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Trip Report for a Hidden Gem: The Orkneys

As requested, by Andrea's International Virtual Travel Group Meeting, I'm writing up a report for my 2019 trip to the Orkneys.

I spent a week each in the Orkneys and Shetlands on an organized tour in May 2019. It was outstanding; I could not have planned a better tour myself, and I have traveled extensively. Unfortunately, RSE tours don't visit Orkney at the present time, so I had to seek out another option. I won't mention the company, but if you're interested, PM me, and I will send you their contact info.

These islands are not really set up for massive tourism such as the Italian Cinque Terra or the Spanish islands experience these days. However, they have several excellent sites to visit, which are well-managed, most by Historic Scotland. Therefore, if you have an HS membership, you get in free to these sites, such as Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Bishop's & Earl's Palace, and 29 other sites throughout Orkney.

I flew Edinburgh to Kirkwall, their Mainland capital city, and stayed in various BnB's & hotels--including one in a former stone church-- all excellent, which the tour company booked. The tour was structured and inclusive (no hidden costs) but not a group tour. They provided me with a travel app that included all relevant tour info (itinerary, tickets, logistical info, directions, & suggestions for extra sightseeing during your free time) - this is a great idea and I would love to see RSE tours incorporate this, particularly on MyWay Tours.

On this trip, I visited five islands: Mainland (3 days), Rousay (2 days), and Westray (2 days), with day trips to Hoy & Papa Westray, and all were equally impressive. If you do visit Papa Westray (a MUST), you can fly on the world's shortest flight, roughly 2 minutes long (it took us 1:12). The flight is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, and you can even request a certificate showing you took this flight (at Kirkwall airport).

While in the Orkneys, I saw dramatic sea arches, castle ruins, fascinating historic sites, lots of sheep, stunning coastal scenery, several dozen species of birds, a sea stack, ancient Brochs, stone circles with hardly any visitors, friendly locals, and a few beautiful churches. Most tourist sites were not crowded at all. As far as climate, there are very few trees, the land is flat, and it's windier than Chicago, so expect it to be a bit chilly. Even in the summer (right now) the high is roughly 60 degrees, so, you'll need to dress in layers. But, it was still beautiful.

One specific highlight: I spent one day on the Isle of Hoy, and loved it! I had a rental car, which you'll need for maximum accessibility, and hiked to the Old Man of Hoy, the 450-foot sea stack on the western coast. To get there, you have to take a 35-minute ferry from the mainland, drive 45 minutes across the island, and hike an hour and a half. It is ABSOLUTELY worth it! Stunning views. You're hiking through an RSPB, so you'll see lots of birds along the way. I loved it so much I'm going back to Hoy next month for three nights. I want to see more of the island and take a different hiking path to the Old Man, this time with a private guide.

On this Orkney tour, they booked me a day trip with a private guide who took me by the Brough of Birsay; unfortunately, we visited at high tide, and it was an island (like St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall) with no way out there. On this year's trip, we're spending three days on the mainland, and we'll visit the Brough at low tide (by checking the tide schedule) and be able to walk out to the "island" and visit the ancient ruins, see nesting puffins and other seabirds, and enjoy the stunning coastal views.

I'm almost out of space, so I'll wrap up for now. The trip I took, The Complete Orkneys and Shetlands, took two weeks total, with a week in each place. If anyone is interested, I can post a trip report for the Shetlands portion of this trip as well. They're fantastic!

Hope this is helpful. Happy travels!

Posted by
4292 posts

Yes, post! I still want to get to both of those places - but it didn’t work out this time. Something for next time. :)

Posted by
2252 posts

Yes, please post. I do love trip reports. I would love to go to the Orkneys and Shetland Islands!

Posted by
14163 posts

Sounds wonderful! I'd heard from someone on the international meetup that a person reported on an amazing adventure they had in Shetland and Orkneys. At first I thought you might have done the tour former-RS guide Mark Seymour does with his tour company but it is guided and yours was a bit different.

The company using a travel app sounds terrific! Did you get good service on the islands or was it patchy?

I love those islands that can only be visited when the tide is right!

Thanks so much for posting and yes, add on Shetland too!

Posted by
6832 posts

Thanks for the report - I'm heading for Scotland next year for 3 weeks (solo trip) and was trying to squeeze them in but sadly, not enough time. So I'm saving them for my next time.

And yes, I'm actually more interested in the Shetlands than Orkney, although I want to see both, so please post that as well!

Posted by
132 posts

OK. Here's the trip report for the Shetlands.

