We will be in port for only one day, from 7 am to 5 pm. What are the things we must see? Thanks!
The top three sites IMHO are Skara Brae (the tops by far), Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar. You will need transportation to get there, perhaps rent a car or find a tour. (We took a rental car over by ferry, so I did not research this.) You might be able to do all three in one day if you don't dawdle. St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is nice, and Kirkwall is an okay town, but I would not devote a lot of time to it. The prehistoric sites are what you should focus on, especially Skara Brae, which is unique.
You can do all three in one day easily. Skara Brae is the most distant and is only about thirty minutes from Kirkwall. The others, as well as the Stones of Stenness, all lie along the way. Maeshowe is the only one that requires an appointment - - stop by and get one on the way out and adjust accordingly. Both stone circles are within five minutes of Maeshowe. (From where the path to Maeshowe makes the final turn toward the cairn, you can see Brodgar on the hill to the west - - if you wiggle a bit you can see Stenness in the intervening dip.
There's some kind of multi-attraction discount ticket that covers five places which include Skara Brae and Maeshowe, but I don't think it'd be a deal for just those two. You can buy it at either one. The circles are free.
If I had time for only one thing, it would be Brodgar by far.
If you do all that in the morning, you could drive down the east side of Scapa Flow to the tip of South Ronaldsay in about a half hour and pass the Churchill Barriers along the way. Optionally, if you drive out toward Mull Head (the standard Orkney half-hour drive), from the car park there's a really good walk past a blowhole/cavern and out along the cliffs of the North Sea. The walk is only about a mile plus - - don't get to close to the edge if the wind is strong out of the west or it's damp regardless of wind direction.
Pam mentioned earlier than Ortak had folded. that was my ticket back into the house on solo trips. You would have passed the factory on the morning excursion. In town, on Albert Street, near the Edinburgh Woolen Mill and the power company there's a jewelry store that had a lot of Ortak stuff - - they may have been a factory store and closed as well.
Yes, sadly Ortak closed. And I lost my amythyst pendent just this fall and meant to reorder. :( But you can still get wonderful jewelry from Orkney in town at Sheila Fleet's store. I don't know why Orkney is this hotbed of jewelry design, but it is.
I agree with Ed that the top site is the Ring of Brogdar. Unlike Stonehenge, you can walk around the stones. Scara Brae is fascinating and I found Maeshowe very fascinating. One of my Sheila Fleet necklaces has runes from Maeshowe. :)
And we shouldn't forget that if you are a whisky fan, Highland Park is one of the best.
Definitely rent a car. Orkney is perfect for driving, even if you have concerns about the left side of the road. We had to take a Land Rover, which is far bigger than the vehicle we drive at home, and had absolutely no problem. I would recommend finalizing a rental sooner rather than later because there are not a lot on this island to rent!
I don't think Ed or Pamela mentioned Dark Island Brewery. If whisky isn't your thing you might want to check this place out.
Also consider the Tomb of the Eagles. The site is great, but we also really enjoyed the small visitor centre. We were lucky to be there with some enthusiastic and knowledgeable docents.
And if you decide you MUST get some Sheila Fleet jewelry (as I did - the Sparrows collection), consider the Historic Scotland pass. It gives 20% off at the shops of their properties. As Sheila Fleet can be quite pricey, this just might pay off even for a one day visit (and is valid if your cruise stops at other locations in Scotland, e.g. valid at Edinburgh Castle, to name just one place you might be going to).
Lucky you choosing a cruise stopping at Kirkwall, Orkney. We only went to please one of our traveling companions who is a Highland Park enthusiast and it was the best part of our trip!
This maqy be too late for your trip, but for others in similar situation, here's my suggestion, after several trips (family connection): with so little time, I would strongly recommend contracting a guide to meet you at your arrival and take you to the "must see" sites. I know John Grieve, who is excellent because of his deep knowledge of the history involved, but he is certainly not the only one available. I agree with the three most significant, but I would put Skara Brae as first priority. The site is truly unique in that you will actually see the dwellings of the prehistoric inhabitants of Orkney and, if you work it right, you can actually descend into some of the houses. John is good at working that sort of thing. Maes Howe is also fascinating; especially interesting are the Viking runic graffiti, but be advised that you will have to duck-walk through a tunnel to get into the tomb itself and at 6'2", 220 lbs, I was a tight fit! Kids love it, though. The Ring of Brodgar is evocative but as we simply do not know what it all signified, you are basically looking at a bunch of large stones standing on end. I found the stones more impressive, for some reason, early in the morning and at dusk...no idea why. Maes Howe has a very good book store across the road where you can get your tickets and park and you will find interesting literature on Orkney and its pre-history. Although it is interesting and different, the Highland Park Distillery would be, I think, too far out and too lengthy a visit to fit into your limited time. Again, a local guide can speed things up for you, but I'd much prefer to forego the distillery in favor of the prehistoric sites.
Again, if you have contracted for a guide, he/she will have all that done for you and save you considerable time.
