An archipelago of green islands, stripped bare of trees and cut off from mainland Scotland by the fastest-flowing tidal race in Europe – Orkney has captured the imagination of travellers for centuries. Unassuming and peaceful, the islands are packed with Neolithic sites, standing stones, chambered cairns, fortifications and ruined palaces.
Armed with Orkney Explorer Passes, we left the north coast of Scotland behind and travelled across the narrow sea to unlock thousands of years of history.
We were swept away on a treasure hunt through the ages of time. Here are our top picks for why you should do the same …
There are almost 3,000 Neolithic sites on Orkney alone, making the entire area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most famous is Skara Brae, one of the best-preserved prehistoric settlements, which dates back an incredible 5,000 years.
Together with the Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, as well as several other iconic Stone Age structures, they are known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Spectacular and mysterious, these impressive monuments give us an insight into prehistoric life, but with no written sources their purpose will forever remain enigmatic.
Predating Stonehenge, they may have been the centre of Neolithic culture, as the first Orcadians arrived here 6,000 years ago.
As you walk around the settlements, gently touch a standing stone and breathe in the fresh sea air, you can’t help but feel a strong connection to the souls that lived here thousands of years ago.
From the windswept green pastures, we headed underground to the world-famous chambered burial cairn of Maeshowe, thought to date from around 2700 BC.
This is one of the only sites on Orkney that requires advance booking, but you are rewarded with a fascinating guided tour. Accessible by a long, dark passageway of sandstone boulders, this is one of Europe’s finest chambered tombs.
At winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) something truly magical happens at Maeshowe, when the light of the setting sun shines straight down the passageway, illuminating the chamber with golden rays.
Maeshowe has also been marked by the Vikings, who broke into the cairn in the 12th century and meticulously carved graffiti runes on the walls, including a dragon, serpent and walrus.
The heritage of St Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, is found everywhere on the islands. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus was a pious and gentle Viking, who, alongside his cousin Hakon, ruled over the islands between 1105 and 1114, until he was betrayed and murdered. Today his story has passed into legend.
In Kirkwall, St. Magnus Cathedral was founded in memory of Magnus, who was elevated to sainthood after a series of miracles following his death. A visit to the magnificent Cathedral, known as the ‘Light in the North’, takes you to the heart of Christian Orkney.
A short distance away, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces are impressive fortifications with strong ties to Norse culture, and closeby, Orkney Museum has a fascinating collection of artefacts. A stroll around the centre of Kirkwall will keep you firmly on the treasure trail.
Carved into the landscape, the events of the great World Wars of the 20th century can be seen all over Orkney. Most famous perhaps, the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow, which served as a British naval base due to their strategic position on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
After a devastating attack, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of giant causeways to secure the area – these and several sunken warships are crucial reminders of the historic battle, dominating the scenery. If you want to experience Scapa Flow up close and personal, we would recommend Scapa Scuba Diving, who offer dives in the largest collection of underwater wrecks in the world.
But something beautiful and delicate was also built during this time: The Italian Chapel, a masterpiece of ingenuity by the Italian war prisoners sentenced to complete Churchill’s fearsome barriers.
Orkney is a melting pot of history, from the ancient settlers who made the green islands their home, decorating them with majestic monuments, to present day life, riddled with Norse culture. A trip to Orkney is a journey back in time through the layers of a landscape bursting with treasures – so why not discover them for yourself?
P.S. If you’d like to experience Orkney for yourself, Absolute Escapes offer award-winning self-drive holidays in Scotland. Why not incorporate Orkney into a breathtaking road trip on the North Coast 500, or combine Orkney and Shetland for an unforgettable island adventure? If you’re looking for something a little more active, we also offer a centre-based walking holiday on Orkney, allowing you to discover this amazing archipelago on foot.