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Quiet country road, Mainland Orkney

10 more reasons to visit

Mainland Orkney

There's so much to see and do on the main island of Orkney that we couldn't fit it into one article! Here are 10 more great reasons to visit Mainland

1. Brough of Birsay

There's a sense of adventure when you visit the Brough of Birsay in the north of Mainland, Orkney.


The island is cut off from the rest of Mainland for much of the day – but at low tide, the seas retreat to reveal a stone causeway stretching across to Pictish and Viking remains on top of a green, grassy hill.

Causeway to the Brough of Birsay, Orkney
Brough of Birsay, Orkney

Pictish brooches, rings and dress pins were found on the Brough of Birsay. The site was also a Norse settlement in the 9th century.


The remains of Norse houses, barns – and even a Viking sauna – are still clearly visible. There are also the ruins of a small medieval church and monastery.


A short, steep walk to the top of the hill brings you to a small lighthouse – and your efforts are rewarded with spectacular coastal views. Wildflowers are in abundance on the island – and in spring, puffins nest on the cliffs.


2. Whalebone

From the carpark at the Brough of Birsay it's a short walk – a little under a mile – to Skiba Geo. Here a stone-built, grass-roofed fishing hut, built in the 19th century, blends into the surrounding landscape above the shore.

Fisherman's hut, Skiba Geo, Orkney
Whalebone, Orkney

A little further along the path is a mysterious whalebone sculpture, which has become an iconic symbol of Orkney. Believed to be made from the remains – the jawbone and the skull – of a right whale that was washed ashore in the 1870s, the sculpture resembles an owl in flight.


After standing on top of the cliff for more than 100 years, the whalebone sculpture was blown down in a gale in 2008. But it was repaired by the Birsay Heritage Trust, and reinforced by inserting a metal rod and attaching it to a concrete base.


This is a lovely walk, with wonderful views. As you walk, look out for seals swimming in the water or sunning themselves on the rocks below.


3. Warebeth Beach

Warebeth Beach, near Stromness, offers beautiful views of the Hoy Hills. It's a wide sandy bay, with rockpools to explore, and is a good spot for beachcombing after windy weather.

Warebeth Beach

Like many of Mainland's beaches, Warebeth Beach is often deserted – a fantastic place for enjoying the island's beautiful coastal scenery. When we visited, we were treated to the sight and sound of dozens of curlews flying over the beach. You may also see the Northlink Ferries vessel, Hamnavoe, as she sails into Stromness.


4. Great yellow bumblebees

The Great yellow bumblebee is believed to be the UK's most endangered bumblebee. Once widespread across the country, it has suffered massive declines – and is now only found on the north coast of Scotland and some Scottish islands.


Orkney is one of those locations, and we were lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful bumblebees in the RSPB reserve at the Ring of Brodgar.

Great yellow bublebee by Izzy Bunting

The Great yellow bumblebee is large and very distinctive, with a yellow bottom, and an abdomen and thorax that are entirely covered with sandy-yellow hairs – with the exception of a black band across the thorax between the wing bases.


Find out more about Great yellow bumblebees, and how to help them.


5. Bay of Skaill

The Bay of Skaill is close to the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, on the west coast of Mainland. It's a wide expanse of pale sand facing the Atlantic – and you may well find you have it to yourself.

Bay of Skaill, Orkney

In windy weather it's a dramatic place for a stroll, with large waves crashing onto the shore – this is a popular spot for surfers. We visited on a calm and sunny day – and sitting on the sand and gazing out at the ocean (which stretches all the way to Greenland and Canada) makes you feel as though you're at the edge of the world.


6. Stones of Stenness

Not far from the Ring of Brodgar are the remains of another awe-inspiring stone circle on an ancient ceremonial site. Only four of the original 12 Stones of Stenness remain – but their huge towering forms are an impressive sight that is visible for miles around.


It's believed this may be the remains of the earliest henge monument in the British Isles.

