Key information: Orkney Islands
- The Orkney Islands pack an extraordinary selection of treats into a relatively small landmass.
- Humanity goes back to the Neolithic and Iron Ages, and continues with Pictish, Viking and Norse remains.
- There are natural wonders galore, a coastline of dramatic cliffs and gorgeous beaches teeming with precious wildlife.
- There is a huge selection of fine walking. A keen walker will want to take in at least two Mainland walks, one or more on the outer coasts, and at least one with Scapa Flow as its focus. It would be criminal not to get out to the smaller islands, too. These are often solitary walks, with always unpredictable weather. Come prepared.
- Walkopedia rating88
- Natural interest17
- Human interest8
- Negative points1
- Total rating88
- Note: Neg: likely bad weather
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: 479m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The Orkney Islands, just off Scotland's north coast, are a group of 70-ish islands which pack an extraordinary selection of treats into a relatively small landmass.
Humanity starts with outstandingly interesting Neolithic to Iron Age stone circles, temple complexes (including the Ness of Brogda, the largest in Northern Europe), villages (especially Skara Brae, one of the best preserved Neolithic villages in Europe), tombs and other remains which tell of advanced shipping and sophisticated cultures from surprisingly early times (the climate here was evidently surprisingly benign in early times), and continues with Pictish, Viking and Norse remains, including St Magnus Cathedral, the finest mediaeval building in northern Scotland, and on through to Stromness, base of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the defences and wrecks which litter the huge natural anchorage of Scapa Flow, which was so strategically important during much of the 20th century.
As if that were not enough, there are natural wonders galore, a coastline of dramatic cliffs and gorgeous beaches teeming with precious wildlife, including rare hen harriers, corncrakes and seabirds galore, including the ever-lovable puffin, kittiwake, guillemot and razorbill, as well as fulmer, cormorants and great skua, in huge numbers in the spring and early summer breeding seasons); seals, dolphins and mountain hares.
This is different landscape from the mainland: except on Hoy, there are no grand peaks and glens. Instead you will find windswept grassy (occasionally heathery) hills and, lower down, reasonably attractive farmland littered with crofts and at times unsightly bungalows and sheds and studded with lakes. There are few trees on Orkney. Bits of the main island are, dare one whisper, a tad dull, but as soon as views involve the sea (which they often do), big views over Scapa Flow in particular, they become impeccable, and this particularly applies to the ravishing lesser islands.
Given that the highest point on the Orkneys is 479m (1,571 ft), peak bagging isn't the focus here. Walks are all a day or less. There are fantastic walks to be had everywhere in the Orkneys, although, unlike other areas in Scotland, you can't just look at a map and find a great walk, as there are fewer footpaths and hill tracks.
You should have a compass (and relevant skills) with you if you are heading into remote inland areas if there is any risk of low cloud or fog.
A keen walker will want to take in at last two Mainland walks, one or more on the outer coasts, and at least one with Scapa Flow as its focus. It would be criminal not to get out to the smaller islands, and the Old Man of Hoy and Hoy's vast cliffs and grand hills are unmissable. Walkopedia went out to Westray, but Rousay and arguably others are equally good.
Orkney's coastal walks deserve to be ranked with Britain's famous coastal paths.
Here are what we believe are the best:
Marwick Head in the north-west: climb from the interesting cove of Mar Wick to the high cliffs of Marwick Head, taking in the beautiful views down the western coast of the mainland to the looming silhouette of Hoy. Enjoy the thinly layered sandstone and the variety of seabirds. At the top of the ridge you will find the Kitchener memorial, to the WW1 Minister of War who was drowned when his ship hit a mine. The cliffs are big and dramatically vertical here. At the far end of the high ridge, you look north over wide Birsay Bay to the islet the Bough of Birsay with its ruined Pictish and Norse settlements.
Brough of Birsay in the north-west: a short (under 1 hr) and easy circuit of this interesting near-islet which is only accessible at around low tide. Fine views along both the west and north coasts, birds galore at the right times of year, the ruins of Pictish and Norse settlements, and a pocket lighthouse. But quite a lot of people. See the Cicerone guide for details.
