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orkney islands and highlands

I am interested in doing a short tour of the Orkneys --it looks to be at least 3 hrs from Inverness. We will probably fly into Edinburgh and spend a couple days then go to the Inverness area--hopefully find a place to stay that we can explore around the area for several days. Also may want to visit the Cairengorms. I saw some all day tours of Orkney covering the places I want to see. Where would be a good time to fit this into our visit and where to stay--in the John o groats area or in Orkney? Thanks for any information!

Posted by
6503 posts

We stayed in Kirkwall, Orkney, but were there for 3 nights. Even if you’re just there for a day tour, being in Orkney at the start of that day saves you having to get there before your tour begins. At the end, we left Orkney by flying from Kirkwall to Inverness - far less than a 3 hour flight - to see other parts of Scotland.

Posted by
1834 posts

The three hours + from Inverness is by road, then either Pentland Ferries or Northlink to Orkney.
If you take the Northlink boat from Scrabster (Thurso) it arrives into Stromness (Orkney's 2nd biggest town) at after 8pm. I suggest staying there if you've taken that route. Orkney mainland is quite small, so Stromness is a totally feasible base.
The Pentland ferry docks in St Margaret's Hope and is half an hour or so into Kirkwall across the famous Churchill Barriers (WW2).
There is a good flight service up to Orkney (Kirkwall) from Inverness.
If you have the time I recommend taking at least 1 flight on the Loganir Orkney Inter-Island Air service. It's an aerial bus service, but round trip sightseers are welcome. You fly low on tiny planes into landing strips which are just that (not remotely airports), a superb sightseeing experience on a good day. Any route will do although the legendary Westray to Papa Westray 90 second hop (shortest flight in the world) is the most famous.
Whatever you do -do not leave Orkney on your last or next to last day, do it at start or middle of your itinerary.
These are islands in the North Atlantic. Both air and sea travel do get disrupted by poor weather.
There is also a Northlink ferry from Aberdeen 3 days a week- leaves at 1700, arrives Kirkwall at 2300, southbound leaves Kirkwall at 2345, arrives Aberdeen 0700.
Many people find that useful.
You can day trip from the mainland on any of the three sea routes (includes the John O'Groats foot ferry) or even air, but it's a long day and if the weather turns you get stranded there.

Posted by
1130 posts

Do try and stay on Orkney rather than try and do it as a day trip.

I'm a great believer in the ferry from Aberdeen, if the days work for you. It is the most effective use of time. Don't be put off by the late arrival in Kirkwall . Accommodation providers are well used to people arriving off the ferry at that time of night. It also gives a full day on Orkney before catching the overnight boat back to Aberdeen. Make sure you book a cabin if you want to sleep!

Hire a car on Orkney to get around the island. It also gives flexibility so you can avoid the main sites when the tourist buses arrive. Aim to be at Skara Brae when it opens or later in the afternoon.

As advised by isn31c, plan this for the middle of the holiday. You won't need a car in Edinburgh and catch the train to Aberdeen. After Orkney, if you are wanting to see the Cairngorms, here a car in Aberdeen and then plan to stay say Aviemore/Grantown on Spey area rather than Invernessa itself.

Posted by
12994 posts

I flew from Inverness to Kirkwall on Loganair. Since they use smaller turboprops and fly lower, the views approaching Kirkwall were good. My return flight to the mainland was to Aberdeen.

If you do fly, and need a taxi upon arrival, book one ahead of time.

I've flown Loganair numerous times and all the flights have been fine.

Posted by
6 posts

So now second question---is it really worth going to the Orkney islands? i was also looking at the Kilmartin Glen area for prehistoric interest--for those who have been to both do you have a preference?

Posted by
1834 posts

I would say absolutely yes Orkney is worthwhile for some of the best preserved archaeology you'll find (as well as other history like the Hudson's Bay Company, for example).
But I have never been to Kilmartin. I've passed there several times on the way from Oban to Islay or Gigha and Oban to Arran via Claonaig but never called in.
So I can't compare the two.
Kilmartin is a diversion on the way from Edinburgh to Inverness, but not impossible, with an overnight stop in Oban, assuming you are in the car.
Maybe 4 hours from Edinburgh, beyond Glasgow a very scenic run.
Without a car forget it- the bus service is rudimentary.
In fact there's a Hotel in Kilmartin (the Kilmartin Hotel)- you could stop there then continue to Inverness next day.

