Orkney lies just off the north coast of Scotland, only 90 minutes from Scrabster by NorthLink ferry or an hour from Edinburgh or Aberdeen by Loganair – with amazing views as you come in to land. There are only 19,000 inhabitants and, as a Scot, I love going there, because it is very different from mainland Scotland, where I live. It is the sense of being on an island, surrounded by the ocean, which is glimpsed at every bend in the road and being able to journey easily from Mainland (the main island) to the other islands. I love the tranquillity and the haunting calls of the birds on spring evenings. The main town is Kirkwall which is a large village rather than a town, with friendly people and not too many tourists, so you can meet the locals! There is one place you must visit - the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral, a medieval church which is still used for worship, with a soaring roof, huge pillars, plenty of space to wander around quietly and read about the people buried there. Look for the tomb of John Rae, one of the Antarctic explorers and his stone effigy. Across the road are several excellent craft shops and a few minutes away by foot is a busy harbour. On my last visit I bought a delicate brooch made by a local jeweller and a chunky sweater.
Orkney also has a famous distillery – Highland Park – on the outskirts of Kirkwall. This has a malting floor where the barley is kept and turned each day by the workmen. This is an unusual feature in distilleries and the dram at the end of the tour leaves a delicate taste of the ocean with you. You must try the local food when you are there – the lamb and the cheese in particular, but also the variety of biscuits. One place to check these out is the small café in the hamlet of Birsay; enjoy fresh food, Orkney cheese and delicious home-baking, with the panoramic views through the large windows – and some cattle grazing just outside. Orkney is a World Heritage Site because of Skara Brae and other remains from the Stone Age. Skara Brae is the most famous, but you must also visit Maeshowe, and the Stones of Brodgar and the Broch of Gurness. The best way is to go to the stones in the morning or evening and to Skara Brae and Maeshowe as soon as they open so you can best sense what it would have been like 3,000 years ago. Use a Historic Scotland Pass for good value.
You will find accommodation in bed and breakfasts and hotels. On my last visit I stayed in the Lynnfield Hotel on the outskirts (lovely bedrooms, excellent food and lots of whiskys to try) but another favourite is the Ayre Hotel by the harbour. Take time to travel to the west and look seawards – if you were set off on a boat, the next place you would come to is Canada and this is why many ships which set sail from Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries called in at Orkney to get enough fresh water to last until they reached shore again. Many Canadians and Americans are proud to say that their ancestors came from Orkney, the crossroads of the ocean.
Professional Scotland Advisor