Orkney is a compelling place, with a rich history – but also plenty sandy beaches, beautiful scenery and fun activities to please the casual visitor. Simon Varwell digs beneath the surface
If you’re hankering after a day of sea and sandcastles, then Stronsay has golden beaches galore. Rothiesholm Sand is a long stretch of beach good for quiet strolls and a spot of rare shell-hunting, while Ayre of the Myres has local seals to spot. Or head to St Catherine’s Bay to collect shellfish. It’s the best place to bag some razor clams, locally known as ‘spoots’. That’s the picnic sorted, then. Jelly(fish) for pudding, anyone?
Kirkwall is a Norse town that dates back to the 11th century and is one of the finest examples of a medieval Viking settlement in Europe. Passing through the narrow, old streets there are plenty cosy pubs and restaurants (not to mention the locally-produced beer and whisky). The harbour, fronted by buildings from the Victorian era and earlier, is a bustling place with ferries taking you to Aberdeen, Shetland or other islands within Orkney. And don’t forget to visit Britain’s most northerly cathedral, St Magus Cathedral. It’s an intriguing building that dates back to 1137.
Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae
Spreading across a number of locations, the UNESCO World Heritage Site features some of the world’s most famous Neolithic remains, including the Stone Age village of Skara Brae, which dates back around 5,000 years and is the most complete example of its era. Sitting by Bay of Skaill on the West Mainland, Skara Brae was uncovered in the 1800s by a storm and has been excavated to its breath-taking current state, where intimate detail of peoples’ lives can be seen against a backdrop of magnificent scenery and fresh sea air. Meanwhile the Ring of Brodgar is a remarkable archaeological site in a striking location on an isthmus of land between two lochs, affording views across the largely low-lying landscape of Orkney’s mainland.
The tiny (six square miles to be exact) and sparsely-populated island of Papa Westray is one of the cutest places you’ll visit. There’s plenty of fluffy and feathered wildlife to coo at, as it’s home to North Hill nature reserve – a great place to see Arctic terns and skuas and one of the last places that Great Auks were seen before becoming extinct. And if you want to be momentarily entertained, then the air link to neighbouring Westray is the world’s shortest scheduled air service at a miniscule two minutes: blink and you might miss it. In fact, you could probably swim it quicker - if only you’d remembered to pack your yellow polka dot bikini.
The Old Man of Hoy
Untypical for flat, green Orkney, Hoy is an unusual island – barren, windswept and of rugged coastline. The Old Man of Hoy is a 450-foot sea stack and a major feature that seems to defy the ferocious weather the seas can throw up. It’s also Orkney’s most famous climbing challenge for only the boldest and most expert amongst you; 137 metres of craggy rock-face and only a rope to keep you from sudden death. Oh, we love a deadly challenge. On occasions planes will fly around Hoy, rendering perhaps the most stunning view of the island. So, perhaps you could club together with your fellow travellers and hire a private jet. Just a suggestion. Tally ho!
You can travel to Orkney by sea or air. Either take the Citylink bus (www.citylink.co.uk) or Scotrail train link (www.firstscotrail.com) to Thurso/Scrabster, where the connecting ferry takes you to Orkney. Alternatively book flights direct to Kirkwall airport with Flybe (www.flybe.com).
Orkney Blues Festival
As the warmth and light of the summer gives way to autumn, what better way to capture the mood than a bit of jazz and blues? Just a few years old, the festival is a great chance to see music from across the world, in some lively, intimate venues often more used to hosting traditional local shindigs. You may be in a teeny tiny venue, but with the music blaring and the beer-a-flowing, you’ll feel like you’re right at the centre of the world.
Orkney Blues Festival, Fri 25 – Sun 27 Sep, various locations, www.orkneyblues.co.uk