A short guide to the Orkney Islands

Skara Brae

Among all the numerous small islands that are part of the United Kingdom, the Orkney Islands are some of the most remote, and also the most mysterious. The over 70 islands are seen as part of Scotland, but even so, they have distinctive customs and culture which is plainly obvious even though there are few permanent inhabitants on the archipelago. The Orkneys have been settled in neolithic times, and it used to belong to the Knights Templar,  so there are lots of historical and archaeological sites to see. If you like cultural and sightseeing holidays in places where time seems to have stood still, then these islands are definitely your cup of tea, so here’s a short guide to the Orkney Islands.

About the Orkneys

Less then 20,000 people live on the islands, and more than half of them live on Mainland, the largest of the archipelago. There are four larger towns (they can hardly be called cities) on Mainland, and they are as picturesque as Scottish small towns can be, so they are definitely worth a visit. Kirkwall and Stromness, in particular, are busy little harbor towns with lots of cafes and pubs, and very lively in general. Some of the most interesting tourist attractions on the archipelago are located on Mainland, and if you want to visit some of the smaller islands, it’s best if you set up base in one of the towns on Mainland. There are lots of other fascinating islands among the Orkneys, like Rousay, nicknamed the Egypt of the North due to its countless archaeological sites, Sanday and its pristine beaches, or Shapinsay and its striking castle.


You can get to the Orkney Islands by plane, as the British Airways have a subsidiary line that operates flights from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and the Shetland Islands to Kirkwall. The small airports also offers flights between some of the other Orkney islands, if you are averse to traveling by ferry, check out the Logainair website for info about flights. Several ferry companies, like Northlink Ferries, Pentland Ferries and John O’Groats Ferries provide ferry links between the islands and the islands and mainland Scotland.


Stromness, photo by Greg Willis

You don’t have to look far to see why the Orkney islands are so attractive: windswept skies, grassy fields and hills, abandoned beaches and long warm days of summer, perfect for exploring. The weather is a tad unpredictable, but after a few days, the placidity of the Orcadians rubs off on you. The Orkneys have unlimited reserves of dramatic coastal scenery, both the 17 inhabited islands, and the rest as well. Archaeological digs and sites are also common on Orkney: the mystical Skara Brae village, Maeshowe tomb, Balfour Castle, and countless other cairns and standing stones. A comprehensive list of attractions can be found on Orkney’s official tourist site.

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