Just back from… Orkney, Scotland

About to slide into the depths of a Stone Age tomb... on a small trolley on wheels © James Kay

Heading into the depths of a Stone Age tomb… on a small trolley on wheels © James Kay

James Kay, Editor at Lonely Planet, recently returned from a trip to Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern tip of Scotland.

Tell us more… I plotted a leisurely route from London to Orkney: a complex series of inter-connecting trains from Kings Cross to Aberdeen, followed by a six-hour ferry to Kirkwall, the islands’ dinky capital. Why? If you love travel, you savour the journey.

In a nutshell… Orkney defied expectations; I had imagined somewhere scoured by wet and wild weather, and perhaps a bit bleak for some people’s tastes – none of which put me off. But although it sees its fair share of storms, Orkney is in fact extremely mild for this latitude (it’s only 50 miles south of Greenland). The Gulf Stream ensures a micro-climate, and that’s part of what makes this such a rich natural environment.

Defining moment? A pair of sea eagles recently returned to nest on the island of Hoy after a hiatus of nearly 150 years. One rainy afternoon, my guide and I joined an RSPB vigil in Rackwick Valley in the hope of seeing one of these giant birds guarding their eyrie. After half an hour of squinting through the spotting scope without reward in increasingly heavy rain, my attention began to wander… and at that point I noticed a sea eagle circling casually in the sky right behind us.

Good grub? Indeed. Orkney is renowned for its beef (they’ve been farming cattle for 5000 years thanks to the lush pastureland). The seafood is also as good as you’d expect from somewhere surrounded by the North Sea; Orkney crab, in particular, is a world-famous delicacy. And Orcadians are makers by nature, producing everything from cheeses to chocolates, not to mention some quaffable beer.

The waterfront of Stromness, home of the Pier Arts Centre © James Kay

The waterfront of Stromness, home of the Pier Arts Centre © James Kay

You’d be a muppet to miss… the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Founded by the artist, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner, the centre is now the home of her large collection of contemporary art, as well as other intriguing exhibits. Once the home of a merchant from the historic Hudson Bay Company, the building itself is an architectural gem.

Fridge magnet or better? With an environment this eye-catching, it’s no surprise that Orkney is home to so many artists and artisans, which makes for a superior souvenir-hunting experience. I bought my wife a pair of earrings from jeweller Sheila Fleet, whose work draws inspiration from the islands’ Viking heritage. I also bagged a toy puffin on the ferry home – alas, it has yet to find favour; the competition in my toddler’s cot is stiff.


Perfect for twitching: the parabolic ‘Listening Wall’ at The Loons and Loch of Banks © James Kay

Fav activity? If pushed to choose only one, I’d go for the visit to The Loons and Loch of Banks, an RSPB reserve comprised of Orkney’s largest remaining wetlands, where you can spot godwits, lapwings and many other species. Our party dallied for a sunny hour at the ‘Listening Wall’, a parabolic structure that amplifies the sounds of the birds; where better to stop for a sandwich in the company of knowledgeable, Swarovksi binocular-wielding twitchers?

Quintessential experience? It’s hard to look past the Unesco-listed Neolithic Heart of Orkney site, which put Stonehenge in the shade in my opinion. But it would be remiss to confine your curiosity to this alone, as every sod of earth here seems sown with history; the locals like to say, stick a spade in the ground in Orkney and you’ll probably start a fresh archaeological dig.

The brooding landscape of Hoy, Orkney's 'high island' © James Kay

The brooding landscape of Hoy, Orkney’s ‘high island’ © James Kay

If you do one thing… Visit Hoy. I didn’t have time to explore the outer islands, which I’m sure are just as compelling, but I did make it to Hoy. The big crowd-pleasers here are the famous Old Man of Hoy rock stack, and the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which focuses on war-time history. They’re both worth the trip alone, but the island itself is topographically unique – it’s a chunk of the Scottish Highlands adrift in the North Sea, completely different to its immediate neighbours.

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