The West Coast: Skara Brae to Stromness: This walk is 26km (16+ miles) long, and you might want to choose a shorter stretch, although it has beautiful cliff-top walking and stacks (sorry sea-stacks) of interest. Shorter stretches could be Skara Brae south to Yesnaby, taking in the Broch of Borwick; Yesnaby south to Breck Ness, longer but the finest stretch, taking in the Yesnaby Castle stack; or the cliffs nearer Stromness.
Ward Hill: A fine circuit up onto hills overlooking the heart of Scapa Flow, to the highest point on the mainland at - gasp - 268m. You will enjoy the empty moorland, but the great joy here is the magnificent panoramas of Scapa Flow, the grand bulk of Hoy looming to the South-west, which you get from the very start. 9 1/2 km.
Mid Tooin: A fine and gentle 11 1/2 km there-and-back up to and along a fine ridge (we love ridges!) in the north of the Mainland. Fabulous views northward to Rousay and east across the archipelago. You can still get the views if you don't want to walk the entire route.
Mull Head, Deerness: in the far east. You will reach the coast at The Gloup, a long, collapsed sea cave running a surprising way back into the hill. Maybe a km to the north, over broken sandstone pavements, you will find that almost-island the Brough of Deerness, sporting the ruins of a C12 Norse-era chapel. Another km of really lovely walking on the pristine, heathery, boggy heath above the cliffs gets you to the corner of the eastern mainland at Mull Head. You will see sea-birds aplenty and, if lucky, seals basking on the flat cliff-base shelves.
South Ronaldsay and Burra:
Hunda Reef, Burra: a delightful circuit of this small island protruding into Scapa Flow from the west coast of Burra. The views over the grand sweep of Scapa Flow really are magnificent, on a good day anyway. It could be bleak on a bad day.
Hoxa Head, South Ronaldsay: a good if short (2km/1hr) circuit of this headland protruding into Scapa Flow from the west coast of South Ronaldsay. Inspecting the remains of the WW2 batteries add historical perspective and atmosphere to the magnificent views over the grand sweep of Scapa Flow, with the bulk of Hoy looming to the west. It could be bleak on a bad day.
East Coast Walk, South Ronaldsay: a recently created 15km meander down the beautiful and interesting east coast of South Ronaldsay from Kirkhouse to Burwick in the south. Cliffs (generally lower than on the west coast), rocks, bays, the delicate, thin layers of the sandstone eroded into geos (clefts) and other oddities; bird life galore, especially in the Spring-Summer breeding season; reminders of the island's rich past, from the remarkable Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles to old churches to a once-defended headland to the site of the wreck of two destroyers in 1918. Shorter stretches can be walked, and circuits created to suit your time and energies. An excellent leaflet is available - we found it at the Tomb of the Eagles reception.
The Old Man and St John's Head: northern Hoy is Orkney's highest and wildest landscape, and it boasts some of the highest sea cliffs in Britain, and an array of wildlife that includes the elusive hen harrier as well as a multitude of seabirds in breeding season. The Old Man of Hoy is the country's best known sea stack, a sandstone giant of 140m (450+ ft) standing clear of Hoy's north-west coast. The walk to greet our aged friend can be a (5.5 mile there-and-back, or part of a 18km (11+ mile) circuit which heads on up the coast to St John's Head on its enormous (more than 1,000 ft) cliffs, then turns inland along a high ridge before dropping back south. On a good day, arguably the best walk in the Orkneys?
Tor Ness: A 17.5km circuit in the far south-west of Hoy, from Heldale north-west to Heldale Water and on to the superb coastal cliffs to the west, where you turn south beside them, enjoying all sorts of visual drama and geological interest until you drop to the headland and lighthouse at Tor Ness. Thence back to Heldale. You have a good chance of meeting no-one, and need some backcountry skills. A wonderful walk.
Ward Hill: A quite demanding but very fine climb of Hoy's (and the Orkneys') highest hill, at 479m. 15.5 km from the passenger ferry at Moaness, so you can get there on foot from Stromness. A gentle tramp in, then a slog straight up a steep hill, then a wonderful curving ridge walk to the summit to gain perhaps the best of all views of Scapa Flow, then a steep descent. All off-track, so some experience is advisable. Frankly, not worth it if the cloud is down.
