FROM the mysteries of the ancient past to the lively culture of its modern-day communities, Orkney provides an unforgettable range of experiences for those who venture onto its shores.
You can explore more than 5,000 years of history at Skara Brae and other prehistoric sites before fast-forwarding to the present and immersing yourself in the islands’ renowned hospitality – whether attending one of the annual music festivals or simply enjoying the crack in a cosy pub or at a ceilidh.
Orkney is an archipelago of about 70 islands, 21 of which are inhabited and linked by a network of ferry services. The combination of spectacular scenery, friendly people, abundant wildlife and outstanding natural produce makes it an ideal holiday destination.
The principal communities of Kirkwall and Stromness are on the Orkney Mainland. Kirkwall, the capital, is dominated by the red sandstone edifice of St Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, where the islands’ own saint was buried after being treacherously slain by his cousin.
The nearby Orkney Museum at Tankerness House tells the story of the islands from the Stone Age to the 21st century. The museum has a large photographic archive and a programme of temporary exhibitions.
Kirkwall is also the home of the award-winning Highland Park malt whisky, and the distillery – the most northerly in the world – has its own visitor centre.
The smaller town of Stromness is full of charm, with its narrow streets and its excellent museum packed with maritime exhibits, while the Pier Arts Centre is a focal point for the local artistic community.
With acclaimed jewellery, knitting and weaving, pottery, designer knitwear and traditional furniture, the arts and crafts inspired by the Orkney landscape and culture have a special quality.
Long before the Egyptians built their pyramids, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the burial cairn of Maeshowe were all constructed on the Orkney Mainland. In a massive feat of engineering, the entrance of Maeshowe was sited so that on the shortest day of the year the sun would enter the cairn’s main passage and strike the back wall.
The settlement of Skara Brae at Skaill is another prehistoric wonder, uncovered during a storm in 1850. Sand had preserved a series of workshops and houses furnished in Stone Age fashion with beds, shelves, dressers and tables. There are eight dwellings altogether, linked by a series of covered passages. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed that the settlement dates from the late Neolithic period.
Skara Brae was awarded World Heritage Site status along with Maeshowe and other important sites in the area, known collectively as Orkney’s Neolithic Heartland.
Other attractions in Orkney include the Iron Age settlement and broch at Gurness, the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay, the Old Man of Hoy sea-stack and the Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm – built from scrap material during World War Two by Italian prisoners of war.
The south islands of Lamb Holm, Burray, Glims Holm and South Ronaldsay were joined by a series of causeways known as the Churchill Barriers because of the German threat to the British fleet based at Scapa Flow, Orkney’s huge natural anchorage. You can discover more about the islands’ vital wartime role in the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Lyness on Hoy.
Away from Orkney’s numerous historic sites you can spend days fishing, sailing, diving or surfing, or take a boat trip to see important seabird colonies and get close to marine wildlife.
The outer islands are well worth a visit as each has its own character. To the north there’s Shapinsay, Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre, Westray, Eday, Sanday, Stronsay, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay, while to the south of the Mainland you’ll find Graemsay and Flotta as well as Hoy.