Welcome to Orkney in December!

Winter is here but life in the islands doesn't stop - in fact, things are just getting started in the build-up to Christmas!

This month we've got a round-up of some of the festive events around Orkney so you can get into the party spirit. There's also a close look at the parish of Sandwick - home of Skara Brae and much more - in our latest area focus.

What's on in December

So what is there to keep you occupied during the Christmas countdown in Orkney this month?

Christmas tree lights will be turned on around the islands at the beginning of the month. See the ceremonies in Dounby, Finstown, Shapinsay and St Margaret’s Hope on Friday 2nd December, with events in Burray, Sanday, Flotta and Westray on Saturday 3rd.

The St Lucy parade in Kirkwall

Kirkwall's ceremony takes place on the 3rd too and includes the traditional St Lucy parade. It all begins at 4.45pm on Broad Street, with a performance from the Kirkwall City Pipe Band half an hour later. It's the perfect way to get that festive feeling. St Magnus Cathedral also hosts a unique performance on Sunday 4th with local and visiting musicians - it's free entry and it gets underway at 8pm.

The final tree lighting ceremonies will be held in Orphir on the 4th and in Stenness on the 7th.

Pick up your presents in Orkney

Have you started your Christmas shopping yet? If not, Orkney is the perfect place to pick up that something special. Head to Highland Park Distillery on the 3rd of December when the Distillery hosts its Festive Fayre. Local food, drink and crafts companies will have stalls stuffed with potential presents. The market will be held in the Malting Room between 3pm and 7pm.

Highland Park Distillery will host its Festive Fayre this month - image by Iain Sarjeant

Shops in Kirkwall will be open until 7pm on the 15th and 22nd and there will also be Sunday shopping days too, on the 11th and 18th. Check out the Stromness Orkney website for details of events in Stromness, and remember to have a look at the Orkney Food and Drink and Orkney Crafts Association websites for further inspiration from the islands. There is a Christmas Bazaar in the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret's Hope on the 3rd and 4th too with plenty of gift ideas, hot drinks and homebakes between 1pm and 4pm.

Cathedral concert

A special performance of Handel's Messiah will be held in St Magnus Cathedral on the 11th of December at 7pm. The Cathedral at Christmas is a very special place so make sure you pick up a ticket for the Orkney Camerata concert from the Pier Arts Centre, Kirkness & Gorie or Sheila Fleet Jewellery. Of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without panto season and there are plenty to choose from. Kirkwall Arts Club performs 'Cinderella' in the Orkney Theatre on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd. The St Andrews Hall hosts ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ between the 7th and 9th with ‘The Snowflake Factory’ in Stromness Town Hall between the 8th and 10th. Meanwhile the Birsay Hall hosts ‘Calamity Jeannie’ from the 6th until the 10th.

Staying on the musical theme, Skaill House will host a performance from Orcadian group 'Gnoss' at 7pm on December 21st. Tickets include a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie but booking is advised on 01856 841 501.

Artists in action

The annual Pier Arts Centre Christmas Exhibition is open until Christmas Eve, featuring work by more than one hundred local artistic talents. The Centre also hosts a Christmas Family Afternoon on Saturday 10th December with plenty of opportunities for the kids to get creative. Entry is free and it's on between 2pm and 4pm.

The Pier Arts Centre Christmas Exhibition 2017 is open now

Across the Churchill Barriers you can take in 'Illuminate', works by Orkney College students, at the Loft Gallery in St Margaret's Hope until the 17th of December.

Winter wildlife

Wrap up warm against the winter weather and get out and about with Orkney's wildlife this month. RSPB Orkney has three events planned - head to Marwick bay to spot birdlife on the 4th between 2pm and 3pm, a talk at the Hoy Kirk on the 9th will focus on the island's wildlife over the past year - including the famous sea-eagles (the boat for this event leaves Stromness at 5.45pm, returning at 10pm), or join members at the Barnhouse hide to keep an eye on the winter residents of the Harray loch on the 10th between 1.30pm and 3pm.

Steel toe-caps, scrums and steam

The Kirkwall Ba' in full flow on Broad Street

The peace, quiet and festive spirit of Kirkwall town centre will be shattered on Boxing Day when the boys and men playing the annual Kirkwall Ba' take to the streets. The traditional street football game sees hundreds of participants form two teams of Uppies and Doonies with the single aim of spiriting a hand-crafted leather ball to their respective end of the town. Games can last for ten minutes or ten hours and they are a truly spectacular sight. The boy's game begins on Broad Street at 10am, followed by the men's version at 1pm. If one Ba' day isn't enough for you, it all happens again on the 2nd of January.

If you want to find out more, take a look at this short video.

Party time

Don't expect to take it easy post-Christmas. The Birsay Community Hall hosts its annnual Festive Fling on the 27th with music from the Eastie Boys. The party starts at 9pm. There's a feast of live music in Kirkwall between the 27th and 30th too with gigs in various local pubs including the Auld Motorhoose, the Torvhaug and the St Ola Hotel.

