Exploring Scotland: Things to do on the Orkney Islands

There are many interesting and wonderful things you should know about the Orkney Islands. The first that comes to mind, is that there are barely any trees.

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There are more, so here are a handful – neatly arranged as a wee list of experiences I would recommend on a visit to the Orkney Islands.

1. The Wildlife

You can see seal pups there! And damn those things are cute.

I wouldn’t recommend getting too up close and personal, but if you go at the right time of the year (usually just after October), you can see beaches littered with newborn seals and their parents. Now I don’t know about you, but a hike with that view would definitely make it on my to-do list. Remember though – dress warm!

Seals in Orkney

Seals on a beach in Orkney

Word on the street is that there are two kinds of seals making a name for themselves on the shores of Orkney, the common seal and the grey seal. Ironically you’re more likely to come across the grey seal, as a pretty significant percentage of them worldwide (15%) can be found in Orkney. Seal spotting for me involved a hike along the coastline on South Ronaldsay, which you can access from the main island by crossing the barriers which connect the two.

It’s not just seals either. Other exciting animals such as otters and puffins can be spotted around the islands. So grab some binoculars and a couple of good mates to make a day of it.

Seals in Orkney

“Sup’ bro?” (A mother seal feeding her pup)

Fun fact: There is a great deal of folklore surrounding the Orkney Islands, including the seals (or selkie folk). It has been said that they would secretly emerge from the ocean, shed their seal skins and walk the islands in the guise of eligible young men/women… intending to lure the unsuspecting islanders to live with them in their home under the sea. So you know… keep your eyes peeled for anything fishy. 😉

2. Skara Brae (Prehistoric Scottish Village)

This is cool. Skara Brae is a Neolithic stone village, which is so well preserved you can walk around and actually see the houses and furniture made from stone over 5000 years ago. Word on the street (and the history books) is that it was uncovered in the winter of 1850 when some particularly wild storms lifted the grass and sand, exposing the ancient stone buildings.

166 years later and ‘the heart of Neolithic Orkney,’ of which Skara Brae is a part, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and pretty nifty place to visit. I gotta say, it’s cool getting to walk around the ruins of the ancient village, learning about how people used to live and how different their lifestyles would have been.

It doesn’t stand alone either. Orkneys prehistoric landscape also includes the ‘Ring of Brodgar’, the ‘Standing Stones of Stenness’ and ‘Maeshowe’, all of which you can visit or arrange a guided tour.

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3. Maeshowe

Maeshowe is a chambered cairn, which appears as a grassy mound any visitor could easily drive past multiple times if they were unaware of its history (something I’m guilty of myself). This tomb was looted by vikings in the 12th century who left runes carved into the walls of the main chamber, and on the 21st of December every year (the winter solstice), the main chamber is directly illuminated by the light of the setting sun. The sunset on this day perfectly aligns with the entrance passageway and ‘Barnhouse Stone’, which stands roughly 700m away. It’s all so perfectly planned… it kinda makes you wonder what the significance was behind this feature. Mysterious.

4. The Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness

When I first visited the Ring of Brodgar I was mesmerised. My mind swam with all the fantastic stories that could be written about such a place… which to this day is surrounded by mystery and unanswered questions.

It is a henge and stone circle (the biggest in Scotland) currently consisting of 27 stones, though originally it was said to be 60. Back in Neolithic times, this would have taken a heck of a lot of effort and organisation to construct. The purpose for the site is unconfirmed, though it appears to be ceremonial and said to be used for astronomical, religious and ritualistic purposes.

Approximately one mile away are the Standing Stones of Stenness, which mark the remains of a stone circle, with 4 stones still standing. It’s really old (5400 years) and bones/remains found at the site suggest it was a popular spot for the cooking and eating of food. Conveniently, all the historical sites on Orkney are easy travelling distance from each other, which could make for a good day out exploring the history of the island.

5. Italian Chapel and the Barriers

I’m going to throw a little history in for this one. During WW2, after a submarine attack on a battleship anchored in Scapa Flow, Winston Churchill sent an order for barriers to be built between the islands, blocking off the channels completely. The labour for this fell to the Italian prisoners of war on Orkney at the time, who successfully constructed the ‘Churchill Barriers’ you can now drive across to get between the islands.

Just across the barrier between the Orkney mainland and Lamb Holm is a pretty Italian chapel, that the POW built with spare cement and supplies from building the barriers. I’ve always thought of it as a lovely example of hope and faith, found in a time when there was little. I’m including it in this list because of its significance to Orcadian history. Also you could pay a visit to the  beach at Scapa Flow on the way, or go for a leasurely drive between the islands if you decide to head out and explore what lies beyond the barriers.

Hiking in Orkney

Hiking in South Ronaldsay

So there you have it. If you go during the winter holidays, make sure to check out the annual Barr, a unique ball game which takes over Kirkwall, and while you’re there be sure to pay a visit to the beautiful St. Magnus cathedral. If you’re really lucky, and go at the right time of the year, you may even catch a glimpse of the northern lights. I’ll be crossing my fingers for you!

May your travels be safe and fruitful. 🙂

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