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Orkney & Shetland: Escape to the Edge of Scotland

Orkney and Shetland are both known for their unique history, culture and alluring geological sites, making them must-see locations whilst visiting Scotland. Here are my recommended places to visit whilst on Orkney, along with some reasons why you should venture even further north to Shetland!  

North Ronaldsay Sheep St Ninian's, Shetland

Orkney

 

The largest and most populated island on Orkney is known as the Mainland. On the East Mainland coast lies Kirkwall - the ancient capital with its Viking cathedral and whisky distillery. The amazing archipelago of Orkney is made up of 70 islands packed full of captivating sights, and here are some of my favourites ...

Neolithic Orkney

The Ring of Brodgar is a spectacular stone circle originally made up of 60 stones. 27 are left standing, and some say that this impressive Neolithic monument is a symbol of religion and ritual, others believe it to be an observation of the equinox and solstice. Regardless of which is true, you must visit for the unique atmosphere and the surrounding landscape. A thought-provoking experience!

Ring of Brodgar Ring of Brodgar

Skara Brae is one of Europe’s best-preserved prehistoric villages, dating back over 5,000 years. The stone beds and other furniture that lie here bring to life the Neolithic people who called this place home. You must give yourself enough time here to visit the centre, which features a very interesting interactive exhibit, cafe and shop.

Skara Brae, Orkney Skara Brae, Orkney

Historic Wreck Site

Scapa Flow is a natural harbour which was used by the Royal Navy. In 1939 a German U-boat sailed in and attacked HMS Royal Oak sinking it to the bottom of the bay and killing over 800 crewmembers. The Royal Oak is now a war grave of those that lost their lives after the First World War.  

Why not give diving a go and explore one of the largest collection of underwater wrecks worldwide? Scapa Scuba are an excellent local company who offer guided dives for beginners.   

Scapa Flow Divers at Scapa Flow 

A Little Piece of Italy

The Italian Chapel is located on a small uninhabited island connected to the mainland by purpose built barriers – which are very impressive in their own right! Determined Italian Prisoners of War built this famous Roman Catholic Chapel during their time on Lamb Holm. An impressive piece of architecture, the Chapel was built with limited materials in a restricted amount of time. The interior has beautiful angelic figures and stained glass windows.

Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm

Wildlife & Walking

The land formation of the islands is incredible and the landscape offers endless natural beauty which puts wildlife and walking into my list of things to enjoy whilst visiting Orkney. From puffins and sea otters to dolphins, basking sharks and killer whales - the wildlife is incredible!

Rackwick Bay Old Man of Hoy

You must visit the island of Hoy, home to perhaps Orkney’s most recognisable landmark - The Old Man of Hoy. Wander along the recently restored path from Rackwick Bay leading you to this huge 450 foot sea stack. If you continue along the path you will reach St John’s Head - one of the highest perpendicular cliffs in the UK. There are dozens of walks to enjoy here, but these two are my favourites!

Shetland

 

Shetland can be found 50 miles north of Orkney and is made up of an impressive cluster of islands bursting with history and archaeology. The one thing that intrigues me most is its unique blend of Scottish and Scandinavian culture.

Shetland was colonised by Norsemen in the 9th century who ruled for hundreds of years, and their presence is still evident today. Almost all of the names in Shetland are Norse, with many street names in its bustling capital, Lerwick, named in honour of Scandinavian figures. The wonderfully unique dialect used today on Shetland also reminds us of the Scandinavian and Norwegian presence from the past.

Shetland Viking Scalloway, Shetland

Travel Back in Time

Jarlshof has been described as "one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles". This Prehistoric settlement will transport you back 4,000 years ago to the lives of those who once lived here. Walking through the site you will discover various different treasures of such human history with their own individual stories to tell. 

Visit the Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, which amazingly survive despite the sea’s best efforts to wash them away!

Jarlshof, Shetland Jarlshof, Shetland

Island Hopping

As Shetland is made up of over one hundred islands you will no doubt island hop a fair amount so here are a couple of island highlights.  The Isle of Mousa is home to Mousa Broch – another impressive prehistoric building that attracts many visitors each year.

The Isle of Unst is a beautiful island that should be explored. Spanning just twelve miles long and five miles wide it is one of the smaller islands and can be covered in a couple of hours. You will inevitably drive past the island's bus shelter which is worth stopping at to admire its unique and eccentric interior. Some say it sells the best fudge in Shetland!

Unst, Shetland Foula, Shetland

Party with the Vikings

Up Helly Aa’ is an unmissable event for those visiting during the winter months. This spectacle takes place every year to celebrate the history of Shetland and what a celebration it is! There is a torchlit procession with over 800 ‘Vikings’ parading down to the galley burning, which marks the sun’s return after the winter solstice.

Up Helly Aa Viking Festival Up Helly Aa Viking Festival

With a distinctive culture, amazing natural wonders and fascinating prehistoric sites, what's stopping you escaping to the edge of Scotland? 

Caitlin Richmond

P.S. You can explore these incredible islands with our new self-drive package Orkney and Shetland: Escape to the Edge, which includes accommodation, ferries, car hire and sightseeing recommendations. Or if a thrilling walking holiday on Orkney is more up your street, check out our centre-based Orkney Isles packages.

Orkney & Shetland: Escape to the Edge

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