In Kirkwall for 3 nights, two weeks ago, our B&B host announced that the next day (a Saturday) was the Orkney Show (the annual agricultural fair showing off prize animals and dealing on tractors), so he suggested avoiding Kirkwall that day, but the next day Orkney would play host to not 1 but 2 huge cruise ships. He apologized and said this only happened 2 days each year, but that between the 2 ships, 6,000 extra people would be in Kirkwall and the Mainland island, nearly doubling the town's population. Maybe we crossed paths?!?
He felt that Maeshowe would've been completely booked by the cruise ships, so it would be impossible to get in on Sunday. We called and although they also had evening times available, due to a cancellation, we were able to get a 1 PM reservation for two (although that prevented us from attending the 1 PM free guided walk by a ranger at the Ring of Brodgar). While 20 of us plus the guide stood inside the Maeshowe chamber, a couple appeared through the entrance tunnel and were told they had to book a tour, so they got a free peek inside, but didn't get to stay.
Over 2 days, we encountered a disheartening amount of tour buses, but they seemed to mostly be full of German speaking visitors, and we were told the cruise ships were predominantly American. It's likely you get buses throughout the summer, and the cruise ships weren't the source of all the crowds.
Just up the road from Maeshowe and the Stones of Stennes (with the remains of some interesting building foundations a 3 minute walk away at Barnhouse), and just before the Ring of Brodgar is an ongoing archeaological dig at the Ness of Brodgar that offers presentations by a participating archaeologist several times a day. The dig has been going on for 6 years, but is only active for 6 weeks each summer, so depending on when you visit, attending one of the 50-minute presentations may or may not be possible. We even got a chance to try drilling a hole in a piece of local sandstone using an Iron Age type drill, and carving another piece of sandstone like was done over 3,500 years ago. For 10 pounds, they'll let you "sponsor" a patch of the dig, and will send you an e-mail update about anything remarkable they discover in your section.
The Tomb of the Eagles was great, and was at the southern tip of the Mainland, so it required a little time to drive there and visit. They suggest that, for a leisurely visit, you allow 90 minutes to 2 hours. If you get a chatty docent (like we did), you might be there longer. Their gift shop had lots of CD's from local musicians.
On the other end of the Mainland, the Broch of Gurness was fascinating, involving a walk across the seabed at low tide (your window to visit is 4 hours during low tide - check when that is the day you go) to see the remains of ancient Pictish buildings, with Viking buildings on top of that, and a remarkable drainage system. A hike to the top of the hill, above the ruins, affords a spectacular view of cliffs and out to sea (which you'll undoubtedly also see from your ship :-)
Maeshowe, Stenness Stones, the Ness archeaological dig, and the Ring of Brodgar are (as noted above) within 5 minutes of each other (unless you're making your way thru a half dozen tour buses) by car.
Another fabulous archeological sight (except when there are 8 buses there at once, and more on the way, blocking your exit for the car park) is Skara Brae, worth a little extra drive. Broch of Gurness and Tomb of the Eagles are also worth the time it takes to get to them, if you have the time. A tour, either arranged by your ship or arranged independently by you, might make the most of your time and avoid having to acquire a car for just the day. The cruise boat dock is a little out of downtown Kirkwall and its harbor, so it will take you a little time to get organized once you're off the ship, unless you have a ride waiting for you at the dock.
The Tomb of the Eagles is actually on South Ronaldsay and there's a few more islands twist it and Mainland, but they're all bridge / causeway linked so you can drive down.
Ah, Ed, you beat me to it. :) Indeed the Eagles Tomb is on South Ronaldsay. :) It's easy to get fooled as you can drive there from Kirkwall due to the Churchill Barriers. You actually cross several smaller islands to get to South Ronaldsay (and yes, there is a North Ronaldsay.) The barriers were built in the 1940's as a defense against the Germans and uBoats in particular. The Royal Oake was sunk in Scappa Flow.
Do they still have a great dog at they Eagles Tomb?
Linked to the Barriers and on the way back to Kirkwall from the Tomb of the Eagles is the Italian Chapel, built by prisoners of war in WWII who were building the Churchill Barriers.
Oops - I should've said the Tomb of the Eagles was at the southern tip of the Orkney Islands drive - you're all correct! There wasn't a dog the day we visited, but it was pouring rain so maybe the dog was someplace warm and dry. There was a dog water dish just outside the front door to the museum, full of rainwater. The walk to the Tomb and to the nearby Burnt Mound was soggy, but the musuem loans out wellies and waterproof jackets and pants for free.
Another burial tomb, just discovered in the past couple of years, is less than a mile away, but they close at 5 PM and we only left the Tomb of the Eagles a couple of minutes before 5, so didn't make it to that other tomb.
The Italian Chapel is remarkable, and is a few yards away from some of the remaining foundations of the P.O.W. camp of the Italian soldiers who constructed the chapel. The whole project started with a St. George-slaying-the-dragon sculpture made of concrete, which also stands just outside the chapel building. It's definitely worth the drive along the Barriers and islands to reach.
August 2014 National Geographic magazine cover story is "The First Stonehenge, Scotland's Master Builders" about the fabulous archeology on Orkney. Wonderful photos.