I spent a week there and could have stayed longer. It's an amazing place! I saw two more sea arches (Dore Holm & Giant's Leg), nesting seabirds, a few RSPBs, a Nature & Wildlife Cruise, seven islands (Mainland, Yell, Unst, Noss, Bressay, Mousa, & Fair Isle) ancient brochs, a pair of friendly seals named Charlie & Sam, four lighthouses (Eshaness, Muckle Flugga, & two on Fair Isle), stunning coastal scenery, friendly locals, the Shetland Bus, a Viking Longboat, and I hiked to the most northern tip of the UK, with a view of the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse.

The structured tour I took arranged all lodging, transportation, and most attractions. I had one day off during the tour in which I traveled to Fair Isle--that place could have its own trip report as well--AMAZING island! I spent all seven days on the mainland, although I would have liked to stay longer on Unst. They booked me into two separate places (one BnB, and one hotel, both nice) so that I could experience both the northern and southern Mainland. The Shetlands offer Viking history, WWII history, great seafood, and almost no tourism--even more remote than Orkney. Driving is a joy there, and I don't generally enjoy driving.

A big draw for this island is now the BBC series Shetland, which, if you haven't watched it, is AWESOME! I saw several of their filming sites, and I hadn't even seen the show yet. Lerwick, the capital city, is very accessible and walkable, at least in the downtown and harbour area, where the overnight ferry docks. I flew from Kirkwall into Sumburgh airport, on the southern tip of the island; you can also reach it from Glasgow or Edinburgh, and possibly Aberdeen (?). Plenty of rental cars are available at the airport, including ones with automatic transmissions. You'll want a car here unless you want to be at the mercy of an infrequent bus schedule. You might be able to work everything out with day tours, but I think it's better to have the flexibility of a car.

Some highlights:
Hiking the gorgeous cliffs (and lighthouse) of Eshaness
Eating at the most northerly (and one of the best) chippies in the UK, Frankie's
Seeing otters on the Isle of Yell
Seeing Shetland Ponies play on the Mainland
Visiting a Crofting Museum
Learning about how peat is formed and then used
Seeing thousands of Gannets, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Puffins, and Guillemots on the Isle of Noss
Visiting the AMAZING Fair Isle - its three miles long and has 55 residents
Hiking out to Muckle Flugga
Learning about the Norwegian-Shetland connection with the Shetland Bus, a fascinating, heroic WWII story
Visiting the Iron Age settlement Jarlshof

There were many others as well; the list goes on and on. The tour organized most of these sites for me. Some I did on my own. Again, I wish RSE would do a tour here, but I'm not sure they're set up for mass tourism at all and would just be overwhelmed. The weather is about the same as Orkney, although not as windy. Oddly, it may have been warmer in Shetland, even though it's further north. One great way to get here is to take the overnight ferry from Aberdeen. You can either book a room or sleep in one of many comfortable seats in the main cabin. There is a café on board, various duty-free shops, as well as a nice first-class lounge, and an arcade.

They seem to take boats here more than fly between the isles, but the islands I visited were close to each other. The Orkneys are further apart. I can't say enough about how beautiful it was here. The scenery is just stunning. I never wanted to leave. You really feel that you're on the edge of the world. It's very peaceful and beautiful. Not a party place! But, if you like stunning scenery, friendly locals, great cuisine, excellent hiking, tons of history and archeology, great sweaters, and decent prices, you will love Shetland.

Hope this helps. Happy travels!

Posted by
132 posts

Pam, you asked: "Did you get good service on the islands or was it patchy?"

It was good in most places. Most tourist sites had Wi-Fi, and I brought a Skyroam Wi-Fi hotspot with me, so I don't remember having any issues. It was always on when I was sightseeing and I seem to recall it worked fine.

Posted by
1305 posts

Hi -

Never mind about Wi-Fi! Did you cross the Hermaness Bird Reserve on the way to see Muckle Flugga, and if so did you get bombed by the Bonxies? We did on our trip and it’s a bit disconcerting!

Posted by
132 posts

Hi, ianandjulie,

I did hike through Hermaness Nature Reserve to get to Muckle Flugga. No, there were no bonxies dive-bombing us. We saw them but stayed clear. We had a local guide that day for the whole trip to Unst - through the tour company I used. He met us at Toft, on the Mainland, and we rode with him in his car to Yell, and on to Unst. He was a big birder, and kept up well on sightings - I think he had an RSS feed. Maybe he knew how to steer us clear of them. But, no problems at all with bonxies.
Actually, when I did the Noss-Bressay Nature & Wildlife Cruise a few days later, they had a Bonxie trained to dive for Ginger Snaps for the tour group on our boat. It was pretty fun to see, although they seem to be very mean creatures, stealing food from other birds and such.
The hike was quite nice out to Muckle Flugga, and I love that it was a wooden boardwalk for most of it. Easy hiking. Wish we could have seen the lighthouse a little closer, but that will happen on a future trip. Definitely. We had a great day on Unst - we saw Bobby's Bus Shelter, the Viking Unst Project at Haroldswick, peat bogs in Norwick, the Saxa Vord resort, lots of sheep, and Shetland Ponies, and of course the great views from Hermaness. Loved it!

