Ancient History and Wild Coastlines – My Top Orkney Day Trips
Which Scottish island should I visit? This remains a question I am posed on a regular basis, and with good reason. Our countless isles each have their own appeal, personality and stand-out characteristics. It’s no easy choice, even for those of us that know many of them well. But there can be little doubt that, for historical appeal in particular, Orkney is on its own pedestal. And we’re not talking about the standard Scottish tales of political disquiet during the Wars of Independence or the melancholic woes of the Jacobite Wars either. No. Orkney’s historical allure goes much further back – to times pre-dating Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. To the earliest civilisations and to ways of life that have shaped us all, many centuries later. My latest visit sees me delve into the best ways of getting immersed in these worlds of old, with various Orkney day trips that will appeal to all.
Getting to and from Orkney avoids many of the challenges that Scottish island-baggers typically face and it’s one of the least stressful and most accessible island journeys you are likely to take on, despite the Northern Islands’ relative isolation. With regular NorthLink ferry options from Aberdeen (going to Kirkwall, 6 hours) or from the short crossing between Scrabster and Stromness (1.5 hours) there are logistical pros and cons of each. Both though allow for straightforward vehicle transport, comfortable accommodation and plentiful facilities on board.
Day Trip Number One – West Mainland
Chances are, your base for an extended stay on will be on Mainland Orkney. With easy access to amenities and transport, the capital of Kirkwall is a logical choice that allows for all of these Orkney day trips with relative ease. The west of the island has enough appeal to generously fill a day, with these sites probably the biggest stand outs:
The earliest signs of Orcadian life can be traced to around 11,000 BC but it is the Neolithic remains, dating from around 5000 years ago, that the present-day visitor will be most captivated by. Sat proudly in the Bay of Skaill, this genuinely astonishing Neolithic village is amongst Scotland’s most treasured relics. That it was hidden beneath sand until a violent storm in 1850 brought it back from the dead adds further mystery to a place that poses many questions. In an extremely evocative state of repair, individual rooms have been carefully identified and the village is likely to have included a workshop, drainage systems and basic furniture.
The most impactful and best-preserved of all of Orkney’s many chambered cairns, this place is guaranteed to conger up youthful memories of learning about Ancient Egypt and dingy existences in the depths of pyramids. Going back to around 2700BC the cosy mound was also visited by the Vikings, with an array of their scribbles carved into the interior stone remaining to this day. Note that Maeshowe currently has a confusing welcoming system and you should call ahead to book your tour slot and arrive well in advance at the visitor centre or the staff will be alarmingly frosty with you. Regardless, it’s not one to miss.
Ring of Brodgar
In these days of Outlander and the mass romanticising of Scottish history that would have had Sir Walter Scott swelling with pride, it is perhaps in the form of standing stones that the most dreamy mystery can be found. 27 of the original 60 stone giants remain in this perfect 104 metre diameter circle between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. Ranging from 2 to 4.5 metres in height, we will forever be wondering what their true purpose and significance was. Visit at sunrise or when the last of the day’s light is fading and see what it does to you.
A coastal walk at Yesnaby
In what now stands as one of the most thrilling walks this traveller has ever encountered, the astounding drama along Mainland’s west coastline was among my trip highlights. Granted, I’m a little bit mad and thought nothing of facing this 2 hour (return) walk in a rather fierce storm….but I’ll be forever glad I did. There comes a point where the 50mph winds have done all that they are going to do to you, you’re as wet as can be and it’s at that level that you just embrace it all and smile stupidly at the incredible power of Mother Nature. Giant waves crash thunderously against the cliffs, waking up all sorts of vibrantly incredible blues from beneath. The two magnificent sea stacks of Yesnaby and North Gaulton ‘Castles’ were the crowning touch. I staggered back to the car wide-eyed, weather beaten-up, babbling deliriously and resembling something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. My favourite kind of state.
