Traveller's Guide: Orkney

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Beyond the north coast of Scotland, this windswept yet beautiful archipelago brims with history and wildlife, says Simon Calder

Landscapes and seascapes that make you feel you've found one of the rawest edges of the world; activities from horse-riding and wildlife-watching to world-class diving; and a history that stretches from the last war right back to the dawn of civilisation – you can experience all this without leaving Britain, in the archipelago that lies just beyond mainland Scotland.

Orkney (never "the Orkneys") comprises a huddle of islands in the upper Fifties. That refers to its latitude, but as it happens, the ambience harks back to the 1950s, too. Some of the shops and cafés seem to have changed little in the past half-century, while passengers on "domestic" flights between the islands escape any security checks. If the notion of a beautiful and tranquil backwater studded with intrigue appeals, you need not look much further than John O'Groats.

Kirkwall is not exactly a throbbing metropolis, which is, of course, part of the charm. It is the location for the northernmost cathedral in Britain: St Magnus, named after Magnus Erlendsson, the 11th-century "martyr of Orkney" (01856 874 894; stmagnus.org). The mighty structure of red and yellow sandstone is best explored on an organised tour of the upper level (Tuesday and Thursday, 11am and 2pm; admission £6.50).

Just across the road, you can explore a pair of ruins: the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces. These elaborate structures speak of the tangled history of Orkney, tussled over by Norse and Scots warriors. Like many Orkney sites, the palaces are open only in summer (April-October); 9am-5.30pm daily, £4.50. Another intriguing attraction is the Wireless Museum (full of old radios – nothing to do with internet broadband; orkneywirelessmuseum.org.uk, 10am-4.30pm daily, £2).

The capital is on the northern side of Mainland, a splat of land that bulges to the west and is squeezed in several places to the east. There is more than enough on this island alone for a good few days' stay – not least because you can explore two extra islands without getting your feet wet. Burray and South Ronaldsay are connected by causeways, constructed by Italian prisoners during the Second World War. They provide protection for Scapa Flow – the vast, deep natural harbour guarded on its south-west flank by Hoy.

Orkney has exported its people far and wide – as most prominently revealed in the pretty port of Stromness, to the west of Mainland, and the arrival point from Scrabster on Scotland's north coast. In the late 18th century, three-quarters of the men in the Hudson's Bay Company were Orcadians, who were judged "more sober and tractable than the Irish", and cheaper than the English. There is also a plaque marking Mrs Humphrey's House, which served as a temporary hospital in 1835-36, "for scurvy-ridden whale men who had been trapped in the ice for months". You can find out more at the fascinating Stromness Museum at 52 Albert Street (01856 850 025; 10am-5pm daily; £3). And pay a visit to the welcoming Pier Arts Centre in Stromness (01856 850 209; pierartscentre.com), the former offices of the Hudson's Bay Company and now a gallery and community hub; open 10.30am-5pm.

Stromness is also the departure point for ferries to Moaness on Hoy. Orkney's second-largest island, Hoy is distinct because of its dramatic terrain – rising to the archipelago's highest peak, the 1,571ft Ward Hill. Close by are the highest sea cliffs in Britain, and out at sea the 450ft stack, the Old Man of Hoy.

The North Isles – starting with Shapinsay, Wyre, Egilsay and Rousay – are, in comparison, sparsely populated and, in the wrong sort of weather, bleak. If you can devote several weeks to an Orkney exploration, then you could certainly visit them and discover treats such as the Victorian frivolity of Balfour Castle on Shapinsay, now an exclusive country-house hotel (01856 711 282; balfourcastle.co.uk), offering horse-riding, paintballing and cooking lessons among many diversions.

Further north and east, Eday is notable for its airstrip – ambitiously called "London airport" – which can provide access to the island for a day visit, taking the Eday Heritage Walk through locations inhabited for 4,000 years such as the Fold of Setter. Neighbouring (and larger) Sanday goes one millennium better, with the 5,000-year-old chambered cairn at Quoyness. Papa Westray has one of the oldest houses in northern Europe: the Knap of Howar, dating from 3,500BC. The 21st-century claim to fame is the air link to Westray, the shortest scheduled flight in the world.

The glory days of Stronsay, and in particular the port of Whitehall, were a century ago when it was a key port for the herring trade. North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island, and mostly of interest to birdwatchers and people keen to escape the rest of the world.

Getting there and getting around

By car or train, just aim north and keep going until you run out of land, which happens at the port of Scrabster, adjacent to Thurso on the north coast of mainland Scotland. Here, a NorthLink (0845 6000 449; northlinkferries.co.uk) ferry will take you across to Stromness in 90 minutes. In good weather, this is a spectacular voyage with great views of the Old Man of Hoy. Another terrestrial alternative is to travel to Aberdeen and board NorthLink's evening ferry to Kirkwall, returning overnight.

The shortest crossing operates only in summer (May-September). John O'Groats Ferries (01955 611 353; jogferry.co.uk) sail from the port close to Scotland's northernmost point to Burwick on South Ronaldsay in 40 minutes. Bus connections from Inverness and to Kirkwall link with some sailings.

If you prefer a larger vessel, you could board a cruise that includes Kirkwall, the capital. Saga (0800 504 505; travel.saga.co.uk) has several options in August, with Fred Olsen (01473 742424; fredolsencruises.com) offering three cruises in September.

By air, Kirkwall has links on Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. These are "code- share" flights with BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), and, depending on your starting point, it may be advantageous to book a through journey with BA rather than Flybe. Booking separate sectors (eg London-Aberdeen on BA and Aberdeen-Kirkwall through Flybe) is not recommended, because of the possibility that flights are disrupted. If you have a single ticket for the whole journey, the airline has to sort out the problem.

Loganair operates a network of flights around the islands. You will need to speak to a reservations agent: 01856 872 494 or 873 457.

The breezy alternative for island hopping is the marvellous Orkney Ferries network (01856 872 044; orkneyferries.co.uk), which mostly connects Kirkwall with the other islands. The needs of tourists are recognised, for example with the "Hoy Hopper" service on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays to 25 September, which starts in Kirkwall and provides the opportunity to explore Hoy in a day.

Hoy has a limited bus service, while Stagecoach has a network serving the key locations on Mainland and down to Burwick. After that, you're on your own. On Mainland – and the connected south-eastern islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay – a rental car is a sound investment. W R Tullock, based in Kirkwall but with a desk at the airport, is the main provider (01856 875 500; orkneycarrental.co.uk). A small hatchback costs £39 a day or £200 a week, with unlimited mileage (not that you are likely to cover too much distance). Given the sparse public transport, hitch-hiking is widely practised and generally very successful.

Five thousand years in one afternoon

Evidence of human settlement stretching back to 3,000BC is rare anywhere on earth, yet in Orkney you need barely delve beyond the A965 – the road from Kirkwall to Stromness – to find a wholly engrossing trinity of sites that reach back 5,000 years.

Start with the cluster of standing stones that emphasises how rich Orkney is in archaeology. Only four of the original dozen Standing Stones of Stenness remain upright, but they provide a suitable overture to the Ring of Brodgar, which sounds like something out of a JRR Tolkien epic, but turns out to be the Northern Isles' version of Stonehenge (the Western Isles has its own contender, at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis). Nearly half the original 60 stones remain, and you can wander freely in and out of the circumference. Nearby at Maeshowe (01856 761 606; historic-scotland.gov.uk), access is strictly controlled. You should phone in advance to book a tour, which departs between 9.30am and 4.30pm daily, then arrive in good time at Tormiston Mill, diagonally across the road, to join a tour of the chambered tomb.

Half the thrill of Maeshowe is the sense of wonder that you are standing in a space created by humans five millennia ago. And the other half: the intrusions of modern Viking, or at least those who discovered the tomb in the 12th century and carved graffiti.

For the best sense of how life was five millennia ago, visit Skara Brae (01856 841 815; historic-scotland.gov.uk), an excavated Stone Age village. This huddle of tiny pod-like homes is remarkably well preserved thanks to a blanket of sand, which protected the village for thousands of years until a fierce storm revealed it in 1850. It opens 9.30am-5.30pm daily, admission £6.90 – which includes the adjacent Skaill House, a 17th-century stately home.

Orkney in a nutshell: Westray

If you choose to visit only one outer island, make it this northern straggle of territory. You can reach Westray from Kirkwall in about an hour by ferry, or 12 minutes by air (20 minutes if the plane goes via Papa Westray). The airport is at the north of the island, the port at the south, and the main settlement is at Pierowall Bay. Adjacent to the comfortable Pierowall Hotel (01857 677 472; pierowallhotel.co.uk; £80 a double including breakfast), the old school has been converted into the Westray Heritage Centre (01857 677414; westrayheritage.co.uk; £2.50). Here you can see some of the island's archaeological treasures.

To see one of the richest archaeological digs in Europe, visit the dig along the shore close to Noltland Castle. The 16th-century castle itself is open whenever you wish, or more precisely when Mr Brown, the farmer, is available to lend you the key. You can then roam freely around the creation of Mary Queen of Scots' chief aide, Sir Gilbert Balfour. He was implicated in the murder of Mary's second husband, Lord Darnley, and fled to Sweden where he was executed for taking part in an assassination plot against the Swedish king.

The best way to explore Westray is on an organised trip; Westraak (01857 677 777; westraak.co.uk) can tailor a day for you, meeting you at the port or airport.

Wild world

Seals and seabirds are the main attractions in Orkney, and your exploration can begin as soon as you step off the ferry. The Sankey family, at Gerraquoy in South Ronaldsay (01856 831240; orcadianwildlife.co.uk), offer farmhouse accommodation and tours that study the flora and fauna.

About as far as you can get from South Ronaldsay without getting your tyres wet is Birsay – and, beyond it, Brough of Birsay which you can reach at low tide via a causeway. The ruins of Norse and Pict settlements are augmented between May and July by puffins. South of here, Marwick Head is another bird-spotting location. An RSPB reserve is located here, to help protect the kittiwakes and guillemots. One of the best places to see seals basking is Skaill beach in Deerness on Mainland.

War memorials

Orkney's location means it played a key role in the two world wars. The islands lie on the key shipping route around the north of Britain and the huge expanse of Scapa Flow provides what was regarded as a safe haven.

Lord Kitchener met his end, along with 640 other men, off Marwick Head on the north-west coast of Mainland. The Secretary of War was on a secret mission to meet the Tsar in Russia. His ship, HMS Hampshire, hit a German mine on 5 June 1916; only 14 men survived. A memorial looks over the location; you can walk from the road in about 20 minutes.

After the First World War, a substantial contingent of the German fleet was held in Scapa Flow while peace negotiations were concluded in Versailles. Admiral von Reuter was in command of 74 vessels, and plotted with officers on each ship to scuttle or beach the fleet rather than let them fall into enemy hands. One version of events insists he wrongly inferred that hostilities were about to resume. What is certain is that when he gave the order, all 74 vessels sank. (Some of the wardroom china rescued from the fleet is in an exhibition at Kirkwall airport.)

Some German sailors died; those whose bodies were recovered are buried at the naval cemetery at Lyness on Hoy. They share the graveyard with some victims of Orkney's greatest tragedy: the sinking of HMS Royal Oak a few weeks after the start of the Second World War. This old warship, many of whose crew were no more than boys, was thought to be safely at anchor inside Scapa Flow.

As a precaution against U-boats, blockships were sunk. But one submarine slipped through and destroyed the Royal Oak. Today, a green buoy marks the site of the wreck. It warns against recreational diving at a location that is considered a war grave. The sunken German fleet is, however, open to experienced divers. Most dive operations are based at Stromness; options from the Orkney Dive Boat Operators' Association: odboa.co.uk.

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