Main Centres in Orkney
Although consisting of over seventy islands Orkney's residents and buisinesses are mainly all based on one of the main islands.
The capital of Orkney has vibrant independent shops and a lively night life in its many hotels and bars. It is also a transport hub for bus routes across mainland Orkney and the port for ferries to Aberdeen, Shetland and the North Isles. Kirkwall Airport with links to Scotland, Shetland and in the summer, Norway, is less than three miles from the town centre.
The main shopping street is a mecca for those who favour chain-free shops and it stocks everything you need from boutique fashions, designer brands and locally designed clothing to CDs and DVDs to jewellery, outdoor clothing, bread and cakes, linen, musical instruments, household goods and shoes. Privately owned grocery stores with personal service of a type that has largely disappeared elsewhere in Britain, stock local produce and international favourites. Artisan bakeries, butchers, chemists, banks and several cafes add to the mix. The picturesque long main street lined with flagstones snakes down from the harbour, changing its name from Bridge Street to Albert Street to Broad Street as it goes.
At its heart, on the Kirk Green stands the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral while nearby are the Earl's and Bishop's palaces and the Orkney Museum in Tankerness House with its splendid gardens.' Carrying on down narrow Victoria Street there are more shops and cafes.
On the edge of the ancient burgh there are three supermarkets and the Pickaquoy Centre with its fitness and health suites, outdoor sports pitches, a café, the New Phoenix Cinema and meeting rooms. Orkney Islands Council is based in Kirkwall at School Place. There is also an auction mart and industrial estate at Hatston. There are several venues in the town for performance including a theatre, community and church halls, hotel function rooms and the Pickaquoy Centre.
Kirkwall dates back to Norse times, in the 11th century, when it was called Kirkjuvagr (church of the bay). At that time the sea lapped at the steps of the cathedral, but now much land has been reclaimed. In 1486 Kirkwall was granted Royal Burgh status by King James III of Scotland.
Quaint closes and narrow old streets huddled between stone buildings of historical interest is the delight that is Stromness. Orkney’s second largest town is an architectural gem that inspires artists and writers and is a favourite with visitors. Those who arrive in Orkney on the ferry from Scrabster near Thurso are treated to the best view of the stone town with its piers, nousts, stores and terraces of houses, watched over by the hill of Brinkie’s Brae. Like Kirkwall, Stromness has one ‘street’ that meanders through the town, changing its name along the route. From the north it runs through Ferry Road, Victoria Street, Graham Place, Dundas Street, Alfred Street, Southend and Ness Road. Look out for Khyber Pass, Hellihole and Rae’s Close, named after Arctic explorer Dr John Rae, going up the hill.
It may be a haven for the arty crowd and festival goers but Stromness is also a working town with useful and interesting shops and all the facilities needed to live, work and play. It is a busy diving destination with several companies offering dive charters. And increasingly Stromness is at the forefront of Orkney’s pioneering renewable energy industry with companies and university students based in the town. Other industries include shellfish processing and a bakery and fudge factory.
According to George Mackay Brown, the late Stromness-based poet and author, the first house in the town was a hostelry on the Cairston shore which was granted a charter in 1580. The safe harbour of Hamnavoe grew as a port and merchant town during the European wars in the 17th to 19th centuries which made the English Channel dangerous. Ships including Captain Cook’s Discovery and Resolution called in 1780 and Sir John Franklin called in before his fatal journey to the Arctic. Hudson’s Bay Company ships took on men, provisions and water at Login’s Well in the town in the 18th and 19th centuries and Arctic whalers from East Coast ports also took on men for the whale fishery in Greenland and Iceland. Famous inhabitants of Stromness included the painter Sir Stanley Cursiter, Isabel Gunn who joined the HBC disguised as a man and Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked in Australia. Sir Walter Scott based several of his colourful fictional characters on Stromnessians.
Orkney West Mainland
The west mainland of Orkney is home to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site which is one of the most important areas in Britain for archaeological remains. Here are the famous standing stones of Ring of Brodgar and Stenness and Maeshowe burial chamber. The west coast from the cliffs of Black Craig near Stromness up to the tidal historic island of the Brough of Birsay is storm-lashed and stunning with sea stacks, caves, towering cliffs, the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and a gorgeous sandy beach at Skaill Bay. A ten-mile coastal walk takes in all the sites. Sunsets viewed from here are legendary. Inland there are brown trout fishing lochs, bird reserves of moorland and marsh of international importance, Orkney’s only working watermill at Barony Mills, Birsay and several village communities with shops and tearooms. Many craftspeople have their studios in the area.
Orkney tearooms are popular and high quality, many serving lunches, home bakes and high teas. Near the village of Orphir with its Viking church and farmstead is the ferry pier at Houton for car ferries to Lyness in Hoy. Other villages with shops and community centres are Harray, Dounby, Finstown and the more scattered communities of Evie, Rendall and Twatt. The parish of Sandwick is also spread out with farms and country houses. The two farm museums of Kirbuster and Corrigall are in the west too. Birsay has a shop, tearoom, hotel nearby and the ruins of the Earl’s Palace, once the country pile of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, a half brother to Mary, Queen of Scots. His son Patrick, known locally as Black Pat, added to the building. He was executed in 1615 for treason.
