Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 25 - Orkney & Shetland – Other worlds...

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Orkney & Shetland – Other worlds...

The Shetland isles and the Orkney isles are both far enough away to have carved out unique personalities, but near enough to get to and enjoy easily. Dominic Roskrow reports

Of all Scottish destinations the Orkney isles and the Shetland isles are the most mystical, magical and exciting.

Their location, far off the coast of Scotland in a sort of Nordic no man’s land, means they have developed in their own unique way, partly Scottish but partly not. And everything about these sets of islands is deliciously out of kilter.

Their Northern location would suggest an inhospitable climate, for instance, and they are indeed rugged and windswept. But they’re surprisingly temperate as well, the Gulf Stream ensuring that they are not snowbound in even the harshest winters.

They should be remote, barely inhabited outposts where humanity is tolerated rather than where it thrives. Yet both sets of islands boast evidence of communities stretching back as far as any country in the world, and both are home to attractions of surprising delicacy and beauty.

And you’d expect a collection of islands so far removed from the seat of power of any nation to be bereft of culture, having often been little more than resting points for whatever group of seafaring marauders who were passing through on their way to another bout of raping and pillaging; but no. Both the Orkneys and the Shetlands have soaked up cultural influences from different sources and created their own unique and thoroughly endearing cultures.

With so much wonderful and scenic Scotland between Hadrian’s Wall and John O’Groats these islands could well have been forgotten about and ignored. But with so much to explore here, so many amazing and totally different places to visit, and with so many traits that can not be found anywhere else on earth, the Orkneys and Shetlands have demanded to be noticed and frankly, you can’t claim to have seen Scotland properly until you’ve visited them both.

The best thing about both sets of islands is that they are far enough away from the mainland to make them appealingly remote and different, but they’re both very easy indeed to visit.

There are seven daily flights from the mainland to Sumburgh Airport, 25 miles south of Lerwick on the Shetland Isles, for instance, and you can fly directly from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and even London Stansted.

The Orkney Islands can be reached by air by direct flights from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, too.

But if you have the time, the way to arrive is by sea. An overnight sailing from Aberdeen is the most exciting and stylish way to make the distance and if you’re a romantic, your evening crossing will be flavoured by the knowledge that the seaways around you have witnessed centuries of history unchanged.

Should you be fortunate enough to get a bright morning, you’ll find arriving as breath-taking experience as you could wish for.

The journey to Orkney islands is a shorter one, and there are more options. You can sail from Aberdeen in eight hours or so, or travel to the far North and join a sailing from John O’Groats, Gills Bay and Scrabster.

The following pages cover the best of the tourist attractions. Though they are often mentioned and have been regularly written about in this magazine, that doesn’t make them any less impressive if you haven’t been there before.

But my advice is make sure you get off the beaten track and explore thoroughly. Roads in both island groups tend to be safe and good, and car and bike travel are both straightforward – though you need to be aware of weather conditions if you’re thinking of cycling.

Both the Orkneys and the Shetlands comprise many islands, though how many exactly remains a moot point – when is a rock crop a skerry, and a skerry an island?

According to Orkney whisky producer Highland Park, a rock outrcrop becomes an island when a sheep can live on it.

In which case there are more than 70 islands to explore in the Orkneys, which are an impressive 85 kilometres (51 miles) long, and more than 100 on the Shetlands.

You won’t be able to do them all, of course, but it is fun visiting places that sound like they’re part of the regular shipping forecast – which of course they are.

If you can afford the time, stay on both for at least three days each. It won’t give you time to see everything but it will give you a chance to get a proper flavour as to what both sets of islands are all about.

And if you’re anything like me, it’ll be enough time to whet your appetite, and prompt a lifelong love affair with two of the world’s truly most magnificent and amazing destinations.

What to do


Bishop’s & Earl’s Palaces
Watergate, Kirkwall
The Bishop’s Palace is a 12th century hallhouse with a unique round tower. The adjacent Earl’s Palace was built in a splendid Renaissance style.

Broch of Gurness
Protected by three lines of ditch and rampart, the base of this broch is surrounded by a well organised Iron Age village. The internal fittings are of particular interest.

Discover Orkney Tours
Clay Loan, Kirkwall
Guided tours and walks throughout Orkney, suitable for individuals or groups. Time and destination your choice.

Five Senses
Manse Lane, Stromness
Explore Orkney’s hidden gems with a Five Senses tour for up to 6 people. Learn the art of making fire, meet craft folk, sample foods, work with natural fibres and stone.

Highland Park Distillery
Holm Road, Kirkwall
The distillery is one of only six remaining in Scotland which malts its own barley. Visitors have the opportunity to see the entire process from malting to distillation.