Posted by
1462 posts

Absolutely worth it, and stay for awhile!

We went for three nights to please our traveling companions who are Highland Park (whisky) aficionados. Turned out to be the best part of our Scotland trip.

We returned a rental car in Edinburgh, and flew from there after a few days. We had a car in Orkney and I recommend that. We then flew to Aberdeen, picked up a new car, and continued the holiday.

Here's a link to my report (can't believe it was that long ago!)

Posted by
1130 posts

Definitely! There asre so many prehistoric remains on Orkney. The day tours don't even begin to scratch the surface. Rousay, a short ferry ride, is well worth a visit too with its four chambered cairns (all very different and including a two storey one) and Midhowe broch.

Posted by
1834 posts

Andrea's very good trip report adds what none of us did, as of course the Viking history is very much to the fore everywhere you go, and there is a lot of WW2 history as well.
And the distillery!
So many aspects of history.
There is nothing wrong with the airport- it is just a small island airport fitted into a restricted space. Quite exciting maybe for a first timer used to landing at bigger airports surrounded by land. There are many, especially in the Carribean which are much more exciting, and remember the old Kai Tak at Hong Kong.
The terminals at the island airstrips are certainly sheds that you could put on the back of a big truck! Kirkwall is a wee bit bigger than that.

There are also any number of artisan food producers on the islands-cheese, fudge, oatcakes (a must if you've never had them), jams fish (of course) and much more. Afterwards you can order hampers by mail.

Each of the islands is very individual- you would need at least a week to do the northern islands alone, and at least two days for Hoy south of Scapa Flow. You won't have time but the northenmost island (North Ronaldsay) is worth a visit for more prehistory, a wonderful lighthouse, it's own breed of sheep and it's unique and amazing dry stane wall which circles the island to keep the sheep where they are meant to be. It's an adventure getting there and a truly unique place to visit.

Forgive me if this sounds like a post from the Orkney Tourist Board.

Posted by
360 posts

Having been to both Kilmartin and Okney, there's no comparison. Orkney is far more interesting, although there are similarities. We flew to Kirkwall from/to Edinburgh, although Loganair doesn't price round trips differently than one-ways, so flying from Inverness, Aberdeen, or anywhere else is equally easy. You need to balance drop-off fees, having two rental cars at once, or dovetailing Orkney into the beginning or end of the trip.

Posted by
173 posts

We toured all over Scotland and visited most every corner (except the Outer Hebrides) and the place that touched my heart the most was our day and a half on the Orkney's. Absolutely loved the history, the fun of the cairns, the beauty of the island, it was wonderful. Really wished we'd stayed longer.

Posted by
6 posts

You folks have been so helpful! Wondering what you think of this plan? My husband found on Kayak you can book multi cities option for no more than round trip and we were surprised to see that Inverness was not much more than Edinburgh--so fly into Inverness and have a home base rental for about a week and do day trips to the areas around there I want to see, drive to John O Groats and go across to Orkney and stay at least 2 nights, get back to mainland and drive to Cairngorms park and stay 2 nights, drive to Edinburgh and stay 2 nights and fly home from there. Also, do all car rental companies allow you to take the car across on the ferries? I know this is really early but I am a planner and very excited about doing this next year--probably middle of May, 2024. I am a US citizen and never been anywhere out of my country other than brief trips to Canada and Mexico back before we needed passports! It will be my husband and I's anniversary--25 years of being together/married and I have been wanting to go to Scotland for a long time. We can take at least two weeks off for this--maybe a bit longer.

Posted by
1834 posts

When going to Orkney please be aware that the Pentland ferries route is currently suspended. You may have to use Northlink from Scrabster instead depending on your date of travel, and how soon the problems are resolved.