Backpacking Locations: Orkney Islands - Scotland
The Orkney Islands sit off the North Eastern tip of Scotland.They are a small, secluded area that are hardly even visible on a map, yet contain massive amounts of intricate and ancient history. I doubt many of us outside the country realize how unique and special this place really is. From viking burial mounds, to the simple beauty of the rolling, windy hills of this sparsely populated area, the Orkney Islands are a must-see for backpackers who love that "edge of the world" feeling.
My motivation for making the journey to these islands was by far the ruins and ancient sites that date back thousands of years. Additionally, half of my family lineage stems from the Scottish clans that once ruled most of this area - I wanted to go home.
How to get there
Basically, follow the A9 road north to Thurso. The A9 will take you through the Scottish Highlands (which I was also dying to see), and through many small fishing villages (lot's of beautiful scenery, camping is extremely easy on the beaches, and some of the larger towns have hostels).
The further north you journey, the more the landscape varies. From the foothills of the Highlands, the hills become steeper, the valleys narrower, and the roads snake and wind along throughout them in a very enjoyable fashion. It's the quaint Scottish countryside many imagine when they think of that ancient land. Not long after you pass the town of Helmsdale (try sleeping on the beach on the north side of town. It's absolutely wonderful), the land really opens up to a much flatter plain. I felt like I was in a completely different part of Europe.
I was lucky enough that the man I had been riding with up to that point, knew his history, and was able to point out the various standing stones alongside the road, as well as a bit of their history. You might not think standing stones are the coolest thing in the world, but just for kicks check out Loreena Mckennits "Standing Stones," an absolutely enthralling song about the Orkney Islands.
Hitchhiking from Edinburgh was very easy, and it took me about a days-worth of thumbing to reach the port of Thurso, the gateway to the Orkneys. Besides the Norwegian coastline, this was the most enjoyable hitchhiking route I have ever had the pleasure of traveling.
Getting to The Orkney Islands by rail is extremely simple. The main railroad runs right up to Thurso, and from the Thurso station, you simply take a connecting bus to the ferry. This is an expensive option, but the rail travels mostly along the coastline, so you're guaranteed an almost completely scenic route.
While many take the ferry from Thurso to Stromness, there are also a few other ways to reach the islands. You can even take a ferry from Aberdeen to the Orkney Islands.
More information on ferries
Bus is going to be your most budget-friendly option (besides hitchhiking). Just make sure you take a look at the smaller bus companies, as they are much cheaper than the more 'mainstream' ones.
More information on how to get to the Orkney Islands
What to do?
Although it may feel like the end of the world, the Orkney Islands have a very rich history - and the Highland Park whiskey distillery!
Maeshowe is a massive cairn (tomb), that simply looks like a large, grassy mound. To enter it, you must crawl for about 10 metres through a small tunnel, which then opens up into a large square room. Unfortunately, you have to go with a tour group, but it's cheap, and most definitely worth it. Besides it being more than 4,000 years old, the fact that there are runic graffiti covering the wall from Norse raiders who took refuge in the cairn, from a blizzard in the 12th century, makes it just about the most interesting piece of history I have seen so far.
More Information on the Maeshowe Cairn
Tomb of the Eagles:
The Tomb of the Eagles was the only site I came to the Orkneys for, with the "I have to see it" mindset (this is mainly because I didn't even know about all the others!), and I was not disappointed in the slightest. The tomb is thought to date to around 5,000 years ago (All of these sites are very old, and it just makes them that much more interesting), and housed the bones of thousands of eagles, as well as people, before it was excavated.
Before you enter the tomb, you have to pay a small fee at the nearby visitor center. You will receive and interesting and informative tour of the small gallery of artifacts, which gives you a basic knowledge on what you are about to see. It is entirely family-run, and very friendly.
For those who like to be intimate with ancient sites, you will love this tomb. It sits within feet of the cliffs nearby, which presents you with a wide view of the expansive ocean beyond. If you're lucky, you'll get to see the seals that relax at the base of the cliffs sometimes. To enter the tomb, you have to crawl through a 5 metre or so tunnel (they even supply a board with wheels to roll yourself in). The tomb itself is very small, and there aren't many artifacts left inside (most being at the visitor center). To some this may be a con, but seeing as the tomb is completely unguarded, and the fact that you don't need someone to take you inside, means that you can stand in this place completely alone, and just take in the energy of it all. I was lucky enough to enter as soon as a large group of people left, so I literally had it all to myself. I don't think I need to tell other travelers and history-lovers how great a feeling that can be.
There are sites like these all over the many islands that make up the Orkney Islands, and I was only able to see a few of them.
More information on the Tomb of the Eagles
I know, I know, what would "shopping week" possibly be? Even i'm not too sure, but it was the first thing I stumbled into, when I walked off the ferry in the port of Stromness. It takes place in mid to late July, and is a family-oriented partying event, basically. Lots goes on, but I personally arrived on the last day, and at night, as it was all winding down. I noticed quite a few men dressed up as vikings, a lot of beer, a lot of signing and dancing, and I think almost everyone I walked by had fish and chips (which I highly recommend!). Before I departed for Kirkwall, where my couchsurfing host was located, I was lucky enough to see the finale of Shopping Week - an entertaining fireworks show. I must say, it was an enjoyable way to first experience the Orkneys.
More information on Stromness Shopping Week
Skullsplitter beer was something I heard about before I reached the Orkneys. It's a high percentage beer, named after a famous Norse warlord that once ruled the area. If you can't tell, I have a thing for history, and vikings, so this was naturally something I had to try - you should too. I don't think you can buy it from anywhere else outside the Orkneys. This beer can be hard to find, however, but that's just a part of the fun.
Highland Park Distillery:
For those that appreciate a good scotch, you have to take the tour of this distillery. It is said to be one of the worlds best single malt whiskeys in the world. There is a guided tour that takes you through most of the main-workings of the distillery, including the expansive cask room, where some of the royal family store their own supply. The tour costs a small amount of money, but it's definitely worth it - you even get a "wee dram" at the end, to polish it off.
More information on the Highland Park Distillery
Additional information on the Orkney Islands
Transportation on the Islands
There is a bus transit system, at least on the mainland. Personally, I hitchhiked, and due to the fairly small populace, it's usually easy to get a ride. If not, I enjoyed walking the country-roads, petting a cow now and then, strolling through the small towns, and just enjoying the atmosphere.
To get between the Islands, there are ferries. They don't run as frequently as you might like, but they're not bad either. Definitely a relaxing way to navigate the many islands.
Orkney Island Map
The Orkney Islands are an out-of-the-way location, especially for backpackers. The extremely rich history, and expansive landscapes are enough to make you forget that you're in such a small area of the British Islands. While many travelers may stick with city-to-city itineraries, the harder or more time-consuming places to reach are usually the more enjoyable ones. There are hostels on many of the smaller islands, if you're opposed to camping (personally, I couchsurfed, and I would hugely recommend looking into that), and if you come to be as drawn to this region as I was, you won't want to leave - you really wont.