Things continue across the county on Hogmanay. Local pubs bring in the bells with live music, or you can join the crowds on Broad Street in Kirkwall or at the Pierhead in Stromness to welcome the start of 2017.

Indoor activities

If the weather doesn't hold up its share of the bargain, there are plenty of indoor options this month. The cinema at the Pickaquoy Centre will be showing the likes of ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, ‘Arrival’, ‘Bad Santa 2’ and ‘Moana’ this month.

That’s just a taste of events in Orkney during December. There’s always lots more happening around the islands – keep up to date with the Visit Orkney events page, pick up a copy of local newspaper ‘The Orcadian’ every Thursday or tune into BBC Radio Orkney every weekday morning from 0730 on 93.7FM or on Facebook.

December area focus

This month we're taking a closer look at the parish of Sandwick and some of its main attractions.

Sandwick has it all as far as visitors are concerned. Inland, there are some of the most fertile fields to be found in Orkney, with rolling green farmland. Head to the coast, however, and you'll find beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs, coastline and sea-stacks.

The dramatic cliffs and coastline at Yesnaby - image by Graham Lyon

The majority of people arriving in the area for the first time tend to be heading in the same direction though...

Skara Brae is an incredibly well preserved Neolithic village featuring nine individual homes, clinging to the coastline above the Bay of Skaill and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The settlement was first discovered following a storm more than 160 years ago and, after careful excavation, it has become one of Orkney's finest visitor attractions. Guided tours take you through the village, looking down on the houses as you go, providing a real insight into how these ancient people lived.

Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill in Orkney - image by Colin Keldie

Historic Environment Scotland runs the operation at the site, which includes a visitor centre, shop, café and interactive exhibition.

Situated right next door to Skara Brae is Skaill House. The 17th Century mansion house has been open to the public for nearly twenty years and is full of interesting artefacts collected over the years. Tour Skaill House on a joint ticket with Skara Brae and take advantage of new attractions, including falconry and the well-tended gardens.

A visit to Skara Brae isn't complete with setting foot on the huge expanse of sand at the Bay of Skaill. It's one of Orkney's most attractive beaches and can be spectacular during a winter storm. Take a walk south from the beach to see the Hole o'Row, a natural arch on the coastline.

The Bay of Skaill in Orkney

Orkney is relatively flat but the west coast of Sandwick reveals a whole new landscape. Yesnaby is a dramatic stretch of coastline full of cliffs, caves and sea-stacks. Visit in the summer to see the sunset bring out the beautiful colours of the sandstone cliffs, or arrive in the face of an Atlantic gale and experience the power of the sea as waves crash against the headlands. All year round, it's a fantastic place to be.

Yesnaby Castle sea-stack in Orkney

Head north from the car park and see the Broch of Borwick, an ancient settlement on the edge of the steep cliffs. To the south you'll see the huge headland of the Brough of Bigging jut out into the sea and, further on, the sea-stack of Yesnaby Castle. If the weather is right you'll catch a glimpse of the Old Man of Hoy too.

Turn away from the sea views and take in the landscape too. During the summer Yesnaby is a hotspot for the rare Primula scotica flower. You can also find fossils in the area.

Go on the hunt for the delicate Primula scotica at Yesnaby in Orkney

Other attractions in the area include the Orkney Brewery. Tours of the award-winning brewery are available, as well as delicious meals and gifts in the visitor centre. And, of course, you can enjoy a few samples of the beer! 2017 will bring a new attraction in the area too. Tours of the former wartime airbase at HMS Tern should be up and running in time for the new visitor season - watch this space for more details.

Try a drop of the finest Orkney Brewery beers in Sandwick

One final suggestion for a trip to Sandwick - follow the road around Voy for lovely views over the Stenness loch. It's the perfect Orkney scene during the summer with fields full of cows, blue skies mirrored in the still loch and the gentle green farmland found across the islands.

Find out more about the wider West Mainland area with the Visit Orkney and Orkney.com websites.

If you think you'd like to make Sandwick your holiday destination you have some fantastic accommodation options – search Visit Orkney to see what's on offer.

Discover more...

Want to find out more about Orkney? Take a look at the following articles and features for your island fix.

Are you looking for a winter getway? Orkney could be just the answer to beat those post-festive blues. Read about our favourite things to do in the islands during the winter for inspiration.

Did you know the new 2017 Orkney Visitor Guide is out now? Take a look at the new front cover and download your own copy.

Do you fancy a change of scene? Here in Orkney we have some unique properties for sale, including islands and lighthouse keepers cottages - read our special blog and see if you can find your dream home.

The Orkney.com newsletter has more on life in Orkney this month, including the latest news, a focus on wildlife and beautiful images from some of our featured photographers.

And finally...

We hope you found this December update from Orkney useful. If you’ve been inspired to find out more about life in Orkney, explore our site and visit Orkney.com.

You can also sign up to our Orkney mailing list to keep up to date with the latest news and get the chance to win a special prize.