Orkney and Shetland Islands Travel Guide
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Plan Your Orkney and Shetland Islands Vacation

A Scandinavian heritage gives the 170 islets that make up Orkney and Shetland a history and an ambience different from that of any other region of Scotland. Both Orkney and Shetland are essentially austere and bleak, but they have awe-inspiring seascapes, fascinating seabirds, remarkable ancient ruins, and genuinely warm, friendly people. Although a trip to these remote islands requires time and effort, your reward will be a unique experience.

An Orcadian has been defined as a crofter (farmer) with a boat, whereas a Shetlander has been called a fisherman with a croft. Orkney, the southern archipelago, is greener and is rich with artifacts that testify to the many centuries of continuous settlement here: stone circles, burial chambers, ancient settlements, and fortifications. UNESCO has recognized the key remains as a World Heritage Site called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

North of Orkney, Shetland, with its ocean views and sparse landscapes—trees are a rarity because of ever-present wind—seems even more remote. However, don't let Shetland's desolate countryside fool you: it has a wealth of historic interest and is far from being a backwater. Oil money from local mineral resources and its position as a crossroads in the northern seas for centuries have helped make Shetland a busy, thriving community that wants for little.

For mainland Scots, visiting these islands is a little like traveling abroad without having to worry about a different language or currency. Neither has yet been overrun by tourism, but the people of Orkney and Shetland will be delighted that you have come so far to see their islands and learn a little of their extraordinary past.


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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Standing stones and ancient sites Among the many Neolithic treasures in Orkney are the Ring of Brodgar, a 3,000-year old circle of standing stones, and Skara Brae, the remarkable remains of a village uncovered on the grounds of delightful Skaill House. In Shetland, Jarlshof has been the home to different societies since the Bronze Age. Don't miss Mousa Broch and Clickimin Broch in Shetland, two Iron Age towers.
  2. Music and arts festivals The Shetland Folk Festival in late April/May is a fiddling shindig that attracts musicians and revelers from around the world. Orkney's St. Magnus International Festival is a more highbrow celebration of classical music, poetry, and performance.
  3. Seabirds, seals, and more These islands have some of the planet's most important colonies of seabirds, with millions clinging to colossal cliffs. You're guaranteed to see seals and may spot dolphins, orcas, or porpoises. In Shetland, Noss, and Eshaness, nature reserves are prime spots, or you can check out the puffins by Sumburgh Head.
  4. Pure relaxation There's a much more laid-back approach to life on these islands than on the mainland. Shetlanders are particularly renowned for their hospitality and are often happy to share stories and tips that will enrich your adventure.
  5. Outdoor activities by the coast and ocean The rugged terrain, beautiful beaches, and unspoiled waters make a perfect backdrop for invigorating strolls, sea fishing, diving, or exploring the coastline and sea lochs by boat.

When To Go

When to Go

Although shivering, wind-flattened visitors braving Orkney and Shetland's winter are not unheard of, the travel season doesn't really start...

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