The Travel Hack’s Guide to the Orkney Islands
I took a family trip to the Orkney Islands with NorthLink Ferries and had the most amazingly peaceful week in such a stunning area of the UK. Here’s what I got up to and my guide to the Orkney Islands.
Have you ever noticed the way you rarely realise how hectic and stressful life can be until you get away from all the stresses and you suddenly realise how calm you are. When you get away from the noise and the emails, the constant beeps from your phone notifying you of what everyone is doing at every minute of the day, it’s suddenly very quiet. You get away from the chores and the obligations and that pile of washing that just never seems to get any smaller! You escape to somewhere where the only noise is the faint rush of the wind and birds chirping nearby. Maybe you can hear the gentle shush of the sea or a river running nearby, but you can’t hear a car or a train for miles around. It’s so quiet it takes a bit of getting used to.
And this is when you realise how calm you are.
You sit down and drink a cup of coffee and actually taste it, rather than glugging it down as a means to stay awake during a busy day. You might even be lucky enough to drink it outside in the sunshine, looking out to a breath taking view of mountains and calm seas while wild rabbits hop about in the distance.
This is exactly how I felt and exactly what I got during our family holiday to the Orkney Islands. I just couldn’t get over how peaceful it was and how relaxed we all felt.
There may only be a few miles between the Orkney Islands and the north coast of mainland Scotland but I felt like we’re a million miles away. But not just in distance. I’m pretty sure we slipped back in time during the ferry journey over and we’d gone back into another world.
Our family holiday to the Orkney Islands was peaceful but busy. There’s a lot to do for such a small place and it was fantastic with children because they could run wild on the empty beaches. It was a week filled with fresh air, good food, lots of exploring and lots of adventures. It was a good old fashioned holiday, the way holidays are meant to be. Here’s what we got up to….
How to get to the Orkney Islands
We took a ferry with NorthLink Ferries from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. We flew up to Aberdeen and then it was a 30-minute bus journey from the airport to Aberdeen Union Square and then a 5-10 minute walk to the ferry (5 minutes without toddlers, 10 minutes with!)
The ferry takes six hours and departs at 5pm on the outbound journey. If you’re travelling without kids you don’t really need to get a cabin on the ferry for this crossing. There are comfortable lounges and bars, a cinema, a restaurant and a few shops to explore. You can also go outside and walk around so there’s definitely enough to keep you busy!
We decided to get a cabin which was brilliant for the boys. We boarded and had dinner then the kids played in the kid’s area while we had a drink. The kids all made friends and spent a couple of hours playing, reading books, dressing up as Vikings and watching films in the soft play area and then we put them to bed at about 7.30pm.
They were so excited to have bunk beds in our cabin so I really didn’t know if they’d go to sleep but they were flat out and both slept until 11pm when we woke them to get off the ferry.
On our return journey we took the same ferry but this time it departs from Kirkwall at 11.45pm and arrives into Aberdeen at 7am.
How to get around the Orkney Islands
I would 100% recommend hiring a car to travel around the Orkney Islands. Taxis are available but you really need your own wheels to see this beautiful island properly.
We hired our car through WR Tullock, based in the centre of Kirkwall. We arranged to keep our car until our final night on Orkney, so we dropped it off at their office at 11.30pm which made things a bit easier when travelling with kids. Sam actually dropped me and the kids and our luggage off at the ferry at 11.20pm, then dropped the car off and then took a taxi to meet us.
We also took a taxi to our accommodation when we first arrived because we were too late to pick up our car.
We used Craigies Taxis who were brilliant (01856 878787)
Where to stay in the Orkney Islands
We stayed at Buxa Farm Chalets which I cannot recommend enough. Seriously, it’s worth travelling to Orkney just to stay here! There are three beautiful, Norwegian style chalets in Orphir. Ours had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a huge open-plan living area with a kitchen, dining area and sitting area. Enormous windows looked across the water and straight to Hoy, an island opposite which creates the most incredible view.
We didn’t eat out much for dinner (romantic dinners with toddlers just don’t happen!) so it was lovely staying somewhere so beautiful we didn’t feel like we were missing out by having dinner at home. Sitting on the bench outside, soaking up the sun and watching the little rabbits hop across grass and boats passing in the distance was a highlight from our trip. There was so much space and a great playpark and there’s a laundry you can use too so it really is the perfect place with kids. Kathy, the owner, also left us lots of things for the boys like special seats to help them sit at the table and toddler cutlery and plastic plates. She did have a lot of things for babies too like bouncers and walkers and baby baths – very handy if you’re travelling with a baby.
Travel Hack Tip: Something Kathy suggested in a welcome email was to have a Tesco food delivery booked for the morning after we arrived. I did this and it was a brilliant idea so massive thanks to Kathy for that suggestion! There is a Tesco and a Lidl in Kirkwall but it was so nice to have it all arrive with no stress or hassle, especially after a late arrival the evening before.
