St Lucia’s Day is 13th December and used to mark the winter solstice under the Julian calendar.  It is especially celebrated in Scandinavia.  Traditionally a young girl wears a crown of candles and a white dress with a red sash.  The festival predates Christianity and coincides with the ancient festival of Yule which celebrated the re-birth of the sun, with much eating, drinking and socialising.  It also marked the defeat of darkness by light.

Lucy was born around 283AD, probably in Sicily.  She was martyred for being a Christian in c.310AD.  The name “Lucia” comes from the Latin, Lux for light.  In Scandinavian folklore Lussi was a witch who flew through the air and visited people’s houses between Lussi Night and Yule, where she might commit evil deeds, such as make off with children.

In modern times the narratives have become conflated.  The current celebrations started in Sweden in 1927 and after WWII in Norway and Denmark.  Orkney is twinned with the western Norwegian area of Hordaland, which every year gives us a large Christmas tree.  On the first Saturday in December (6th this year) we celebrate our own St Lucy’s Festival.  Events start with the procession of St Lucy and […]

Visiting Maeshowe is a tradition for the Tait family.  My grandfather, Charles William Tait, wrote an article for the Orkney Herald in about 1925.  He took a great interest in all things antiquarian and archaeologists such as V Gordon Childe were frequent visitors to Buttquoy House.  The author fondly recalls many mid-winter visits to see the light in the chamber as a little boy, in a time when very few people were interested in such events.

I continued the habit with my two boys, visiting Maeshowe, the Watchstone and Brodgar around the winter solstice.  Then in autumn 1997 I had an interesting email from someone called Victor Reijs from the Netherlands.  He is very interested in what has come to be called “archaeoastronomy” and had been here the previous April when he took all sorts of measurements and compass bearings around Maeshowe.  This was the start of a collaboration to try to transmit images to a website from the monument.

At that time broadband, wifi, gigabyte Ethernet and the like were far in the future.  All we had was a rather unreliable dial up connection.  Victor is a computer networks engineer and was able to borrow a very expensive wireless system

Humpback Whales are very rarely sighted around Orkney, being generally a deep water species.  In September two were spotted breaching off Wick, while in August two were spotted in the Moray Firth.  The report of two off Papay this week is therefore not entirely surprising.  Like all large cetaceans which were formerly hunted, the Humpback has made a slow but steady comeback.

There may be about 20,000 in the North Atlantic.  Most spend the summer of eastern Canada and New England, wintering in the Caribbean as well as in the Bay of Biscay and off Spain.  They migrate up to 16,000 miles every year.  They nearest place to Orkney where they are commonly seen is southern Greenland and off western Iceland.

Humpbacks are occasionally seen off Shetland, being spotted most years.  The most recent was off Sumburgh Head in 2011 with others seen from Burravoe in Yell in February 2009.  I saw one breaching off Sumburgh Head in 1995.  Magnus Spence released one from fishing nets in Scapa Flow in May 2012.  Recently individuals have been sighted off Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Skye. Thus it is possible that numbers of this magnificent whale may be on the rise in […]

When we first came to Orkney for a few days, about three years ago, we did not see the sun for  a single moment. But still,we both knew instantly that this was the place we had been dreaming about for ages and that we wanted to return for longer.

It then took us nearly two years to set up a house swap for six months.  We found a lovely flexible couple who agreed to come to Switzerland and loan us their house (thank you Facebook :o) and our employers agreed to let us go for six months.

Then, at last, on 28th December 2013 we arrived in Deerness: excited, nervous and very scared:

Would it be as wonderful as we were hoping? Would we be welcomed by the people of Deerness? How would the children cope at school?

And could we cope with all the darkness that everybody in Switzerland had warned us about?

Well, it is now October 2014, we have returned to Switzerland and we could not say a single thing we disliked! The people of Deerness are the most wonderful people and welcomed us with open arms, letting us join their parish cup football team and craft club, welcoming us

On Sunday 10th August, I was lucky enough to get a trip out on the pilot boat: John Rae, leading the Ruby Princess safely out of Kirkwall Bay.  My apologies if I don’t get all the nautical terminology correct but I wanted to put pen to paper (well actually typing to blog) in order to capture and share what (for me) was a real treat!