Hobbister Nature Reserve
The reserve is a mixture of moorland, sandflats, saltmarsh and sea cliffs where you are likely to see many varieties of birds.

Hoy Ranger Service
Ley House,Hoy
Free guided walks - learn about local wildlife and history while enjoying the spectacular scenery.

Maes Howe
Stenness, Orkney
The finest megalithic tomb in the British Isles. Of Neolithic date, broken into in Viking times by people who carved extensive runic inscriptions on the walls.

Out West Charters
Hoymansquoy, Stromness
Scheduled boat trips to Old Man of Hoy, and private charters. Sea angling trips for four to eight hours.

Ring of Brodgar
A perfect stone circle erected with mathematical precision some 5,000 years ago. The circle retains 27 of its original 60 stones.

Roving Eye Enterprises
Westrow Lodge, Orphir
Explore the wrecks of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow with a cruise on the ‘Guide’ and its unique underwater camera.

Scapa Scuba
Orkney’s only PADI Dive Centre. Try-dives and half-day courses available. Experienced divers should head for the wrecks in Scapa Flow.

Skaill House
Breckness Estate, Sandwick
Among items on display in this 17th century mansion are Captain Cook’s dinner service. Joint admission charge with Skara Brae.

Skara Brae
Bay of Skaill
In 1850 a ferocious storm scalped the high dune of Skara Brae, revealing the ruins of a 5,000 year-old village.

Tomb of the Eagles
Liddle, South Ronaldsay
A neolithic tomb on a magnificent cliff-top site. The new visitor centre allows you to handle some of the original artefacts found in the tomb.


Auld Rock Brewery
Baltasound Unst, Shetland
This micro-brewery opened in December 1997 and is currently producing some excellent cask-conditioned ale.
Tel: +44 (0)1957 711 658

Bod of Gremista Museum
Gremista, Nr Lerwick
A typical 18th century home, providing family accommodation and a working store for the nearby fish-drying beach.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 695 057

Bonhoga Gallery
Weisdale Mill, Weisdale
The first purpose built Gallery in Shetland showing a varied programme of local, national and international work. Good café.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 830 400

Island Trails
Market Cross, Lerwick
Highly recommended island tours, no party too big or too small.

Jarlshof Prehistoric and
Norse Settlement
Sumburgh, Shetland
An extraordinarily important site with a complex of ancient settlements within three acres. The oldest is a Bronze Age village.

Muckle Flugga Shore Station
Haroldswick, Unst
Overlooking Muckle Flugga, Britain’s most northerly point, Hermaness provides a wonderful haven for over 100,000 seabirds.

Quendale Watermill, Interpretive
Centre And Craft Shop
Quendale, Dunrossness
An excellent example of a restored watermill. Small craft shop and exhibitions.

Shetland Museum
Lower Hillhead, Lerwick
Extensive displays of archaeology, folk life, social history and maritime, also exhibitions of contemporary art.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 695 057

Tangwick Haa Museum
Eshaness, Shetland
The museum illustrates different aspects of life in Northmavine through the years, using photographs and artefacts.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 503 347

Unst Heritage Centre
Haroldswick, Shetland
The history of Unst through displays depicting crofting, fishing, geology and examples of spinning and fine lace knitting as well as information on family history.
Tel: +44 (0)1957 711 528

Where to stay


Ayre Hotel
Ayre Road, Kirkwall
Situated on the harbour front, close to the historical town centre.

Balfour Castle
Shapinsay, Orkney
Victorian baronial mansion set in 70 acres of wooded grounds, including original walled garden.

Bis Geos
Self catering accommodation high on Westray’s western cliffs. Traditionally rebuilt croft with all mod cons.

Foveran Hotel
St Ola, Kirkwall
Small family-run hotel and restaurant in a quiet location overlooking Scapa Flow.

The Observatory Guest House
North Ronaldsay
Solar and wind powered island accommodation with birdwatching and natural history activities.

Orkney Hotel
Victoria Street, Kirkwall
A 17th century hotel in the heart of the ancient burgh of Kirkwall, close to St Magnus Cathedral.

Kirkwall Hotel
Harbour Street, Kirkwall
One of Orkney’s largest hotels. Fresh local produce and seafood served in the bar and restaurant. Winner of Taste of Orkney Awards – Best Evening Meal 2005.

The Palace, Birsay
Comfortable four-star bed and breakfast.

The Pickaquoy Centre Caravan &
Camping Park
Pickaquoy Road, Kirkwall Situated just a short walk from the town, and an impressive range of leisure facilities.

