The Islands of Orkney are a group of about 70 islands and skerries situated 10km (6.2 miles) from the north-east tip of the Scottish Mainland. The largest island, known as 'the mainland’, is home to most of the total 20,000 population but the main north islands of Shapinsay, Gairsay, Stronsay, Wyre, Rousay, Egilsay, Eday, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay and the south islands of Graemsay, Hoy, South Walls, Burray, Flotta and South Ronaldsay are also populated. A few other small islands also have permanent or seasonal residents.
Although Burray and South Ronaldsay are ‘islands’ they are connected to the Orkney mainland by causeways called the Churchill barriers, which were built in the 1940s. Likewise, South Walls is connected to Hoy via a causeway called The Ayre.
The islands of Orkney are mainly low lying—a gently rolling landscape of green fields, heather moorland heath and lochs (lakes). The underlying sandstone rock breaks-down easily to form good fertile soils and much of the landscape is farmed, growing mainly grass for animal feed. Most of the farmland is devoted to the production of beef cattle and Orkney beef is prized for its high quality. Sheep are also present in high numbers and the production of barley, potatoes (tatties) and turnips (neeps) is also common. The island of Hoy (meaning ‘high’ in Old Norse) is the exception with dramatic hills and valleys and spectacular cliffs.
The main industry in Orkney is beef farming and much of the islands are turned over to farm land. Tourism is another major industry providing a wide variety of employment and income. Fishing is also an evident activity here and Orkney has the largest crab processing plant in the UK. The renewable energy industry (wind, wave and tidal) is also emerging as a major employer and as this fledgling industry grows Orkney seems set to become a major player in this field. The oil industry has made its mark on Orkney with the large oil terminal on the island of Flotta. The arts and crafts industry also supports a large number of employees and Orkney is one of the major jewellery producing counties in the UK.
The Orkney climate. Being surrounded by the sea has a huge influence on Orkney’s weather and the relatively warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift (or Gulf Stream) which only varies by roughly 5 degrees throughout the year means our ‘mean air temperature’ fluctuates by less than 10 degrees from summer to winter. The climate is described as ‘temperate’ with relatively low rainfall and not a great deal of snow and ice in the winter months. The most noticeable feature about Orkney weather is the wind and given the open exposure to the Atlantic and North Seas this is understandable. It can be windy at any time of year but the calmest, sunniest spells tend to be in May, June, July as perhaps you’d expect. The strength and consistency of the wind has a huge effect on daily life in Orkney and is perhaps most noticeable in the construction of the buildings and lack of tall trees/vegetation.
The exploitation of this huge natural resource is evident throughout the county in the form of many small and large scale wind turbines. Wave and tidal power generation is emerging as a very real natural resource in which Orkney is leading the way in research and development.
There is evidence of human habitation in Orkney from over 6,000 years ago but nomadic visitors no-doubt have been visiting these productive islands for 10,000 years or more as the ice retreated from the last ice-age some 13,000 years ago. There are a great number of archaeological sites throughout the islands with the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray being the ‘oldest dwelling house in the UK’. On Mainland Orkney the sites of Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae were given World Heritage Status, and these are some of the most visited attractions in Orkney. There are many other sites to visit and explore from Neolithic tombs and dwellings to Pictish brochs and Viking settlements.
More recent historical attractions are the sunken remains of the German High Seas Fleet which was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919 and divers travel from all over the world to dive on these wrecks. There is much evidence of the military and naval activity, particularly around Scapa Flow, and there is an excellent visitor centre at Lyness on Hoy dedicated to this more recent history. The Orkney Museum on Broad Street in Kirkwall paints a picture of Orkney’s more ancient history and the Stromness Museum focuses on more recent and maritime history.
