronsay, Eday, North Ronaldsay, Westray, Papa Westray, and Sanday. Reputedly the shortest scheduled air service in the world, between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray, is scheduled at two minutes duration but can take less than one minute if the wind is in the right direction.


Ferries serve both to link Orkney to the rest of Scotland, and also to link together the various islands of the Orkney archipelago. Ferry services operate between Orkney and the Scottish mainland and Shetland on the following routes:

  • Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope (operated by Pentland Ferries)
  • John o' Groats to Burwick on South Ronaldsay (seasonal passenger only service, operated by John o' Groats Ferries)
  • Lerwick to Kirkwall (operated by Northlink Ferries)
  • Aberdeen to Kirkwall (operated by Northlink Ferries)
  • Scrabster Harbour, Thurso to Stromness (operated by Northlink Ferries)

Inter-island ferry services connect all the inhabited islands to Orkney Mainland, and are operated by Orkney Ferries, a company owned by Orkney Islands Council.

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