Ten miles north of the Scottish Main Land is an archipelago made up of seventy different islands. The Norse called it Orkneyjar, while the Scottish called it Orkney.

Twenty of the seventy islands here are inhabited and they have a history that stretches back thousands of years to prehistoric times. Orkney has seen several occupiers including the Romans and then the Vikings.

The soil of Orkney is fertile and the archipelago is full of life both on land and in the sea. Birds fill the skies, while seals, whales, and even otters claim the water. The archipelago itself is home to a variety of unique species only found there.


Experience the far north wonder of the Orkney Islands. There are so many stories from this archipelago. Come visit and add your own.

Wildlife, on Land and in the Sea on the orkney islands

In the seas around the islands, you can spot grey and common seals as well as whales and dolphins. Any visit to the coast will reveal a sky full of a variety of birds. On the cliffsides of the coast, you can find sea birds such as puffins, kittiwakes, black guillemots, ravens, and great skuas.

The island is also known for its colorful flowers. These include seas aster, sea squill, sea thrift, common sea lavender, and common heather. Trees are not common on the islands of Orkney but in a forest named Happy Valley, 700 trees and vibrant gardens grow out of what was a boggy hillside near Stenness during the last century.

The Ronaldsay sheep to the north are unique to islands and have a strange diet subsisting mostly of seaweed. The Orkney vole is another species unique to the archipelago.

Related: Ghost Town? Meet St Kilda - Scotland's Ghost Island!

The historic Land of Orkney

Located ten miles north of the mainland of Scottland, the land of Orkney is primarily old red sandstone that rests upon metamorphic rocks. On the sharp cliffs of the islands, you can see the vibrant colors of the earth exposed to the elements of the sea.

Orkney enjoys a shockingly mild climate despite its far north latitude. The winters average four degrees celsius while the summers remain around 12 degrees celsius. This lack of extreme weather change is thanks to the gulf stream that passes through the area.

This mild climate and fertile soil explain why these islands have supported human settlements for thousands of years. The islands have provided a comfortable and stable home for the many who have occupied them.

History of the orkney islands

It is believed that people have lived in Orkney since 3500 BC. The preserved village of Skara Brae dates back to 3100BC and shows the islands were able to support a substantial human settlement. Many sites on the island were abandoned around 2200 BC likely due to climate change forcing humans away from the Islands for some time.

In the Iron Age, the settlements on the island began building more impressive structures such as towers, roundhouses, and storerooms that date back to 700 BC. It was also during the Iron Age that the King of Orkney bowed to the Roman Empire, though Rome never truly occupied the islands, trade did persist between Orkney and Rome.

During the eighth and ninth centuries AD, the islands were annexed and occupied by Norwegian Vikings who used the islands as their home base for raids against the coasts of Great Brittian.

Eventually in the 1400s, Orkney was included in a dowry and returned to Scottland. It has belonged to Scottland since then despite still having some Norwegian influence.

Related: 10 Ways Scotland One Of The Most Beautiful Countries

Time-Line from Origin to Norse Occupation

  • 3400-3100BC - Earliest structures at the Barnhouse Settlement.
  • 3300-3200BC - Earliest structures were built on the Ness of Brodgar site.
  • 3200BC - Early buildings at Skara Brae.
  • 2900-2750BC - Barnhouse Neolithic settlement abandoned. Work begins on Barnhouse Structure Eight.
  • 2200BC - The village of Skara Brae abandoned
  • 50AD - Broch of Gurness in early stages of development.
  • 84AD - Agricola's supposed visit to Orkney.
  • 580AD - Cormac's missionary journey to Orkney.
  • 850AD - Harald Fairhair's legendary voyage to Orkney – earldom established.
  • 874AD - Sigurd I is earl.
  • 900AD - Battle of Harfursfirth and the beginning of the second period of Norse colonization.

How to Get to the orkney islands

Getting to the Orkney Islands isn’t too challenging. There are two general methods of doing so, by air or by sea. Both options offer different benefits and are worth considering.

By Air

Kirkwall in Orkney has an airport making it possible to fly into Orkney. Loganair operates flights into and out of Orkney. Below are some of the destinations you can fly from, and how long it will take to reach the Orkney Islands.

  • London to Kirkwall (with connections) - 3-4 hours
  • Glasgow/Edinburgh to Kirkwall - 1 hour
  • Aberdeen to Kirkwall - 50 minutes
  • Inverness to Kirkwall - 45 minutes
  • Sumburgh (Shetland) to Kirkwall - 35 minutes

By Sea

Reaching Orkney by sea may take a bit more time than traveling by air. However, the many ferry systems allow you to take a motorbike or car with you. Having a vehicle on the islands is a great way to quickly explore it. The NorthLink Ferries’ route sails between Aberdeen and Kirkwall and a shorter crossing between Scrabster and Stromness. The Pentland Ferries’ route takes it between Gills Bay and St Margaret’s Hope.

  • Scrabster (near Thurso) to Stromness - 90 minutes
  • Aberdeen to Kirkwall - 6 hours
  • Lerwick (Shetland) to Kirkwall - 6 hours
  • Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope - 60 minutes
  • John O'Groats to Burwick (June- Sept, foot passengers only) - 40 minutes

Next: Hiking The Scottish Highlands: A Beginner's Trail Guide