Orkney’s flora and fauna are also another great attraction for visitors with tens of thousands of seabirds nesting on the cliffs in the summer months. The extensive coastline and large tidal margins exposes extensive feeding grounds for seabirds and heathland and loch are another source of abundant food and habitat for birdlife. Orkney has internationally important populations of Arctic and Great Skuas (Bonxies) and Hen Harriers. More common migrant and nesting birds include Great Northern Diver, Greylag Goose, Goldeneye, Knot, Puffin, Swallow, Turnstone to name but a few.
The largest mammals in evidence are the Grey and Common Seals which can be seen all around the shores of Orkney as they haul out to bask on the skerries and shores. A walk along a beach will almost always attract an inquisitive eye from the local seals as they bob in the surf just off shore.
Porpoises, whales and dolphins are also common around our shores, best spotted from a boat or ferry and if you are lucky you may spot a pod of Killer whales.
Otters are present here also but are very shy and difficult to spot but if you are patient you may see one in the lochs or round the coast. More common land mammals such as rabbits and common hare are much easier to spot and Hoy has a population of Blue Mountain Hare. The unique Orkney Vole is common but difficult to see but evidence of their presence is easy to spot as runs and burrows in the long grass in meadow areas.
The field margins, road verges, meadows and heaths hold a great variety of shrubs and summer flowers. Most flora in Orkney are small and low-growing on account of exposure to the steady winds so look closely to see the tiny flowers of Eyebright, Grass of Parnassus, Sea Campion and the rare Primula Scotica. Larger flowering plants such as Northern Marsh Orchid, Angelica, Foxglove, Primrose and Ox-eye Daisy are easier to spot and Gorse and heathers, when in flower, make an impressive display.
The main town and Capital of the islands is Kirkwall and with its narrow main street with many craft and gift shops, cafes, hotel restaurants and bars is a great central location from which to explore the islands. Kirkwall is dominated by the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, founded by Earl Rognvald Kolson in 1137, with its red sandstone walls and large columns, ramparts and vaulted ceiling is a ‘must see’ if visiting the capital. Other historical remains are close by and also worth exploring and of course all the local amenities you would expect in a large town are also available. Stromness is the second biggest town in Orkney and undoubtedly the most picturesque. The town grew up around the sheltered harbour of Hamnavoe as the fishing industry grew and trade routes opened with Canada. The narrow winding street follows the shoreline with many lanes and alleyways leading off. Houses along the waterfront have private piers and slipways and the dramatic backdrop of Brinkies Brae and the hills of Hoy make this another ‘must see’ for any visitor. The award winning Pier Arts Centre is also found in the centre of the town and the museum gives an excellent account of Orkney’s maritime history.
There is a wide variety of festivals and events throughout the year with the summer months being particularly busy. The Folk Festival takes place in May with an impressive line-up of visiting artistes and local musicians performing at concerts, ceilidhs, dances, pub sessions etc over four days. The St Magnus Festival is a mid-summer celebration of the arts with world-class performances from orchestras, ensembles, choirs, dance groups etc. Taking place in June each year it attracts visitors from all over the world. Stromness Shopping Week takes place in July each year and is a gala week of family fun and games, competitions, music and dancing. The agricultural shows take place in early August and are the chance for farmers to meet, compete and showcase the best of Orkney farming produce. The County Show is the largest of the shows and is one of the biggest weekend of activities in the county. The Orkney International Science Festival takes place in September each year and features world-class speakers and experts on a wide variety of subjects. These are just a few of the more prominent events throughout the year but there are many more (too numerous to mention here) but you can check the ‘diary of events’ to find out more.
Travelling to Orkney has never been easier with four ferry services to the islands during the summer months and daily flight connections from all the major Scottish cities. Day trips are possible from Inverness and with the wide variety of accommodation options, activities, services and facilities on offer Orkney is becoming a very popular holiday destination.
Although popular with visitors, the islands are by no stretch of the imagination ‘crowded’ and you will often find you have a whole beach or hill to yourself on a leisurely walk or family picnic. It is this ‘island escape’ which keeps visitors returning again and again to discover new things and sample the delights Orkney has to offer.
Plan your visit today and you’ll be assured of a warm welcome to our ‘irresistible islands’.