Geography can be misleading. The islands of Orkney might look remote on the map — trace your finger up to John o’ Groats, then keep going north — but the truth is slightly different. The archipelago’s North Sea location placed it at the very heart of a seafaring Neolithic civilisation that stretched from Scandinavia to southern Britain — some of the towering standing stones here predate Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza by more than a thousand years.
Isolated? Not a bit of it. Orkney was at the crossroads of North Europe’s maritime trade routes. This explains why the best-preserved prehistoric village in the region (Skara Brae), and the most impressive chambered grave in Britain (the equally extraordinary Maeshowe) are both found here. And that’s just for starters. If you like archaeology — and even if you don’t — Orkney is a mighty special place to visit.
But the past is only part of its appeal. It doesn’t take long to cross the Pentland Firth from the Scottish mainland — there are options by sea and by air — but in making the journey you reach a destination far removed from the day-to-day. Orkney comprises around 70 islands — most, green, low-lying and virtually treeless. Ferries and tiny planes link the key spots, and each island has its defining feature, from Hoy’s huge, heathered hills to Westray’s puffin-frequented cliffs.
Come for the coastal walks. Come for the seafood and the leisurely island hopping. Come for the pubs, the Viking heritage and the dive sites — the mighty Scapa Flow, one of the world’s largest natural harbours, is famed for its Second World War shipwrecks. Bring binoculars, sunglasses and a raincoat. Don’t miss the seabird colonies or the Saturday-night traditional music sessions. And expect to lose a little bit of your heart to the place. After all, there are good reasons why visitors have been stopping off here for the past 5,000 years.
Wander the streets of Stromness
Kirkwall, on Mainland Orkney’s north coast, is the islands’ understated capital (be sure to visit the Viking-era cathedral) but the little harbour town of Stromness, in the south west, is equally charming. Head to Stromness Museum for an overview of 19th-century Arctic explorer and local lad John Rae, call in at the Pier Arts Centre for modern artworks, then pop into The Ferry Inn for fish and chips and a pint of The Orkney Brewery’s award-winning Dark Island ale.
The world’s shortest flight
Getting around Orkney is half the fun, particularly if you find yourself catching a ferry on a sunny day. But one option draws more attention than others. The flight from Westray to Papa Westray lasts less than two minutes, making it the world’s shortest scheduled passenger flight. A one-way ticket costs £17. loganair.co.uk
Bird is the word
There’s prolific birdlife year-round in Orkney, but a visit in late spring or summer can mean witnessing some truly remarkable seabird colonies. Try RSPB Marwick Head, on Mainland Orkney, or RSPB Scotland Noup Cliffs, on Westray, where seasonal visitors include huge numbers of guillemots, gannets and great skuas. For puffins, head to the Castle O’Burrian sea stack on Westray at dusk, when the colourful birds return from a day spent at sea.
Three to try: Neolithic sites
This well-preserved cluster of houses on the Bay of Skaill is Orkney’s Stone Age highlight. Hidden under dunes until revealed by a storm in 1850, its contents include stone dressers and beds.
Tomb of the Eagles
The drive from Mainland Orkney down to South Ronaldsay crosses all four Churchill Barriers (Second World War causeways) on route to the Tomb of the Eagles: a clifftop Neolithic crypt, where you can handle artefacts.
Ring of Brodgar
Flanked by lochs, this stone circle originally consisted of 60 standing stones — around half are upright now. One theory is that the stones were dragged here using slippery seaweed pathways.
How it stacks up
In many ways it’s the classic Orkney experience. I’ve just spent half an hour climbing a footpath in freezing hail, only to be rewarded with an afternoon so sweet and sunny that I’m wishing I’d packed the factor 30. The conditions this far north can turn on a sixpence, and the rewards when the skies clear are phenomenal. I’ve caught the ferry across from Mainland Orkney to the island of Hoy — by far the hilliest part of the archipelago — and now find myself not only completely alone but face to face with one of the tallest sea stacks in Britain.
The Old Man of Hoy — a 460ft sandstone pillar that found fame in 1967 when a team of climbers including Sir Chris Bonington made a live televised ascent — is an imposing sight in any weather; under a bright Scottish sky, however, it looks positively magnificent.
I sit near the precipice and stare for a while, watching fulmars circling the stack on Spitfire-straight wings. Then I feel the pull of the larger cliffs beyond, and keep walking north. I have half a day until my ferry heads back, and I’m carrying enough sandwiches and apples to fuel a small army. The westerlies coming in off the ocean, for their part, are carrying nothing but a few harmless white cumuli. All told, I’m finding it hard not to feel smug.
I hike up to St John’s Head — one of the highest cliffs in the country, a 1,150ft-tall wall of rock that’s also become hallowed ground for climbers — then continue along the headland. Mountain hares lope across the boggy plateau, handsome and haughty, while great skuas fly over the higher ground. A bright red rescue helicopter appears for 10 minutes, seemingly on a practice drill then vanishes again. It’s the only other human presence I see in six hours.
As I crest a brow of land on Hoy’s higher reaches, I’m suddenly granted a full panorama of Mainland Orkney, spread out low and pale green across the water. Through my binoculars, I eventually pick out the distinctive grassy mound of Maeshowe. The Neolithic tomb was built with its entrance passage facing almost precisely towards where I’m standing, so that the winter solstice sun — when it happens to be out — always shines straight down it. It gives me plenty to mull over as I’m walking back to the Old Man, my boots mucky but my spirit soaring.
Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)