West coast - heritage walk: a fine 6 1/2 km circuit along the (rocky) west coast of Rousay, from the huge Mid Howe Chambered Cairn and fine nearby broch to Westness, passing what is left of ancient farms. The return track is a so-called heritage walk, and runs through farmland along the hillside behind the coast. (WM - get photos and enlarge)
North coast - Kierfea Hill: a short slog to a fantastic viewpoint, then a lovely ridge walk (Walkopedia LOVES ridge walks) westward. Return by a lovely valley. Just under 8km.
Other good walks are onto the moorland of Knitchen Hill for birdlife and fine views; and to Faraclett Head in the North-east for skuas and yet more fine views.
North-west coast: You can walk along the fine coast from Inga Ness to the RSPB reserve and Stephenson lighthouse at Noup Head, in 17km. This is wild, remote landscape and the scenery is superb throughout. Seabirds galore, of course, as Noup Head is the biggest of all Orkney's colonies. An alternative, which Walkopedia did, is a circuit starting at Backarass Farm near the start of the RSPB reserve, dropping the 1/2 km to the coastal path, walking up to Noup head and then back on a track on the north flank of the promontory.
Tuquoy and Mae Sands in the south-west: a lovely short coastal walk via the ruined old Cross Kirk to the beautiful, very white sanded Mae Sands beach. Apx 2.5 km one way. You can make it a 6km circuit is you circle back on the quiet lanes behind the coast.
Other northern islands:
Eday: a history-rich walk (the tallest standing stone in the Northern isles; chambered cairns) on a ridge out to Noup Head, the northernmost point of Eday. Varied and interesting wildlife as ever, and superb views.
North Ronaldsay: a circuit taking you up the wild west coast of this remote, beautiful island which is particularly famous (even by Orkney standards) for its interesting migratory bird life, and back along quiet lanes.
While the above are in Walkopedia's view the best walks, there are plenty of others, and you can find plenty to suit your taste and time. Your key reference is Cicerone's Walking in the Orkney and Shetland Isles.
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk (support us: find these and many more using our Amazon search box)
Walking in the Orkney and Shetland Isles– Cicerone. As usual, a high grade presentation of fine and carefully chosen walks. Essential.
Walking in Scotland – Lonely Planet
Other books (support us: find these and many more using our Amazon search box)
The Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands and Islands (a bit disappointing)
Scotland – Lonely Planet Country Guide
Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk. An excellent (and user-friendly) online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks).
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
April-June are probably the best – good weather (everything in the department is relative, of course) and nesting seabirds. And fewer tourists. Summer can be good, albeit popular. Autumn can be lovely and will be emptier. Winter also has its beauties (quality of light) and not much snow. I.e. any time of year is good as long as you accept that the weather can be “exciting”.
Variable and changeable at all times – “all four season in any day”. Always come prepared for rain. Can be lovely in Spring/early Summer.
Fly into Kirkwall from Aberdeen, Inverness and elsewhere.
Ferry from Scrabster (Thurso), John O’Groats, Aberdeen and elsewhere.
Fly and ferry between the islands. You can get about (not so well on the mainland) by bus/taxi, although a car will give you a lot of freedom. Cycling – although the wind won’t always make this easy!
See Walk Summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
·Unpredictable weather: rain, wind and cold are possible at any time of year, with snow in winter. Come prepared.
·Heights: can be dangerous.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can do all these walks independently, although the remoter walks require preparation, experience and common sense.
Any recommendations for good guides? Tell us about them on our “Participate” page.
There is endless accommodation available, from fine and trendy hotels, to pubs, to B&Bs, to rental cottages, to hostels and campsites. The guidebooks have a selection of possible accommodation. There are various relevant accommodation websites. Eg www.visitorkney.com.
A good range of hotels can generally be found on the unimaginatively but effectively named Hotels.com; if you’re on a budget, Hostelbookersusually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation, or perhaps try for some bargain luxury on Lastminute.com.
It is always worthwhile seeing what the commentary on Tripadvisor is on possible places to stay – although do take their reviews with a pinch of salt, as they can be “interested”.
With the persistent wind, camping isn’t a specially appealing option.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
·www.visitorkney.com - full of good information
·www.wikipedia.org - as usual, a good starting place.
·Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
Other things to do in the area
Few castles, but ancient remains galore as described above. Fishing and other country sports. All sorts of water and river activities, including sea expeditions, kayaking.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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