Prior to this travel guide, I’d never even heard of The Orkney Islands. Now they’re at the top of my must-go list! Keep reading for Orkney travel tips on what to do, where to go, and how to do it all cheaply!
Hi, I’m Charlotta. I’m a freelance journalist from Finland living in the UK. My Scottish husband and I travelled up to the Orkney islands north of Scotland for our honeymoon. The islands are filled with history and legends. They’re also truly wild places and the landscape has been battered by winds and the sea for thousands of years.
Skara Brae is one of the best preserved neolithic villages in Europe. The village laid undiscovered for thousands of years until a bad storm in the winter of 1850 shifted the sand dunes along the coast to reveal eight stone houses.
It’s is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the “Scottish Pompeii” because it’s so well-preserved. Outside the village itself the museum has built a replica of the quite amazing stone houses so visitors can get a feel for what it is like stepping inside an actual neolithic house.
The Ring of Brodgar is an ancient stone circle and one of the many Orkney sites you don’t have to pay to access. As with Stonehenge and similar monuments the experts are still debating why it was built and what it was used for.
Visiting the Ring of Brodgar is a totally different experience to visiting Stonehenge. Not only can you walk up to the stones and trace your fingers along the graffiti that has been carved into the rocks over the centuries. Because the site is surrounded by pretty wild landscapes, it’s easier to get a feel for what it might have been like when it was being used.
It’s worth a visit early in the morning, if you can, to watch the sunrise at the stone circle.
Maeshowe is one of the many neolithic tombs, or chambered cairns as they are called, in Orkney. It’s one of the more famous ones and plenty of visitors cram into the tiny cavern every day.
The tomb is aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber is lit up by the winter solstice (which you can see on a video the visitor centre puts up online every year).
At some point in the 12th century vikings broke into Maeshowe, perhaps sheltering from bad weather, and the walls inside the tomb are littered with runes.
You can’t go to Orkney and just visit the mainland. There are 70 different islands to choose between (only 20 if you just count the inhabited ones).
There are daily ferries from the capital Kirkwall to the larger islands, check out Orkney Ferries for timetables and more info.
A full Scottish breakfast isn’t for the faint hearted. You can see how this was a good way to start your day back in the day before heading out to sea or working on a small croft.
A good Scottish breakfast is heavy on the meat and consists of tattie scones (potato scones), lorne sausage (or square sausage, basically a huge slice of sausage that looks like a square), black pudding, beans and a fried egg.
Which is more a must drink than must eat, I guess. There are two whisky distilleries on Orkney, Highland Park and Scapa. Both offer tours around the distillery where you can see how grain is turned into spirit and then stored for many decades. Orkney whisky is quite soft and salty (the sea air supposedly penetrates the casks where the whisky is stored and mingles with the spirit).
Orkney belonged to Norway for a longer period of time than it’s belonged to the UK and you can still see Norwegian flags around the islands.
The cultural heritage is different to the rest of the UK and “real” Orcadians are those who can trace their family history back several hundreds of years. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming to visitors. There is a huge craft movement on Orkney and plenty of small art studios on the mainland.
Unfortunately it can be quite expensive to get to Orkney. If you want to fly (from London) it can cost as much as a return ticket from London to New York. However if you book early you can get a cheap train or bus up to Aberdeen and then take a ferry to Orkney.
There are plenty of self-catering cottages on Orkney, which can actually turn out to be a cheaper option than staying in hotels and hostels. Especially if you cook a lot of your own food. Eating out on Orkney will be expensive as there is a limited number of restaurants.
Of course, Airbnb is usually cheaper than a hotel and a lot more authentic. Here’s an entire cottage for $80 a night! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking.
The easiest way to get around the islands is to rent a car, which will cost you around £400 for two weeks. A cheaper option would be to bring your own bike. Just remember that the Scottish weather can be a little bit unforgiving, so bring some sturdy rain-gear if you plan on cycling around the islands.
Thanks so much for sharing, Charlotta! Have any of you guys done any traveling in the Orkney Islands? Any travel tips to share?