Located off the north coast of mainland Scotland, the Orkney Islands offer some of the best preserved ancient sites in all of the U.K. From 5,000-year-old villages to World War Two era sunken ships poking out of the lochs, Orkney is like stepping back in time. Orkney is a place of constant discovery, with archaeologists are flocking here every summer to discover some new Neolithic period artifacts. Use this guide to have a great weekend exploring some of the best discoveries found yet!
Start the trip with a late morning ferry ride to the main island of Orkney on the Scrabster to Stromness Northlink Ferries route. This is the only ferry route that takes you past the Old Man of Hoy sea stack, providing you with the perfect opportunity to take photos and enjoy the beautiful scenery. If you prefer to see the Old Man of Hoy on land, you can take a 30-minute ferry ride from Stromness to North Hoy Island using Orkney Ferries. From the ferry port, it’s about a 6 mile walk to the sea stack, just be sure you get back to the ferry port in time for the return trip!
From Stromness, begin making your way east across the island to the Italian Chapel and the ship wrecks of Scapa Flow. The Italian Chapel was built in 1942 by Italian POWs during World War II. The chapel is actually an old bunker with a traditional chapel façade hiding the curved roof that only becomes apparent when you walk inside. Enjoy the intricately painted walls and altar then wander outside for beautiful views of the Island and remnants of sunken ships in the Scapa Flow.
From here, head northwest to Kirkwall, the largest city on Orkney, where you’ll stay for the weekend. After settling into your accommodation, walk to the grand St. Magnus Cathedral in the center of town. The cathedral was built in the 12th century and features dazzling stained glass windows, sculpted archways, and relics that date back to the Norse invasion of Orkney. After wandering through the cathedral, head over to the Kirkwall Hotel Restaurant for a delicious meal before settling in for the night.
Begin the day with a drive to the scenic west coast of Orkney to the city of Skaill. Here, you’ll find Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement that was discovered in 1850 after a harsh storm uncovered the site. The museum at Skara Brae features a replica of the village which you can wander through before heading to the ancient site. The path around the site overlooks the stone walled village where you’ll see fireplaces, walkways, and even beds built into the walls.
After Skara Brae, head back to the museum where you can book a tour to see the inside of Maeshowe, one of the most famous cairns on Orkney. The tour from the museum is the only way you can see inside of Maeshowe and lasts an hour and half, including the bus ride to the cairn. It is well worth taking the tour as you’ll be able to see the incredible architecture and 900-year-old Norse graffiti hidden inside. The tour guides of Maeshowe offer incredible insight into the history of the cairn and show you all of the the best features of the site, even translating the Norse writing on the walls.
The Maeshowe takes you back to the Skara Brae museum where you can pick up some food from the café or bring a picnic to enjoy on the coast. From Skara Brae, make your way south to the Ring of Brodgar. This incredible 5,0000-year-old site used to have 60 stones standing in a circle, although only 36 survive today. The site holds much mystery as to the use of the ring and how the large stones were transported to the area thousands of years ago. Just a few minutes away are the Standing Stones of Stenness, another ancient stone circle. Unlike Brodgar, Stenness is less shrouded in mystery as archeologists found evidence of a hearth in the center, almost guaranteeing that Stenness was used as a ritual area.
From Stenness, head back to Kirkwall where you can wander through the city center before making your way to Helgi’s for dinner.
Today, you’ll be heading north to the Broch of Gurness, one of the best preserved Iron Age complexes in Scotland. You can even walk through a narrow passageway into the broch which still has remnants of the stairs and walls that once stood inside of it. Situated on the Enyhallow Sound, you’ll also get amazing views of Rousay Island from the edge of the complex.
Your final destination in Orkney is the Brough of Birsay, a small island that features 7th century settlement remains and a small lighthouse. The settlement has been of great archeological interest as it is one of the few places where Pictish, Norse, and medieval people seemed to coexist. The only way to get to the island is to cross over a causeway when the tide is out, so keep your eye on the water level when touring Birsay, otherwise you could be stuck there until the tide goes out again! Once you’re safely on the mainland, head to Stromness to catch the ferry back to mainland Scotland. Make sure to pop outside to the viewing deck to see the Old Man of Hoy once more and to say goodbye to Orkney.