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Orkney vs. Skye

Hi - my husband and I are taking a four week trip through the UK and Ireland in May/June and we have four days in Scotland we need to schedule. We're starting the Scotland leg in Edinburgh and are having trouble deciding if we should to the Orkneys or to the Isle of Skye. We eventually have to get to Fort William to pick up the West Highland Way. We are mostly backpacking/hosteling and will not have a car but will have a Flex BritRail Pass. I know that it's much more difficult to get to and from the Orkneys so I guess my question is: Is it worth the extra travel time to visit the Orkney's specifically (in terms of birds/ancient sites, etc) or is the Isle of Skye a good compromise that won't kill the rest of our itinerary? - Thanks!

Posted by
3428 posts

I'd stay in Inverness and do a day trip to Isle of Skye that includes Eliean Donnan castles and some of the Glens. With only 4 days for Scotland you are not really giving it enough time. I'd say Edinburgh 2-3 days, Aviemore 2-4 days, Inverness 4-7 days, Glasgow 2-3 days, then add time for Oban, Orkneys, etc. if desired. Truly- with only 4 days- pick either Inverness or Edinburgh and stay put- do some day trips.

Posted by
2 posts

sorry, I guess I wasn't clear. We're in Scotland for about a week and half with those four days, we just weren't sure what to do with them (2 in Edinburgh, 1 in Inverness, 3 for part of the West Highland Way hiking trail, and 4 that we're not quite sure what to do with)

Posted by
20 posts

Honestly both are great places, but are quite different. Skye does have some nice sites (Skye Museum of Island Life is nice for example), but it's a much more naturally scenic place then Orkney. Orkney for the most part does not have the dramatic landscapes of Skye (Hoy excepted perhaps), but it is littered with ancient sites both Neolithic and Viking. Both also feel a bit different because on Skye you have places where you'll hear Gaelic spoken, whereas on Orkney you feel perhaps a bit more Scandinavian flavor in play.

Both are worthy destinations and it largely depends on your interests. If you really enjoy birding and ancient sites then perhaps Orkney is your best choice. If you prefer natural landscapes, a castle or two and so on then Skye might be your best bet (and as Toni mentioned you could add in a trip to Eilean Donan pretty easily). If you have no preference, Skye might be the best choice just due to proximity to your other destinations.

Also, Toni's suggestion of basing yourself in Inverness is perfectly valid as you could day trip to both locations, though it'd make for fairly lengthy day trips (Orkney especially). I personally prefer to stay in the locales to get the local flavor, but her suggestion is perfectly workable as well.

Feel free to PM me if you have questions about either Skye or Orkney.

Posted by
2732 posts

This is definitely a tough call. I think Eric nailed it, so I don't have much to add. Skye is one of my favorite places in the world because of the dramatic landscapes. It is a hiker's paradise. The Orkneys, on the other hand are unique. Although there are ancient sites all over Great Britain, I've never seen anything like Skara Brae before; it was incredible. For the most part, the mainland of Orkney is rather flat and not that scenic, but there are some cliffs (on the north side I think) that are spectacular with lots of birds.

The Orkneys are defintely worth the time, IF you've got it. I have a hard time characterizing Skye as a compromise, because it's a much different experience and a fabulous one. So if time is an issue, go to Skye and don't feel like you are settling for a lesser experience.

Posted by
5678 posts

I'm voting for Orkney and I'm voting to stay on the island. I don't think a day trip does it justice. You whiz around to the popular sites, but you don't get a feel for this wonderful place. Here is a link for the general Orkney site Here is a link that has wonderful information about the history of Orkney. Sigurd Towrie developed and maintains this wonderful site.

If you are visiting in May or June this is the peak time for the birds. You're going to want to go to Hoy and do some hiking. You'll want to go to Westray or one of the other islands for the birds. You'll want to see the Ring of Brogdar, Scara Brae and Maes Howe. Then, go over the Churchill Barriers to South Ronaldsay and see the little Italian Chapel from WWII on your way south to see the Eagle's Tomb. You could look into renting a car for just your time on Orkney. I

t really is worth it. PM me if you have more questions. I've been twice and want to go back again. BTW in May and June you'll have very long days. I remember sitting at dinner waiting for the sun to go down before clearing the table and the next thing we new it was 11 PM. Then the sun came through the window at 2 AM!


Posted by
208 posts

Hi Tina - you've posed an incredibly difficult dilemma!

The last time I was in Scotland, we went to both Skye and Orkney where we stayed on Mainland at the hostel in Stromness. If you end up on Orkney - you MUST, MUST, MUST go to the Kirkwall Hotel and get yourself a piece of the Orkney Fudge Cheesecake and wash it down with a dram of Highland Park. YUMMY!!!

Like Pat said, with regards to Orkney - there are so many wonderful things to see. You would be somewhat pressed (for either island) without a car. The buses may run a little more regularly (we were there in Sept. and the buses were not regular as it was the off season.) The Bishops & Earl's Palace, Highland Park Distillery, Skara Brae (not to be missed if you're there!!), Maes Howe, the craft tour, St. Magnus Cathedral, Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Churchill Barriers and the Italian Chapel. I love Orkney. To take your time on Orkney, you probably need 3 days on Mainland and 2 days to take the ferry to and from. Another option would be to fly onto Mainland.

That being said, I love Skye as well! Such a hard decision for you - I'm so glad I don't have to make it. Skye is lovely - we spent a day and a half on Skye. Stayed in a hostel near Sleat (which has since closed). We also had a car on Skye. We drove from one end of the island (starting in the south) and making a big circle for the day. We went to Armadale Castle, Flora MacDonald's grave, kilt rock, the Old Man of Storr and the Cuillins.

I would say if I had to choose - I'd do Orkney. You can always go back to Skye and its more difficult to get to Orkney but since you have the time, its worth it.

Posted by
175 posts

Hi Tina, Did both the Isle of Skye and the Orkney's not long ago. I vote for the Orkney's. Flew into Kirkwall from Inverness. The ferry ride from Scrabster via Thurso rail station was just too long for me along with the choice of a very early departure or late arrival time. Stayed in a city center BB. I'd rent a car for only one day to see the main island then take the ferries to various islands of your interests. Fun, interesting, and inexpensive day trips. Tina, If all these ideas fall apart - one of the most scenic rail trips I have ever taken was from Glasgow to the quaint city of Oban. Train station is city center, fun ferry/bus trip to the islands of Mull/Iona/Staffa, great hiking - enjoy.

Posted by
44 posts

You are hikers? Although i have not been to the Orkneys, I have been to Skye twice. Hiking in the Cuillen is extraordinary and unlike any other part of Scotland or the UK. As mentioned above, the landscape of Skye is not to be believed. The Orkneys offer some other delights, but if hiking is a priority it is not likely much of a choice - Skye.

Will you be in Fort William overnight? I have been there quite a few times. If you like beer, go to the Grog and Gruel for good food and beer. For a non-touristy bar go down the steps to the Maryburgh Inn. We were there on karaoke night. Wow. That was great fun with the entire bar joining in. Also, the Indian restaurant on the main drag is excellent. The Crannog seafood place is good, but very overpriced.

Posted by
5678 posts

There is good hiking on the Orkney's as well. You don't have the technical mountain climbing that you find on Skye, but the Isle of Hoy offers great hikes. And there are wonder beach walks on the islands. I've a friend who runs walking (hiking in UK Speak) trips to the Orkney's each June. Pam