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A bit about the other isles of Orkney

Orkney isn't just the Mainland. The familiar tourist tracks to Kirkwall, Stromness, Skara Brae and Maeshowe are often packed with coaches, but it's possible to leave the hubbub behind by visiting the different isles of the county - each with its own heritage and culture. 

Dominating the Mainland, the hills of Hoy - Ward Hill on the left and Cuilags on the right - are the highest peaks in Orkney.  The name 'Hoy' comes from the Norse Haey, meaning 'high island'.  Visitors come to Hoy to see the beautiful Bay of Rackwick, the rock-cut Dwarfie Stane cairn, and the Old Man of Hoy, a lofty red sandstone sea stack.  All of these, as well as the RSPB reserve, are situated in the north of the isle, around the hills. However, the southern end of the isle has a proud naval history, as does South Walls - a neighbouring isle joined to Hoy by a causeway.  Ferries can take you from Houton on the Mainland to Lyness in the south, and from Stromness to Moaness in the north. 

Near Hoy, the Scapa Flow contains a few more isles - Fara, Rysa Little and Cava, all of which are uninhabited.  Flotta and Graemsay, however, aren't. The green isle of Graemsay is a peaceful place, altogether quite separate from the extremes that north Hoy presents. The population is low and there is virtually no traffic, so you can walk around the place and explore the shoreline.  Flotta is more famous for its oil terminal, but it is the 'forgotten isle' - historically the gateway to Scapa Flow, and a British Base during WW1. There are excellent views from Flotta - it's thought to be the only place where you can see both Stromness and Kirkwall simultaneously - and a heritage centre. The Stromness ferry calls in at Graemsay, whereas the ferry from Houton serves Flotta. 

Burray and South Ronaldsay are linked to the Mainland by the Churchill Barriers.  At the southern tip of South Ronaldsay lie the Tombs of the Eagles and of the Otters.  On Burray, there is a museum dedicated to fossils. You can reach Burray and St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay by bus from Kirkwall and Stromness on route X1. 

North of the Mainland, the calm isle of Shapinsay is home to an RSPB reserve and the Broch o' Burroughston.  You can try to spot Shelducks in the west or seals in the east. 

Will finish later... 


  • HorizonsHorizons Member, VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭✭
    I luckily have been to Hoy on a daytrip and it is one of the most memorable places I have ever been to. I shall leave some pictures and my experience can be read here. Cannot wait to hear about the other islands.

    Old man of Hoy

    Dwarfies stane

    Full view of the Old Man of Hoy
    I'm Anirudh, an Indian travel blogger who has explored a lot of Scotland by public transport. My blog. Find me on Facebook | Instagram

    Best of Scotland in 1 week itinerary (fully by public transport)

    My Scotland travels (includes EdinburghSkye, HarrisMullArranOrkneyLoch Lomond, Islay, Oban, DunoonSpeyside)

  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    Apologies - twice I've typed out more info but accidentally deleted it.  Grr. 
  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    Shapinsay is easily reached by a 25-minute ferry crossing from Kirkwall Harbour.  The ferry arrives in the isle's only village, Balfour (the shut-to-visitors Balfour Castle is nearby). 

    Lying north of Shapinsay, you'll find the Outer North Isles; Stronsay, Sanday, Eday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay.  You can reach the first four using regular ferries from Kirkwall.  Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay are served two times a week by the ferry (though North Ronaldsay only gets the one sailing per week outside of the summer); the most popular way to reach these islands is by plane from Kirkwall Airport.  Indeed, all the Outer North Isles have airfields, and all but Eday have a daily service or two to the Mainland. 

    The low-lying and straggling isle of Stronsay has few tourist attractions, but has a rather literal landmark in the Vat of Kirbuster, a spectacular arch in the coastline. Indeed, the cliffs and shores of Stronsay provide the island's main appeal, and make for pleasant walking.  The ferry from Kirkwall calls in at Whitehall, a once-flourishing fishing village that supported a population of over 4000 in its heyday. 

