Orkney is a special place during the winter months. Visitors can have many of our most famous sites to themselves and the sometimes wild weather can really invigorate the senses. The islands certainly don't shut down for the season - there is always plenty to do over the festive period and into the New Year. Here are our five favourite things to do in Orkney during the winter.

Festive fun

Orkney comes alive over Christmas. With beautiful trees and lights in villages across the islands, there is no escaping the festive spirit. Local musicians take centre stage during the holidays, with fiddles, accordians, guitars and drums all helping fill various venues throughout Orkney. Acclaimed duo Saltfishforty have a special performance on the 27th of December, and there is live music on Hogmanay too. Check our events page for all the latest information.

Orkney is a great place for Christmas shopping too, with some of the most talented arts and crafts makers you'll find anywhere providing the perfect opportunity for that special, unique gift. If you've left it too late you can still redeem yourself by buying a present from the Orkney Crafts Association website - it's an apology that will always be accepted!

Hundreds of boys and men from Kirkwall won't be paying much attention to the presents under the tree on Christmas Day though - they'll be concentrating on the traditional Ba' game, played in and around the town's streets. The Uppies and Doonies compete every Christmas and New Year's Day to push, kick, smuggle and sprint a hand crafted leather ball to their respective ends of the town in games that can last for hours. It's quite an experience - wrap up warm and bring a bottle, it's very much a social experience for spectators!

Special winter visitors stop off in Orkney

Orkney always offers a warm welcome to visitors, and that's certainly the case over the coming months for some very special species making the islands their home.

We host a wide variety of migrating and wintering birds, especially ducks and divers. You can spot long-tailed ducks here after their summer in the Arctic. Listen out for the haunting 'calloo' cries at the Peedie Sea in Kirkwall or at Echnaloch Bay in Burray.

Orkney is also the seasonal home to nearly a thousand great northern divers - a quarter of British wintering population - and Slavonian grebes. They're both designated as threatened species globally, so the chance to see both in such quantities in Orkney is a real unique opportunity. Scapa Flow at Hobbister and Echnaloch Bay are the perfect places to see them in action.

Keep your eye out for curlews, golden plovers, sanderlings, turnstones, redshanks and much more too - Orkney really is a birdwatching paradise all year round.

Northern Lights illuminate the winter sky

Winter in Orkney brings short days and long, dark nights. Perfect, then, for catching a glimpse of the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis, or the 'Merry Dancers' as they're known locally.

When conditions are right and skies are clear, Orkney's northerly location and low levels of light pollution make it a prime location to spot the phenomenon. It's caused by solar wind from the sun colliding with magnetic particles in the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in spectacular displays of colour in the northern sky.

Orkney's beaches, coastline and countryside provide prime places to watch the Northern Lights. The Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook keeps folk up to date with sightings and photos so you won't miss a thing, and you can use Aurorawatch too.

Island showcase throughout the season

A little bit of wintry weather isn't enough to stop our island communities from welcoming visitors over the coming months. Where better to clear the head and relax than one of our beautiful islands, with deserted beaches, peaceful landscapes and friendly residents.

Papa Westray has a series of special events aimed at promoting the nature and heritage of the island, with accommodation packages available for anyone looking for a unique winter getaway. Neighbouring Westray has excellent sites and plenty of high quality accommodation for a post-festive break.

Explore the tallest land-based lighthouse in the UK in North Ronaldsay, or be refreshed with a stroll on the beautiful beaches of Sanday, Stronsay and Eday. If you prefer a shorter trip, the inner isles of Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre and Shapinsay offer archaeological treasures, walks, shopping and even a castle!

And don't forget Hoy and Flotta, with their rich wartime heritage sites and some of Orkney's most stunning landscapes. Organise your island hopping experience through the Visit Orkney website, Orkney Ferries and Loganair.

Open for business

If you're planning to visit over the winter months, expect open doors and plenty of interesting sites to see. Things certainly don't come to a stop in Orkney.

Our Historic Scotland sites still showcase thousands of years of Orcadian history - why not experience some of them with a free tour from the Ranger Service? If you'd rather be inside then you can explore the upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral or, if food and drink is your thing, book yourself on a tour of the Orkney Brewery or the distilleries at Highland Park and Scapa.

You can also experience Orkney's wartime heritage with a guided tour of Ness Battery in Stromness. And if you want to see our talented makers in action, the Orkney Crafts Association's Craft Trail will take you on your very own tour of our islands, with plenty of shopping opportunities throughout.

Winter in Orkney - it's more than you'd imagine.