Planning a trip to Orkney and the islands around it? Wondering how to get there, and if you can take your car? Here's everything you need to know to plan your Orkney trip, whether it's a day trip or a long weekend.
If you're heading to Scotland, and especially if you're heading all the way up to John o'Groats, you should really consider adding a visit to Orkney to your Scotland itinerary.
We didn't plan a visit to the Island at ALL. We arrived at John o'Groats, took the obligatory picture and then wondered what to do next. It seemed like an awfully long way to drive, only to then turn around and go all the way back home again.
Luckily, the campsite we were staying at (Dunnet Bay) had some great information about how to get to Orkney and the Orkney ferries, as well as places to visit and what to do when you're there!
Orkney, or the Orkney Islands?
Firstly, (and this is very important) it's how to visit ORKNEY, not how to visit the ORKNEY ISLANDS. The entire group of islands is called Orkney, not ‘The Orkneys'. Yes, I know, it's confusing. It confused us too.
The people who live on Orkney are called Orcadians and they're not afraid to correct you if you get it wrong!
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Orkney Islands Map
So, where exactly IS Orkney?
Well, it's just off the North-East tip of mainland Scotland. You can see on the map how close it is to John o'Groats.
Although there are several islands, the largest, (cunningly titled ‘Mainland'), is just about the right size for a day trip- which is exactly what we did.
How to get to Orkney – Ferry routes
So, how do you actually get to Orkney? The easiest way is definitely by ferry.
There are two ferries from the north coast of Scotland, which in summer run several times a day. We chose to go outbound from Scrabster to Stromness via Northlink ferries and return from St Margaret's Hope to Gills Bay with Pentland Ferries.
Yes, it was a little bit more expensive doing two singles instead of a return, but it allowed us to get the maximum exploring time by going from one end of the Mainland to the other instead of doubling back on ourselves. We thought that made more sense for our one-day visit.
There is also a longer ferry which goes from Aberdeen to Kirkwall (this ferry then goes on to the Shetland Islands- it runs 3/4 times a week in summer.)
How much does a trip to Orkney cost?
Here's a complete break-down of the costs of our day-trip to Orkney, using the ferries and taking our motorbikes. (For reference, this was in July 2018)
Don't forget, this was an unplanned trip, so we didn't save any money by booking in advance and we took our motorbikes, which made the ferry cheaper but we bought all our food over there.
|Ferry from Scrabster to Stromness (3 adults & 2 motorbikes)||£98.90|
|Breakfast on Ferry||£26|
|Lunch in Kirkwall||£14
|Badges for our bike bags||£6|
|Hiding in a cafe from the rain||£18|
|Ferry from St Margarets Hope to Gills Bay (3 adults & 2 motorbikes)||£80|
|Snacks on Ferry home||£8|
|Fish & Chips||£18|
|Fuel for bikes||£31|
Watch the video of our trip to Orkney
If you'd like to see a video of our day trip to Orkney, which includes the ferries and what to expect onboard, here it is:
How long is the ferry to Orkney?
There are several ferries to Orkney. If you take the foot passenger only ferry from John o'Groats, it takes about 40 minutes.
If you want to take a vehicle, you need to go either from Scrabster- Stromness, which takes just over 2 hours, or from St Margaret's Bay to Gills Hope which takes about an hour.
How to get to Orkney by ferry- step by step
Scrabster to Stromness Ferry to Orkney
We caught the early morning ferry (0630!!!!) from Scrabster which arrives in Stromness at 0845. Once onboard, we did what most people do and headed for the canteen, where they were serving breakfast. We were pleased to find breakfast was a buffet and it was delicious- much better standard than other ferries we've eaten on. (**cough** Brittany Ferries **cough cough**)
In the middle of breakfast, we were excited to see Dolphins jumping around the bow. With my exceptional camera skills, I managed to miss EVERY SINGLE ONE…. but I have an awful lot of pictures of the splashes they made- as you can see in the video!
I was amazed at how smooth the water was- this is the dreaded North Sea for goodness sake. It was like a millpond.
Despite the total calm, Jade decided she felt seasick… and settled down on an outside deck in the sunshine to sleep. (This had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the fact that we got up at 5am to catch the ferry and she was really really tired. Nothing at all to do with that. It was just really rocky so she had to lie down… 😉
Ferry past the Old Man of Hoy
One of the main tourist attractions in Orkney is the Old Man of Hoy- a rock formation which funnily enough is on the Isle of Hoy. We weren't going to Hoy but we were pleased to find the ferry sailed straight past it and we got a fabulous view!