Sunday had been a great day in Orkney with visiting ships, the MSC Magnifica and the Ruby Princess, sailing to our shores – the town was buzzing and the sun was shining.  Having volunteered to help and welcome our visitors to Orkney throughout the day, I was delighted when I was asked whether I would like to sail out on the pilot boat to wave the Ruby Princess off.  I obviously said yes and although a little early (departure time 17:00hrs) was ready at to set sail 16:15hrs!

I knew the ship was large but had never got the impression of just how large when looking out across the bay – she is huge!

Upon reaching the ship the crew had to manoeuvre the pilot boat alongside – and the Pilot transferred to the Ruby Princess. 

Primula scotica  Orkney’s most famous plant is Primula scotica (the Scottish Primrose).  This species otherwise only exists in North Sutherland and Caithness, on maritime heath.  Orkney sites include Yesnaby, the west coasts of Rousay and Westray, Papay’s North Hill and in South Walls.  The plant is very small, yet sturdy to stand up to its exposed position.  There are between two and eight small flowers per head, with a purple colour which can vary.  The throat of the flower is bright yellow.

  The plants can live for up to 20 years, and may not flower until they are 10 years old.  There are two flowering periods, the first being in May, and the main period being in July.  P. scotica is very   sensitive to the use of fertiliser and several colonies have been lost because of this.  The plants do not seem to survive well in cultivation and even introductions in apparently suitable habitat have always failed.  However, a certain amount of grazing by cattle seems to benefit the species.

P. scotica is self-fertilizing like other primrose species in the north, which may confer advantage by making sure that at least some seed is set, but in very small

Getting Here

The adventure starts when your journey to Orkney begins

Plane, boat, car, bus or train – however you travel to Orkney, you are guaranteed a memorable journey. It’s an easy place to get to as there are good transport links. And the scenery along the way is so spectacular that the miles will fly by.

Travel by plane

Watching the islands materialise beneath you as the plane starts its descent is a magical way to start your visit to Orkney. It only takes an hour to fly direct from Edinburgh, and there are also several daily flights from Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and London. For international travellers, there are excellent connections to many airports.

Find out more at the internet

London to Kirkwall (with connections) 3-4 hours
Glasgow/Edinburgh to Kirkwall 1 hour
Aberdeen to Kirkwall 50 minutes
Inverness to Kirkwall 45 minutes
Sumburgh (Shetland) to Kirkwall 35 minutes

Travel by boat

As you sail towards Orkney and watch the islands rise from the sea, you will be seeing a landscape almost unchanged since the first sea-borne invaders arrived thousands of years ago. There are four ferry routes to choose from, and between 4 and 12 sailings a day depending on the season. Look out for local wildlife in the swirling currents and make sure you pack a pair of binoculars!

Taking the bus

Join locals and jump on a bus to reach the islands. The Citylink network can take you to John o’Groats, Gills Bay or Scrabster for ferry services.

Alternatively, if you want an express service, the Orkney Bus will take you from Inverness to Kirkwall, via John o’Groats Ferries (from June to September).

Taking the train

You can reach Aberdeen and Thurso from most main Scottish railway stations, but if you want to start your holiday with an unforgettable journey, travel the spectacular Thurso route.

Once you’re here in Orkney

Exploring and island hopping are so easy. With good roads, lots of travel options and the close proximity of attractions, it’s easy to be spontaneous. Jump on a bus, a ferry or a plane and you can see a different island every day.

Exploring the islands by boat

All the inhabited islands are wellserviced by Orkney Ferries. You can enjoy sailing between Hoy, Graemsay, Flotta, Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre, Shapinsay, Stronsay, Sanday, Eday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay. Foot passengers can just jump aboard and buy tickets. Bikes go free on ferries, so simply turn up and pay as a foot passenger. Car travel should be booked in advance.

Exploring the islands by plane

The quickest way to reach Eday, North Ronaldsay, Sanday, Stronsay, Westray and Papa Westray is by air. There are flights from Kirkwall Airport and on a clear day the views are simply marvellous. Take the world’s shortest scheduled flight between Westray and Papa Westray!

