Orkney Island Whirlwind Tour


Farewell Shetland, Hello Orkney

Kirkwall Bus Station
Welcome to Kirkwall



How Far Ahead Do You Plan ?

To keep my journey flexible, I don’t plan my next accommodation too far in advance. Sometimes I book 1 to 2 days ahead, however, this is high season so I decided to start checking 2 weeks in advance. The budget accommodations were scarce. All I was able to secure in Kirkwall was 2 nights at the Kirkwall Youth Hostel. This only gave me one full day to explore the island. Depending on my departure, I may be able to wander a few hours on my second day.


Sunset Cruise

When I completed my week of volunteering at North Croft House on Papa Stour, I caught the morning ferry back to Shetland and had the bus driver drop me off at the Northlink Ferry building in Lerwick. Because I had a reservation on the 5:30 PM ferry to Kirkwall — the capital of Orkney Island — and it was 11:30ish, I stowed my backpack in the “left luggage” room and walked around town. It was a warm and sunny day, perfect for a walk along the waterfront. After feasting on a lunch of fish & chips I visited the local library, browsed through their book selection and read.

When I returned to the ferry building I took my place in line, waiting to board the ship. Since this is a 5-1/2-hour cruise and I wished to have a comfortable chair to sit on, I reserved a recliner chair. I figured it was probably more comfortable than the sleeping pod I had reserved on my previous cruise. Besides, it was cheaper — £3.50 vs £18 for the sleeping pod. The chair was okay, but I had no way to elevate my feet for a more comfortable position to nap. Then again, I didn’t need to sleep since we were scheduled to arrive in Kirkwall by 11:00 pm. In the end, the recliner served its purpose as a place to sit and relax and stow my bag.


Midnight Arrival

The staff at the Kirkwall hostel was great, as they try to accommodate those of us who arrive on the late-night ferries. Normally they shut down reception at 10pm, so I emailed them a week before I was scheduled to arrive to let them know of my late arrival time. They recommended I either ride a bus or take a taxi. The taxi made the most sense for me and was a good investment. It was nearly midnight when I got to bed.

Even though I had booked a multi-bed dorm room, as those are the least expensive, I was assigned a room with 2 beds. Not bad. My roommate was very nice, but she left first thing in the morning.


Skara Brae Orkney
Skara Brae Ancient Settlement

Day 1 – Exploration

I had brought enough food with me from Lerwick to prepare a light breakfast. While eating I studied the brochures I got from the lobby and planned out my itinerary for the day. Since I had purchased a Scottish Environment Heritage Orkney Explorer Pass when I visited Jarlshof on Shetland, I wanted to include the sites covered by that pass. Lucky for me, some heritage sites were right here in Kirkwall. The others were accessible via the Discover Orkney bus tour.


Skara Brae

The tour was in a double decker bus. The most popular place to sit when the sun shines is the open-air top deck. However, as soon as the first raindrop falls it is the least desirable place to sit. The driver doesn’t provide any kind of commentary but gives us set times for boarding bus before heading to our next historic site.

The first stop on the tour was Skara Brae and Skaill House. Since I was a bit peckish, my first stop was the cafe. I loved the Skara Brae Museum. It included a re-creation of one of the houses from the ancient settlement so you could get a better idea of how they lived. It is amazing how well intact this little settlement is.

Skaill House, Orkney
Skaill House, next door to Skara Brae


Skara Brae is estimated to date back to 3,200 BC. It‘s along the sea shore and was buried under sand dunes for centuries, or maybe even a couple of millennia. Then in 1850 there was a tremendous storm that washed away the sand dunes and revealed this ancient village.

One of the more interesting things about this site was that there is at least one more settlement beneath this. But in order to verify it they would have to dismantle this site. Either they don’t want to do that or are prohibited from doing so. One of the mysteries of the ancient world shall remain a mystery.


Skaill House

Skaill House is adjacent to Skara Brae. It happens to be the home of the gentleman who discovered Skara Brae. The house was first built in the 1620’s and then expanded and renovated. It was the owner of Skaill House that saw the exposed ruins after the storm. I don’t believe the family still lives in the house, but they do capitalize on the attraction next door. They have also converted some of the buildings into accommodation – B&B, self catering, private functions.

Standing Stones

Orkney Standing Stones, Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar Overview

The tour bus driver was waiting patiently for me, as I was the last person to board the bus before heading off to the second stop — Ring of Brodgar Standing Stones. This place is great! Huge stones standing upright forming multiple circles. There is even a small mound a short distance away that gives you something of a overview of the stones. No admission fee. Just respect the small barrier put up so that you can’t walk up to the individual stones. However, there was one stone that we found a path leading up to it and I just couldn’t resist. I touched it and, alas, I did not travel back in time.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
Ring of Brodgar Standing Stone


Once back on the bus we drove past the Standing Stones of Stenness. They cover a wide area, but there is limited convenient parking places. I could have requested to be let off the bus to wander on my own, then caught another back to Kirkwall, but I was not certain of where the stop was and what time the last bus came by. Drive-by photos will have to do.  

