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Maps can sometimes deceive. Orkney’s islands, located far north of John o’ Groats, may seem secluded at first glance. However, their positioning in the North Sea was actually central to a seafaring Neolithic society that extended from Scandinavia to southern Britain. Some of Orkney’s towering monoliths are older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza by over a thousand years.
Far from being isolated, Orkney served as a critical junction for Northern Europe’s marine trading routes. This strategic position explains the presence of the best-preserved prehistoric village (Skara Brae) and Britain’s most remarkable chambered tomb (Maeshowe) in this region. The Orkney islands offer a unique experience, rich in archaeology and history.
But it’s not all about the past. Getting across the Pentland Firth from the Scottish mainland to Orkney is a quick journey by air or sea, but you will find yourself in a world quite apart. About 70 islands make up Orkney, most of which are green, flat, and virtually devoid of trees. Each island boasts its unique attractions, like the massive hills of Hoy or Westray’s puffin-filled cliffs.
Orkney invites you for scenic coastal walks, delicious seafood, and leisurely island hopping. The pubs, Viking heritage, and dive sites such as the enormous Scapa Flow are a must-see. Come prepared with binoculars, sunglasses, and a raincoat, and don’t miss out on the bird colonies or the Saturday night traditional music sessions. You may well fall in love with Orkney, just like the numerous visitors over the past 5,000 years.
While exploring Orkney Islands, don’t miss out on the quaint village of Stromness on the mainland’s south-west coast. Wander through Stromness’s narrow streets, visit Stromness Museum to learn about 19th-century Arctic explorer John Rae, see modern artworks at the Pier Arts Centre, and pop into The Ferry Inn for a delicious meal and a pint of award-winning Dark Island ale from The Orkney Brewery.
Traveling in Orkney is an adventure itself, especially if you catch a ferry on a bright day. But a special highlight is the world’s shortest scheduled passenger flight from Westray to Papa Westray, which takes less than two minutes. Logan Air offers this unique experience for only £17. The airline also launched a biweekly London to Kirkwall route this year, making it easier for visitors from the south.
Birdwatchers will be delighted with Orkney’s rich birdlife. A trip in late spring or summer offers a chance to see breathtaking seabird colonies at RSPB Marwick Head on Mainland Orkney or RSPB Scotland Noup Cliffs on Westray. For a puffin encounter, visit the Castle O’Burrian sea stack on Westray at dusk.
Three must-visit Neolithic sites in Orkney are Skara Brae, a well-preserved Stone Age settlement; Tomb of the Eagles, a cliffside Neolithic tomb where you can touch artifacts; and Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle thought to have been constructed using seaweed pathways.
Hiking up to Hoy Island’s Old Man of Hoy, a 460ft sandstone pillar, or St John’s Head, one of the country’s tallest cliffs, is an unforgettable experience, especially when the weather turns from a freezing hail to a warm sunny day.
Macs Adventure offers a six-day Orkney Walking & Wildlife tour starting at £885 per person. This tour includes trips to Hoy and Westray, and visits to major Neolithic sites like Skara Brae and Ring of Brodgar. Flights are not included.
For additional information, visit visitorkney.com.
This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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