A little piece of Scotland scattered across the North Atlantic, Orkney was a favourite haunt of Picts and Vikings, who left chambered tombs and stone circles dotted across these windswept northern isles.
You don’t have to travel far in Kirkwall to find ancient history. The city centre is dominated by the sandstone buttresses of St Magnus Cathedral, sacred to Magnus Erlendsson, the 12th-century Earl of Orkney, whose piety was recorded in Viking sagas. Vikings left a more lasting legacy in the Iron-Age tomb of Maeshowe – its stone walls are covered in graffiti spelled out in Viking runes. Other top spots for history buffs include the lonely Ring of Brodgar, and the vaulted tomb of Minehowe, all within easy reach of Kirkwall.
Orkney may have Viking roots, but its heart is firmly Caledonian. On the outskirts of Kirkwall, the Highland Park distillery produces one of Scotland’s most respected single malts using hand-malted barley and Orkney peat. It’s the perfect dram to accompany a meal of Orkney cheese and oatcakes, razor clams and North Ronaldsay lamb, raised on a diet of wild grass and seaweed. Seek out these local delicacies at the historic Kirkwall Hotel (Harbour Street), or The Foveran, just outside Kirkwall on the road to Orphir.
Back to nature
Take a short break to Kirkwall from Glasgow Airport and escape to the wild. Rare birds gather in the lochs scattered across mainland Orkney, and seals and dolphins are spotted around the rugged coastline. Birders flock to the island's nature reserves to see waders on the marshes of the Loons, seabird colonies at Marwick Head and hen harriers and short-eared owls on the peat bogs of Hobbister – source of the peat used to produce Kirkwall's favourite whisky.