You can throw numerous other nearby attractions into the mix including the beautiful Broch of Gurness, yet more standing stones at Stenness and the still-being-eagerly-excavated Ness of Brodgar. Or head to Kirkwall itself to admire the stunning 12th Century St Magnus Cathedral, the renowned whisky mecca that is Highland Park Distillery (complete with barley malting floor), the remarkably well-intact ruins of the Earl and Bishops’s Palaces or to sample Kirkjuvagar Gin, an impressive blend of local botanicals and the latest up-and-comer in Scotland’s flourishing gin industry.
Day Trip Number Two – Hoy
An easy 30-minute crossing from Houton (Mainland Orkney) to Lyness brings you to this nature lover’s playground. The north and west of Orkney’s second largest island throw up more of those splendid cliffs for coastal walks aplenty, while the south holds appeal for followers of more recent Orcadian history.
To not visit the Old Man of Hoy would be preposterous and the now-iconic image of this part of the world holds timeless fascination. A 137-metre rock stack that sits adrift of Hoy’s precarious western cliff edges, the walk out to it from Rackwick is the default activity on the island. Encompassing Rackwick’s beautiful beach, the straightforward hike takes around 2.5 hours return. Arguably an even more memorable view of the Old Man is on the ferry crossing and NorthLink Ferries’ journey between Scrabster and Stromness permits an extraordinary view – what a spectacular way to say hello or goodbye to your Orkney adventure. With that in mind I do strongly recommend their very convenient Hamnavoe Bed & Breakfast option – permitting an overnight stay on the docked ferry in Stromness before an early start (passing the Old Man) back to the mainland. The food and drink on board is locally sourced wherever possible and having breakfast before landing is ideal for travellers with busy days ahead.
The drive between Lyness and Rackwick presents numerous roadside stop opportunities as Hoy’s turquoise waters (when the sun’s out) bullishly demand your attention. The bizarre Dwarfie Stane, the only rock-cut tomb in Scotland, is signed and worth the walk from the road but, that aside, there are few signs of habitation and the hilly terrain feels much more like Mainland Scotland than anywhere else on Orkney. Mountainous island remoteness is one thing that I’ll never tire of.
But Lyness is also a hub of interest for British military history fans. It was the wartime naval base for the British fleet in both World Wars and the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre is the place to go to learn more about the naval history of these treacherous waters. A short walk from the pier, it’ll round your day off nicely.
Day Trip Number Three – Rousay
Much like Hoy, Rousay can be visited as a half-day trip from Mainland Orkney but benefits from a full day out. Calling for a road circuit of the island, the smattering of pre-historic attractions along the south west will have you in and out of the car (or off the bike, something worth considering here) constantly. The chambered cairns at Taversoe Tuick, Blackhammer and Yarso are among the most atmospheric you’ll find, largely because you’re not likely to be dealing with the same number of visitors that Skara Brae and Maeshowe will always bring. Visiting in late September, I had them all to myself. Very much tombs, the eerie atmosphere in all was fascinatingly unsettling given the constant coolness and eternal watching eye of the internal stonework. These rocks have stories.
While those three were undoubtedly intimate, the scale of the roofed-over Midhowe Cairn is another experience entirely. Massive at 23 metres long, the bodies of 25 pre-historic individuals were discovered to have been laid to rest here and it can be inspected closely from the walkways above. Its immediate neighbour meanwhile, Midhowe Broch, is one of the finest things about Orkney. With glorious views south over the water and a tough-as-nails personality, it was occupied by well-to-do Iron Age locals from around 200BC to 200AD. A central tower is surrounded by several small stone houses in what was clearly a place of considerable status. Excavations have unearthed bronze jewellery, objects of Roman origin and indications of craftwork, including weaving.
Day Trip Number Four – Westray
Choosing between Orkney’s Northern Isles for day trips is no easy task. But, given the distances involved and the amount needing doing, that is very likely what most visitors will have to face. Having probably the widest range of appeal swung it to Westray for me in the end with castles, beaches and cliffs all calling. The fact it’s referred to as the ‘Queen of the Isles’ helped too.
