Episode 5 – Orkney

In this episode we will be telling you all about Orkney, which is located off the north coast of Great Britain.

We’ll hear from Kathi, host of the Wild for Scotland podcast, and from Howie, who will tell us all about the Orkney International Science Festival which takes place every year, and in 2023 will take place from the 7th to the 13th of September.

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Welcome to Episode 5 of Scottish Digest, where we will be telling you all about Orkney.


In today’s episode we will hear from Kathi from the amazing and immersive Wild for Scotland podcast, who will tell us all about her time visiting parts of Orkney, what she loved about it and her recommendations of places to eat, as well as hear from Howie, who will tell us all about the Orkney International Science Festival which takes place in September every year, and in 2023 will take place from the 7th to the 13th of September. But first a wee bit about my trip to parts of Orkney, and where Orkney is. According to Wikipedia, Orkney is a cluster of about 70 islands located off the North Coast of Great Britain, but only 20 of those islands are inhabited. You can reach Orkney by plane or ferry, with flights from Scottish airports; Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, with the flight from Inverness being a mere 30 minutes. However, when we visited Orkney we travelled by ferry. Again, there are a few different routes to Orkney from the mainland. According to northlinkferries.co.uk you can get a Northlink Ferry from Aberdeen to Hatston, which is just outside of Kirkwall in the Orkney islands, or from Scrabster, which is located at the very top north of mainland Scotland, to Stromness  in the Orkney islands. This journey takes about 90 minutes and sails past The Old Man of Hoy. You can also take a passenger ferry from John ‘O’Groats  to Orkney, which, according to jogferry.co.uk, is a 40-minute sailing, and there is a bus at the Orkney port that will take passengers to Kirkwall. But we took another route, via Pentland Ferries, which sailed from Gills Bay in Caithness to the Village of St Margaret’s Hope, which, according to pentlandferries.co.uk, is the third largest settlement in Orkney, with, according to Wikipedia, a population of about 550, and is the island of South Ronaldsay’s main village. It is about a 1 hour and 10 minute sailing, and, once at St Margaret’s Hope, only a 20-minute car journey to Mainland Orkney, crossing the famous Churchill Barriers. It was a slightly bumpy crossing for us, but it was dry so we went up top to see as much as we could as we sailed along. And I’m glad we did as, despite it being quite eerie and quiet, as we sailed past the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay we saw large concrete boxes, which were abandoned gun towers and look out posts, and, according to pentlandferries.co.uk, these concrete boxes serve as a reminder of the importance of the Orkney Islands during the Second world War. Upon arriving at St Margaret’s Hope we made the eight minute drive to the Island of Burray where we had booked into The Sands Hotel, right by the sea, which was our base for two nights. This hotel may be small, having only six ensuite bedrooms and two luxury suites, but it was beautiful. Myself, my husband, my gran and my aunt stayed in one of their luxury suites and we couldn’t have been happier, it was really comfortable, very spacious, and we would definitely stay again. They also have a restaurant called the Watersound and this was where I had for the first time, despite growing up in Oban, the seafood capital of the world, a lobster, and it was so good. Myself, my gran and my aunt also had, for the first time, Cullen Skink at this restaurant, and again it was so tasty. So, a first of a few things for myself and my family while visiting Orkney. Before I go on to tell you about the places we visited while in Orkney, let’s hear about Kathi’s trip to Orkney. And another first, as this was Kathi’s first ever trip to Orkney, and you can hear just how excited she was to be there.

