Welcome to Kirkwall airport – the gateway for the Orkney Islands 

A History of Orkney

Orkney is a fantastic destination. A deep sense of history can be felt everywhere in the 70 or so scattered islands that make up the archipelago, islands where life is defined by the past and sculpted by the sea.

Landing in Orkney at the main airport of Kirkwall offers visitors the opportunity to be very close to the main town of Kirkwall. The town is a great base for touring by car or by bike. There are excellent ferry services between islands, though you can also take the world’s shortest scheduled flight – 2 minutes – between Westray and Papa Westra.

The ferry from Scrabster on mainland Scotland to Stromness sails past the impressive red stone sea-stack of the Old Man of Hoy, then on below the cliffs of St John’s Head – the highest vertical cliff in the UK – making this the most dramatic way of reaching Orkney. Yet the drama of Hoy is misleading as the landscapes elsewhere are much gentler and well farmed.

The richness and diversity of the Islands
Orkney offers a rich variety of activities on land, loch and sea to suit all abilities and interests, from golfing to walking and from sailing to cycling. With almost 600 miles of coast and some great unspoilt areas, the islands are superb for wildlife watching and for rich and varied angling. Divers love it too, particularly around Scapa Flow, where the German fleet was scuttled at the end of the First World War.

Orkney is also the amateur archaeologist’s ideal destination. Part of mainland Orkney has been declared a World Heritage site because of the richness of its prehistoric sites. For example, at Maeshowe, visitors wonder at the skills of stone masons who built this large tomb some 5000 years ago.

Nearby stand the eerie stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar, while further west, you can marvel at the sunken Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, overlooking the Bay of Skaill. In fact, almost every one of the islands can boast some prehistoric relic or find.

By contrast, modern day Orkney is a hive of creative industry, with several internationally renowned jewellery manufacturers and many professional craftspeople at work in the islands. Studios and workshops are often open to the public and there are Crafts and Artists’ trails to follow.

But Orkney is really about its islands. Largest by far is Mainland. At its centre, literally, is Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney and an important port. It is also home to Highland Park Distillery, an essential stopping off point for passengers that visit Kirkwall each year. At the southwest end of West Mainland is Stromness, another important port with a huge amount of character and the main ferry terminal on Orkney.


South from Kirkwall, you can visit four more islands via the Churchill Barriers, the largest being South Ronaldsay with its attractive main village of St Margaret’s Hope. This has recently achieved increased prominence as the port used by Pentland Ferries’ car ferry from Gills Bay near John O’Groats.

The main southern island is Hoy, the most hilly and least developed island in the group with its largest settlement at Longhope. Nearby is the most industrialised, Flotta, used as an oil terminal. To the north of Mainland lie two inner islands, Rousay and Shapinsay, accessible by regular ferries from Tingwall and Kirkwall.

Shapinsay is especially worth a visit with its fine estate village of Balfour and the splendour of Balfour Castle and its extensive gardens. Rousay offers more mountainous scenery and some remarkable archaeological sites like the Midhowe, Blackhammer and Taversoe Tuick Cairns.

Ferries from Kirkwall also go to the four main islands lying further north, Westray, Eday, Sanday and Stronsay.

Westray is largely a farming island. Its main village at Pierowall which is also the terminus for the ferry to nearby Papa Westray, is 7 miles north of the Kirkwall ferry terminus at Rapness. Sanday is the largest of the north isles, with the ferry terminal at its southwest tip and its main village at Kettletoft. Nearby is the fascinating Quoyness Cairn. Stronsay lies to the south of Sanday and the ferry takes you directly to the main village at Whitehall.

Some Orkney Local Attractions include:

  • Balfour Castle – baronial castle on Shapinsay with walled gardens.
  • Churchill Barriers – causeways linking together some of the eastern islands.
  • Five Senses of Orkney – explore Orkney using all five senses. A look at Orkney’s hidden gems off the beaten track.
  • Highland Park Distillery – distillery and visitor centre near Kirkwall.
  • Hoy RSPB Reserve – the reserve is a mixture of moorland and cliffs and includes the famous Old Man of Hoy rock stack.
  • Maes Howe – magnificent Stone Age tomb with Viking graffiti.
  • Noup Cliffs RSPB Reserve – the dramatic Noup Cliffs support Orkney’s largest “seabird city” and the stunning scenery along with the noise and smell of the thousands of summer breeding seabirds make a visit to this reserve an unforgettable experience. On Westray.
  • St Magnus Cathedral – magnificent Norse cathedral in Kirkwall.

There’s something to be said for every season on Orkney. If you like outdoor activities, you’ll appreciate the long Northern days of late spring and summer – Orcadians have midnight golf events in May!

On the other hand, Orkney’s ancient monuments are less crowded and more dramatic in the wind and rain of winter. Winter is also when you might see The Merrie Dancers – Orcandian for the Aurora Borealis.

Autumn is a time for migrating birds. In Spring, the sea birds nest on every available cliff, daffodils bloom in the gardens and the heather bursts into colour.

So when planning your visit to Orkney, why not visit the local website for the islands on or

The Kirkwall Business Improvement District website is also a good source of useful information regarding the town centre of Kirkwall –

We look forward to greeting you at Kirkwall Airport very soon.