Orkney’s only five-star serviced accommodation. 15 minutes from Kirkwall.

Sands Hotel
Burray, Orkney
Former 19th century Herring Station on the shores of Scapa Flow. All rooms enjoying sea views, of course.


Almara B&B
Highly recommended B&B. Friendly family home with good cooking.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 503 261

Braewick Campsite
Braewick, Eshaness
New for 2006. Craft shop and café on site.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 503 345

Burrastow House
A peaceful Georgian house hotel, any closer to the sea you’d have wet feet.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 809 307

Herrislea House Hotel
The only four star hotel in Shetland. Good home-cooking and live music on Tuesday evenings.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 840 208

Kveldsro House Hotel
High quality, established hotel. The Island Room is the best.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 692 195

Lerback B&B
A modern crofthouse bungalow set on the quiet Isle of Foula.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 753 226

Lerwick Youth Hostel
Isleburgh House, Lerwick
Shetland’s main hostel. Very central location

Spiggie Hotel
Scousburgh, Dunrossness
Pleasant family run hotel, with good restaurant and bar.

Sumburgh Lighthouse
Unique self catering accommodation at the southernmost tip of the mainland.

The Westings Inn
Excellent base for exploring. Good selection of real ales and three different menus. Also has campsite
Tel: +44 (0)1595 840 242

Almara B&B
Highly recommended B&B. Friendly family home with good cooking.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 503 261

Braewick Campsite
Braewick, Eshaness
New for 2006. Craft shop and café on site.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 503 345

Burrastow House
A peaceful Georgian house hotel, any closer to the sea you’d have wet feet.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 809 307

Herrislea House Hotel
The only four star hotel in Shetland. Good home-cooking and live music on Tuesday evenings.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 840 208

Where to eat


Appies Tearoom
Lower Appiehouse, Sandwick, Orkney
Charming tearoom serving simple home made soups, bread, scones, jams, etc.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 841 562

The Belsair
Kettletoft, Sanday
Delicious homebakes, bar snacks, and evening meals.
Tel: +44 (0)1857 600 206

Creel Restaurant with Rooms
St Margaret’s Hope,
South Ronaldsay
Modern cooking with a hint of Orcadian influence. Three comfortable en-suite rooms.

Dil Se
Bridge Street, Kirkwall
Indian cuisine and evening entertainment.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 875 242

Foveran Hotel
Nr Kirkwall, St Ola
Popular a la carte restaurant with good views. Lobster is available with prior notice.

Haff Yok Cafe
Quarry Road, Pierowall,Westray
Light lunches, home baking, freshly brewed tea and coffee, doubles as local Tourist Information Point. Open daily.
Tel: +44 (0)1857 677 777

Lynnfield Hotel
Holm Road, Kirkwall
The former home of the distillery owner serves morning coffee, snacks, lunches, evening meals and suppers in a choice of venues.

Trenabies Bistro
Albert Street, Kirkwall
For salads, sandwiches, fresh seafood, toasties, wraps, filled rolls and panini. Speciality teas, coffees, also a fine selection
of wines and beers.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 874 336

West End Hotel
Main Street, Kirkwall
Friendly lounge bar/restaurant offering the best of Orkney beef, seafood and vegetables.


Busta House Hotel
Tranquil country house. Great malt selection and one of the best meals in the Islands.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 522 506

Da Haaf Restaurant
Basically the Fisheries’ college canteen, but the fresh seafood, reasonable prices and a great view more than make up for it.

Easterhoull Chalets
East Voe, Scalloway
Nine modern self catering chalets, each sleeps up to five people. Showers, central heating and on-site laundry.

Charlotte St, Lerwick
Norwegian style café with good atmosphere.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 692 100

The Mid Brae Inn
Large portions of decent pub food.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 522 634

Monty’s Bistro
Mounthooly St, Lerwick
Good service and quality menu using Shetland’s finest ingredients.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 696 555

Osla’s Café
Mounthooly St, Lerwick
Good friendly café and very good value. Pizzeria upstairs good for an evening meal.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 696 005

The Peerie Shop Café
Esplanade, Lerwick
Coffee, tea, soup, salad, snacks, and exquisite home made cakes.

Scalloway Fish & Chip Shop
New St, Scalloway
The freshest and best fish and chips in Shetland. Sit down available.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 880 270

Sumburgh Hotel
The organically farmed smoked salmon here is fantastic.



VisitOrkney, 6 Broad Street,
Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1NX
Tel: +44 (0)1856 872 856
VisitShetland, Market Cross,
Lerwick, Shetland
Tel: +44 (0) 8701 999 440