Short Breaks in Orkney

Orkney: Prehistory Meets Modernity

Orkney stands as an archipelago of over 70 islands, with a select 20 inhabited, each steeped in history and rugged beauty.

The islands’ allure lies in their remote charm and the wealth of archaeological treasures that beckon history enthusiasts from far and wide, meaning short breaks in Orkney open doors into another world.

The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the ceremonial stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar, and the Norse heritage woven into the fabric of island life make Orkney a fascinating destination for a short trip, offering a blend of serenity and rich cultural tapestry that captures the heart of every traveller.

Photo of part of Skara Brae neolithic village in Orkney.
Part of Skara Brae neolithic village, over 5000 years old. Photo © David Dixon (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Why Short Breaks in Orkney?

Orkney is a tapestry of rich history, vibrant culture, and breathtaking natural beauty, making it an ideal destination for short breaks and weekend trips.

Whether it’s the lure of ancient Neolithic sites such as Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, or the tranquil allure of its rugged coastlines and wildlife, Orkney offers a retreat from the rush of modern life.

The islands boast a unique heritage, with the Old Norse influence perceptible in everything from the dialect to the architecture. The community’s warmth and the islands’ relatively compact size mean that even a brief visit allows for a deep connection with the land and its history.

The chance to witness the Northern Lights or the simmer dim, when the sunset merges into sunrise, provides an unforgettable experience that encapsulates the magic of Orkney.

The northern lights in Orkney.
Many people journey to Orkney to witness the spectacular Northern Lights.

How To Get To The Orkney Isles

Orkney invites exploration, and reaching this northern treasure is an adventure in itself.

The islands are accessible by both air and sea, with flights available from major Scottish cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness. These short flights offer a bird’s-eye view of the stunning landscapes below.

For those preferring to travel by water, ferries sail from Scrabster on the mainland to Stromness, providing a scenic voyage across the Pentland Firth.

Another route is available from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope, which is often favored for its shorter crossing time.

For a truly immersive experience, the Aberdeen to Kirkwall route allows you to sail overnight and wake up in the heart of the islands.

  • By Air: Orkney can be reached by air with direct flights from several major Scottish cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness. The main airport is in Kirkwall, providing a quick and scenic route to the islands.
  • By Ferry: Several ferry routes connect Orkney to the Scottish mainland and other islands. The most popular ferries depart from Scrabster to Stromness and from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, offering stunning views of the coastline and the North Sea.
  • By Bus: Although there’s no direct bus to Orkney, you can take a coach to the ferry ports in the mainland and combine the journey. This is a cost-effective way to travel and allows for an opportunity to see more of the Scottish landscape.
  • By Car: If you’re driving, you can take your vehicle on the ferry, making it easy to explore the islands at your own pace. It’s a popular choice for those who wish to have the freedom to roam the islands.
  • By Train: The nearest train stations to the Orkney ferry ports are in Thurso and Wick, with services running from Inverness. From the stations, you can catch a connecting bus to the ferry terminals.

Average Travel Times To Orkney Ferry Ports

Starting PointDestinationAverage Driving Time
InvernessScrabster2 hours 30 minutes
AberdeenKirkwall (via ferry)6 hours (including ferry)
EdinburghScrabster5 hours 15 minutes
GlasgowScrabster5 hours 45 minutes
WickJohn O’Groats (ferry to Orkney)30 minutes
Photo of Maeshowe in Orkney.
You can go right inside Maeshowe, a neolithic burial chamber dating back to 2,700 BCE. Photo © Rob Farrow (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Neolithic Orkney: A Prehistoric Masterpiece

Orkney stands as a sentinel to Scotland’s ancient past, with the Heart of Neolithic Orkney serving as the centrepiece to an enigmatic historical puzzle.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts some of the most well-preserved Neolithic monuments in Europe, offering a rare glimpse into a civilization that flourished over 5,000 years ago.

The most striking of these is the village of Skara Brae, revealing with startling clarity the domestic life of its Stone Age inhabitants.

Surrounded by the stark beauty of Orkney’s landscape, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness form an imposing circle that has stood the test of time, drawing visitors into a profound connection with our ancestors.