Exploring by road

Cars and bikes are available to rent locally. You can even reach four different islands without getting your feet wet if you take the road over the Churchill Barriers. Alternatively, you can join a coach tour or take a local Stagecoach bus.

Local Webcams

We have linked to a number of webcams at locations all over Orkney, providing live streams of Maeshowe, Sandy Ranger seal cam and the views onto Kirkwall harbour. We will be adding additional webcams so please check back again soon.

Orkney Nature Webcams

This is the RSPB’s ‘Divercam’ – showing live footage from a moorland pool in Orkney where Red-throated Divers spend their summer.  The birds have not bread this year at the pool but two pairs have visited regularly daily and can be seen resting, preening and displaying.

The camera is one of several planned for special wildlife sites and spectacles in Orkney.  There’s already a camera at RSPB’s Mill Dam wetland reserve on Shapinsay and coming soon are an underwater camera and a seal pupping beach.

Only one camera can be streamed online at any one time, but definition images are shown on screens at the VisitScotland Information Centre in Kirkwall, Kirkwall Airport, Shapinsay Heritage Centre and Highland Park Visitor Centre.

Kirkwall Harbour

The webcam looking north over Kirkwall Harbour is located on the front of the Kirkwall Hotel, a stunning Victorian building located right on Kirkwall’s harbour front. The webcam image refreshes every 20 seconds and shows the comings and goings of this busy harbour. The webcam is provided courtesy of the Kirkwall Hotel.


Maeshowe is the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe and more than 5000 years old. There are three cameras recoding images inside and out. We know that this time of year was particularly special for the people who used Maeshowe. The gently sloping passage is carefully aligned so that at sunset during the three weeks before and after the shortest day of the year (21 December) the light of the setting sun shines straight down the passage and illuminates the back of the central chamber. The sun’s rays align with a standing stone, the Barnhouse Stone, standing 800m SSW of Maeshowe.

Seal Cam

This remotely-operated camera was re-established this year overlooking two small grey seal breeding beaches on Sanday, one of the north isles of Orkney.

Orkney For Nature Lovers

Keep your eyes and ears peeled at all times! A cacophony of sights and sounds awaits you at all times of the year. Orkney is the best place in the UK for seabirds, with 21 breeding species. There are also 13 RSPB reserves across the islands, providing superb places to watch resident and migrant birds.

Breath-taking cliff walks are also easy to find – visit Hoy to see the magnificent red sandstone cliffs and sea stack at St John’s Head, or make your way to North Ronaldsay to spot seals and their pups, or catch a glimpse of the native sheep who live on the shore feeding on seaweed.

From early spring and throughout summer, the cliffs, meadows and moorlands burst into colour with wild flowers of all shapes and sizes. Here on Orkney you truly can get back to nature.

Orkney For Time Travellers

Some of our landscapes remain unchanged since long before the time of the Great Pyramids. And history is still being written here. You will find an unbroken timeline of sites dating from nearly 6,000 years ago to the present.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site is in the West Mainland, and gives a unique insight into how people lived here 5,000 years ago. You can also visit the Ring of Brodgar and walk among the remaining 27 megaliths of a stone circle over 104 metres wide, marvelling at the power and determination of our predecessors.

During July and August you can become a part of history by visiting the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar – a Neolithic site uncovered as recently as 2003. Many exciting painted and carved objects have been uncovered at this site.

Orkney For Treasure Hunters

Home to painters, potters, furniture makers, jewellers, textile artists and sculptors, Orkney has a wealth of high-quality arts and crafts. It’s a place where traditions are kept alive and individual talents flourish.

The Orkney chair with its woven straw hood and the bride’s cog have been made here for hundreds of years, and you can see local craftspeople making these items today. Wool from North Ronaldsay sheep has kept Orcadians warm for millennia, and now it is turned into colourful textile art as well as cushions, scarves and jumpers.

Visit the studios of Orkney’s painters and you will see the islands interpreted in dozens of different ways – from incredibly detailed realism to mesmerising impressionism.