The Brough of Birsay can be accessed on foot via a causeway for two hours either side of low tide - tide times are posted at the site and in visitor information centres. It has traces of Pictish buildings, the remains of a Viking monastery and a lighthouse.
Orkney East Mainland
This area east and south east of Kirkwall is cattle country with its low-lying fertile farmland. It may not have a world heritage site but there are plenty of historical sites and attractive villages to explore.
The parish of St Andrews has a well-used community hall and a vibrant school. Near the hall, Mine Howe is a privately owned ancient sunken chamber below a mound. You can descend into the mysterious subterranean space down a steep stone staircase. Archaeologists have speculated about the purpose of the chamber which is surrounded by a ditch.
The area of Tankerness has good beaches for seeing seals and birds such as Arctic terns, and the Loch of Tankerness where oystercatchers, lapwings and curlews breed. The discovery of a charred hazelnut shell in 2007 in a Bronze Age mound in Tankerness was exciting evidence of Mesolithic activity in Orkney and was dated to 6820-6660 BC.
On the road to the peninsula of Deerness is Dingieshowe, a sandy isthmus where a mound is the site of a Viking parliament, known as a ting. Deerness has a shop and scattered dwellings. Drive on to the car park at the Gloup and you can see this blowhole and walk on to the Brough of Deerness if you can brave the narrow cliff track to the site of an early monastery and chapel ruins. Carry on the spectacular cliff path and you reach Mull Head, a scenic headland crowded with seabirds in summer with its World War One gunnery range. Further on again is the Covenanters’ Memorial tower erected to the memory of 200 religious prisoners who were being transported to the American colonies and lost their lives when they were shipwrecked in 1679. More tracks can be followed for a circular route back to the car park.
On the road back to Kirkwall is the harbour village of St Mary’s in Holm which was a prosperous fishing centre for the herring industry. It is now cut off from the North Sea by the Churchill Barriers.
Orkney South Ronaldsay
The largest settlement outside Kirkwall in the east is the attractive harbour village of St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, Orkney’s third largest settlement. Here a catamaran ferry runs to Gill’s Bay near John o’ Groats. There is an art gallery and craft shop, hotels, an award-winning restaurant, a golf course and the William Hourston Smiddy Museum. Films and live drama are regularly put on in the Cromarty Hall. In August the Boys’ Ploughing Match and Festival of the Horse is held. There are gentle sandy bays nearby at Sands o’ Wright and at Herston. At Hoxa Head you can look across Scapa Flow to the isle of Flotta and might see porpoises passing by.
South of ‘The Hope’ as far as you can go is Burwick Pier where you can take a foot ferry to John o’ Groats in the summer. Here also is the Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic chambered tomb which was found on a farm. The family-owned visitor centre offers a welcoming talk when you can handle artefacts before making your way on a stunning coastal path to the tomb, where eagle talons were found amongst the burial. There is also a Bronze Age burnt mound.
South Ronaldsay is one of the linked South Isles, which are connected to each other by the manmade causeways, the Churchill Barriers, built by Italian prisoners-of-war during World War Two. The linked isles are Glimps Holm, Burray and Lamb Holm - home of the famous Italian Chapel, a work of art created inside two Nissen huts.
Burray is a small island linked to the east mainland of Orkney and South Ronaldsay by the Churchill Barriers. Once only accessible by boat and a farming and fishing community, it is now linked by the causeways. It has a population of around 350, a primary school, shop, hotel and harbour where watersports are on offer. Burray has beautiful sandy beaches, great views across Scapa Flow and otters and seals can sometimes be seen from around the fourth barrier.
The Burray Fossil and Heritage Centre housed in old farm buildings is a fascinating place to visit. Fossils from Orkney and around the world are displayed, some 360 million years old. The shop stocks a large range of books on the subject, gemstones, jewellery and toys. The collection was started by Ernest Firth who found fossils in his quarry. Upstairs is the heritage centre which is an important archive for local documents, Burray census records from 1821 to 1901 and photographs. There are displays of objects used by Orcadians and furniture including a boxed bed. There is a reconstruction of an Edwardian room, showing how a typical Orkney house might have looked in the early 1900s, with the family settled around the peat fire.
The community café provides wonderful homebakes. The centre is open in the summer months.
Culture is a way of life in Orkney and brings thousands of visitors a year to enjoy festivals, museums and art galleries.
There is a packed programme of events for many months of the year with internationally acclaimed music, art, lectures and performance. Events such as the Ba' game on Christmas Day and New Year's Day and the Festival of the Horse in August are fairly unique spectacles.
Award-winning galleries and museums are also magnets to our shores for culture vultures.