Orkney lies just north of Mainland Scotland at around 590N and comprises over 70 islands of which 17 or 18 are inhabited by about 21,000 people. The first written reference to the islands is by Pytheas the Greek in 325BC, but they have been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. The timeline from prehistory through historical times to the 21st century runs continuously, making the division between past and present at times hard to discern.
Perhaps most famous for its exceptionally well-preserved Neolithic monuments, some of which now enjoy World Heritage status, Orkney has a wealth of other visitor attractions ranging from archaeological sites, local museums, the Highland Park Distillery and St Magnus Cathedral, to a diverse array of craft workshops and shops selling attractive local goods. Wildlife, especially birds, is another feature of Orkney not to be missed, whatever the season. This book aims to maximise the benefit of your visit, no matter how short.
The Old Red Sandstone rocks result in a combination of fertile agricultural land, most of which is used to raise Orkneys renowned grass-fed beef cattle, moorland and spectacular coastal fringes, making it a haven for many species of birds in every season, while in Spring and Summer wild flowers are abundant.
The maritime climate combined with the relatively warm Atlantic Ocean, make the climate very equable, with snow and frost rare in winter. Equally, the temperature rarely exceeds 20 degrees in summer. Situated at the meeting point of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean the islands are surrounded by waters abundant in fish and shellfish, adding to the wide variety of locally produced quality foods.
Whether the visitor arrives by air or sea at Kirkwall or by sea at Stromness, St Margarets Hope or Burwick, Orkney presents a strong contrast to the Highlands. Both towns are dominated by their winding main streets and harbours, while Kirkwall also has the imposing 12th century St Magnus Cathedral.
Both towns have excellent shops, hotels and eating places, as well as interesting museums and make excellent bases from which to explore the rest of Orkney. Even on the shortest of visits there are several "must see" sites.
Good places to start are the Orkney Museum or the Highland Park Visitor Centre, with its excellent audiovisual, in Kirkwall, followed by a tour of the West Mainland taking in Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones and then Skara Brae. If time permits there are many more places which can be visited in a day.
On a longer visit it is strongly suggested that a visit should be made to at least one of the other inhabited islands, all of which are very accessible by ferry or aircraft. Each island has a character all of its own and all have interesting places to visit as well as accommodation and shops.
A good map is a great help in all such visits and the Orkney Tourist Board produces a useful one which also includes Shetland. The Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 series covers Orkney in three sheets, and is recommended for all serious explorers. Most of the places mentioned in this book are signposted.