Orkney’s Neolithic history is reflected in some of the pottery, sculpture and jewellery created on the islands. But in the next studio, you’ll find eye-catching contemporary designs. It’s like opening one treasure chest after another. And if you want to take a little bit of Orkney’s magic home with you, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

For a list of places to shop click here.

Orkney For Thrill Seekers

Walking on Orkney takes you into beautiful open spaces and lets you lose yourself in nature. There are plenty of signposted routes, so you can choose an easy ramble or a long strenuous trek. And don’t forget your camera as the scenery is magnificent.

Cycling is also a pleasure with many quiet roads and dramatic views. Most islands are fairly flat, letting you get up some speed and cover the miles with ease. Or if you want to leave the tarmac behind, you’ll find miles of tracks to follow. Best of all, bikes go free on ferries so you can see somewhere new every day.

If your sport relies on the wind, Orkney is a fantastic destination providing a year-round playground for power kiting, wind surfing and kite surfing. Favourite locations include Scapa Beach near Kirkwall and the Bay of Skaill on the West Mainland. Big waves and good breaks make Skaill the serious surfers’ choice, and you can hire boards and wetsuits locally.

Keen sailors return year after year to tackle Orkney’s challenging winds and currents, and there are races throughout the summer months if you enjoy friendly competition.

Charter a boat and take advantage of the local knowledge of one of Orkney’s excellent, qualified Skippers, fishing for giant Conger eels in the depths of Scapa Flow, or don your wetsuit and explore the historical wrecks that lie on the seabed.

For a list of activities on Orkney click here

Orkney for Innovators

We have a long tradition of harnessing the power of nature to heat our homes and drive machinery. Today, Orkney is also leading the world in the development of marine renewable energy, and is home to The European Marine Energy Centre: the world’s first and only real-sea facility for testing machines that generate electricity from waves and tides. With the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the West coast, and the tides rushing between islands to and from the North Sea, Orkney is the perfect testing ground for marine energy converters.

There are various sites around Orkney where you can see these leading technologies being developed and tested, including EMEC’s wave test site at Billia Croo near Stromness, and the tidal test site at the Fall of Warness off the northern isle of Eday. When devices are not being tested on site, you may spot them at one of Orkney’s marine renewables port facilities at Hatston Pier in Kirkwall, Lyness Pier in Hoy, and Copland’s Dock in Stromness.

Every renewable energy project is undertaken with careful consideration of the environment, so that Orkney’s heritage, beauty and ecology are protected.

Orkney For Gastronauts / Foodies

In Orkney we have dedicated producers and talented chefs whose combined skills turn the islands’ harvest into award-winning, first-class cuisine.

There are many specialities to be enjoyed here. With lush grazing, it’s no surprise that premium beef is produced in Orkney. Much of it is exported, but you’ll find prime cuts in butchers’ shops and on restaurant menus across the islands. Don’t go home without trying North Ronaldsay lamb. They feed on seaweed, which gives the lean meat exceptional flavour and tenderness.

Depending on the season, look out for spoots (razor clams), whelks, cockles, lobster, crab and hand-dived scallops. Similarly, you could savour fresh haddock, cod, tusk, halibut, plaice, sole, monkfish or squid. Rarer choices might include megrim, witch or ling.

Orkney is also home to award-winning whisky distilleries, the UK’s most northerly winery and a number of charming real ales.

If you’re staying in a self-catering property, you could serve dinner with clapshot made with locally-grown tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips) mashed together, or pack a picnic using locally-produced bread, cheese, butter and shortbread.

Other traditional fare includes fattie cutties – a biscuit with currants, and Orkney oatcakes – wonderful with some smoked Orkney cheddar.

For fine places to dine click here.

Orkney for Explorers

Orkney is a special destination that can charm and entertain you for two days, two weeks or a lifetime. There are hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs and self-catering properties on all the inhabited islands, making it easy to stay and tour.

In midsummer you can walk in the glow of the midnight sun, and in winter witness the phenomenon that is the Northern Lights above your head. The islands are a Mecca for photographers and artists throughout the year and at most times of day. Where will you go first?

Orkney for Explorers
To see places to explore click here.