Hello there, my name is Kathi. I run the Watch Me See travel blog and the Wild for Scotland podcast, and I recently went on my very first trip to Orkney for the Orkney Folk Festival. Now, Orkney has over 70 Islands which means that every trip to Orkney will look slightly different because you may choose different islands than the next person. On our trip we spend a lot of time in Stromness, which is the main venue of the Orkney Folk Festival. There are a few pubs in town and our favourite was the Ferry Inn by the harbour, where we enjoyed some great local beers and listened to more than 30 musicians from the Edinburgh Uni Folk Society. The free pub sessions are a really big part of the festival and it’s great to bounce from pub to pub to hear a range of different players, everybody can join in and the whole town is filled with a really great atmosphere. We also attended some of the ticketed events in Kirkwall, which was a great experience. The bands we saw were really varied and showed the breadth of traditional and folk music out there. But of course we didn’t spend all of our time inside the pubs and music venues of Orkney, we also did a lot of sightseeing. Orkney is well known for its many neolithic monuments and heritage sites, and together they form the heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited several of the places that are a part of this, including the Ring of Brodgar stone circle, the Standing Stones Of Stenness, and the neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. The only site we didn’t manage to visit is the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. You can only visit it on a guided tour and we were unfortunately too slow to get tickets. So my top tip is to look into booking tickets for Maeshowe as early as possible, if you’d like to see it. We also did several coastal walks while we were in Orkney. On the Mainland, which is confusingly the name of the main island, we visited the Brough of Birsay,  which is a tidal Island connected to the Mainland by a narrow causeway. You can only walk across at low tide, so it’s very important to check the tidal times, the last thing you want is to get trapped on the island. On the Brough of Birsay you’ll find the remains of Pictish, Norse and Medieval settlements, so for history lovers there is a lot to explore. There’s also a lighthouse you can walk to, towering cliffs and sweeping views of Marwick Head along the coast. My highlight however was to sit still and observe nesting seabirds on the cliffs, we saw Razorbills, Guillemots, Bonxies, and even some Puffins. Speaking of which, one of the best places to see the Puffins is the Isle of Westray. We took a day trip to this island and took the inter-island ferry from Kirkwall. The journey takes about two hours, and along the way you’ll see the outlines of other Orkney Isles on the horizon. We decided to bring our bikes for this trip and cycled from the south of Westray, where the ferry arrives, to Pierowall main village on the island in the north. There we stopped at Groatie Buckies for delicious iced coffees and cakes, and visited the ruins of Noltland Castle. On our way back we did a small detour to walk to the Castle o’Burrian, which is one of the best places in Orkney to see Puffins on. Orkney castles are often not actual castles but sea stacks that tower above the sea. We sat near the sea stack for about an hour and watched countless Puffins soar through the air and sitting outside their nests. Puffins spend most of their life at sea, but when it’s time to mate and nest they gather in large colonies in remote spots on the Scottish coast. They can be seen on land from late April to late July, although the best time to see them is in June and July when the chicks have hatched and the parents frequently leave their burrows to bring back fish. If you don’t want to cycle in Westray, which admittedly was very hard with the headwind, you can also bring your car across or book a guided tour with the local company Westraak. Another amazing coastal walk, although without Puffins, is on the south coast of South Ronaldsay. The southern islands are all connected to the mainland by causeways, the so-called Churchill Barriers that were built during the Second World War. We drove all the way to Burwick for a walk along the coast there. Not only did we enjoy the views towards the Scottish mainland, but the cliff tops were also covered in blooming sea pinks, which was just spectacular. On our way back we visited the Italian Chapel, and had two of the best meals of our trip; the café Polly Kettle on Burray dishes up fantastic Egyptian food, including the best cakes we had on our trip and great vegan options, and the Murray Arms Hotel in St Margaret’s Hope specialises in phenomenal seafood and sources all of its ingredients within a 15 mile radius. One more thing before I finish, when I was researching and planning our trip I paid close attention to the schedule of cruise ships docking in Kirkwall. When there is a large ship in the harbour it means that there will be many buses touring the island, so on the days with the biggest ships we stayed away from the main sites and did more outdoorsy things, like our day trip to Westray or the coastal walk on South Ronaldsay. There is of course a lot more to see on Orkney; from countless beaches to whisky distilleries, and I can’t wait to return to see more of these beautiful islands. You can find more travel tips and itinerary suggestions for all over Scotland on my travel blog watchmesee.com or listen to my immersive travel stories on my podcast Wild for Scotland. I also plan custom itineraries, so if you need some handso on support with your trip you can get in touch with me.

Dawn – We played a trailer for Kathi’s podcast Wild for Scotland in our Oban episode, but Wild for Scotland is an immersive travel podcast about Kathi’s trips around Scotland. Kathi is a beautiful storyteller and you feel like you’re there with her on each trip. I’d highly recommend giving it a listen. Now, Kathi also mentioned the Orkney Folk Festival, which was actually one of the reasons Kathi wanted to visit Orkney and she’s already booked to go back next year for the Orkney Folk Festival, and she did say that accommodation and events book up quickly. So, if you would like to attend the Orkney Folk Festival which takes place every year, and in 2024 will be taking place from the 23rd to the 26th of May, then it’s recommended you get booking soon. You can find out more details about the Orkney Folk Festival at orkneyfolkfestival.com. Another festival that takes place in Orkney every year is the Orkney International Science Festival, which in 2023 is taking place from the 7th to the 13th of September. Here’s Howie to tell you all about it.