Orkney Standing Stones, Steness
Steness Standing Stones, Orkney



Once back in Kirkwall I stopped in the Co-Op grocery store and bought some food for the remainder of my stay there and walked back to the hostel. It was still early enough in the day that I could walk to the town centre and visit more historic sites.


Town Centre Highlights


St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney
St. Magnus Cathedral

The most imposing and impressive landmark in Kirkwal’s town centre is St. Magnus Cathedral. It is quite stunning inside and out. Its origins begin with the Vikings in the 12th century.


Across the street are the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces. They are in ruin but do have colorful histories. The Bishop’s Palace dates back to the 12th century. The Earl’s Palace is much newer, having been built in the 17th century.

Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney
Bishop’s Palace





Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney
Earl’s Palace

Back at the hostel I prepared dinner and chatted with one of the guests. He is organizing a movement to separate Orkney & Shetland from Scotland. He said that they were given on loan 1469 for the dowry of a princess and the loan was never repaid. This gentleman is a colorful character. Good luck on his efforts.

My next roommate checked in very late. She was very nice. And was here for just the one night, then gone again early in the morning.


Day Two – Half Day of Exploration

My bus to the ferry at St Margaret’s Hope was scheduled to leave at 4:00 PM, which allowed me time to do some more exploring around Orkney. I had done some research online and found that there was a well marked circular walk in the village of St. Mary’s. I caught the 1X bus and told the driver my plans. He told me he wasn’t aware of any such trail, but he would take me to St. Mary’s anyway.

There was only a couple of other people on the bus, so when we arrived in St. Mary’s the driver stopped in front of a convenience store and walked inside to purchase some milk. While making the purchase, he asked the cashier if she knew of any marked trails in the area. She said there is sort of a trail, but it isn’t marked. The driver was satisfied that I was in good hands and he boarded his bus and continued his route.

The cashier walked outside with me and pointed me in the direction I needed to go and described the landmarks I needed to watch for. If I was lucky I may even see swans. I thanked her and started my journey.

Anchor ashore
Anchor at St. Mary’s, Orkney


The Unmarked Trail

Across the street from the store was a very run-down building with a huge anchor decorating its landscape. I continued walking along the roadside. There were no footpaths, so I walked as close to the edge as possible and stepped into the high weeds for oncoming cars

Soon I saw an information board describing Churchill’s Causeway. It seems the Orkney Islands were vulnerable during WWII. In order to prevent enemy boats from cruising in between the various islands Churchill ordered the causeways built, connecting the smaller islands to the main island. Those causeways still function as a major highway for Orkney today.

Orkney Island totem
Totem of St. Mary’s

Next I saw a Native American Totem in a park alongside the highway. Did I mysteriously get transported to Alaska? No. The totem was a gift through some sort of exchange program.

I continued walking along the highway and saw a pair of swans swimming in the calm sea. From that point I turned inland. Some back roads led me past pastures and livestock grazing. There even a bus stop on the main highway leading back into town. I kept walking, following Google Maps directions back to the convenience store.


Circuit Complete

Once I got back to the store I purchased a hot tea and waited for the next bus. I ate my lunch at a picnic table next to the stop. A nice gentleman was also waiting for the bus and he told me about how he traveled the world doing various jobs and finally married and settled down In Orkney when he was in his 40s. He wlked not thee beach and picked up a periwinkle shell and handed it to me. He told me that when he is strapped for money he collects those and sells them to restaurants as escargot shells. He said anyone who needs to earn a little cash can do just that.

After returning to Kirkwall I picked up my backpack from the hostel and caught my bus to St Margaret’s Hope (£3.15). As it turned out, this bus was chartered for a tour that originated in Inverness. The open seats are then sold to others seeking transport to St. Margaret’s Hope. The tour included a stop at the Italian Chapel at St. Mary’s. The chapel is all that is left of a WWII POW camp. There is a fee to enter the chapel. I chose to admire from the outside. From there we followed the causeways across the islands to the ferry.


Italian Chapel, Orkney
Italian Chapel


Crossing the Pentland Firth

Since I did not purchase my ticket in advance, I paid after boarding – £19. It was a short, 45-minute ride to John O’Groats. I was hoping to see whales and dolphins are spotted, but not this time.

The bus stop to my next destination – Thurso – was a short walk from the ferry landing. The next bus was due just over an hour, so I had enough time to eat an order of fish & chips (£7). Some gentlemen from  Germany were also waiting for the bus. They said they were going to walk the North Highland Way, carrying only day packs. Luggage transfer services aren’t available like on the West Highland Way, so they had negotiated with the B&B proprietors to transfer their luggage to the next night’s accommodations.

The bus we boarded had a sticky door, so every time we stopped the driver had her friend manually open it. Our driver was very nice and took to heart where the best place to drop me that was closest to my accommodation- Sandra’s Backpackers hostel. When we got to Thurso she pointed to the street corner I needed to walk to, then turn right. And thus my brief North Coast adventure begins here, in my next blog.


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