Scotch on the rocks

If you want to get away from it all, you can disappear in the mist on the craggy Orkney Islands. But when the sun comes out, there are few more intriguing places. Janet Waltham goes exploring
Friday and the Old Man of Hoy is magnificent. The great sandstone sea-stack soars 140 metres (450ft) up towards a clear blue sky. Gulls, guillemots and great skuas glide above it, motionless on the prevailing wind. Swaths of sea pinks and banks of yellow and purple saxifrage blossom in the sun. It's one of those "God's in his heaven" sort of days.

Saturday and the Old Man is gone. The famous landmark has disappeared behind the "low cloud" that would translate as "driving rain" in anyone else's vocabulary. The wind is so chilly that even the wild flowers are curling up in self-defence.

Mmmm, that's more like it. Because these are, after all, the Orkney Islands, where summer tends to be a bit of a nine-if-you're-lucky days' wonder. It's where they invented Scotch mist. By lunch-time even the handful of Orcadians who inhabit this northerly bit of the "High Island" have retreated indoors. The pub would be an attractive option for the afternoon - only it's Saturday, the one day of the week when it shuts at 2pm, regardless of the weather.

A walk to the Dwarfie Stane it is, then - another sandstone curiosity, in the form of a 3000BC rock-cut tomb, the only one of its kind in Britain, and another of Hoy's proud landmarks.

But it's just one of so many ancient historical sites that, between them, the islands have to offer, a legacy of 500 years of Viking rule. Skara Brae, the best Neolithic village in Europe; the brochs, or round-houses, built by the Picts; the standing stones at Stenness and the chambered burial tomb at Maes Howe; not to mention the site of the Battle of Summerdale, where the army of James V was defeated - they're all worth a visit.

Only a seriously dedicated island-hopper could hope to visit more than a small selection of the 70-odd islands (20 of them inhabited) that make up the Orkney Islands, but it would be a shame not to sample at least a few of them.

As the only one with a hill, Hoy is an obvious and spectacular choice, but there's much to be seen and done on any of those islands with shipping- forecast names, such as North and South Ronaldsay, Stronsay, Sanday, Westray and Papa Westray.

Each has something different to offer. On Shapinsay, for example, you can stay in the Victorian baronial Balfour Castle, now run as an hotel by the "as to the manor born" Zawadski family, who acquired it from their friends the Balfours after the war, and ever since have been inviting paying guests into their exceedingly grand home to help with the upkeep.

But even if you opt to stay on the largest island, confusingly called Mainland, you're spoiled for choice. The capital - almost too strong a word for a group of islands as laid-back as the Orkney Islands - is Kirkwall, where the harbour is busy with fishing boats and visiting cruise ships, and the main shopping street is just a front for the rabbit warren of lanes and alleyways that lie beyond.

St Magnus Cathedral is one of the more colourful churches in Britain, inside and out, with its stunning, two-tone red and buff sandstones. The semi-ruined Bishops Palace and Earls Palace in the centre of Kirkwall are equally well worth attention. And it's near here that more recent history kicks in, with the blockships and the Churchill barriers, relics of the defensive tactics of two world wars which (mostly) kept the German U-boats away from the mainland.

Another legacy from the war, and a must on the visiting list, is the atmospheric Italian Church, created by prisoners of war out of a couple of Nissen huts. The Italians transformed the building, lining it with exquisite trompe-l'oeil paintings. It became such a labour of love that at the end of the war, when the other Italians left the island, the chief artist stayed behind to finish the font he was working on.

Only a bus ride away from Kirkwall is Stromness, on the south-west side of the main island, a picture postcard kind of a place that rises up in a series of stacked streets twisting and stretching the length of the harbour, where various seamen, including the infamous Captain Bligh, used to call in to stock up with water at the spring known as Login's Well.

Shipping has always been vital to the town's economy, and the Hudson's Bay Company recruited as much as three quarters of its workforce from Stromness. Whaling was once another important source of employment, with ships bound for Greenland regularly calling in to take on crews.

The main street of Stromness, known simply as The Street, remains paved with flagstones, with a cobbled strip up the centre in parts - a reminder of the days of horses and carriages. Steep little lanes radiate from The Street, to dip down between the houses to the water's edge or, like the curiously named Khyber Pass, to wind up to the hillside of Brinkie's Brae.

This is a brilliant town to explore for a day, and certainly one of the most picturesque features in a decidedly photogenic set of islands, which has a history all its own.

Outward bound to Orkney

Flying there

British Regional Airlines operates flights to Kirkwall from Aberdeen and Inverness on behalf of British Airways (0345 222111). The lowest fare from Aberdeen is pounds 90 including tax, or pounds 95 from Inverness. From London, the lowest fare is pounds 211.

Sailing in

P&O (01856 850655) operates fairly frequent ferries from Scrabster, on the mainland, to Stromness. The return fare for foot passengers is pounds 29; cars cost an extra pounds 75 (pounds 79 if large). To get to Scrabster take the 8am daily Scottish Citylink (0990 505050) from Inverness, which arrives in time for the noon sailing. A return ticket for the bus costs pounds 11.30 if you avoid travelling on Fridays and Saturdays. P&O also runs a service between Aberdeen and Stromness at noon on Tuesdays and Saturdays for pounds 78 return; call 01224 572615 for details of this service.

Day tripping

A third option is to take the John O'Groats Ferry (01955 611353) - foot passengers and cyclists only - to Burwick. The return fare, pounds 24, includes a coach journey into Kirkwall. With four sailings daily, it's possible to go across for the day.