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Ring of Brodgar

History, wildlife, superb local food and empty, unspoilt beaches – just a few of the reasons to make Mainland, Orkney the destination for your next trip!

10 reasons to visit

1. Skara Brae

There are so many historical sights on Orkney, you could spend weeks exploring them all. But Skara Brae should be at the top of your list. This superbly preserved prehistoric village is a fascinating place to spend a few hours.

Your visit begins in the excellent museum. Here you learn about the lives of the villagers, how their homes were constructed – and some theories as to why the village was abandoned abruptly. Artefacts on display include gaming dice, tools and jewellery.

From the museum, a path leads to a replica of one of the houses in the prehistoric village. This extraordinary structure offers an insight into what life would have been like – and looks surprisingly comfortable, with built-in beds, a dresser for displaying prized items, and a central fire pit for cooking and warmth.

Skara Brae

From the museum, a path leads to a replica of one of the houses in the prehistoric village. This extraordinary structure offers an insight into what life would have been like – and looks surprisingly comfortable, with built-in beds, a dresser for displaying prized items, and a central fire pit for cooking and warmth.

The village itself is right alongside the sea – with spectacular views of the coastline. This is the best-preserved group of prehistoric houses in western Europe. You can't go into the houses, but the walkways around them allow you to peer inside to get a good view of the interiors. It's a highly evocative place, and not to be missed.

2. Ring of Brodgar

Not far from Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar is a huge stone circle and henge, dating back to the third millennium BC. Consisting of 36 massive, surviving stones – originally there were 60 – it's one of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments in the UK.

We visited the site several times (it's free!), to see it during sunny daylight, with the birds singing and the bees buzzing, and to watch the sun setting behind the stones – a magical experience.

Ring of Brodgar at sunset
Waulkmill Bay, Orkney

3. Waulkmill Bay

Orkney's beaches are beautiful and – even in summer – often deserted. Waulkmill Bay, on the south coast of Mainland, is a vast sweep of golden sand at low tide. It's a haven for birds – look and listen out for oystercatchers, with their distinctive red feet and beaks; curlew, with their long, curved beaks and haunting, tremulous calls; and little ringed plovers, with their peeping cries.

While we were there we also saw arctic skuas and great skuas. These aggressive seabirds were swooping around and harassing the other seabirds in the hope of pinching their food. It was fascinating to watch the skuas in action – but we did feel sorry for the terns and gannets that were made to drop the fish they had worked so hard to catch.

Strmness, Orkney

4. Stromness

Stromness is a lovely little town – Orkney's second largest, after Kirkwall. Little alleyways lead down to the harbour from the cobbled main street, which is lined with gardens full of flowers, craft shops, cafés, and a deli selling locally produced food.

It's a wonderful place for a wander. And down by the water, there's a still, quiet atmosphere, with little boats plying back and forth and wonderful views across the sea to the hills beyond.

6. Churchill Barriers

The Churchill Barriers are a series of causeways, linking Mainland to the small southern islands of Lambholm, Glims Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay.

The barriers and islands flank the east side of Scapa Flow – one of the largest sheltered harbours in the world.

In 1914, the area was recognized as an ideal base for the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. Blockships were sunk to close up the passages between each island and make the harbour more secure. During WW2, these were fortified even further – but this was still not enough, in 1939, to prevent a German U-boat from getting through at high tide. The Germans torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, killing 834 members of her crew.

Corncrake in long grass

5. Corncrakes

Found only in a few pockets of the British Isles – including the Orkneys – the corncrake is a rare relation of the moorhen, and has a red UK conservation status. This means that the species is globally threatened, and needs urgent action to protect it and prevent further population declines.

The birds are summer visitors, migrating to Africa for the winter. They're quite small – just a little bigger than a blackbird – and are very secretive, spending much of their time hiding in vegetation.

You'll be very lucky if you see one. But you might hear the distinctive, rasping call – we did, on an evening walk along a quiet lane near Quoyloo. It's an unmistakable sound – it reminded us of those wooden scraper musical instruments much-loved in primary schools – and is surprisingly loud for such a small bird.