Noltland Castle was always going to be the must-not-miss-at-any-costs element for this castle fanatic and it proved to be amongst the grimmest, moodiest and least-welcoming ruins I’ve ever encountered. No small achievement in Scotland. But all the more reason to love this isolated outpost and appreciate its cold appearance and joy-less history. Built in 1560 by Gilbert Balfour, a long-term supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots, its highly defensive design reflects his general sense of fear/aggression in times of great religious and political turmoil. You can’t help but think that Balfour intended Noltland as an edge-of-the-world getaway for himself (and possibly Mary) should the worst happen, which of course it spectacularly did. In the end he took his perpetual political misbehaviour to Sweden where he was executed for treason in 1576. You’ve got to love a rogue!
The other primary historical attraction on Westray is the Norse relic of Quoygrew. The remains of a 12th Century Norse hall, it’s an authentic (and wildly exposed) indicator of coastal farm life on the island. Nearby digs have uncovered signs of the importance of fishing in particular to Viking diets as this progressive and highly intelligent civilisation left their permanent mark in these parts. You can then find out more on Westray’s long past at the Westray Heritage Centre.
Noup Head offers more of that tireless coastal drama and is an RSPB nature reserve, with its unnerving cliffs home to armies of gannets (come to Westray in early summer for some of the best puffin viewing opportunities in Scotland as well). Nearby Grobost Beach draws comparisons with my favourites in the Outer Hebrides and is the site of yet more on-going excavations to see what further secrets these coastlines are hiding.
Westray is around a 90-minute ferry crossing each way from Kirkwall and will require at least one full day to appreciate. Coming highly recommended I turned to Andy and Karen at Westraak to show me around their home island. Picking up and dropping off from the ferry port they take care of absolutely everything for you and have extensive knowledge of Westray’s past and present. All Scottish islands should offer such a high quality, locally-focussed service to visitors and it was the perfect solution to my visiting on a truly appalling day of weather that would have left me scratching my head at how to make the most of things.
While no blog post could do true justice to the myriad of Orkney day trip options, these guys are a comprehensive start for any first-time visitors. Further inspiration can be found in East Mainland (check my previous Orkney visit for some more from that area) or by greater exploration of the Northern Isles with the likes of Sanday, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay all worthy of your consideration.
And so another Scottish island adventure comes to an end. It’s probably my last of the year as winter starts to creep ever-nearer and the nights thieve us of time. But it was a glorious way to close. Orkney, and it’s 70 characterful islands, has quite literally blown me away once again as the full range of its appeal has been flaunted gleefully. I’m going to come back to that word ‘evocative’. That’s probably my overriding feeling about Orkney. You are forced to really challenge your imagination, to let your mind wander and to question absolutely everything about early civilisations’ ways of life. Orkney’s is a very different kind of history. But evocation applies to those titanic coastlines too, where the drama of the cliffs meeting the waves brings up all sorts of images of those that have sailed on these trecherous but strategically pivotal waters and have brought back so many powerful stories along the way.
Orkney, it’s been a blast.
This year’s trip to Orkney was made possible through a sponsored partnership between me and NorthLink Ferries (the guys with the coolest branding in the business), supported by the Digital Media Orkney project. My views and tips within, and on social media, are based purely on my experiences and knowledge of these parts and, as my regular readers will be aware, I don’t promote anywhere or anyone that I don’t think benefits those with an interest in Scotland. NorthLink are a top service and constantly shuttle travellers back and forth between Mainland Scotland and both the Orkney and Shetland Isles. Whether travelling long-haul from Aberdeen or making the short journey between Scrabster and Stromness, they are superbly efficient in their provision of overnight trip options, on-board meals and entertainment and will make an ideal start or end to your own Orcadian adventures.
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Use the map below to pick out most of the spots mentioned in the above blog. Please note that the map should not be used for precise directions and is for indicative purposes.