The Orkney mainland is surrounded by a necklace of isles, some of which are uninhabited by man but offer a wealth of wildlife and heritage.
Adventuring these isles can be habit forming as described by Gerald Durrell in “islomania”.
Recent years have seen great improvements to ferry services and flights, allowing visitors to ‘island hop’, usually from a base on the mainland.
All of the islands are filled with mystery and romance. Legends of seal folk (selkies), sea monsters and trolls (Hogboons) abound as well as the viking and neolithic heritage, with stories of buried treasure and witches.
Island life is dominated by argiculture with a great sense of community. Tourists are welcome guests at local dances and community activities.
Let’s take a look at what some of the islands have to offer:
Situated in the northern isles, 14 miles off the mainland, Eday is only eight miles long.
Sheer cliffs, beaches and sand dunes play host to wildlife and seabirds and offer great panoramic views over the islands.
The first settlers arrived in Eday 5000 years ago and their chambered tombs, burnt mounds and standing stones are a constant reminder of earlier life on the islands.
CALF OF EDAY
This small island lays at the north eastern tip of Eday and has some wonderful examples of prehistoric houses and chambered tombs, some of the most important sites on the British Isles.
The ruins of a 17th Century salt works are probably the best surviving example of their type.
An uninhabited island grazed by sheep. It’s caves and beaches are a major breeding ground for Grey Seals.
The key to Scapa Flow, this island took a beating during the World War II air raids as the Germans, after bombing the naval defences, turned for home dumping their remaining bombs on the nearest island.
Flotta oil terminal is one of the first landmarks to be seen as you reach the island. Built in 1976, this terminal processes crude oil from the Piper Platform.
Rocket Batteries, remains of military coastal defences and piers provide a wealth of interest for the military enthusiast.
Further information on Flotta including activities and places to visit.
HOY & GRAEMSAY
The landscape of Hoy is unique within the Orkney isles. It has steep and craggy hills, corries and glaciated valleys providing home to apline plants, seabirds and mammals.
The Old Man of Hoy, a famous 450 foot sea stack has been a lure to climbers all over the world.
Military history is represented at the Lyness Naval Base, Martello Towers and Longhope Battery. Lyness Naval Cemetary is the resting place for many heroes of World War II, including those of HMS Hampshire, Vanguard and Royal Oak.
Graemsay is situated off the north eastern tip of Hoy. Walkers can explore the rocky shoreline and sandy beaches. A great place to picnic whilst watching the wild birds.
Lighthouse enthusiasts will enjoy the visit to the two towers at the northern and south eastern approaches to the island.
The most remote of the Orkney Isles, being further north than the southern tip of Norway. Old traditions still hold strong and the native North Ronaldsay sheep are still grazed communally along the coastline. The meat from these sheep is now a prized delicacy.
being on the migration crossroads to Iceland and Greenland, the island of North Ronaldsay boasts a diverse population of migrant birds. Common and Grey Seals are numerous and porpoises can often be seen.
Evidence of early settlement can be observed at the Bare of Stannabreck, Broch of Burrian and Howmae Brae, among others.
Further information on North Ronaldsay.
Just north of the western mainland Rousay is grouped with the smaller islands of Egilsay, Wyre and Eynhallow.
Rich in heritage, the Jacobean style Trumland House, belonging to the then Laird, General Sir Frederick William Traill-Burroughs, share the landscape with much older Iron and Stone Age brochs and cairns.
Although Trumland House is not open to the public, there is an excellent visitor centre with restaurant, crafts and cycle facility.
An RSPB moorland nature reserve is situated at the south eastern end of the island, offering long and short walks around the site.
The small island to the east of Rousay is home to the famous St. Magnus Kirk, one of only two remaining examples of the distinctive round towered churches, built by the Vikings.
An RSPB reserve has large numbers of breeding waders and meadows rich in wild flowers.
Wyre is the southern island off Rousay and is famous for Cubbie Roo’s Castle, the stronghold of the Viking Chieftain, built around 1150 AD as well as the wonderfully preserved St. Mary’s Chapel.
One of the greatest Scottish writers of the 20th Century, Edwin Muir, lived on the island for a while.