    Sandy by name, sandy by nature; the extremely flat island of Sanday is renowned for the quality and size of its beautiful beaches and bays.  Of these, Saville Bay in Burness ranks highly, while the vast tidal Cata Sand is flanked to the east by a spectacular dune system, and to the west by the Quoyness Chambered Cairn. Both Saville Bay and the Bay of Kettletoft provide good hunting ground for spoots (razor fish) in the early Spring and Autumn months, if you know the bizarre method!  A guided tour of Sanday is recommended (like all tours, remember to book in advance!), though the minibus can't reach the cairn. At the Heritage Centre in Lady Village, there's an excellent, hands-on recreation of a burnt mound, and a lovely refurbished croft to look round. A bus meets most ferries and will take you up the isle for a modest fare (there are two hotels on the isle). 

    The 'isthmus isle' of Eday (pronounced ay-dee) is often overlooked by visitors, but it has good hill and cliff walks in the north.  A walk from the island's only shop at Hammarhill to the tiny township of Calfsound will take you past a stone monolith rumoured to be a giant's hand, the cairns of Vinquoy, Huntersquoy and Braeside, and the house where a pirate was held captive. Carrick House still has the blood of pirate John Gow on the floor (or at least a dark stain).  Gow was caught when his boat ran around on the Calf of Eday, but today the Calf is a peaceful place; it also has some cairns, but the chief marauders there nowadays are the cormorants, whose colony has caused the Calf to become a Site of Special Scientific Interest (or SSSI); Eday itself is important for whimbrels. There are day tours of the isle, which has daily ferry services and one or two flights a week. 

  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    Westray, the Queen o' the Isles, offers plenty of diversions.  Recently, it's hit the headlines: a few years ago, an archaeological dig at the Links of Noltland in the north of the island uncovered an amazing find: the Westray Wifie, a stone figurine thought to be Scotland's oldest-known representation of a human.  You'd expect artefacts like this to be stored away in archives or museums in Glasgow or Edinburgh; but no.  The figurine can be seen at Westray Heritage Centre, in the isle's sole village of Pierowall, and you can even buy locally-made shortbread shaped like the Wifie.

    Westray is the most populous of the northern isles of Orkney.  Pierowall, with its hotel, bank, two shops and school, lines the Bay of Pierowall.  The ferry terminal is in the south at Rapness, but a bus will take you up the isle to Pierowall, stopping at other points on the way on request.  During the summer months, it will continue up the bay to Gill Pier, where you can change onto a boat that will take you to Papa Westray.  There's also an airfield on the isle; once there, you can break records (more on that later).

    Here, there are interests both natural and historical.  The once heavily-fortified Noltland Castle lies to the west of Pierowall.  The castle was the refuge of Mary Queen of Scots' brother-in-law, Gilbert Balfour, who was implicated in the murder of Cardinal Beaton in Fife in 1546 (the Cardinal was stabbed several times, then dangled out of the window of St Andrews Castle).  In 1560, Balfour received land from the Bishop of Orkney (who was also his brother-in-law), and afterwards apparently set to work building the castle.  It's well worth a look around, as are the Norse, ruined Cross Kirk at Tuquoy and the more recent Lady Kirk in Pierowall.

    The Noup Cliffs RSPB reserve, at the island's westernmost point, is a veritable seabird city during May and June - gannets are thriving there, and you should also see guillemots, with occasional razorbills and kittiwakes dotted among them.  If it's puffins you're looking for, then, although you may see one or two at the Noup, the best site is at Castle o' Burrian, a sea stack, which is situated in the south of the isle, reachable by a walk from a car park.  The West Westray Walk runs from the Bay of Kirbest to Noup Head, taking in the isle's western cliffs on the way.  Grobust Sands, near Noltland Castle, is a lovely white bay - with both Neolithic and Bronze Age remains concealed behind it.  This is the Links of Noltland excavation, the sustainability of which is now heavily in doubt.

  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    I forgot to add that there are guided tours of Westray on offer too.

    And so we move on to Papa Westray.  Firstly, you'll probably want to know that the isle's known as Papay (pronounced 'pappy') locally.  Papay is reached by air and sea with varying levels of difficulty; there are two or three flights a day from Kirkwall, and most of these stop at Westray too.  The air service between Papay and Westray is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the Shortest Scheduled Air Flight in the world - and you can get a honorary certificate if you travel between the isles by plane.

    As for the ferry, you can travel direct from Kirkwall twice a week (stopping off at Westray first on one sailing, and occasionally at North Ronaldsay on the other).  During the summer months, you can get the ferry from Kirkwall to Westray, get the very reasonably-priced bus service over to Gill Pier on the edge of Pierowall, and then get the passenger and freight-only MV Golden Mariana to take you the short distance over to Papay.

