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Visiting some of the almost 800 islands off the Scottish coast can vastly enrichen your Scotland experience.

The northern lying Orkney Islands and the remote northern Shetland Islands are less frequently visited than the western Hebrides Islands.

But is this a bad thing?  No!  This greater degree of isolation makes them all the more fascinating.

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Traveling to Scotland's Islands

Stones, Horses and Prehistory

Click this map image to open up a larger map in a new window

Scotland is a land of outdoor beauty, of unspoiled nature, and of open spaces.

The purest Scottish experiences can be enjoyed in its islands - places where time seems to - if not stand still, then certainly move more slowly.

Part 1 of a 2 part series - click for Parts One  Two



There are three major island groupings around Scotland - to the north, the Shetland and the Orkney Islands, and to the west are the Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles.

In this first part of the two part series, we look at the northern islands.





Shetland Islands

The Shetland Islands have always been a source of fascination for visitors, although few actually visit these far flung outer reaches of Scotland.

They are the furtherest away of the island groups are the Shetlands, enticing and mysterious as the northernmost outpost of the United Kingdom. Sitting, wave-lashed where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea, they are closer to Bergen in Norway than Aberdeen on the Scottish mainland. Shetland is on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland, Siberia and Alaska. To the north there is nothing but hundreds of miles of ocean, until you reach Spitsbergen and the Arctic wastes beyond.

Northlink operate new ferries for the overnight sailing from the granite city of Aberdeen to Lerwick, the Shetland capital, and Britain's northernmost town. The vessels such as MV Hrossey are reminiscent of small cruise ships, with bars, restaurant, shop, cinema and comfortable two and four berth cabins equipped with TV and en-suite bathroom.

Founded on the fishing industry and with strong Viking connections, gray buildings dating from the 17th century line the narrow, flagstone streets of the quaint town of Lerwick.

The Shetland islanders are proudly independent. Though they send members to the parliaments in both London and Edinburgh, you will see a lot more of their unofficial Shetland flags, with a white cross on a blue background, than you will of Scottish or Union flags.

The Shetland flag has a Scandinavian-style feel to it, indeed, these islands with their scattered, squat homesteads, have quite a Scandinavian feel to them: unsurprising as they were once Viking strongholds and belonged to Norway until 1469.  This heritage is celebrated in dramatic fashion each January with the Up Helly Aa festival, when Viking longships are set ablaze to the accompaniment of men in warrior-dress and a thousand flaming torches.

The wild, peaty and rocky landscapes are remarkable in that they are almost completely treeless: the salty winds from the Atlantic take care of that.  Also dotting the landscape are the sturdy little Shetland ponies, bred in vast numbers from the 1850s for export to the collieries of Northern England, where they earned their keep hauling coal deep underground.

The sea, or fingers of it, reach into every corner of the the largest of the Shetland Islands (known as the Mainland) - for it is long and narrow - getting more and more rugged as you travel south to Sumburgh Head.  This is one of the many places where you can enjoy the islands’ rich birdlife: the sheer cliffs are alive with thousands of nesting puffins in May and June, while seals and even whales play in the waves beyond.  Mainland is the largest of 100 islands that make up the Shetlands - though only 16 are inhabited.

This far north, the summer light lasts well into the night: 19 hours of daylight is usual at midsummer.  The “Simmer Dim” as it is called can be quite disorientating at first, but golfers are overjoyed to be able to enjoy their sport at midnight!

The highlight for many visitors, though, is a walk back in time at the Jarlshof Neolithic village, remarkably intact even after some 5,000 years, in its evocative setting near the water’s edge, close to Sumburgh on the southern tip of Mainland Island.  Various ‘layers’ of history have been unearthed here, from a second century BC settlement, through Viking and medieval farms.  Archaeologists also rave about the islands’ ancient brochs, a sophisticated network of stone watchtowers dating from 100BC, of which more than 120 remain.

More information about the Shetland Islands can be found at Visit Shetland.

Orkney Islands

The Northlink ferries also call at the Orkney Islands, not as far north as the Shetlands.  This is a group of 70 islands, of which only 17 are inhabited.  The closest of them is just 6.5 miles from John O'Groats on the Scottish mainland (and ferries travel across from there).

Rich in ancient sites, the Orkneys have extraordinary remains of prehistoric villages, stone circles and tombs.  King of these is the Skara Brae stone village, a Neolithic village more ancient than the Pyramids, entombed for centuries until a fierce storm in 1850 revealed its secrets.  There is also an impressive standing stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar.

Both these attractions are conveniently within a mile of each other, and not far from the town of Stromness, where ferries travel south to Scrabster (near Thurso at the top of Scotland).

The ferry that travels to/from Aberdeen and Lerwick in the Shetlands calls at Kirkwall, which is also the home of the noted Highland Park distillery, famous not only for its fine whisky but also for being the world's northern most whisky distillery.

There are spectacular cliffs, wide skies and huge horizons.  The Orcadians are great craftspeople, with a strong tradition of jewelry making as well as fine knitwear, weaving and pottery.

Scapa Flow - Britain's great naval base for the first half of the 20th century - also lies in the Orkney Islands.  The German Fleet scuttled itself there at the end of World War One and there is now great diving to be had into the clear waters and down to the wreck remains.

More information about the Orkney Islands can be found on their Tourist Information website.

Getting to and around Scotland's Northern Islands

Ferry schedules are seasonal, with the most frequent services being operated in the summer, and some ferries not operating at all in the winter.

For the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland, Northlink Ferries offer a two-night mini-cruise starting at 299 per person including day tours of both islands, ferry travel and two nights en-suite cabin accommodation.

The Shetland Islands Council operates ferry service between nine of the Shetland Islands.

Orkney Ferries operate service between the main island and 13 of the smaller islands in the Orkney Island group.

Smaller Ferry Services to and in the Orkney and Shetland Islands

There is a small passenger only ferry that travels between John O'Groat's and Burwick in the Orkney Islands (a 40 minute journey).

There is another ferry service for passengers and cars between Caithness (close to John O'Groats) and St Margarets Hope, Orkney

Read more in Part 2

In Part 2 we look at the islands off Scotland's west coast - the inner and outer Hebrides or the Western Isles.

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Originally published 3 Aug 2004, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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