Howie – When you’re visiting Orkney you want a sight of the Sun, and this year’s Orkney International Science Festival is providing seven days of it from 7th to the 13th of September. The sun we’re featuring is a huge model sphere with an ingenious projection system that brings the surface to life, with time lapse photography of the actual sun from NASA spacecraft. So, you can see the surface blazing with light, seething with solar storms. It was developed by an artist and a solar physicist in collaboration. And there’s music too. And it’s in the spectacular setting of St Magnus Cathedral. Around it we’re building a range of events at various venues including, in the cathedral, a concert combining ethereal, electronic music with choral singing, several instruments, and the cathedral organ. At other venues there are talks on topics like the northern lights and stories of arctic journeys in search of them, and there are also astronomy workshops about observing sun and stars.  Indeed, that a traveling planetarium among our wonderfully varied mix of activities for the family day. Every one of the seven days is packed with events from morning to late evening, including talks on a range of frontier areas. These include energy from wave and tide and offshore wind, as well as robotics with several friendly robots coming to visit. We’ll hear about the science of photonics and about tracing viruses that integrate into genomes, and will feature AI and satellite data for rural areas, and the story of great Ice Age glaciers that shape the Orkney landscape. There are opportunities to go outdoors, including; walks with archaeologists on ancient sites to learn about the neolithic landscape, and about plants and animals of five thousand years ago. We will also feature a wizard from Kansas with a world-renowned science show, accompanied by four cowboys who are legends of western music. And they’ll appear in concert, and also join us to tell the story of the town of Tombstone Arizona, with its famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and also it’s not so well-known microscopical scientific society. And we’ll hear of the amazing coincidences in tombstones history, with a remarkable year of light in art and physics. Indeed, one of our very distinctive features is the way we link science with art and music and history. We’re going to have a great day in the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, looking at the mathematical influences on some of the classic works in the permanent collection there. And we’ll be celebrating at the pier some anniversaries in a remarkably talented Scottish family from history. We’ll also celebrate the 75th birthday of a modern Scottish composer with new films, featuring all five of his astronomy influenced pieces of music. We’ll celebrate the centenary of the birth of a mathematician of Orkney descent, who, with his wife, preserved many traditional Scottish dances. We’ll also mark the 50th anniversary of the death of an Orkney born lady who preserved much knowledge of traditional Scottish food and drink, and indeed we’ll taste some samples. The lunches of Orkney fair are always something special, as are the evening sessions of music and chat. There is also time to think, in places like the cathedral with its warm red sandstone and the light shining through the stained glass windows, or walking along the shore with the sound of the waves and the light on the sea. And I haven’t yet mentioned the study of ancient cereals, or the story of a unique flock of island sheep, or an ancient Greek computer with mechanical gears, or a look back to an epic journey in a hurricane, or the science and practice of ultra running. There’s digital fashion, a wildlife photography workshop, and a look into Orkney’s genetic past and present, and we’ll meet the people who unearthed a mammoth graveyard, and much much more. And to find out about it go to our website, where we have some details now and the full program from the 8th of June, the address is www.oisf.org. That’s www.oisf.org. Tickets will be on sale in late June. The website also gives links to our social media pages, and to our rich and varied online magazine called Frontier. Ahead of your visit you can sample online some of our events from last year, with no charge. And if you can’t come, well we’ll have some of this year’s events online, again free. But if you can come, we would love to see you.

Dawn – Like Howie said, there’s so much taking place during the week of the festival; from talks, music, walks, workshops, family and evening events, fantastic lunches, exhibitions, and even online events if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to attend this year. It will be the 33rd International Orkney Science Festival, and you can find out more information and see the full schedule of what is on every day and where at oisf.org. Tickets will go on sale towards the end of July. And if you’d like to sign up to the newsletter or read the online magazine then visit frontiersmagazine.org.