    On Papay, you will find the Knap o' Howar; the oldest standing farmstead possibly in Northern Europe.  The medieval St Boniface Kirk is a short walk up the coast from the Knap.  At the centre of the isle is the main hub of activity; Holland Farm (complete with Bothy Museum) is located at the top of the brae.  A short walk along the road north takes you past the War Memorial to the airfield.  Heading down the brae, you'll pass the Beltane co-op shop and hostel - on Saturday nights this plays host to the Papay Pub - and St Ann's Kirk and the school, then the post office.  Social events take place in the hostel, Kirk and school.

    Wander down to the Old Pier - you can book a trip to the Holm of Papay, and see its stunning chambered cairn.   The boat to the Holm leaves from here.  Next to the pier is the Kelp Store Heritage & Craft Centre - with a brilliant series of short films about island life on Papay, and the isle's history.  And the shingly sands of South Wick and North Wick span the distance up the coast from here to the North Hill Nature Reserve - in May and June you can see the seabirds up on Fowl Craig, as well as the monument dedicated to the last Great Auks on Papa Westray.  Fowl Craig is also a popular spot for finding the minuscule Scottish Primrose, but please keep to the coastal paths and don't wander into the centre of North Hill.

    Papay is my favourite of the isles, which explains why I wrote so much about it :)

  • VisitScotlandLiamVisitScotlandLiam Member, Administrator, Moderator, VisitScotland Staff
    @spoots Some great info there Sam!
    Lead vocalist & rhythm guitarist for The Bright SkiesSpotify, Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, YouTube.
  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    And so we move on to the last (but certainly not least!) of the Orkney Isles: the far-flung island of North Ronaldsay.  North Ron, as it's known locally, is further north than the southern tip of Norway.

    It's famous for the sheep which graze on seaweed on the foreshore. A dyke keeps them off the land, and the meat apparently has a unique taste because of their diet.

    The island's most famous landmark is the Old Beacon.  One of the oldest lighthouses in the country, it was constructed in the 1780s.  The project to restore it continues.

    In the south of the island, next to the new pier, you'll find the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.  North Ron is a haven for migrating birds, and there are often rare records here if birds appear off-course.  At the observatory, there's also a guesthouse, hostel, café and shop.

    The observatory is also a good spot for seeing whales - whole pods have been recorded, and even a walrus was seen in 2013!  Orca, minke wales and pilot whales can be seen if you're lucky.

    The island has a standing stone and the ruined Broch of Burrian to the island's east.  The Stevenson Lighthouse on Dennis Head has guided tours, and there's a café and a woollen mill there (the mill uses wool from the famous sheep).  There's also some self-catering accommodation on the island.

    North Ron has something of an outpost feel to it, and the last child recently outgrew the school, which now has no pupils.  There is only one ferry a week (two in summer).  However, the flights provide a quick and cheap service from North Ronaldsay airfield to Kirkwall Airport; weather-dependent, but there are about three daily on good days.
  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    Coming back to this thread, and it's a shame in a way that I wrote so much more about the isles I know best than I did for some of the others.  The islands are great because there's something for everyone, and each isle has its own unique flavour and appeal.
  • FullStopNextChapterFullStopNextChapter VisitScotland Ambassador ✭✭✭
    We recently stayed in mainland Orkney and were hopeful to get across to some of the others. Sadly the weather wasn't that kind to us and so we didn't manage any more. Definitely a reason to return though! 
    Join in my new chapter over on the blog. Discovering all things that make Scotland the place everyone wants to visit. 

  • spootsspoots Member ✭✭
    edited October 2017
    We recently stayed in mainland Orkney and were hopeful to get across to some of the others. Sadly the weather wasn't that kind to us and so we didn't manage any more. Definitely a reason to return though! 
    North Hoy - the northern end of the island - is easily accessible from Stromness by passenger ferry, and you can book a tour/onward transport to places like the Dwarfie Stane, the Hoy Hostel and Rackwick (for Rackwick Bay, the Crofts and the Old Man of Hoy).

    Day trips from the Mainland are possible to Sanday, Eday, Rousay, Westray and Papa Westray too.  For all this information, check the Orkney Islands brochure (available online;
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