Posted by
14163 posts

Thanks for the extra info! And the additional TR…😉

Posted by
1579 posts

Thank you for your report. Orkney is wonderful! We spent three nights in Kirkwall in 2013, and it wasn't enough. Ironically we only went because our traveling companions are Highland Park enthusiasts, but I think we liked it all better than they did!

I am dying to get to Shetland; maybe year after next. I will get there, at some point!

Posted by
1305 posts

Sounds like a great trip. We went - just the two of us - alone and it must have been still breeding season as we were comprehensively and persistently dive bombed from the moment we set foot on the reserve. Fortunately we’d been tipped off and held rolled umbrellas above our heads to avoid impact/contact! You are right - they are big birds and have a large mean streak! We were headed up there to see if we could see the off course albatross (christened ‘Albert Ross’) that lived up there back then, but were unsuccessful. It’s fair to say we were birding ignoramuses when we landed on Shetland but were 100% better informed by the time we left. We’ve kept up our birding ever since and are now semi competent but would admit to struggling with some of the LBJ’s!

Posted by
2733 posts

Thanks for the wonderful trip reports. I spent four days on the Orkney mainland about 15 years ago and loved it. I always thought it would be cool to see the Shetlands, but as time has passed it’s dropped lower on my list, mainly due to it being so remote and difficult to get to. After reading your report, it’s moved way up on my list. It sounds spectacular! Thanks again!

Posted by
1224 posts

We visited the Orkney's in 2009 independently and we loved it! They've uncovered a lot of additional archeology since we were there and we are planning on taking our kids back to see it. Glad you had such a great time!

Posted by
10335 posts

Mark, thanks so much for posting your report(s). The trip sounds wonderful and I like the idea of a tour that’s set up but you’re not part of a group. Have a great time on your upcoming trip and I hope you come back and share your experiences with the travel group.

Posted by
10335 posts

Scott & Mark, thanks for sharing your trip reports. I enjoyed reading them.

Posted by
132 posts

Hi Andrea (Ontario),
Thanks for the post. Cool stuff!
Orkney really is a hidden gem. None of my friends had heard of it, but loved my pics!

Hi ianandjulie,
Wow! Y'all had a VERY different time than mine at Hermaness. Sorry it was so chaotic! Glad you were warned and had umbrellas! Like you, I was a birding novice when I went to Shetland, but thanks to some GREAT guides, I learned a lot! On my one day on Fair Isle, I hired a private guide; turns out he ran their world-famous observatory for seven years! GREAT guy, and a great guide! His wife was the last remaining person on the island to do the legendary Fair Isle Knit Sweaters. It was a fascinating day! The northern isles really are pretty special. Glad you were able to visit them. Definitely worth it!

Hi Carroll,
Thanks for the post. Shetland is amazing! You'll love it. It's really a different world there. If you'd like to see some footage of Shetland, watch the BBC mystery show Shetland, (which if you're not familiar with it, is available on at least BritBox and Prime Video); you can see some great footage of Shetland, as they film there every year. I think the 7th season is going to start soon, and it's a GREAT show! Mysteries. They even went to Fair Isle for two episodes (Season 2?). Also, if you scour YouTube there are some great videos there of both Shetland and Orkney.

Hi jlkelman,
Thanks for your post. Glad you'll be taking the kids there. I think it's a very family-friendly place. Lots of great hiking and each town seems to have a VERY nice recreation center with swimming pools and other equipment - I think because they're so remote, the Island Council tries to make life as enjoyable as they can for the residents.

Hi Tom_MN,
Thanks for the clarification. Good to know.

Hi Andrea (Sacramento),
Glad you enjoyed the reports. They really offer a nice mix of group day tours and independent travel, plus a few private guides for all-day tours. SO much to see there.
BTW, I used to be stationed at Travis AFB, CA, not far from Sac. 2008-2015. Had a GREAT time there. SO much to see.

Glad everyone is enjoying the trip reports. This is a great forum! I'm a bit new to it but really enjoy chatting about travel with everyone. Thanks for reading my post.
MC

Posted by
18 posts

ReedmanTX. Do you remember where you stayed in Lerwick? I'm probably going to just been in town for the WWII and Viking history, but also an event, then go to Norway. Love to hear about your Shetlands report. Housing and getting there from Seattle, WA is top of mine. I think I'll take the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick as it might be less expensive.