Churchill Barriers blockship
Churchill Barriers

The following year, Winston Churchill ordered work to begin to create four permanent barriers – although these weren't finished until May 1945, a few days after the war had ended in Europe. The barriers now provide a convenient way for locals – and tourists – to travel around the south of Orkney.

Driving the full length of the barriers and islands makes for a stunning trip, with plenty of interesting places to stop. There are several glorious white-sand beaches along the route – for example the beach that runs the length of Churchill Barrier No. 4, between Burray and South Ronaldsay.

Orkney Brewery

7. Orkney Brewery

There's a strong food heritage on Orkney, and delicious locally produced goodies – from oatcakes and cheese to fudge and ice cream – can be found all over the islands.

Orkney brewery is just one of these local producers – creating quality, hand-crafted ales using traditional methods. Housed in the former schoolhouse in Quoyloo, one mile from Skara Brae, there's a visitors' centre and shop – and tours are available (with tasting!) so you can learn more about the brewing process.

Orkney Brewery Corncrake beers

One of the brewery's most popular beers is Corncrake. Named after the rare and elusive birds that live in the area, a donation from the sale of each bottle goes to support the RSPB's Corncrake conservation work in Scotland – a good excuse to enjoy a few bottles during a trip to Orkney!

Cottascarth mural

8. Birdwatching at Cottascarth

The birdlife on Orkney is outstanding, and birdwatchers will be in their element.

At the RSPB reserve at Cottascarth, there's a chance to see some magnificent birds of prey, such as merlins, kestrels and hen harriers. The reserve also has one of the highest densities of breeding curlews in Europe – and you may be lucky enough to spot a short-eared owl.

From the parking area, a short walk through the heather takes you to a large, rather fancy bird hide, housed in a beautiful green-roofed building next to the ruins of an old croft.

Inside, binoculars and bird guides are provided to help you identify any sightings. There's also a stunning mural, depicting some of the wildlife that's spotted in the reserve – created by artist Anne Bignall, it features artwork by children from a local primary school.

Brough of Derrness, Orkney

9. Mull head

Mull head sits at the northeastern point of the Deerness peninsula, and is the location for a trio of attractions.

The Mull Head Nature Reserve extends to over 200 acres, and features a network of footpaths providing a range of circular walks through moorland, grassland, and along a spectacular coastline.

The first thing to look out for is The Gloup – a partly collapsed sea cave, linked to the shore by a land bridge. The word 'gloup' comes from the Old Norse 'gluppa', meaning chasm. Take care near The Gloup as it's not fenced, and there's a sheer drop to the sea below.

The Gloup, Mull Head, Orkney
Cliffs on Mull Head, Orkney
Steps up to Brough of Deerness, Orkney

From The Gloup a coastal path hugs the top of the cliffs, offering fantastic views of the crashing waves. As you get closer to the tip of Mull Head, the cliffs become more and more dramatic, with pillars of rock forming tiny coves.

Brough of Deerness, Orkney

On one of these pillars – accessed by a dizzying path, with steps carved out of the stone and a chain to cling onto – is the Brough of Deerness. Here you'll find the archaeological remains of a Norse settlement and the ruined remains of a chapel – and yet more breathtaking views.

Dingieshowe beach

10. Dingieshowe Bay

A thin strip of land joins the bulk of Mainland with the Deerness peninsula. On one side is St Peter's Pool – a tranquil, shallow, circular bay that's a good place to spot wading birds.

On the other side of this isthmus is a duo of beautiful beaches. Dingieshowe and Tarracliff are twin arcs of pale golden sand, with fabulous views out to the island of Copinsay. There's a free car park and toilets, and the beaches are reached by a short clamber up and over the dunes – these dunes shelter the bay when the wind is blowing from the north.

It's a beautiful stretch of coastline, with rock pools to explore at the far end of Dingieshowe – fantastic for kids. On the day we visited, in late August, we had the whole beach to ourselves – as seems to be the way with Orcadian beaches!

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.

Mainland Orkney

Green Adventures February 2019