When you get to the northern tip of North Ronaldsay in Orkney you have reached the northern tip of the British Isles and the waters you look out upon are normally stormy and treacherous. It is a remote, rugged, lowly populated an intensely beautiful place that is typical of Orkney, a group of some 70 islands and skerries (small rocky islets) which are situated off the northernmost point of mainland Scotland.
Despite the remoteness and difficulties of crossing the heavy seas, Orkney has a human history that is at least 8,500 years old, and is home to some of Britain’s best Neolithic archaeological sites.
Of the 70 islands only 20 are populated. The largest of the islands is simply known as Mainland, and the other islands are separated into the South and North groups.
Mainland has the two largest communities in the island group. The biggest of these, and capital, is Kirkwall. It is a former Viking town that is set on a bay and is home to 7,600 of Orkney’s residents. Being built long before cars were invented, it has a narrow main street that is filled with quirky shops and cafes that are definitely worth browsing.
The second biggest town is Stromness, which has less than a third of Kirkwall’s population and streets which seem to be even narrower than those of Kirkwall. It is a very attractive port that has ancient stone cottages with absolute water frontages. The town really comes alive during the warmer months when it hosts jazz, beer and shopping festivals.
Fittingly, the nearest island to Scotland’s mainland is South Rothesay which, with its neighbour Burray, is one of the Barrier Islands. The main town on South Rothesay is the picturesque village of St. Margarets Hope which lies is a sheltered bay with houses round the shore. St Margarets Hope is the departure point for the car ferry Pentland Ferries which departs daily for Gill’s Bay in Caithness.
These two islands are joined by a causeway. Burray has several lovely sandy beaches and is a centre for many water sports, and is particularly good for diving.
One of the prettiest of the islands is Westray in the north group. There are a number of ancient buildings and archaeological sites on the island, including a very good Heritage Centre. Westray has some stunning headlands and a beautiful coastline. Perhaps the best way to get to know this island is to do the West Westray Walk, which will take about three and a half hours. It follows an imposing coastal footpath, set well above high cliffs, where a vast seabird can be viewed and where views south to the island of Rousay can be enjoyed.