Quick guide to Orkney: best places to see the Northern lights, wildlife and heritage sites

Orkney will stir your soul, it’s a fact. With dramatic natural features, heritage, stunning coastlines and ancient treasures, this alluring archipelago of 70 isles is nothing short of enchanting. VisitScotland share their top tips on the best places to see wildlife, local history and dramatic festivals in this handy guide

Published: May 8th, 2017 at 10:06 am

Just north east of the Scottish mainland, you’ll find a magical group of islands that are shaped by the elements of water, air, earth and fire. Now, the secret is out.



A main course of locally dived scallops/Credit: P.Tomkins/VisitScotland

Orkney’s waters are a popular place for marine life, with seals, porpoises, dolphins and even otters frequenting the surrounding ocean. It’s always wise to pack binoculars when you’re in Orkney.

The magically calm and crystal clear seas will feature on every scuba diver’s bucket list, with shipwrecks from the Second World War waiting to be explored down in the seemingly infinite depths of Scapa Flow, one of the largest naturally sheltered anchorages in the world.

And it’s no surprise that the people of Orkney know how to fish, with plenty of restaurants serving up seafood sensations. You can find whatever fish you fancy, from halibut to haddock, all across the isles. Or, do a spot of fishing yourself – there are lots of angling opportunities.


Artic Terns, North Ronaldsay, Orkney./Credit: Paul Tomkins, VisitScotland

Your senses will be heightened as you explore Orkney, so keep your eyes and ears peeled! Birdsong can always be heard, from the nesting seabirds and puffins on the Brough of Birsay to corncrakes and greylag geese over on Egilsay.

If you are musically inclined, there is an eclectic variety of musical treats for your ears too. Enjoy a vibrant and lively mix of sound with traditional Scottish music at the Orkney Folk Festival from 25 – 28 May, be inspired by classical performances at the St Magnus International Festival from 16 – 21 June, or clap along to regular live sessions at local pubs.

Orkney is also in a superb position for witnessing a truly rare spectacle, the northern lights (also known as the Aurora Borealis). Thanks to low levels of light pollution and few buildings, you might catch an unobstructed glimpse of this colourful display dancing across the sky.


Skara Brae, part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney world heritage site, beside the beach at the bay of Skaill, Orkney./Credit: Paul Tomkins

These islands have lived through eons of history.

Discover prehistoric marvels at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which encompasses several sites creating a vivid depiction of life in Orkney many, many years ago. Don’t miss a visit to the fascinating Neolithic village Skara Brae, a small settlement with preserved interiors which is thought to date back to 2500 BC.

Discover ancient landscapes for yourself with memorable outdoor challenges. Keen climbers will relish the chance to conquer the famous Old Man of Hoy, a 137 m sandstone stack which offers beautiful vistas of the surrounding islands.

Embedded into the landscape is a cultural hotbed, with artists and craftspeople drawing inspiration from their surroundings. Follow the Orkney Craft Trail and be inspired by the locals’ handmade jewellery, pottery and ceramics.


Stoking the kiln at the Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Mainland, Orkney. Credit: Paul Tomkins

Sit around the fire and listen to tales of Orkney’s Neolithic origins, Viking intruders, wartime exploits and rich maritime heritage. Why not plan your trip to coincide with the Orkney Storytelling Festival, a long weekend in October? And, there’s no better place to find out more than the Orkney Folklore & Storytelling Centre.

Fire is a vital ingredient for whisky distillation, as peat is smoked in the kiln to give the spirit its flavour. Learn all about the art of whisky-making and taste a dram of Scapa malt whisky, with its sweet, velvety notes.

Orkney is bursting with plenty of breathtaking activities, attractions and places to stay. Tempted to explore these incredible isles for yourself? Make it happen and find out more about travelling to Orkney.

If you’ve got a question about planning your holiday, then go to VisitScotland’s iKnow Community where local experts and recent visitors can help you out.

See how you can experience it all with VisitScotland’s eBook, One with Orkney.


Main image: Scotland, Orkney Islands, Isle of Papa Westray, fields and scattered farms on this very small island/Getty


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