~ ABOUT ORKNEY ~
The Islands of Orkney are a group of 70 islands and skerries 10km (6.2
miles) from the north-east tip of the Scottish Mainland. The largest island,
known as ‘Mainland’ is home to most of the total 20,000 population but the
main north islands of Shapinsay, Gairsay, Stronsay, Wyre, Rousay, Egilsay,
Eday, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay and the south
islands of Graemsay, Hoy, Burray, Flotta and South Ronaldsay are also
populated. Although Burray and South Ronaldsay are ‘islands’ they are
connected to Mainland Orkney by causeways. A few of the very small islands
also have permanent or seasonal residents.
The islands of Orkney are mainly low lying, a gently rolling landscape of
green fields, heather moorland heath and loch (lake). The underlying
sandstone rock breaks-down easily to form good fertile soils and much of the
landscape is farmed, growing mainly grass for animal feed. Most of the
farmland is devoted to the production of beef cattle and Orkney beef is
prized for its high quality. Sheep are also present in high numbers and the
production of barley, potatoes (tatties) and turnips (neeps) is also common.
The island of Hoy (meaning ‘high’ in Old Norse) is the exception with
dramatic hills and valleys and spectacular cliffs.
The main industry in Orkney is beef farming and much of the islands are
turned over to farm land. Tourism is another major industry providing a wide
variety of employment and income. Fishing is also an evident activity here
and Orkney has the largest crab processing plant in the UK. The renewable
energy industry (wind, wave and tidal) is also emerging as a major employer
and as this fledgling industry grows Orkney seems set to become a major
player in this field. The oil industry has made its mark on Orkney with the
large oil terminal on the island of Flotta. The arts and crafts industry
also supports a large number of employees and Orkney is one of the major
jewellery producing counties in the UK.
The Orkney climate. Being surrounded by the sea has a huge influence on
Orkney’s weather and the relatively warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift
(or Gulf Stream) which only varies by roughly 5 degrees throughout the year
means our ‘mean air temperature’ fluctuates by less than 10 degrees from
summer to winter. The climate is described as ‘temperate’ with relatively
low rainfall and not a great deal of snow and ice in the winter months. The
most noticeable feature about Orkney weather is the wind and given the open
exposure to the Atlantic and North Seas this is understandable. It can be
windy at any time of year but the calmest, sunniest spells tend to be in
May, June, July as perhaps you’d expect. The strength and consistency of the
wind has a huge effect on daily life in Orkney and is perhaps most
noticeable in the construction of the buildings and lack of tall
trees/vegetation. The exploitation of this huge natural resource is evident
throughout the county in the form of many small and large scale wind
turbines. Wave and tidal power generation is emerging as a very real natural
resource in which Orkney is leading the way in research and development.
There is evidence of human habitation in Orkney from over 6,000 years ago
but nomadic visitors no-doubt have been visiting these productive islands
for 10,000 years or more as the ice retreated from the last ice-age some
13,000 years ago. There are a great number of archaeological sites
throughout the islands with the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray being the
‘oldest dwelling house in the UK’. On Mainland Orkney the sites of Maeshowe,
Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae were given World Heritage Status, and these
are some of the most visited attractions in Orkney. There are many other
sites to visit and explore from Neolithic tombs and dwellings to Pictish
brochs and Viking settlements. More recent historical attractions are the
sunken remains of the German High Seas Fleet which was scuttled in Scapa
Flow in 1919 and divers travel from all over the world to dive on these
wrecks. There is much evidence of the military and naval activity,
particularly around Scapa Flow, and there is an excellent visitor centre at
Lyness on Hoy dedicated to this more recent history. The Orkney Museum on
Broad Street in Kirkwall paints a picture of Orkney’s more ancient history
and the Stromness Museum focuses on more recent and maritime history.
Orkney’s flora and fauna are also another great attraction for visitors with
tens of thousands of seabirds nesting on the cliffs in the summer months.
The extensive coastline and large tidal margins exposes extensive feeding
grounds for seabirds and heathland and loch are another source of abundant
food and habitat for birdlife. Orkney has internationally important
populations of Arctic and Great Skuas (Bonxies) and Hen Harriers. More
common migrant and nesting birds include Great Northern Diver, Greylag
Goose, Goldeneye, Knot, Puffin, Swallow, Turnstone to name but a few.
The largest mammals in evidence are the Grey and Common Seals which can be
seen all around the shores of Orkney as they haul out to bask on the
skerries and shores. A walk along a beach will almost always attract an
inquisitive eye from the local seals as they bob in the surf just off shore.
Porpoises, whales and dolphins are also common around our shores, best
spotted from a boat or ferry and if you are lucky you may spot a pod of
Killer whales. Otters are present here also but are very shy and difficult
to spot but if you are patient you may see one in the lochs or round the
coast. More common land mammals such as rabbits and common hare are much
easier to spot and Hoy has a population of Blue Mountain Hare. The unique
Orkney Vole is common but difficult to see but evidence of their presence is
easy to spot as runs and burrows in the long grass in meadow areas.
The field margins, road verges, meadows and heaths hold a great variety of
shrubs and summer flowers. Most flora in Orkney are small and low-growing on
account of exposure to the steady winds so look closely to see the tiny
flowers of Eyebright, Grass of Parnassus, Sea Campion and the rare Primula
Scotica. Larger flowering plants such as Northern Marsh Orchid, Angelica,
Foxglove, Primrose and Ox-eye Daisy are easier to spot and Gorse and
heathers, when in flower, make an impressive display.
The main town and Capital of the islands is Kirkwall and with its narrow
main street with many craft and gift shops, cafes, hotel restaurants and
bars is a great central location from which to explore the islands. Kirkwall
is dominated by the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, founded by Earl
Rognvald Kolson in 1137, with its red sandstone walls and large columns,
ramparts and vaulted ceiling is a ‘must see’ if visiting the capital. Other
historical remains are close by and also worth exploring and of course all
the local amenities you would expect in a large town are also available.
Stromness is the second biggest town in Orkney and undoubtedly the most
picturesque. The town grew up around the sheltered harbour of Hamnavoe as
the fishing industry grew and trade routes opened with Canada. The narrow
winding street follows the shoreline with many lanes and alleyways leading
off. Houses along the waterfront have private piers and slipways and the
dramatic backdrop of Brinkies Brae and the hills of Hoy make this another
‘must see’ for any visitor. The award winning Pier Arts Centre is also found
in the centre of the town and the museum gives an excellent account of
Orkney’s maritime history.
There is a wide variety of festivals and events throughout the year with the
summer months being particularly busy. The Folk Festival takes place in May
with an impressive line-up of visiting artistes and local musicians
performing at concerts, ceilidhs, dances, pub sessions etc over four days.
The St Magnus Festival is a mid-summer celebration of the arts with
world-class performances from orchestras, ensembles, choirs, dance groups
etc. Taking place in June each year it attracts visitors from all over the
world. Stromness Shopping Week takes place in July each year and is a gala
week of family fun and games, competitions, music and dancing. The
agricultural shows take place in early August and are the chance for farmers
to meet, compete and showcase the best of Orkney farming produce. The County
Show is the largest of the shows and is one of the biggest weekend of
activities in the county. The Orkney International Science Festival takes
place in September each year and features world-class speakers and experts
on a wide variety of subjects. These are just a few of the more prominent
events throughout the year but there are many more (too numerous to mention
here) but you can check the ‘diary of events’ to find out more.
Plan your visit today and you’ll be assured of a warm welcome to our