Muschamp Rd

Scotland Trip 2024: Orkney

April 7th, 2024
Skara Brae Selfie

To the best of my knowledge I have no family connection to the Orkney Islands but when you look at where Thurso is on the map and you see the ferry is right near by, it is hard not to push further North to the Orkney Islands with their unique Norwegian heritage. This was definitely an expensive couple of days as I booked a bespoke tour, my first ever, but it was definitely different than other parts of Scotland I visited.

If you’d read about my trip to Thurso and my return to the ancestral home of the Clan MacKay you’ll know I rented a car which I got to drop off at the ferry terminal. I took the very first ferry to Stormness from Scabster, the reason you take this particular ferry is you can see the Old Man of Hoy from the side the ferry. The other reason for the early ferry ride is I had scheduled a 2 o’clock tour of Highland Park, perhaps the most famous whisky distillery I visited while in Scotland and certainly one that took some effort to reach.

The Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy


I really took a liking to Kirkwall. It isn’t very big but it seems more prosperous than Thurso. This is because it has both oil money and cruise ship money. I arrived before the crowds from the first cruise ship of the season. According to my tour guide Kinlay, I also brought the good weather. There is a public bus from Stormness to Kirkwall and after my experience in Inverness, this went really smooth. You probably want to get off by the tourist information centre which is near the post office and central.

It took some effort to fine my hotel, even with Apple Maps. I had booked the Shore impulsively through because it was recommended in the Lonely Planet after learning there was no place in Kirkwall I could use my Airmiles on. However, I soon learned it had been sold, luckily I was able to leave my bag at the Kirkwall Hotel, the new owner, then of course I went to the post office to mail another book home.

The Shore
The Shore Hotel

Eventually I got some lunch and walked around town. I had time to find my desired souvenir, an Orkadian flag, which I’ll sew onto my backpack. I also found the Highland Park gift shop. There is an Orkney Brewery gift shop and tasting room but it never seemed to be open. Eventually I had a killed enough time and went to meet the Highland Park van in front of the Saint Magnus Cathedral. Previously, at their gift shop, I had learned that it was me and two other couples, so I found them too and we all went on our distillery tour together.

Kirkwall Streets
The streets of Kirkwall

Highland Park Distillery

I’ve already written around ten thousand words about touring whisky distilleries in Scotland. I took part in the Highland Whisky Academy, but I also booked distillery tours through the websites of distilleries themselves. Later in Edinburgh I just walked up and joined a tour starting in ten minutes. You can not do that at Highland Park. It is best to plan ahead, book ahead and they offer pickup from in town in front of the cathedral so it is pretty convenient.

This is the first distillery I toured which had a gift shop in town, this is probably aimed at cruise ship tourists who are only there for a day. Not every distillery has a gift shop, but most do. Some, including Highland Park, at least if you book the 70 pound tour, give you a souvenir gift bag. I gave the fudge to my coworkers but I still have the glass they gave me. Everything made it back safely to Calgary. I had bought a miniature bottle of whisky then impulsively a long sleeve shirt at their gift shop in Kirkwall. Then at the distillery gift shop I bought a hunter’s flask. So of all the distilleries in Scotland I may have spent the most money at Highland Park.

Soon to be replaced wooden washbacks
The soon to be replaced wooden washbacks

I thought this would be the last distillery I toured. That was the plan. Briefly it looked like I might visit Scapa the next day and one of the couples I toured Highland Park with did go to Scapa while in the Orkney Islands. Visiting that distillery would be a priority next time I visit Kirkwall. Traveling to Orkney takes time and planning, but the fact you can cruise there shows it isn’t that out of the way anymore. There is an airport and part of my plan involved flying South after traveling overland through the Highlands.

Four of the Highland Park whiskies we sampled
Some of the Highland Park whisky I sampled

Dining in Kirkwall

Kirkwall has a number of hotels, restaurants, and pubs. It had been a long day so I didn’t stay out late. I also ate at the Kirkwall Hotel the next morning for breakfast so that wasn’t where I went for lunch or dinner. You are supposed to eat seafood while in the Orkney Islands. I may have had Cullen Skink somewhere, that was one of my go to choices in Scotland. I got tired of fish and chips after a while. I never did splurge on an Angus steak, maybe next time I’m in Aberdeenshire. I still had another day in Orkney so I turned in early. Through the miracle of Untappd I was able to remember I went to Helgi’s this first night, they perhaps need to work on their search engine optimization.

Orkney Uncovered

As mentioned in the introduction, due to being in the islands for only two days and knowing I’d lose the morning on the ferry, I booked a bespoke tour with Orkney Uncovered. I didn’t really care where I visited, I just knew I need to be in a vehicle. They sent me a sample one day itinerary. I also got a discount because it was offseason. We ended up going to slightly different places in a slightly different order. And just like Highland Park had a new tour van, Kinlay had a new van too.

