By Taylor St. John
Brits were surprised last year when the Orkney Islands – a remote archipelago off the northern tip of Scotland – were named the Best Place to Live in the UK by the Halifax Quality of Life Survey. Its 22,000 residents already know the chilly island chain’s history, wildlife, and ocean vistas well, but as tourism to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands grows, travelers are getting in on the beauty too.
Many visitors reach this verdant 70-island chain via cruise ship and its primary port of call, just outside of Kirkwall on the main island of Orkney. (It’s becoming a popular stop on Northern European itineraries between February and October.) Travelers could spend days exploring Orkney’s rugged landscapes – best marked by sandstone cliffs that tumble into the sea and wide, treeless expanses of green – but if they only have a few hours, these notable sites on Orkney are well worth discovering:
For Adventurers: Explore the Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Step 5,000 years back in time on a visit to the sacred landmarks, burial tombs, and ancient villages that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At Skara Brae, peek inside the half-buried, grass-roofed homes of the island’s original inhabitants; admire the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of standing stones older than Stonehenge; and at Maeshowe, cross a threshold aligned to the sun of the winter solstice and marvel at Viking graffiti on the walls of a prehistoric tomb.
For Day-Drinkers: Taste the Spirit of the Islands
In an eighteenth-century distillery on the outskirts of Kirkwall, Highland Park sparks its peat fires to create world-renowned single-malt whiskies. Two miles down the road (an easy bus or taxi ride away), Scapa distils a smooth, dignified dram that’s a local favorite. This may be whisky country, but award-winning craft gin such as Orkney Distilling’s Kirkjuvagr and Deerness Distillery’s Sea Glass are gaining ground. Tours at each of these places give travelers a taste of the wild North Atlantic.
For Souvenir Collectors: Shop Orkney Made
Quality craftsmanship is spread across Orkney’s 20 inhabited islands. A solid introduction: Shop Kirkwall’s High Street for Westray-spun knitwear at Hume Sweet Hume, Fursbreck Pottery’s sea-printed flutes at Ortak, and fine jewelry inspired by the elements at Sheila Fleet. Shopping works up an appetite: Pop into purveyor Kirkness & Gorie for a sampling of Westray Wife and Grimbister cheese, then swing by The Brig Larder for smoked salmon and Stockan’s beremeal oatcakes.
For Nature Lovers: Walk Wild Coastlines
Yesnaby’s craggy sandstone cliffs are great vantage points for spotting seabird colonies, seals, and, if you’re lucky, nesting puffins. Twenty minutes away on Orkney’s northwest tip, travelers can cross a low-tide land bridge to the Brough of Birsay, where a lighthouse stands sentinel above a stretch of North Atlantic, and blueprints of Pictish and Norse settlements remain intact after centuries of isolation.
For History Buffs: Dive Into the Legacy of Saint Magnus
The commemoration of Magnus Erlendsson, martyred Earl of Orkney, is evident everywhere on the islands; from the recently opened Saint Magnus Way pilgrimage trail to the annual Saint Magnus Festival across Orkney in June, and, most notably, his namesake cathedral that towers over the center of Kirkwall. The twelfth-century church (daily self-guided or pre-booked guided tours are available) took more than 300 years to build and holds the remains of the lost Earl within its sandstone walls.
For Culture Fiends: Head to Stromness
Overlooking the “High Island” of Hoy, Stromness is a popular day-trip for cruisers, accessible via a 30-minute bus ride from the port. The fishing village’s winding flagstone streets unveil unexpected surprises: The Pier Arts Centre is home to a collection of British Modernism that includes several Barbara Hepworth sculptures; Stromness Books & Prints is stacked floor-to-ceiling with classics, bestsellers, and acclaimed Orcadian authors such as George Mackay Brown; fresh-baked scones and Swiss rolls top the menu at The Tearoom; and the Stromness Museum uncovers the archipelago’s rich maritime history.
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