Orkney: The green and pleasant islands

For the latest trip in my exploration of the Scottish islands I traveled up to the far north and beyond, to visit the intriguing archipelago of Orkney. After my numerous trips to the west coast islands, it was somewhat of a surprise just how different Orkney is to the often impressively bleak and majestic Outer Hebrides. The islands are primarily comprised of low, green rolling pastureland with only a few higher hills topped with heather moorland and no mountains to speak of with the exception of those on the Island of Hoy. The only real ruggedness comes in the form of the high rocky cliffs that occur frequently along the coastlines. There are very few trees and most fields are enclosed by wire fences rather than hedges, giving the landscape a feel of endless views and huge skies. Under the clear blue skies and bright warm sun I frequently experienced over the course of the week, it was a little paradise of the north.

More like the Hebrides, there are plenty of fine beaches, particularly if you venture on to some of the smaller islands. Sanday has some stunningly nice beaches along its coast and others have a fair selection to choose from too. In addition to Mainland, I visited Westray, Sanday and Hoy, all of which have their own landscapes and feel. As well as those beaches, Sanday is quite flat while Westray is similar to Mainland with rolling green pastures but some of the most spectacular cliffs, while Hoy has the highest hills and is mostly moorland. They were all worth a day trip while the small inter-island ferries gave opportunities to see some of the other islands as I passed on my way to and from those I visited.

The built environment of Orkney also has some jewels, the most lovely of which is Stromness. I certainly didn’t expect to find such an exquisite little harbour town of narrow winding streets, open squares and gaps providing views out to the sea and the islands beyond. I could have spent many more hours wandering happily around.

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Kirkwall, the largest town in the islands, is a little more businesslike in places but also has a few gems and nice pedestrian streets. The Highland Park Distillery is probably the best presented whisky distillery I’ve visited and is worth going to for the buildings alone along although I did make a purchase in the shop too (would have been wrong not to!). The town also has all the facilities you would expect in a much larger town elsewhere in Scotland with a good range of shops and supermarkets. It also has a feeling of prosperity in places with a very impressive looking new school and an equally impressive hospital under construction.

Getting around is easy with quiet but well maintained roads, a central airport and plenty of choices of ferry route from the Scottish mainland. I chose to travel on the Scrabster to Stromness route on Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe. I was impressed with this little ship; it was immaculately presented and loading and unloading were quick and efficient. I should have taken my bike with me too as it appears to be a very easy place to cycle – maybe next time!

Overall, the pleasant nature of Orkney, good range of facilities and the ease of getting around, stops the islands, well at least the main island, from feeling remote and certainly less so than the likes of Harris or the Uists. There’s so much to Orkney that it will take more than this post to cover it and certainly much more than one visit.

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