There’s so much to do in the Orkney Islands and we did a lot but at a very relaxing pace so we didn’t feel rushed or busy. Here are some of my favourite things to do in the Orkney Islands.
Things to do in the Orkney Islands
This free family-friendly museum is a great place to start your trip, as it tells the story of Orkney through the ages, starting with the Stone Age and continuing right up to the present. The museum is located in Tankerness House – which has its own 300-year history – and in its restored rooms, visitors can discover artefacts dating back to over 5,000 years ago. Behind the house is a stunning walled garden that’s well worth exploring if the weather is nice.
Britain’s most northerly cathedral is a sight to behold, and is sometimes called ‘The Light in the North’. It was founded in 1137 by a Viking called Earl Rognvald, as a place to lay his uncle Magnus to rest. The imposing sandstone building is impressive to look at from the outside as well as within its walls, and the 360 degree views from the top of the tower are well worth the visit alone.
Orkney wasn’t always a part of Scotland. Before that it was a Norwegian port, and the ruins of Bishop’s Palace (close to St Magnus Cathedral) is one of the few remaining examples of architecture from that time. The more ornate Earl’s Palace was built much later – in the 1600s – but it is filled with its own history and incredible examples of grandeur, such as the five metre long fireplace in the great hall!
One of the incredible things about Orkney is how well many of its ancient monuments and archaeological sites have been preserved. One such site is the Broch of Gurness, an Iron Age settlement that can still be visited and admired today. A broch is simply a round stone tower, but this particular broch is surrounded by a village that’s been excavated, revealing what life might have been like during the era in which it was built.
^ Taken on the gorgeous white sandy beach next to the Broch of Gurness
This tidal island is only accessible when the tide permits, and is home to Pictish, Norse and medieval remains. This was one of the highlights of our trip and it was such a stunning place to visit. Not only is it a site of cultural significance, but this hard-to-reach location is also stunning to explore, with gorgeous views, a modern lighthouse, puffins and sea birds, and a church and monastery.
If the tide’s not right, the beach at Brough of Birsay causeway is made from tiny pieces of broken shell instead of sand, and its rock pools make it a great place for the whole family to discover. Keep an eye out for Groatie Buckies, a local name for Cowrie Shells, which are said to bring good luck to those who find them.
While you’re visiting the Brough of Birsay, make sure you check out Birsay Bay Tearooms nearby. This gorgeous little teashop has delicious food, great views and the most amazing homemade cakes.
Not to be confused with The Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, this Earl’s Palace was owned by Lord Robert Stewart, who was given the land by his half-sister Mary Queen of Scots. He was a notorious tyrant, ruling as the Earl of Orkney from his palace in the late 1500s. Visitors can explore the ruins at their leisure, imagining it in its heydey.
RSPB Nature Reserve at Marwick head, West Mainland
Puffins and gannets are the real drawcard at this beautiful nature reserve, but the panoramic views along the coastline come a close second. The walking route along the clifftop is around 5 kilometres, and should take about two hours to complete.
Sheila Fleet is a jewellery designer in Orkney and has beautiful collections of unique and colourful jewellery. If you’re the kind of person who likes to pickup wearable souvenirs from your travels then you’ll definitely want to browse the gallery! You can also visit the workshop and see some of the pieces being made. This was so interesting and felt a bit like visiting Santa’s grotto. It was also really nice to see all the people making these individual items. In a world where everything is ordered online with next day delivery, it’s easy to forget that lots of things are custom made and carefully made by local crafts people.
The family have recently opened The Kirk Gallery and Cafe. It’s in a beautifully renovated former church with the cafe on one side and the grand gallery on the other. The food is delicious and children are very welcome.
The island’s 18th century seaport is also where NorthLink Ferries arrive into from mainland Scotland. Explore the streets that hug the shoreline, stroll through the small alleyways of Stromness and pop into shops, pubs and cafes. Art lovers will enjoy the Pier Arts Centre, a modern art gallery, and everyone will love a treat from Orkney Ice Cream, which was recently voted the best artisan ice cream in the UK.
Step back 5,000 years in time at this UNESCO World Heritage Site that was uncovered by a storm in 1850. Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement that was built before Stonehenge. As well as the village itself, there are replica homes that allow visitors to imagine what life was really like in prehistoric times, and a visitor centre that includes artefacts found on the site, such as jewellery and tools.
The beach next to Skara Brae is absolutely idyllic with pure white sand and crashing waves. It is also nicely sheltered so we spent a long time playing here and trying to convince the boys not to knock the stone circles down!
A mile away from Skara Brae, in a former Victorian schoolhouse, is The Orkney Brewery. Find out how the craft beers are made in their brewery tour that’s perfect for kids big and small thanks to their fun costumes and games. There’s a gift shop selling local crafts and produce, and a tasting hall where you can order house beers (with names like Puffin Ale) and delicious food.
^ Children are welcome at the brewery and there’s a lovely kid’s play area with dressing up clothes and plenty of toys.