Posted by
132 posts

Hi AMann,
Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the report.

Hi timelinelady,
I actually didn't stay in Lerwick. They booked me a rental car for Shetland, and I stayed in the Busta House Hotel, in the central western part of the island, and also a private BnB they booked me near Hamnavoe just west of Lerwick. Both were in great locations, The hotel had a wonderful restaurant where I ate twice and had excellent meals. They also filmed an episode of the BBC TV show Shetland at this hotel. It's a beautiful, historic building with a sea view. The BnB had a very kind host, who I mentioned in my Shetland Report earlier in this thread. Their breakfast was tasty and they offered great suggestions for local sightseeing.

I don't remember any specific hotels in Lerwick that I could recommend. Sorry. Maybe check the RSE Travel Forum or on AirBnB? I did not take that overnight ferry from Aberdeen. I had planned to return in 2020 and had booked that ferry, but then the pandemic changed my plans. Never found out if it was a good option, but from what I've heard, it's a great way to travel. I would definitely book a room though for that overnight ferry unless you want to party all night. I think parts of that boat get pretty boisterous.

Hope this helps. Good luck with your travel planning and happy travels!

Posted by
132 posts

BTW,
I'm headed back to Orkney in a few weeks.
I'll be writing up a new report when I get back in late August.
We're going to explore more of Hoy and the mainland, plus visits to Stronsay, Papa Stronsay (an island run by monks), and Papa Westray, with the shortest flight in the world! Can't wait!
Happy travels!
MC

Posted by
2733 posts

Thank you for the recommendation to watch Shetland. So far my husband and I have watched three episodes, and we love it! It is certainly making a trip to The Shetland Islands more likely. The scenery is spectacular! We are tentatively planning on fall 2023.

Posted by
132 posts

Hi Carroll,

Yes, I love the Shetland BBC TV show, too. Glad y'all are enjoying it. It's addictive! The most recent season, Season 6, was fantastic and left us with a cliff-hanger! I think Season 7 starts sometime soon.

Oddly enough, I hadn't seen the show before I visited the Shetlands. I based my interest in visiting the northern isles on several BBC documentaries I had seen on the Shetlands and Orkneys. If you're interested in checking them out, the BBC show is called "Coast", hosted by Nicholas Crane. Seasons 7-10 are available and included with Amazon Prime and you can buy some of the DVD's from Amazon as well. It's an amazing series. They've done a handful of episodes on the northern isles. The show travels around the British coastline each season, with different segments on history, marine biology, architecture, anthropology, rock climbing, sociology, folk music, ...you name it. It's incredibly well-done, VERY informative, has stunning coastal cinematography, and is fun to watch. It sold me on visiting the northern isles and especially Fair Isle. I have learned so much just from watching this show.

Well, good luck with your trip planning.

Mark

Posted by
1019 posts

Thanks for your report. I just got back from Orkney and Shetland too! With Seymour travels. We visited about most of the same places. Not many other extra islands. Did make it to unst and yell. This was my second trip to Shetland. Last time was in 2010 for Hamerfarin. My 2nd & + grandparents were from Shetland. My 2nd grandfather came to the states, he founded Inkster, MI. We were a week In Orkney then week in Shetland. I still have relatives there. Such an amazing place.

I have not had time to do a trip report yet. Still working on my Iceland one. We are off on Thursday for RS Scandinavian tour.

Kim

Posted by
132 posts

Hi Kim,

I've heard good things about Seymour Tours. I guess the founder is a former RSE guide. Cool! I'll have to check that out. Thanks!

That's so cool about you having relatives in Shetland! I found the Shetlanders to be very friendly. What a wonderful place to visit!

When you were on Unst and Yell, did you make it to Muckle Flugga? That was one main goal for me on my trip, and we hiked out there. I would like to go back and get a closer view, though. It was still pretty far off. But, beautiful! I wonder if there are boats that would take you around Muckle Flugga and Out Stack? I would do that.

Eagerly looking forward to your trip report on Shetland! Thanks!

Hope you have a great time in Scandinavia! It's beautiful there. Happy travels!

MC

Posted by
1019 posts

No neither time we made it out there. You could spend longer time than one week on Shetland. First time we were there 10 days and still not long enough. We flew into sumburgh and ferried back. Husband wanted to experience the ferry. In 2010 we took ferry to lerwick. I was with my sister and cousin. My grandparents went in early 60’s doing some genealogy. Searching his grandfather. At the time, they had no bridge to Tondra or Burra, only a ferry.
As far as I know, relative were from West Burra and Walls