20 miles to the north of the Scottish mainland lie a fascinating archipelago of over 70 fertile green islands known as the Orkney Isles. 21,000 people live in the 20 inhabited islands whose gentle rolling landscape is a stark contrast to the rugged mountainous landscape of mainland Scotland.
Kirkwall (Pop. 4,000) on the “Mainland”, as the largest of the islands is known, is the capital of the Orkney Isles. It was created a Royal Burgh in 1486 and is home to St Magnus Cathedral founded in 1137. The town is situated on the mid-eastern part of the island, on the sea looking north over the outer islands of Shapinsay, Rousay, Stronsay, Eday, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Westray and Papa Westray where fishing, agriculture and tourism are the main industries.
Stromness (Pop. 1,500) lies to the west of the Mainland, looking south over the largest of the outer islands, Hoy together with Flotta. Stromness is the main ferry port to the Scottish mainland that passes the “Old Man of Hoy” an impressive and isolated stack of rock 450 ft high.
Like Shetland, these islands are full of ancient history - over 1000 recorded archaeological sites including the world famous Skara Brae- a village engulfed by sand 4,500 years ago. Other notable archaeological sites include Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in Western Europe built nearly 5,000 years ago, the Ring of Brogar (a stone circle of originally 60 stones of which 36 now remain), the Standing Stones of Stenness (a circle of 12 stones dating back to 3,000BC) and Knap of Howar on the island of Papa Westray which, dating back to 3,700 BC, comprises the oldest standing houses in North West Europe.
The ancient Picts and the Vikings also left their mark especially in the place names as you can see from the names above.
Access to the Orkney Islands is either by air to Kirkwall’s Airport but mostly by the regular ferry services from Scrabster and Aberdeen to Stromness. Ferry services to the outer islands are also regular and ornithologists can spend many fascinating days following their pastime - one in six of all British species of seabird nest here in every conceivable rock, cranny and ledge. Sea and fresh water fishing enthusiasts will also find their sport, here, demanding, exciting and rewarding.
Travel is slightly easier in the southern islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay that are connected by a causeway called the “Churchill Barrier”. This was built in the Second World War by Italian prisoners-of-war to protect naval vessels anchored in Scapa Flow from marauding U-Boats after HMS Royal Oak was sunk in 1939. These same Italian prisoners-of-war converted an old nissen hut into a chapel, a sight that no visitor to these islands should miss.
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