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Orkney Islands Itinerary

Day 1     

Our tour starts from Inverness.  You will be collected from either your hotel or directly from the airport or train station and transported by a minibus to Scrabster, in the north of Scotland.  Here, we will take the Hamnavoe ferry to Stromness, a picturesque little town on the Mainland Orkney.  The transfer by a minibus will take approximately two and half hours, whereas the transfer by ferry an hour and half.   On the arrival to Orkney, we will travel to our lodge on the outskirts of Kirkwall, our base for the next four days. 

Day 2

We will spend the day exploring the West Mainland island, combining bird watching with visiting historical and archaeological sites. 

Our insight into Orkney history will start with a guided tour of the tomb of Maeshowe, one of the finest architectural achievements of prehistoric Europe and Orkney’s largest and finest chambered cairn.  Vikings visited Maeshowe during the 12th century and left one of the largest collections of Norse runic inscriptions known.    Situated between Loch Stenness and Loch Harray is the Ring of Brodgar, one of the finest stone circles in the world.  The stone ring was built in a true circle and originally contained 60 megaliths, but today only 27 of these stones remain.   The neighbouring Standing Stones of Stenness is a smaller group but has extremely tall and slender stones in a beautiful loch-side location.   We will finish historical tour of Orkney by visiting Skara Brae, an intricate group of dwellings with fine stone furniture, all intact and dating back some 5,000 years. The site was revealed in 1850 by a violent storm and is now one of the most famous Neolithic sites in Northern Europe. 

The programme for the day will also include a visit to the Yesnaby cliffs, one of Orkney’s most beautiful sites where towering cliffs and stacks provide stunning views and dramatic scenery.  Slightly inland, the vegetation grades into maritime heath, one of the most interesting of Orkney’s habitats.  Yesnaby is one of only 15 sites in Scotland and indeed in the world, where Scottish primose occurs and we will spend some time looking for this small and sturdy plant.  Not far from here is an RSPB reserve, The Loons, forming a part of the largest remaining wetland in Orkney.  A well erected hide can, hopefully, provide us with a good view of several species of ducks that breed here.   

Our final destination for the day will be the Burgar Hill RSPB reserve which provides the only hide in the country overlooking the nesting site of a red-throated diver.  As we travel through Birsay Moorlands, the breeding and hunting grounds of hen harrier, short-eared owl, merlin and kestrel, there is a good chance to see those birds in action. 

We will conclude the day by dining at an award wining restaurant in the countryside.  

Day 3

We will have an early start to the day and catch the first ferry to Westray Island and then, onwards to Papa Westray.  Lying roughly on the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway, the island is one of the most remote of the Orkney islands.  Just over four miles long by a mile wide, Papa Westray is renowed internationally for its birdlife, its archeology and spectacular scenery.  We will spend the whole morning exploring historical sites of the island.   One of the older inhabitants of the island, with many tales to tell, will accompany us on our tour.  We will visit the Knap of Howar, the earliest known dwelling in northern Europe, where the first occupants were in residence 6000 years ago, even before the pyramids were built.  With intact doorways, stone partitions and stone benches, the buildings are remarkably well-preserved.  St Boniface Church, built during the 12th century, is regarded as one of the oldest Christian sites in the north of Scotland.   The church has been lovingly restored in recent years and is still in regular use today.  Finally, before lunch, we will visit Holland Farm, formerly the home of the Traill family, lairds of the island for three centuries.  The complex of agricultural buildings is perhaps the most extensive traditional steading in Orkney.  The farm includes a splendid mill tramp where horses provided the pulling power, a doo'cot and corn-drying kiln.  One of the farm workers' bothies has been converted into a compact museum displaying a fascinating range of artifacts from the island's history including the parish handcuffs!

After a relaxing lunch, we will spend the afternoon exploring the coast and the top-rated North Hill nature reserve, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.  The RSPB warden will accompany us on our walk around the reserve.   Here, the heavily eroded cliffs are densely populated by guillemots, fulmars, razorbills and puffins.  Black guillemots, grey and common seals can be seen on the rocks and gentler sections of the shore.  Here, the largest area of maritime heath in the UK is found and we will get another chance to see the Scottish primose.  Amongst the profusion of wild flowers, arctic terns and arctic skuas establish their breeding colonies here.  We will also visit the place where the last great auk in Britain was shot in 1813, commemorated by a small statue.  This extinct bird was a relative of the puffin and about a metre high.

After home-made scones and a cup of tea, it will be time to board our ferry back to Mainland.  I can guarantee that we will all feel sorry to leave this little island, full of charm, history, wonderful wildlife and incredible hospitality of its inhabitants. 

Day 4

Today we will explore the East Mainland, Burray and South Ronaldsay, which are all connected by a number of causeways, known as the Churchill Barriers

We will start a day by visiting an archeological site, the Tomb of Eagles.  This impressive chambered tomb was discovered by a local farmer and dates back approx. 3000 BC.  The name of the tomb comes from the many talons and skulls of sea eagles found among the human bones which indicate that up to 340 people were buried here.  We will listen to fascinating stories and will be able to hold some of the artefacts found in the tomb. 

Our tour will take us around Scapa Flow, a 50 square mile expanse of water, which forms one of the largest natural anchorages in the world.  The bay sheltered the British fleet in two world wars, and hosts evocative relics, including seven German ships, the Churchill Barriers with their beached blockships and the inspiring Italian Chapel.  The latter is a beautiful chapel built in the 1940s by Italian prisoners of war on the tiny island of Lamb Holm (connected to the Mainland by the first of the Churchill Barriers). 

The various habitats on the islands are home to a wide variety of birds and we will see some of the islands’ birdwatching hotspots.  As we travel through the islands, we will also visit various attractions on its way, including the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, where apart from viewing the most amazing tapestries on exhibition, we will get the chance to see the artist herself, Leila Thomson, at work. Later in the day, we will visit the workshop of Sheila Fleet, one of the most successful Orcadian designers and producers of silver and gold jewellery.  We will have a guided tour around her workshop and get inside into the mysteries of jewellery making (here, a foraging short-eared owl is aften seen). 

Our last destination of the day will be the Highland Park Distillery, a 200-year old whisky distillery with working floor maltings and peat kilns. We will have a special guided tour which will include an age range tasting of one of the best Scottish single malts.

In the evening, we will take a pleasant 25-minute crossing, by especially arranged boat, to the island of Shapinsay.  The spectacular Balfour Castle dominates this lavishly green landscape here, but our destination for the evening will be a restaurant which offers the best seafood on Orkney (other options are available for non-seafood eaters). Hopefully, there will be enough time to visit the Mill Dam, the RSPB reserve and home to many breeding ducks and waders.  After our jolly evening, we will take a late night boat back to Kirkwall. 

Day 5

We will take our ferry back to Scrabster in the morning.  You will be back in Inverness by 13.00 to catch your connecting flight/train home.

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view Orkney island

Ring of Brodgar

The Standing Stone of Stenness

Scottish Primrose

Primula scotica

Scara brea

Scara Brea



Italian chapel

Italian chapel