The tiny island of Eynhallow is uninhabited now but is home to a fantastic 12th Century Monastic settlement and three prehistoric houses.
Further information on Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre and Eynhallow.
The largest of the northern Orkney Isles has sweeping bays with white sandy beaches. It is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts with seals (Selkies) abundant on the shores and the wetlands. Farmland and meadows providing a welcome stop for migrant and visiting birds alike. The islands’ otter population is a rare sight.
Sanday has the best conditions for arable farming and this is evident from the 5000 years of prolific prehistoric and Viking archaeology.
There are remains of military presence on the island and Sanday even boasts it’s own nine hole “ecological” golf course.
Futher information on Sanday
Sanday Tourism Assoscaition
Twenty five minutes crossing, just north of Kirkwall, Shapinsay has small areas of sea water completely shut off from the ocean by narrow tracts of land. Locally known as “Ayres”, these storm beaches are a great habitat for breeding birds and none more so then the RSPB Mill Dam reserve.
Shapinsay has it’s share of archaeology in the form of cists, mounds, brochs and underground structures.
As the ferry approaches the south western shore, the towers of the Victorian Balfour Castle dominate the view.
Further information on Shapinsay
One of the most easterly positioned islands, Stronsay is about seven miles long and is eaten into by three large bays.
Abounding with bird life throughout the year. Now well know as one of the best sites in Europe for rare migrants, the Stronsay Bird Reserve is owned and run by bird artist John Holloway and his family.
Two tiny outlaying islands of Linga Holm and Holm of Huip are important breeding grounds for Atlantic Grey Seals and Greylag Geese.
Much of the archaeology on Stronsay and the surrounding islands has been well preserved, including one of Orkney’s earliest chambered tombs dating from 3000 BC or earlier.
Papa Stronsay sits just off the north eastern aspect of Stronsay and was home to Orkney’s monks.
Earl Rognvald Brusason was murdered here in 1046 by the supporters of Thorfinn the Mighty.
Further information on Stronsay
The spectacular sea cliffs, rocky shores and sandy beaches provide some great coastal walks where wildlife abounds. Apart from the sea birds, Seals, Dolphins, Whales and Basking Sharks can often be seen. Between late April and July the curious little puffins make their home in the cliffs.
Outlying small islands of Rusk Holm, Holm are important breeding sites for Grey Seals whilst Holm of Aikerness is a good site to see Common Seal pups in June and is home to 150 North Ronaldsay sheep.
The shortest scheduled flight in the world exists between Westray and Papa Westray (shorter than the main runway at Heathrow Airport).
Papa Westray or Papay is home to the oldest house in northern Europe at the Knap of Howar. These well preserved buildings were home to neolithic farmers over 5000 years ago, before the ancient pyramids of Egypt were built.
St. Boniface Kirk is one of the oldest Chirstian sites in northern Scotland. It’s 12th Century stonework has been restored over the years.
Holland Farm was home to the Lairds of the island for three centuries. This Traill family home features a doo’cot, mill tramp and corn drying kiln.
The island of Burray lies to the north of South Ronaldsay, the two islands are connected by the 4th Churchill Barrier.
Burray has lovely sandy beaches and is a centre for many water sports including: diving, canoeing, sailing and water skiing.
The various habitats such as heathland, beaches, lochs, cliffs and rocks are home to a wide variety of birds. Common and Grey Seals are often be seen.
Burray is also connected by the Churchill Barriers to the two smaller islands of glimps Holm and Lamb Holm, the latter of which can be found the stunning Itailan Chapel (La chiesetta italiana di Orkney).
Further information on Burray
The most southerly of the Orkney Isles is often the first that ferry passengers see, as they disembark at St. Margarets, Hope.
South Ronaldsay is the nearest Orkney Island to Scotland, just 6.5 miles across the Pentland Firth from John O’Groats.
The main town is the picturesque village of St. Margarets Hope, laying in a sheltered bay with houses around the shore.
Beeches have wonderful white sand with many sea birds visible on the coastline and shores.
South Ronaldsay is linked to the mainland via Burray, Lamb Home and Glimps Home by the Churchill Barriers.
Further information on South Ronaldsay