Aside from its Neolithic treasures, Orkney’s tapestry of history is embroidered with threads of Viking heritage and echoes of wartime resilience, such as the Italian Chapel crafted by prisoners of war.

While these sites are significant in their own right, they serve to enhance the narrative of a land where the ancient and modern coexist seamlessly. It is this intricate weave of time that makes Orkney not just a destination but a journey through the ages.

The Italian Chapel in Orkney, built from a converted Nissan hut during WWII by Italian prisoners. Photo © Carroll Pierce (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Embracing the Orcadian Spirit: Activities in Orkney

Orkney offers more than just a walk through antiquity; it presents a plethora of activities that allow visitors to immerse themselves in its rich heritage and vibrant natural environment.

Wildlife enthusiasts will find themselves at home here, with opportunities to spot puffins, seals, and even orcas amid the rugged cliffs and coastal waters. The archipelago’s maritime climate and unique landscapes provide ideal conditions for outdoor pursuits like hiking, sea kayaking, and diving among sunken war relics in Scapa Flow.

The cultural tapestry of Orkney is as compelling as its wildlife. Traditional music sessions resonate in local pubs, where the Orcadian dialect adds colour to the storytelling.

Festivals throughout the year celebrate everything from folk music to the island’s Norse heritage.

Those looking to engage with the creative essence of Orkney can partake in craft workshops, learning from local artisans who draw inspiration from their surroundings.

the town of Stromness in Orkney.
Stromness is the main town on Orkney. Photo © Anne Burgess (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Tips for Short Breaks in Orkney

A journey to Orkney is a venture into a world where history and modernity intertwine gracefully.

To ensure a seamless experience on any short breaks in Orkney, consider these tailored tips for your visit:

  • Weather Wisdom: Orkney’s weather can be unpredictable, with the possibility of experiencing four seasons in one day. Always pack layers and waterproof gear, regardless of the season.
  • Transportation: Hiring a car can be invaluable for exploring remote areas, but remember that rental vehicles are in high demand, especially during peak season. Book in advance to secure your ride.
  • Culinary Curiosities: Embrace the local cuisine. Orkney is renowned for its seafood, beef, and cheeses. Don’t miss out on trying Orkney ice cream, made from the rich local milk.
  • Ferries: If island hopping, be mindful of ferry schedules which can be infrequent and subject to weather conditions. Planning is crucial to ensure you don’t miss your connection.
  • Historical Haunts: Prioritise your historical sites. While Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar are must-sees, lesser-known sites like the Tomb of the Eagles can also be deeply rewarding without the crowds.
  • Cultural Consideration: Respect the local customs and traditions. Orkney has a strong sense of community and identity, and a respectful visitor will always be welcomed with warmth.
  • Connectivity Caution: Internet and mobile services can be spotty outside of Kirkwall and Stromness. Prepare for limited connectivity and embrace the chance to disconnect.
  • Eco-Awareness: Practice Leave No Trace principles to preserve Orkney’s pristine environment. The archipelago’s natural beauty is one of its biggest draws, and it’s in everyone’s interest to keep it that way.
  • Booking Basics: Accommodations can fill up quickly during festivals or the summer months. Secure your accommodation bookings early to avoid disappointment.
St. Magnus cathedral in Orkney.
The spectacular St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney. Photo © Rob Farrow (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Travel To Orkney: A Trip You Will Love

As our exploration of Orkney draws to a close, we reflect on an archipelago that is as enigmatic as it is beautiful.

Beyond its rugged cliffs and stirring seas, Orkney stands as a testimony to the resilience and ingenuity of its past and present inhabitants. This is a place where every stone tells a story, every gust of wind sings a history, and every wave that crashes against the shore whispers the tales of ancient times.

For the intrepid traveller, Orkney offers more than a mere escape; it offers a deep dive into a layered narrative of humanity, nature, and the powerful forces that shape them both.

Whether you’ve come seeking solitude, adventure, or enlightenment, Orkney is a destination that will move you, challenge you, and leave you with memories etched as deeply as the runes on its standing stones.

We encourage you to embark on this journey with a heart open to discovery and a spirit ready to embrace the unique cadence of Orcadian life.

Your visit to Orkney be filled with the warmth of its people, the taste of its harvests, and the awe of its timeless landscapes.

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