Summer Solstice in Orkney
This post is made in conjunction with NorthLink ferries. All views and content are my own.
Most people would consider that I live quite far north. At a latitude of 57° north, Aberdeen is on par with Göteborg, Sweden and Yaroslavl, Russia. But I feel myself pulled even further northwards. Whether it be to the Scottish Highlands or sailing through the north sea to the northern isles, as in this trip where we headed to Orkney. Orkney is an archipelago of 70+ islands off the north coast of Scotland. I’ve long been intrigued by its breath-taking natural landscape and amazing wildlife viewing opportunities but it’s also known as a thriving cultural and creative hub with year round festivals.
It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit in winter with dreams of photographing the rolling landscapes, sweeping beaches and high cliffs lit by the low golden winter sun before heading out with a flask of hot chocolate to see if we can spot the mirrie dancers (the aurora borealis). But there is something magical about visiting over the summer solstice with its 18 hours of daylight and nautical twilight almost light enough to read a book by. The towns are buzzing, the wildlife abundant and there is plenty of daylight for long days of adventure. We took full advantage of that packing in lots of trips and experiences and left with many happy memories and a full camera card.
How to get there?
We travelled up there courtesy of NorthLink Ferries. They sail regularly to Orkney on one of two routes: Aberdeen to Hatston just outside Kirkwall or Scrabster, on the north coast of Scotland, up to Stromness. Leaving Aberdeen at teatime, we sat up on the outside deck as we left port before heading to the restaurant to get our dinner and then settling the kids into their sleep pods for a few hours sleep before we arrived in Orkney at 11pm. The ferry has a small play area for children as well as a cinema showing 2 new releases with the first always a family friendly film. It’s not strictly necessary to purchase sleep pods for this part of the journey but if you are travelling with young children, it’s a good option if you think they will sleep. On the return journey, we sailed overnight, sleeping in a 4 berth cabin with toilet and shower facilities. Our children were asleep within 30 mins of boarding, waking as we berthed in Aberdeen the next morning.
This is one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had travelling with children. 20 minute drive from our house to the ferry, smooth, straightforward check in and then lots of space to move around, eat and do activities on the boat. The travel times meant we didn’t miss out on any holiday time. It’s such an easy trip from Aberdeen, I can’t believe I haven’t taken advantage of it before now.
Where to base yourself
There are two main towns on the Orkney mainland: Stromness and Kirkwall. We stayed in Stromness, an old stone town with winding streets and narrow lanes through which you catch glimpses of the sea. It’s very picturesque and popular with local artists, craftsmen and of course tourists. We spent an afternoon idling here, our children cycling through the town on their bikes, stopping for some Orkney ice-cream and perusing all the local shops. On our last morning we made time to visit the beautiful Pier Arts Centre. Established in 1979, it curates a year round programme of events and exhibitions from both local and international artists. It’s sited in a collection of buildings overlooking Hamnavoe Harbour and has been exquisitely designed with the windows framing the town and harbour beautifully.
If you are caught out with some bad weather, there is a great play barn for children of all ages at Wellpark Garden centre and a swimming pool, climbing wall and cinema at the Pickaquoy Centre. Both towns have fab bookshops and a range of creative craft shops selling lots of unique and local handmade products.
Outwith the main towns there are plenty of accommodation options and you will find that nowhere is that far away with reasonable driving/ cycling times to get all over the island. You can find links to more accommodation options here.
What to do?
We loved exploring the mainland and southern isles. We took an area each day and did a few things at each location. Here’s what we got up to:
Ring of Brodgar
This was the obvious choice for the evening of the summer solstice and lots of other people clearly had the same idea as us. This Neolithic stone circle is a World Heritage Site dating from between 2500BC and 2000BC. The circle of 27 stones (originally it had 60) standing in a natural amphitheatre is thought to have been built with a ceremonial purpose in mind but no-one is quite certain of its exact purpose. Each stone is from a different part of the island and faces out towards the direction it originated from.
Brough of Birsay
This tidal island, with Pictish and Viking remains, is situated just off the north-west coast of the mainland. You can visit the island for up to 2 hours each side of low tide. Drop in to the visitor information centre in Kirkwall to find out the tidal times or check out Visit Orkney’s website which lists them here. This is a great place to come to spot puffins and sea life such as seals and dolphins. Once you have visited the island you can continue walking along the shore on a path signposted Akiba Geo, passing a turf roofed fisherman’s bothy and the remains of old boat ousts, until you get to the whale skull sculpture.
This Neolithic chambered tomb is located on a cliff-edge on the southernmost part of South Ronaldsay, one of the islands connected by a causeway to Orkney mainland. 16,000 human bones and a large number of sea eagle bones were found within the chamber. We really enjoyed the talk at the visitor centre prior to the walk with the chance to handle some of the original artefacts found at the site. Then we set off at our own pace on the 1 mile walk to the tomb itself, passing a bronze age site and many beautiful wildflowers. We really appreciated the discreet signs along the path which identified all the wildflowers that we could see and the kids had lots of fun trying to identify all the seabirds with the help of the information board. You use a cart to pull yourself along a 3 metre long entrance into the tomb but once inside you can stand comfortably. It was great being able to explore this in our own time.
On the way back you can return the way you came or take the scenic cliffside route. I’d definitely encourage you to take the latter. Sea pinks lined the cliffs which were teeming with seabirds calling and crawing. The path itself was abundant with wildflowers and we enjoyed sweeping sea views all the way over to the Scottish mainland. This was one of the most beautiful walks we undertook this trip.
Bay of Skaill
This beautiful beach edges the 4000 year old neolithic village of Skara Brae, considered the best preserved village of its time in Northern Europe. The shipping forecast refers to this area as Fair Isle, hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of the north atlantic stand between you and north America.
We walked from one end of the beach to the other, stopping to have a picnic on the sands whilst watching the arctic terns hovering and diving into the cold Atlantic waters for their dinner. The beach is also a great spot for beach combing with objects brought here by the currents of the North Atlantic from North America, Greenland and even northern Africa. For anyone interested in coastal life in Orkney and all the natural and man-made objects you can find on the shores I’d recommend giving The Orkney Beachcomber a follow here. it’s fascinating to find out the stories behind some of these finds.
Orkney has an abundance of islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, to explore. Some you can reach over causeways, some are tidal islands and some can be reached by boat or short plane journey. We spent a day on the island of Hoy, the largest of the islands and had time allowed we would have explored many more. It’s just one of many reasons for a return journey though. I’m going to post our Hoy trip as a separate post with tips and pointers for how to spend the day there.
Unbelievably, especially given how easy it is to get to Orkney from Aberdeen, this was my first time visiting this archipelago of islands. But it certainly won’t be my last. We are already plotting a return. With so much more to see and many, many more islands to visit, there will be many return journeys to this beautiful part of the world.