The Orkney Islands are off the northern coast of Scotland. There are about 70 islands in total, but only 20 of them are inhabited. These islands are rich in Neolithic, Viking, and Scottish history. The largest of the islands is only around 200 square miles, but for such a small geographic area, these islands have so much to offer and are well worth the 45 minute ferry ride from John O' Groats.
We caught the first ferry leaving John O' Groats - check out my suggestions for things to see in Northeastern Scotland!
Once we arrived on Orkney, you will need to take a bus transfer into the main town of Kirkwall. We used the John O' Groats Ferries company for our ferry ticket and they will include a bus transfer for an additional £1. Tickets were £40 roundtrip. They also offer day tours of Orkney, but as always, I absolutely recommend renting a car and exploring the islands at your own pace.
Highland Park Distillery
One of the top things we wanted to see in Kirkwall, was the Highland Park Distillery. It is the northernmost scotch distillery in all of Scotland. The distillery itself looks incredible and the tour is supposed to be great. We made reservations ahead of time (recommended), but unfortunately we had some issues at the rental car agency - I know it's shocking! No one ever has issues at a rental car agency - in case you missed it, that was sarcasm. Anyways ... we never made it to Highland Park and we were really disappointed about it. But what can you do? Oh I know! We'll just have to go back!
We were able to make it to the Orkney Brewery though! The Orkney Brewery was a great first stop for our day on Orkney. We had lunch then went on a tour of the brewery. In my opinion, you really can't go wrong with a brewery tour! Even though it's basically the same process of making beer everywhere in the world, it's always so interesting to me to see what each brewery decides to change in order to make their beer unique. It's also a great way to try different beers that we don't have access to at home.
The Orkney islands have a deep Viking history. In fact, Orkney was under Norse rule until 1472 when it was acquired by Scotland by way of an unpaid dowry for Margaret of Denmarks marriage to James III of Scotland. During the tour of the Orkney Brewery, they have a mural in one of the brewing rooms of a timeline through 5,000 years of Orkney history - hence their tagline "5,000 YEARS IN THE MAKING." Some of their beers are inspired by the Viking history in Orkney. The Skull Splitter is named after Thorfinn Einarsson, who was the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney.
After the tour, we enjoyed some samples of their delicious beer. The price of the tour included a glass of beer at the end of the tour. But they also offered a bottle of beer to take home for people who had to drive - which I loved! My favorite beer was definitely the Dragonhead - it's a dark stout with flavors of dark chocolate and coffee. Just delicious!
Skara Brae is one of the most famous Neolithic villages in all of Europe. It was occupied as early as 3180 BC - which makes it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids. Skara Brae alone makes a trip to Orkney worth the visit. Unfortunately, we really did not have the best luck with our plans for Orkney. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot at the Skara Brae visitor center, it was like a monsoon outside and the wind was unbelievable. We literally could not even open our eyes outside because the wind and rain was so bad. We waited in the car for a few minutes to see if the rain and/or wind might die down. It did not. So we had to drive away and leave Skara Brae on our long list of things we want to see on our next trip to Scotland!
Even though we didn't get to see Skara Brae, I would still 100% recommend it. It is truly one of a kind and such a well-preserved piece of early human history.
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is another Neolithic site on Orkney. It is a massive stone circle with a diameter of around 340 feet - making it the 3rd largest stone circle in the UK. When we arrived at the Ring of Brodgar, we got lucky with a break in the rain and with the tour buses. We were able to explore the stones with no one else around us and with only a little mist falling. It felt magical.
After our day of adventures, beers, and sightseeing was complete it was almost time for dinner - which I was beyond excited for!
Check out my Ultimate U.K. RoadTrip Itinerary for an epic 17 day adventure through England & Scotland!