Stones of Stenness, Orkney

While here, be sure to check out the adjacent Barnhouse Village. Dating from the same period as the standing stones, this Neolithic settlement is a jumble of buildings on the shore of Harray Loch – including some houses similar to those at Skara Brae (although with much less of the structure having survived).


7. Yesnaby

For a bracing walk along dramatic cliffs with spectacular seascapes, head to Yesnaby. On a clear, sunny day the views are fabulous, with seastacks to marvel at, the sea crashing below, and the Old Man of Hoy clearly visible across the water.


On the headland is a stone cairn and an ancient monument: the Brough of Bigging, a cliff fort that was probably in use between around 1100 BC and AD 800.

Yesnaby, Orkney

As with all coastal walks, take care and keep a safe distance from the cliff edges, as the rocks can be slippery and uneven underfoot.


8. Broch of Gurness

Brochs are Iron Age settlements that are only found in Scotland – there are more than 500 of them across the country, mostly in the northern and western Highlands, and the islands.


The Broch of Gurness is one of the most outstanding examples – and it has a splendid location alongside Eynhallow Sound, with spectacular views across to the island of Rousay.

Broch of Gurness, Orkney

The broch itself is a tall circular stone tower, with huge, thick walls and the remains of a spiral stairway inside. The tower would probably have been the home for the most important family of the community.


Surrounding the broch is the best preserved of all broch villages, dating from between 500 and 200 BC. It's easy to make out the entrances, living rooms and hearths in each of the village houses.


The Broch of Gurness is a highly evocative place, providing a vivid impression of life in the Scottish Iron Age.


9. Sands of Evie

Sands of Evie, Orkney

For fine white sand and clear turquoise sea, head north to the Sands of Evie – yet another beautiful Orcadian beach that, on a sunny day, is almost Caribbean. And, you guessed it, deserted – a bit like a desert island, but without the palm trees (and with much colder swimming)!


10. Day trip to Shapinsay

There are some 70 islands in the Orkney archipelago – and although there's plenty to keep you busy on Mainland it would be a shame not to visit at least one other island, as each has its own unique atmosphere.


One of the closest and easiest to visit is Shapinsay – a quick 25-minute hop across the sea from Kirkwall. It's a particularly attractive journey as you head out from Kirkwall harbour – after hugging the shoreline of the Carness peninsula, the grand facade of Shapinsay's Balfour Castle soon comes into view.

The boat to Shapinsay, Orkney

On arrival at the harbour village of Balfour, we made a beeline for the Smithy Café. Here, delicious homemade cakes and Orkney Roastery coffee are served in a pretty garden overlooking the harbour. Upstairs, above the café, is an arts and crafts shop selling locally made gifts and souvenirs.


A short walk from the harbour, along quiet country lanes, brings you to the RSPB Mill Dam nature reserve – an important wetland habitat. From the bird hide, you have superb panoramic views of the whole reserve – and binoculars and a telescope are on hand to allow you to see some of the wetland's habitats close-up. Look out for pintails, curlews and redshanks, as well as birds of prey such as hen harriers.


And if you visit in autumn, you could be treated to the sight of several thousand Icelandic greylag geese – these birds arrive during October to spend the winter on the island.

Where to stay

Unigar Cottages is a group of three luxury holiday cottages in a fantastic Mainland location, just a short drive from Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. Featuring modern kitchens and bathrooms, they are beautifully furnished and decorated to a high standard. Run using eco-friendly practices to minimise environmental impact, the cottages have been awarded a Green Tourism Gold Award.


Way to go

If travelling by car, the quickest route from mainland Scotland to Orkney is with Pentland Ferries. The sailing departs from Gills Bay, in Caithness near John O'Groats, and takes just one hour.


The route – crossing the Pentland Firth and into the Orkney Archipelago – is beautiful, with stunning scenery and the chance to see all kinds of wildlife. Look out for common seals and grey seals, porpoises, dolphins – and even orca. You'll also spot plenty of seabirds.


Pentland Ferries is also an environmentally friendly option, using far less fuel than other routes.

Green Adventures May 2019