Ten island hopping adventures in the Orkney Islands

No visit to the Orkney archipelago is complete without spending time on some of the smaller islands where you can experience life in the far reaches of the beautiful north.
Picture: Destination OrkneyPicture: Destination Orkney
Picture: Destination Orkney

Here we look at a trip through Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay and a fascinating voyage through place, people and time.

A full itinerary of a three-day island hopping adventure can be downloaded hereGet ready to travel through thousands of years of history, miles of stunning landscape and a gentler way of life as the outer fringes of the Orkney Islands unfold.

1. Voyage like a Viking

Picture: Destination OrkneyPicture: Destination Orkney
Picture: Destination Orkney

Travel the old Norse sea route from Kirkwall to Westray as your island hopping adventure gets underway.

You’ll get a fine understanding of the geography of the isles as you pass Shapinsay, Rousay and Eday on this one and a half hour voyage across the water to Westray, a key powerbase during the Viking era.

2. Westray welcomes you

Westray is known as the “Queen o’ the Isles” due to its relative riches and fertile lands.

Picture: Destination OrkneyPicture: Destination Orkney
Picture: Destination Orkney

Hire a bike or a car on arrival at Rapness to take in the full panorama of the island, where sea cliffs, sandy beaches, rocky shores and undulating hills meet.

Pierowall is the main settlement, with the village set around a bay, busy with boats and bobbing seals.

The excellent Westray Heritage Centre can also be found here, and it provides an ideal starting point for exploring and understanding the island, its people and its past.

Treasures held at the centre include the Westray Wife - otherwise known as the Orkney Venus - the oldest Neolithic carving of a human form to have been found in Scotland. At just four centimetres in height, it may be a tiny object but it is of huge significance.

3. Puffins everywhere

Castle o’Burrian is one of the best and easiest places in Scotland to see puffins at close range. Just a short journey from Rapness on the way to Pierowall, as many as 300 of the enigmatic birds can be seen on the sea stack from neighbouring cliffs between late April and mid August.

The stack is believed to have been the site of an early Christian hermitage, but it can no longer be accessed by curious visitors due to safety precautions.

Also on Westray is the Noup Cliffs Nature Reserve, managed by the RSPB, which is a spectacular seabird city where thousands of feathered creatures, including gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins, make their home.

4. A perfect castle hideaway

Just inland from Pierowall is Noltland Castle, an imposing 16th-century stronghold with links to one of Scotland’s most notorious murders.

The now scheduled monument was built by Gilbert Balfour, an ambitious and ruthless Lowlander, who hid out here after being implicated in the murder of Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Built with walls 7ft thick and protected by 71 gunloops, Balfour took refuge at Noltland after Mary’s arrest for her alleged part in the murder plot, before he ultimately fled to Sweden.

Close to the castle are Grobust Beach and the Links of Noltland, once home to an extensive Neolithic and Bronze Age coastal community.

5. Up, up and away

Westray was once joined by land to its neighbour Papa Westray - also known as Papay - but today visitors can enjoy the world’s shortest scheduled flight to travel between the two.

The journey offers no more than a minute and a half of pure thrill as the eight-seater Britten-Norman lifts up, veers east and eases down over the bountiful fields of Papay to the island’s tiny airport.

The flight distance of 1.7 miles is shorter than the main runway at Heathrow - but the rewards of this tiny trip are sky high.

6. Time travel

There are more than 60 archaeological sites on Papay - which today has a population of about 90 - with each adding to the powerful story of times past on this island.

At Knap of Howar, step back more than 5,000 years as you enter the oldest known standing houses in Northern Europe.

Built before the Pyramids, the stone cupboards and stalls once used by the Neolithic farmers who lived here can still be seen.

Boat trips to the tiny neighbouring island of Holm of Papay can also be arranged. Here, a number of prehistoric carved tombs can be found and it is thought that people of settlements such as Knap of Howar came here to bury their dead.

7. Papay people

Visitors to the Papay Kelp Store Craft and Heritage Centre on Papay will be immersed in island life during the 1700s when its people built a thriving kelp industry.

Islanders collected seaweed from the storm-battered shores and burnt it in giant pits in the sand to make vital ingredients for the manufacture of glass and soap.

Pick up a gift or souvenir from this museum which is lovingly run by the people of Papay. Collectively, they have helped revive the island by expanding the school and bringing old abandoned homes back to life, thereby attracting new residents.

8. Viking worship

The name Papay comes from the Viking term for an “island of priests” and one of its two important religious sites can be found at St Boniface Kirk on the west of the isle.

The place of worship reflects changes to island inhabitants over time with legacies of Pictish and Viking life found here.

This location has been used as a place of worship from at least the 7th century, but the kirk as it stands today dates back to the 12th century when it was in use by the Vikings. A distinctive hogback tombstone in the graveyard stands testament to Papay’s Norse heritage.

9. North Ronaldsay sheep

A nine-minute flight from Papay will transport you to Orkney’s remotest island - North Ronaldsay - and you may well feel like you have arrived in another world, given its distinct culture and sense of place.

North Ronaldsay, which lies further north on the map than Norway’s most southerly point, is famed for its seaweed-eating sheep with ongoing efforts to preserve these magnificent beasts.

A stone-built dyke, which enjoys the same historic protection measures as Edinburgh Castle, encompasses the island and keeps the sheep on the shore for most of the year. Here, the flock enjoys a seaweed-only diet which gives their meat a highly distinctive flavour.

People come from all around the world to maintain the 13-mile wall in order for these special animals to survive.

At the wool mill run by the A Yarn From North Ronaldsay company, visitors can watch the local sheep fleeces being turned into highly-coveted yarn.

10. Beacon lights the way

A visit to the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse and Visitor Centre at the top of the island is a must. A warm welcome awaits at the oldest intact lighthouse in Scotland, where a cafe serves up fine plates of hearty local food and tasty ales to sustain sightseers to this fascinating island.

The location for the now-automated structure - known as the “Old Beacon” - is also home to the last working foghorn station in Scotland. Visitors can also enjoy the shop, where garments spun from local wool and souvenirs - many printed with vintage Northern Lighthouse Board motifs - can be found.

Tours of the lighthouse tower itself are also available, with unparalleled and spectacular views of the island laid out for all to enjoy.

---A full itinerary of a three-day island hopping adventure to Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay can be downloaded here

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