Island life: the Orkney driving experience

Orkney, off the northeastern coast of Scotland, is a destination that is sure to capture the imaginations of drivers and road-trippers alike.

You don’t see many traffic jams on Orkney. What you do see are lots of fields, lots of seabirds, and lots of roads that spool off to the horizon untroubled by columns of cars.

The Scottish archipelago – its 70 islands strung across the sea just north of John O’Groats – only introduced zebra crossings for the first time in the year 2000. It’s fair to say that congestion isn’t a pressing issue.

All image credits: Ben Lerwill

Examining the lay of the land

I spent a week here in April, lulled by the trance-like pace of the place.

The weather and the phone reception were as erratic as each other, but the seafood was fresh, the coastal walking was superb, and the scenery was expansive. It was often possible to see precisely which islands were in sun and which were in cloud.

I asked one elderly local what the Orkney winters were like. He adjusted his glasses and smiled at me. “Wet,” he said.

The archipelago sits at roughly the same latitude as Oslo and Stockholm, but at times up here it can feel like some secret green hinterland – a place deliciously detached from anywhere else. Far from being outposts of civilisation, however, the islands have been attracting visitors for at least 5,000 years.

Marwick Head

History comes super-sized on Orkney. Some of the standing stones here predate Stonehenge and the Pyramids by more than a millennium. There’s a theory that Orkney was at the hub of a seafaring Stone Age network that extended from Southern Britain to Scandinavia, and the archaeology on show is astonishing.

Skara Brae

In a single day, I visited the extraordinary Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the preserved burial chamber of Maeshowe and the huge monoliths of the Ring of Brodgar. To say my head was whirling by teatime would be an understatement.

A peaceful, striking driving experience

I made regular use of the causeways and car ferries that link the various islands together during my time on Orkney.

From mainland Orkney I drove south across the four Churchill Barriers – built during WW2 to prevent German submarines from accessing the natural harbour of Scapa Flow. My goal was South Ronaldsay, via the little islands of Lamb Holm, Glims Holm and Burray. Here I had the clifftop Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic crypt overlooking the frothing Pentland Firth, all to myself.

Stenness Stones

The distances involved on my route were rarely great. It takes around an hour to drive the 40 miles or so from Skara Brae to the bottom of South Ronaldsay, for example. On such idyllic roads, however, time somehow slipped by unnoticed. I’d pull the car over to watch a seal in a loch and half an hour would pass before I knew it.

In the laid-back ‘capital’ of Kirkwall, meanwhile, I managed to spend more time in Orkney’s one record store – Grooves, complete with café – than I did in the tremendous, towering Viking-era cathedral.

Enjoying the adventure out in the open

The ferries opened up the wider archipelago. I sailed across to Hoy, the hilliest island in the group, for a long hike up past the famous sea-stack of The Old Man of Hoy. A few days later I took the car across on a longer trip to Westray, where the Noup Cliffs revealed headland after headland of nesting seabird colonies: perky guillemots, swooping fulmars and broad-winged gannets. Elsewhere on Westray, I walked out to the Castle O’Burrian coast at dusk to watch 200 puffins returning from a day at sea. Yet again, there wasn’t another soul to be seen.

Old Man of Hoy

There are more obvious road trip destinations than Orkney, but there can’t be many that carry with them such a heady mix of prehistory, wildlife and scenery – not to mention the kind of traffic conditions that let you feel like you’ve got an island chain to yourself.

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