Walk on the cliffs of Yesnaby, West Mainland
This easy cliffside walk takes about an hour and a half, and promises incredible views of sea stacks (also known locally as Yesnaby Castle), blowholes and stunning inlets known as geos. Take care when the ground is wet, as the walk can be slippery.
This stone circle is considered to be one of the finest of its kind in the world, dating back to the third millennium BC. The Ring of Brodgar is an enormous prehistoric ceremonial site, 104 metres wide and originally containing sixty megaliths, thirty-six of which have survived to the present day.
Nearby is the Standing Stones of Stenness, which could be the oldest henge monument in the British Isles. This stone circle is another well-known site in Orkney, originally made up of 12 stones dating from the same time as the Ring of Brodgar. There are now 4 stones remaining.
These chambered tombs are five millenia old, and yet, incredibly, they still survive today. The entrance to the cairn was engineered so that the midwinter sun would shine inside the chamber, illuminating the dark interior. You’ll need to stoop to pass through the entry tunnel, but once inside, you’ll discover a marvel of prehistoric design, complete with ancient Viking graffiti.
One of the best ways to experience Orkney is by foot, taking one of the many scenic routes available. The Stromness and Warebeth walk is a popular circuit along a coastal path via Citadel Viewpoint, which overlooks Hoy and the western entrance to Scapa Flow. The distance is 8.5km, and it should take around two to three hours to complete. Look out for seals along the way!
Climb the granite hill behind Stromness for amazing views that stretch for miles. Not only is it a fun walk with a rewarding panorama at the top, but it has a great history, too. In the 18th century, Brinkies Brae was inhabited by an old lady called Bessie Millie, who would sell weather forecasts to sailors. Legend has it that she always told them they’d have fair winds, so they’d keep coming back to pay her, and she became so well known that she was even visited by Sir Walter Scott!
If you’re visiting Orkney with kids, the Skate Rumple Alpaca Farm is an absolute must. Kids will love meeting and feeding friendly farmyard creatures, and afterwards the whole family can enjoy afternoon tea in the barn. Mandy and Nick run the farm with their daughter Ellen and they are quite possibly the nicest couple I have ever met. George and Joseph adored them and it was wonderful to have such a hands on, personalised farm experience. George is very nervous with animals but Mandy and Nick helped bring him out of his shell and within 20 minutes he was feeding the pigs and goats and Nick had George in fits of giggles while Sam and I enjoyed a cup of tea and homemade cakes. I can’t recommend this place enough.
If you plan to visit you need to prebook as Mandy and Nick cater to small groups.
^ Did I mention they also have the most adorable baby goat who wears a jumper!?
Located in a series of 19th century farm buildings on the island of Burray, this museum and visitor centre is home to an extensive rock and fossil collection, including now-extinct fish that lived in Lake Orcadie some 385 million years ago. There are also exhibitions that show what life was like in Orkney throughout the ages. There’s also a cafe serving delicious cakes, so when you need a break and a treat, this is a great spot to visit.
This is probably more one for adults and older children.
Discovered by local farmer Ronnie Simison in the 1950s, this incredible archaeological site is a Stone Age tomb that houses artefacts and bones from around 5,000 years ago. Perched dramatically at the edge of a cliff on South Ronaldsay, the location only adds to the appeal of this popular attraction. The name ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ comes from the large number of eagle bones that were discovered inside the tomb, but there were also 16,000 human bones uncovered here. Start at the visitor centre, and walk to the site (the route is just one mile) past a Bronze Age building, then access the tomb itself by lying on a trolley that will transport you through the small tunnel and into the main chamber.
Things to do on the Isle of Hoy
The Isle of Hoy was high on my bucket list while we were in Orkney. I’d booked the ferry to travel over and we were all so excited but as we set off for the ferry port George was sick (one of those mysterious toddler sickness bugs that lasts about 6 hours and then they’re fine again!) so we were unable to go.
If you do make it over there you can explore on your own and be sure to visit Old Man Hoy, Ward Hill for incredible views and Emily’s Ice Cream Parlour for, what I’m told, are incredible ice creams!
You can discover the best that this stunning island has to offer with a tour with Steven from Island Tours of Hoy that will take you around Hoy and South Walls. Along the way you’ll stop at the Lifeboat Museum, the Dwarfie Stane, Betty Corrigal’s Grave, Cantick Head Lighthouse, the Hills of Hoy, Rackwick Bay and the highest vertical cliffs in the UK. Pack a lunch to enjoy on the beach, and keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife and breathtaking views.
Enjoy the drive
And finally, my guide to Orkney would not be complete without suggestion you simply go out in your car and get lost. The roads are so quiet and it’s a job to drive through the stunning scenery and stop at whichever beautiful places catch your eye. We did this a lot and loved stumbling across beautiful beaches and amazing sights.
Final suggestion for my Orkney travel guide…
Make sure you try the local Kirkjuvagr Gin, it’s delicious!
And there you have it. My guide to the Orkney Islands and some of the highlights from my trip there.
If you have any questions about visiting, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch!