Remote? Yes. Worth a visit to the large Islands of Scotland? Absolutely. It is exactly this remote quality that will seduce your sense of wonder.
The beguiling beaches along the northern coastline are a miracle. 250 species of seabirds thrive. Drive farther north and you’ll find long-ago Viking strongholds. Orkney is fertile ground for farming and for one of the largest number of prehistoric remains in Europe. Shetland is wild—you can almost feel its pulse. So can the islanders who blaze their Viking roots each year with a fire festival.
The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney:
Part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the Ring o' Brodgar stands on an eastward-sloping plateau on the Ness o' Brodgar. Because the interior of the ring has never been fully excavated, and therefore scientifically dated, the monument's actual age remains uncertain. However, it is generally assumed to have been erected between 2500 and 2000 BC. The stone ring was built in a true circle, almost 104 metres wide. Although it is thought to have originally contained 60 megaliths, only 27 stones remain today.
Old Man of Hoy, Orkney:
This is a thin, sandstone monument that rises like a pinnacle 500 feet above the sea. The most famous stack in Britain, it changes colors with the light. Prepare to spend time watching the glow change. Occasionally you’ll see full-out rock-climbers scaling the face, and that is quite a sight. The ferry makes a turn to give passengers a quick view, but you can see the Old Man of Hoy best from the land. If you really get into it, rent a couple of bikes and make a day-trip out of following its contours on land. Enjoy!
Maes Howe, Orkney:
This World Heritage Site feels like a force of nature. The burial chamber, built around 2,700 BC, is a total experience—no crowds here. Watch your head, and walk through the small entrance tunnel. It is aligned with the solstice sun. Inside you will see a massive concentration of Viking Rock Art, in fact the greatest site of this sort yet discovered. Norsemen later plundered the treasures left within, but the walls are a wealth of mystic runes.
Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney, Scotland. It’s a charming town of winding streets, ancient buildings, and the bustle of ferries coming and going. But, the King of Kirkwall is the huge red and yellow St. Magnus’s Cathedral. Built in the 12th century, this cathedral is still going strong. Nearby, you can wander through centuries of ruined palaces. The museum is very good, and shoppers will find nice pieces of unique jewelry.
This World Heritage Site predates the Egyptian pyramids. In 1850, a storm blew hard, revealing ruins beneath the sands. When archaeologists excavated, they were stunned to find a 5,000 year-old, Stone Age village. It was abandoned so quickly that most of the rooms and furnishings were left behind. Eons of sand left the goods intact. Check out the stone beds and sideboards of these Neolithic people. You’ll even discover how they cooked and what they cooked! A must see.
Italian Chapel, Orkney:
In 1942, some 550 Italian prisoners of war were captured in North Africa and held on Orkney. During their three year stay, the prisoners, led by Domenico Chiocchetti set about building a chapel. Chiocchetti painted the interior of the sanctuary and the end result is a work of art - an absolute visual delight. Chiocchetti remained on Orkney after the war to complete the chapel, and finally left to an Orcadian promise that the chapel would be well looked after. The locals kept their word, and the Italian Chapel has since become one of the major tourist attractions on Orkney.
Absolutely outstanding, this Bronze Age settlement in Scotland actually represents five, layered periods of habitation. The oval-shaped houses are Bronze Age. Iron Age people later added the broch (see Mousa Broch) and wheelhouses. Then the Picts built their own community here. After they were gone, the Vikings built long houses. Finally, farming came to the area during medieval times. Because of the layers of time, and the levels of building styles, this Jarlshof is particularly remarkable.
Brough of Mousa, Shetland:
Around 500 BC, the Iron Age people began building forts to defend themselves. These were called “brochs.” Engineered masterfully, the double-skinned walls of dry stones were raised into circular towers. Each tower had an elegant taper in the middle. Remains of brochs are scattered across northern Scotland, but Mousa is the best preserved. It’s also the most photogenic. You can only reach this by boat, and then you must climb 43 feet to the open parapet. Do it!
Churchill Barrier, Orkney:
Impressive causeways were built in WWII by Italian Prisoners of War. The barriers were constructed as a naval defense after the HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German U-Boat in October 1939. These same men also built the lovely Italian chapel mentioned above.
Fair Isle, Shetland:
Famous for knitted patterns, and as a haven for traditional crafts, this remote island has awesome cliff scenery and birdlife. The ferry runs depending on the weather so be prepared… You may take off, and you may have to wait a bit. It’s all part of the experience, so for it!
More About Shetland & Orkney: