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How to eat and drink your way around Orkney

Saoirse Ronan is turning ‘The Outrun’ by Orcadian nature memoirist Amy Liptrot into a film. But the Scottish island is also carving out a place on the map as a hard-to-reach but worth-the-effort destination for foodies, finds Jessie Thompson

Thursday 02 November 2023 15:53 GMT
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<p>The peaceful surrounds of Orkney make it a must-go destination for frazzled millennials</p>

The peaceful surrounds of Orkney make it a must-go destination for frazzled millennials

In Amy Liptrot’s 2016 memoirThe Outrun, about her recovery from alcoholism, Orkney became a place to hide out. She had grown up among the purple heather and the wind-beaten plains, and they were to prove a backdrop to her healing. Now, her book may make Orkney a place that grabs the rest of the world’s attention: later this year, a film adaptation, starring and co-produced by Saoirse Ronan, will put those purple-heather filled fields on the big screen.

But there are other reasons why Orkney is becoming a favoured destination for a younger crowd, bringing a different flavour to the Scottish island than the travellers who arrive in Kirkwall each week from fleets of cruise ships. The recently redeveloped Scapa Flow Museum, telling the story of Orkney’s involvement in World War One and Two, was on this year’s prestigious Museum of the Year shortlist (the award eventually went to another Scottish attraction, The Burrell Collection in Glasgow). The mischievous Twitter account for Orkney Library frequently goes viral; it recently shared the news that a book about tomatoes had finally been returned after being on loan since January 1974. Conversations about the island becoming a self-governing territory of Norway have also hit headlines this year (although, on the ground, locals seem nonplussed by the proposal).

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And there are simpler, more stripped-back reasons, too; in our “always on” age of overwhelm, a retreat like Liptrot’s grows ever more appealing to burnt-out millennials. This is a place of rugged beauty, where it’s hard for the rest of the world to reach you – phone signal is non-existent. In Orkney, you can stop to catch your breath. It’s a good place to go and think, or not think at all.

It’s also a very good place to eat and drink. As Orkney’s stock continues to rise, it is steadily becoming a must-visit destination for discerning foodies. Not just thanks to the rising restaurant scene, but the sheer number of quality local suppliers, making everything from gin to whisky, cheese to fudge.

As Orkney’s stock continues to rise, it’s steadily becoming a must-visit destination for discerning foodies

A look at the menu at The Storehouse, a handsome eatery visited by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 2021 and given the royal seal of approval, boasts the use of local produce across the menu, from the Orkney cheese company to fresh seafood courtesy of Westray’s Pierowall Fish. Tucked down a Kirkwall side street, The Storehouse lives in a listed building that was once home to a 19th-century herring and pork curing store. Owners David Spence and Judith Glue – who also has a knitwear shop and café in Kirkwall – converted it into a restaurant with rooms in 2011, and it now serves an unpretentious menu of locally sourced dishes. My highlight: the chicken breast with bacon jam, following by the Orkney gin and buttermilk panna cotta with strawberries.

And if it’s gin you like, you’re on the right island. As well as the handcrafted Kirkjuvagr Orkney gin, which has a fun outdoor bar in Kirkwall called Oot the Back, there’s the award-winning Orkney Gin Company. Its Rhubarb Old Tom, which mixes rhubarb and rose petals with citrus and cinnamon, was awarded a Taste of Orkney award in 2022.

Scapa distillery’s snug ‘noust’ for whisky tastings

Whisky wins the day, though, when it comes to experiencing Orkney at both its most beautiful and boozy. Take a picturesque walk through Kirkwall and eventually you’ll end up on Scapa Bay beach, a secluded spot with gorgeous views. On the horizon, with Scapa spelt out on a showstopping chalk façade, is the Scapa distillery. Founded in 1885, Scapa’s malts have a fearsomely good reputation on the whisky scene – and a trip to the distillery is a must for an afternoon of history, scenery and, yes, lots and lots of alcohol. The real highlight is the distillery’s purpose-built tasting room, the Scapa Noust. A cosy snug with a fire and a very special view of the sea, the Noust is the place to hunker down and try to decide whether your palate is tasting honey, pineapple or Victoria sponge (all, apparently, valid suggestions). Just don’t drink so much of the 63.5 per cent stuff that you forget which one you liked best.

Those not working off a hangover after a visit to Scapa and wanting to work up a pre-dinner appetite have plenty to do. There’s the stately St Magnus Cathedral, or the must-see Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old neolithic settlement that is older than Stonehenge; over the way is Skaill House, a plush 17th-century manor owned by William Graham Watt, the man who discovered Skara Brae in 1850 (the house was also visited frequently, later, by the Queen Mother for posh lunches); or head to the Orkney Bookshop in Kirkwall and acquaint yourself with George Mackay Brown, Orkney’s most famous author, celebrated for his strange, haunting stories.

Mackay Brown lived in the more genteel Stromness, which is home to the Hamnavoe restaurant. Its homely traditional setting is something of a red herring – the menu offers an Asian twist on local seafood dishes, including lobster with ginger, spring onion and shiitake mushrooms, and cod with miso puree. Here you can also try hand-dived scallops – an Orkney speciality.

The 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement, Skara Brae

More lowkey spots include the hipster Archive Coffee, where you can get local beers, homebaked cakes, and gigantic, delicious sandwiches. The Kirkwall Hotel, one of the most popular places to stay, serves pub classics and fresh-as-it-gets platters of local seafood.

You can drive from one side of Orkney to the other in 90 minutes; its landspan is just 45 miles. For longer stays, it’s worth hiring a car. Public transport isn’t the most frequent, so for shorter stays you’ll find yourself relying on taxis. But as you drive through those fields of purple heather, looking at the unfussy, unruly, undeniably lovely landscape, the sky glowing gold, you can guarantee it’ll be the prettiest taxi ride you ever take to dinner.

Top five places to eat and drink in Orkney

Hamnavoe

Stromness, home to Hamnavoe

Meaning “safe harbour” in Old Norse, Hamnavoe in Stromness is the best place for a luxury dinner that makes use of the island’s local seafood. 35 Graham Place, Stromness; hamnavoe-restaurant.co.uk

Scapa Distillery

Not just the best whisky spot on the island, but one of the best days out. Scapa Distillery Visitor Centre, Kirkwall; maltwhiskydistilleries.com/scapa

Archive Coffee

The coolest spot in Kirkwall to get a filling and reasonably priced lunch, before topping up your caffeine intake. 8 Laing Street, Kirkwall

The Storehouse

If it’s good enough for Kate and Wills… this unpretentious eatery uses local suppliers for an unfussy, crowd-pleasing menu. Bridge Street, Kirkwall; thestorehouserestaurantwithrooms.co.uk

Oot the Back

Start your night with a visit to this outdoor bar from Orkney Distilling. Have a cocktail in one of the heated booths (but do bring a jumper). Ayre Road, Kirkwall; orkneydistilling.com

Orkney’s Library has a popular Twitter account that regularly goes viral

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways offers flights to Edinburgh or Aberdeen; it’s a short connecting Loganair flight to Kirkwall from there. It’s also possible to travel by car ferry.

Staying there

Kirkwall Hotel puts you right in the heart of the island.

Alternatively, try rooms at The Storehouse for a more boutique vibe.

More information

To find out more about visiting, go to orkney.com

Read our best affordable Scotland hotel reviews

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