Now as Kathi mentioned previously, as there are so many islands that make up Orkney and so many things to do and see while you’re there, there really is no one size fits all and everyone’s visit to Orkney could be completely different to the next persons. But there’s one person I have recently started following whose videos of him and his dog Molly’s trips around Scotland I have been enjoying, who has also recently visited Orkney, and so I thought you might like to have a look at his videos too. But first, here’s a wee bit more about our trip to Orkney and what we saw. Once we had decided to visit Orkney, we all were in agreement that we definitely wanted to visit the Italian Chapel, which is why we decided to stay where we did as the Italian Chapel is only a seven minute drive away from The Sands Hotel, again over the Churchill Barriers. We’d all seen the Italian Chapel in pictures but it was something special actually standing in front of it, and it was just as beautiful inside. If you’d like to find out more about the Italian Chapel and the history of it then visit orkney.com, but in brief; over a thousand of the thousands of Italian soldiers that had been captured in North Africa were transported to Orkney, where 550 of them were initially tasked with constructing barriers that would close off entrances and make the home fleet base more secure, known as the Churchill Barriers. However, when the camp’s priest requested that a chapel be built, it was agreed that two Nissen huts would be joined together, and Domenico Chiocchetti, one of the Italian prisoners captured and shipped to Orkney who was an artist, as well as other tradesmen, were tasked with making this transformation happen. And, according to Wikipedia, despite Domenico’s fellow prisoners being released shortly before the end of the war, Domenico stayed on to finish decorating the chapel. According to orkney.com the Italian Chapel is one of Orkney’s most loved attractions. We then drove 15 minutes north to Kirkwall, which is the largest town in Orkney, where we parked at the harbour and had a wee wander about. But it was wet and cold as it was off season, so we didn’t spend too long here. There definitely was lots we didn’t get to see and appreciate in Kirkwall, including St Magnus Cathedral, which, according to orkneymuseums.co.uk, was founded in 1137 and built from local red and yellow sandstone. We then drove for about 90 minutes to west Mainland where we stopped at the Ness of Brodgar, which, according to nessofbrodgar.co.uk, is an archaeological site that covers 2.5 hectares and sits between the Ring Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The site has been under excavation since 2004 and has revealed a massive complex of monumental neolithic buildings that date from around 3000BC, which makes it one of the most important archaeological excavations in the world. To say it was quite impressive would be an understatement. We next visited the Ring of Brodgar, which is a neolithic stone circle, and, according to Wikipedia, it is the only major henge and stone circle in Britain which is an almost perfect circle. We then drove a further eight minutes west we visited the Unstan Chambered Cairn, which, according to orkney.com, is a 5,000 year old burial tomb and is just one of hundreds throughout Orkney, one of which being the larger Maeshowe  Chambered Cairn that Kathi mentioned she had visited. The Unstan Chambered Cairn’s main chamber has separate compartments, as well as what orkney.com calls small individual cells, which shows both kinds of traditional burial chambers found in Orkney. For our final journey, before heading back to the hotel, we drove a further 14 minutes northwest to Skara Brae Prehistoric Village, situated right on the beach. According to orkney.com the site was uncovered by a storm in 1850, and it shows what life would have been like in Orkney around 5000 years ago. You can walk around this site looking down from above to really appreciate the size of the site and get a feel for the individual ancient homes. And you can easily imagine what life would have been like when you see such things as stone bed enclosures, dressers and seats, and there’s actually a replica home that you can go into which is fitted with these things so you can vividly get a feel of how people lived in these ancient homes. It was pretty special walking around the site looking down on the way people used to live, giving a real glimpse into the past. By the time we got here the day had brightened up so we were able to really enjoy the experience. After this we headed back to the hotel to enjoy more wonderful food, before heading back to mainland UK the next day, departing from St Margaret’s Hope. We really enjoyed visiting Orkney and would love to go back one day, this time it would be good to see the Puffins as it was out of season when we visited.

As I mentioned before, another person who visited Orkney, also out of season when he visited for three days in January 2023, was Graeme and his faithful Labrador Molly, and he packed so much into the three days. I recently came across Graeme from Scotland’s Stories on Instagram. I don’t know how I hadn’t found him before because he’s not only very popular but a fantastic storyteller and his videos of his trips visiting places in Scotland are a delight to watch and listen to, especially when Molly gets involved too, and you can clearly tell just how much he loves Scotland. Not only can you find Graeme’s video about Orkney, but also so many other places in Scotland he has visited, on his Instagram @scotlands_stories and on Facebook and Twitter @storyscotland, but you can also find his blog posts about the places he has visited too, including Orkney, on his website scotlands-stories.com. I’d highly recommend any and all of Graeme’s video posts and his blog, and his Orkney video is no exception. He visited places on Orkney that neither I or Kathi had, including St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. He also took a ferry to the Island of Hoy where he visited the Dwarfie Stane, which is a giant stone that had been carved out to make a tomb, and it’s really eerie seeing Graeme emerge from inside this massive stone. In Graeme’s Orkney blog post he also tells you of some places he stopped off to eat at while he was in Orkney. I will put a link to Graeme’s blog post about his trip to Orkney in the show notes, along with links to Kathi’s website watchmesee.com, where you can find all manner of helpful travel tips as well as itineraries to help you get the most from your visit to Scotland. If you enjoy Graeme’s videos as much as I do, then I’m pleased to announce that he will be featuring on a future episode of Scottish Digest when we will be covering Pitlochry, which is a town in Perthshire, and I’m really looking forward to hearing all about Graeme’s trip there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode all about Orkney, and I hope you do give the immersive and brilliant podcast by Kathi, Wild for Scotland, a listen, as well as follow Graeme and Molly on social media and get watching all of his brilliant and engaging videos of his trips around beautiful Scotland. You can find the links from today’s episode in the show notes as well as at cluarantonn.com/scottishdigest. That’s c-l-u-a-r-a-n-t-o-n-n.com/scottish digest. We hope you join us next time for another slice of Bonnie Scotland.


Scottish Digest is a production of Cluarantonn.