Orkney Uncovered was one of the tour operators recommend in the Lonely Planet and they were able to fit me in on my one full day in Orkney. Kinlay picked me up at my hotel and provided a guided tour with a custom itinerary. I certainly took a lot of photos and because I brought the good weather and beat the first cruise ship, they came out well. I used a mix of my iPhone and my Panasonic camera and I used Apple’s magic wand on some of the photos. More photos can be found on my Flickr album and of course Kinlay has Instagram as @orkneyuncovered.

Welcome to Rennibister Earth House
The above ground signage

Rennibister Earth House

This was our first stop. It is hard to photograph as it is literally underground. This historical attraction is actually on a working farm where it was discovered. Orkney has a lot of historical sites, some are even older than the Pyramids.

The Stones of Stenness

These standing stones were our next stop, they date from around 3100 BC. Kinlay was shocked to learn they had recently been vandalized. We’ll see if they manage to catch the perpetrators. Once again these stones are surrounded by farms. The Neolithic sites in Orkney are a UNESCO World Heritage site so I can add another one to the list I’ve seen.

Standing Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness

The Ring of Brodgar

This is the largest stone circle in Scotland. Stone Henge is of course the most famous in Great Britain, but this provides the same mystery, what would possess people to drag thousands of pounds of stones over many miles and erect them? It must have had some religious significance and of course it may have helped them tell time and determine when to plant their crops or was it just used for gatherings?

Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar


When discussing with Kinlay where to go I confessed I wasn’t super enthusiastic about being underground, but I was less enthusiastic about being on ledges. So of course we went underground and then to some cliffs. Apparently some dumbass did fall off them. Pro tip kids, no selfie is worth dying for. I did take a number of photos with both cameras and Kinlay even suggested I use the slo-mo mode on my iPhone so we’ll see if I have to upload that to YouTube. Flickr does have limited support for video and unlike YouTube wasn’t banned in China at least last time I checked.

The cliffs at Yesnaby

Skara Brae

I liked both standing stone sites we visited, but the discovery of Skara Brae and the subsequent excavation of that site is perhaps the most famous historical attraction in the Orkney Islands. The village is over 5000 years old and used to be perhaps twice as large, part of it was lost to the encroaching sea over time. Not a lot is known about the people who erected the stones and built the village. They were not Picts, they seem to predate the Picts and may be identifiable by their pottery. Originally they may have come from mainland Europe.

They were a stone age people whereas the Picts, Celts, Scots, or Vikings could work metal including Iron. The turf roofs help the structural integrity of the houses so they are allowed to keep growing and some stones have been reinforced in modern times. Orkney has the oldest and best preserved Neolithic sites in Europe.

Neolithic houses
The Neolithic village of Skara Brae

The Broch of Gurness

This was a cool site that wasn’t on my original literary. Parts of this definitely may have been built by the Picts but the Vikings may have enlarged it or at least used it as a burial site. So this started as a military building and was used to guard the approach by water and hold out against invaders. But it also is surround by homes, you can see them inside the trenches and defensive ditches. There once was a series of walls and fortifications with the tower being taller. However, after over 2000 years this is all that remains.

Blue sky over the Broch
Blue sky over the Broch of Gurness

St Magnus Cathedral

This is actually the oldest Cathedral in Scotland. St Magnus was killed by his relative, then maybe people felt sad and declared him a saint. One of his descendants eventually decided to build him a cathedral and many many years later it was finally finished. It took so long you can actually see how the architecture and stone used changes over time.

Inside St Magnus
Inside St Magnus Cathedral

This cathedral actually has holes in it from muskets balls, but then the Cardinal or Bishop convinced the opposing forces to stop shooting at his church which some were hiding in. Just like at Skara Brae, the Stones of Sternness, and the Ring of Brodgar almost no one else was touring the cathedral while we were there. Kinlay suggested I try some of the modes on my iPhone so you be the judge do the pictures look better with or without a filter.

Gothic mode engaged
Gothic mode engaged

Last Night in Kirkwall

After not being able to pop in to the Scapa distillery, Kinlay still suggested I try to find the 18 year-old and I knew exactly where to go. The Orkney Hotel has a well stocked whisky bar. It may have over 1000 bottles of whisky. I actually got there too early to eat, despite returning to my hotel and buying more souvenirs and cards for my family. I actually sat drinking a beer, writing cards, waiting for their kitchen to open. The same couple I had toured Highland Park with, showed up at this bar for dinner and presumably a dram. I couldn’t have the 18 year old assuming it exists, they did of course have a more expensive bottle, but I opted for 16 year old.

Scapa Whisky
Trying Scapa whisky

Onward to Edinburgh

It was another early night for me. I don’t think I stayed out late my entire trip. I did enough day drinking. Of course, I had arranged for a cab to take me to the airport first thing. However, I should have left ten minutes earlier in hindsight, as it was we rushed and I ended up making it with no real fuss. I flew with Loganair which was fine and made it to my hotel once again before I could officially check in. Despite trying not to, I eventually turned on roaming and used Apple Maps again. It is a hard habit to break.

If you have questions about traveling to the Orkney Islands and back again, you can leave a question below. There are more photos in my album on Flickr.

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