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Touring Scotland

**Two years ago I traveled around Scotland. I loved it so I want to go back this summer and tour places I missed the first time. I would like to go to the Orkney Islands. I would like advice on how long to stay, what islands to see and how to get there. I will have a car and will start my tour in Endinboro. Also thought I would like to spend some time around the Cairngorms. Anyone have any thoughts on that?


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Posted by
9110 posts


Four full days is enough for Mainland unless you're going to hike every trail or dive Scapa Flow. A half day is enough for any other island except Stronsay which is worth a full day. The problem is the time to get back and forth to the more distant islands.

Adding other islands (other than the string down the causeway) will take careful planning since there are days the ferries don't run one route or another.

One really good walk is out to Mull Point - - the path, such as it is, runs along the North Sea cliffs, starts at a little parking lot by a blowhole, and isn't more than a couple miles round trip. Do it in the afternoon so the glaring sun isn't between you and the cliff edge or else you'll have to move back from the edge and miss the best scenery. If the wind is gusty or strong out of the west, skip the walk unless you have a buddy to hold the rope around your waist.

Kirkwall would be the place to stay since it has more places to eat and is at the hub rather than out at the far end of a stick. Nothing would be more than an hour away. I'd stay as close to the Front as possible so you wouldn't have to drive to supper.

To get there, maybe spend the night in Thurso, then scoot down the hill to Scrabster for the first ferry to Stromness. NorthLink runs that one. I think it's something like Orkney Ferries that makes the short runs between the islands. I don't know who makes the run from down around Gills out to Saint Margaret's Hope. I'd get reservations for the two long hauls. The other trips are just back-and-forth frequent shuttles, mostly (Hoy, Rousay, Wyre, Shapinsay). There's also a run from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, but I can't imagine how long that would take, nor can I remember what the livery was on the vessels. The long-haul ferries have adequate cafeteria meals, the smaller ones just drinks and snacks.


Depending on time available, I'd spend a couple nights just outside the park in Pitlochry since it's central to a few other things and pretty darn fine in its own right. It's also a fair base for exploring the western side of the park. When it was time to get into the central area of the park, I'd enter at first light, driving up Loch Dee and opening the thermos at the top to watch the sun come up.

Ballater is a pretty good place to stay for a couple of nights in the central area, but you can run out of places to eat real fast. Aviemore is a congested mess, I don't even swing in there for coffee anymore. If you decide to drive the Spey Vally, it's more enjoyable to use the small roads than sucking diesel fumes along the A9/A95.

Posted by
5668 posts

I think that Ed is close on Orkney, but I think that if you are interested Hoy would take a bit more than a half day.

There is a great website on Orkney, Orkneyjar which was created by Sigurd Towrie. This site will tell you a lot about Orkney, it's history, the places, the folklore and more. Remember these Island's didn't come to Scotland until nearly 1300! The mainland of Orkney--and I agree, stay in Kirkwall--has lots of sites to see from Neolithic to Renaissance. In addition, to the sites, you might want to schedule time to check out some of the jewelry designers and other artists on the island. I love my jewelry from Orkney. And, Highland Park is one of the best whiskys.

South Ronaldsay is very nice Island to visit. You go over the Churchill Barriers, erected in WWII to keep out the submarines and make it a safer anchorage than in WWI. Of course, the fact that it wasn't such a safer anchorage, now makes Scappa Flow a place where divers go to see sunken ships. St. Margaret's Hope is lovely small village, the ferry from John O'Groats lands here. Further south is the Eagles Tomb. It's out by more cliffs and is run by the farmer who found it. We loved our visit there. We loved the dog, going into the tomb on our backs and the walk back along the cliffs. On another trip my sister drove the rental car into the ditch on the way out to the road as she was distracted by the scenery.They'd been followed by the dog, who as soon as they were out of their car and trying to figure out what to do, took off. A few minutes later, the dog was back with the owner with a vehicle to pull them out of the ditch and the comment, "Ach, Ronnie's (the owner of the car rental company) car has been in that ditch many times so don't worry."

We enjoyed a visit to Shapinsay and the Balfour Castle. We really liked the Walled Garden. It's a very quick ferry ride over to Shapinsay.

How is a different place from the other islands. It's a bit more rugged. If you take the ferry from Stromness to Thurso, you'll sail past the Old Man of Hoy, which is rock formation on the cliffs. There are hikes on the island, and its also interesting to drive over to Longhope. There are the Martello Towers and you can get a good look at the Pentland Firth--one of the most treacherous bits of water around Great Britain. Just after you get to Long Hope, there's a farm where I have relatives. From the hill near there you can look over to Scotland and and see Castle of Mey where the Queen Mother used to go. It was one of her castles. Sadly, you can't wave to the Queen Mum anymore, but there is a great view. It's at Longhope that the Vikings could land their long boats and drag them over from Scappa Flow to the Firth. Longhope is also home to one of the UK's many lifeboat stations. Read about the tragedy from the 70's.

One last thing for Orkney, do read something by George Mackay Brown. It will tell you more about Orkney.


Posted by
9110 posts

Lest you think Pam and I are either bonkers or speak different languages:

Mainland and Orkney are the same island.

South Ronaldsay, Burry, Lamb Holm, and Glimps Holm are all islands drivable from Kirkwall on what I called 'down the causeway'. You can make it from Kirkwall down to the Tomb of the Eagles in well less than an hour.

John O'Groats and Gills are within spitting distance of each other. I'm pretty sure the O'Groats ferry goes to Burwick and the Gills Bay one to St Margaret's Hope.

I think I screwed up about Mull Point. It's probably Mull Head.

Posted by
5668 posts

Yes and don't call them "The Orkney's". It's the Orkney Islands or Orkney. :)


Ed, just saw a great Rick Steves on Wales and saw some of your favorite castles this afternoon.

Posted by
5 posts

visit Aberdeen - right next to Cairngorns, and a great place to make your base for travel. You can take ferry from there to Orkneys; probably the best way to go there!