Orkney is just a few miles north of John o’Groats on the Scottish mainland. But to travel across the Pentland Firth is to enter a different world, full of rich archaeological heritage and interesting naval history. The locals and “incomers” are welcoming and friendly and more than happy to tell you about the abundant opportunities to explore the many islands.
For a campervan you can take a ferry from Gills Bay (Pentland Ferries) or from Thurso (NorthLink). The former docking at St. Margaret’s Hope, on South Ronaldsay, the latter at Stromness. Both embarkation points allow you to drive to the capital at Kirkwall.
From the mainland, there is no greater pleasure than to catch the inter-island network of ferries run for the local council by Orkney Ferries. You can buy a 10-day rover ticket that allows unlimited passenger use for £40 and is tremendous value, bicycles are free and highly recommended to bring or hire. Further adventures using the campervan can be purchased individually and require careful planning and booking.
You can catch a ferry to Shetland from Kirkwall on 3 evenings in the week if you want to extend you adventures further north.
The main campsite is in Kirkwall at the Pickaquoy Centre, adjacent to the leisure centre. This has modern facilities, with electric hookup and hardstandings. A large Tesco is nearby. It does get busy in peak season, but it is an excellent base to explore the islands, waking early to catch the first ferry. There are other campsites around the island, notably at the Point of Ness Campsite, Stromness and at Birsay Outdoor Centre. Both are exposed to the elements, to add to the excitement in strong winds.
Wild camping is not ideal, but if you are used to this, then you will find sites. Some of the islands have campsites that do need booking, so check in advance before you board a ferry. The tourist office offers great advice and guidance.
Our approach was to make the most use of bicycles, and we would do this again, perhaps taking a tent and sleeping bags to the remote islands, leaving the van behind in Kirkwall.
We were speaking to an Orcadian at a campsite a few years back and he recommended a visit to Orkney. It was not something we had ever thought about, so we vowed to visit the following year.
What a surprise. If you are considering getting away from the holiday crowds and are prepared to tough out some occasional bad weather, the Orkney archipelago is one of the most stunning, rich and interesting places to visit in Britain. It is one of those places you want to keep a secret.
We have been 3 times now, twice in a campervan and once as part of the North Sea Cycle Route. The following is a blend of our experiences over most of the islands and in no order of preference.
East and West mainland connect also to Burray and South Ronaldsay via the Churchill Barriers, built to enclose Scarpa Flow to protect naval vessels during the second world war. These islands can be explored on day tours. In the east, at Deerness there are wonderful coastal walks. To the west are further coastal walks, breweries and numerous archaeological sites of world renown. I shan’t name these all other than to say you are in for a real treat which will change your perceptions on prehistoric civilisation. At one time Orkney was the crossroads of trade around the seas of Britain and Europe. I would visit Orkney alone just to see these sites, some of which are still being uncovered.
Yet Orkney also offers so much more. The mainland has an excellent brewery and two distilleries, which you should try if so inclined. The music scene is also rich, with local folk events and ceilidh’s worth seeking out. The music is outstanding. Also consider timing your visit during the agricultural festivals and many other events.
But perhaps it is the scenery, light and landscape that impressed us the most. Catching ferries out the islands on our bicycles was a joy. We even managed to see a pod of Orcas on one journey. Wildlife is everywhere if you keep your eyes open. The beaches are stunning. So much so, that a Jamaican holiday company was once ridiculed for using a picture of an Orkney beach in one of their brochures.
To get away from the occasional Cruise Liner, which dock during the day at Kirkwall, take the ferry to one of the outlying islands, each with their own distinct character.
Papa Westray is a delight, reached via Westray with a connecting bus service and peddie (small) ferry – doable in a day. This remote island is utterly unspoilt and timeless. Walk around the perimeter and you will stumble upon the Knap of Howar, one of the oldest standing houses in Northern Europe, a mind blowing 5,500 years old. Look around and you can imagine that little has changed.
Hoy is very different, mountainous and rugged with impressive sea cliffs and the famous “Old Man of Hoy” rock stack. A ferry from Stromness takes you to the western areas. A chance to see Sea Eagles and other raptors. The ferry from Houton will take you to the eastern shores and a huge former naval base and oil terminal on Flotta. The museum here recalls the scuttling of the German fleet in 1919. There is a lovely cycle ride around the south eastern sections to see martello towers and pleasant bays.
Roussay has yet more archeology, notably Midhowe chambered cairn and broch. A pleasant day, including an island tour can be taken by catching the morning ferry from Tingwall. A viewpoint gives you a wonderful perspective of the archipelago on a clear day.
Stronsay and Eday are quiet, peaceful islands ideal for a day trip on a bicycle. You will probably be the only tourist on the islands and will have the beaches to yourself. Quirky museums and cafes make welcome stops.
Sanday is extraordinarily beautiful, with stunning beaches and expansive views. One day is too short a time to explore the long white sand beaches and coast. There is a comfy campsite which can be used as a base to explore the island by bicycle. The island is rich in prehistoric sites and is heaven for beach combing. Your ears pop it is so quiet and peaceful and the white noise of the surf lulls you to sleep in the dunes.
If you are really intrepid, then a trip to North Ronaldsay will certainly be a highlight. Unless you fly directly from Kirkwall airport, you will have to stay a few days to wait for the return ferry. While embarkation from Kirwall is easy, stevedores will lift your campervan into/out of the hold using a crane and netting. Seeing your pride and joy 20ft in the air is frightening.
The Bird Observatory has accommodation and a few camping spots and you will be invited to participate in island life, building walls or sheering ancient sheep, that eat seaweed and live in the tidal zone.
This blog only touches on the range of activities available in Orkney, in particular the extensive archaeological sites are breath taking. Kirkwall is a delight too, with its Cathedral and museums.
The Peddie Orkney Guide Book – Charles Tait – an excellent guide which is all you need, in addition to the 1:250,000 Ordnance Survey Road Map 1 – Northern Scotland, which also covers Shetland.
The Orkney Ferry Company timetable – hours of fun planning your trips, or pop into the booking office and have a chat with the staff, they are more than helpful.