Ferry to Orkney- Arriving at Stromness
The approach to Stromness was absolutely breathtaking. Yes, we were lucky with the weather, but sailing around the top of Hoy and seeing Mainland and the other islands appear before us was like entering a magical wonderland.
As sailors ourselves, we've always loved approaching new lands and exploring harbours- this place was absolute heaven for us. We both wished we had a small sailboat to explore all the little creeks and inlets which we passed. Just a shame it's in Scotland and the weather is not like this very often!!
Things to do in Orkney- One day trip itinerary
When we docked, we dutifully headed off the ship and set off on our whistle-stop day trip. We used a tourist map to plan our itinerary and followed the road signs, which were very good and exactly as you would expect on British roads.
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The first place we headed for was Skara Brae, which is apparently one of the best-preserved Stone Age villages in Europe. However, just as we got off the bikes in the car parks, 7- yes, SEVEN- large coaches pulled up and unloaded their passengers. That's roughly 500 people queueing and waiting to go to the same small exhibit! Not at all what we had in mind. We thought about launching the drone to see the village from the air, but there wasn't anywhere suitable that was away from roads and people, so we decided to head on to the next attraction and hopefully beat all the other tourists there.
Ring of Brodgar
This strategy actually worked out really well. When we arrived at the Ring of Brodgar (a ring of huge standing stones, similar to Stonehenge), there were very few people around and we were able to wander among the stones almost by ourselves for about 20 minutes.
It was really cool how you could actually touch the stones and imagine just how many people had done that over the previous years. It's a UNESCO world heritage site and was built around 2500-2000BC. As with other stone rings, there is some debate about what it was used for- religion, astronomy, social gatherings, burials- but not knowing adds to the mystique! Whatever you believe, I totally recommend a visit. It was free as well, which was incredible.
We also took the opportunity to send up our drone (read our review on the best travel drone here) and got these incredible photos!
The next place we wanted to visit was Maeshowe- a massive burial chamber under a mound. The pictures looked really cool and of course Jade was excited about the prospect of seeing dead bodies. (NOTE- we have no idea if there are dead bodies to see- she just assumed there would be!)
HOWEVER- you can only enter Maeshowe as part of a guided tour…. and in Summer these sell out really quickly. We were disappointed to find that we couldn't get in at all that day- something to learn for the future should we ever go back. If you want to book tickets, you can buy them from Visit Orkney
Kirkwall is the capital city of Orkney- and by capital I mean largest village. Or perhaps a small town. There are hundreds of cafes/ restaurants (ok, maybe around 20) and some gorgeous boutique shops with all sorts of beautiful things you don't need but really want.
One of the main attractions of Kirkwall, apart from the food & shopping, is St Magnus' Cathedral.
This imposing and beautiful building was built by the Vikings in 1137 and took over 300 years to build! I believe it's possible to climb up the steeple and experience the views (and see the old Hangman's ladder- yep, for exactly what it sounds like) but we didn't get a chance to do this.
Instead, we enjoyed the beautiful stained glass inside the Cathedral, and then sat on the grass eating our lunch and admiring our bikes (I admit- we do that a lot!)
Day trip to Orkney- South Ronaldsway
After a relaxing lunch in the sunshine, we headed off on the last leg of our journey to catch the ferry back to mainland Scotland.
Italian Chapel on Orkney
We stopped at the Italian Chapel (where a lot of Italian POWs were sent to build barricades against German submarines.)
Whilst they were here, they built this beautiful white chapel, which stands as a complete contrast against the fairly bleak landscape. The Orcadians are very proud of this chapel and work hard to keep it in excellent condition as a memorial to the war and a hope for future peace.
The weather on Orkney
The Italian Chapel is right by the start of a series of bridges which connects the small islands of Burray & South Ronaldsay to Mainland. Just as we were crossing the first of these bridges, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a deluge!
Seriously, it rained so hard we couldn't see the road in front of us- tough in a car but impossible on a bike. We skidded into the next turn off and gratefully saw the sign ‘cafe'. The poor staff probably didn't know what to think when we appeared in the doorway, soaked through and looking very sorry for ourselves!
Luckily they provided us with hot drinks and cake- and our misery passed as quickly as the storm (about 10 minutes.) Apparently freak downpours like that are very common in Orkney- which we found incredible considering how warm and beautiful it had been earlier in the day.
So, the moral of the story is to take rain gear, even on beautiful warm sunny days in the middle of July!
Having thoroughly dried out, we set off to get to the end of South Ronaldsay- just so we could feel we'd done the island ‘properly'. In truth, it was just a lot of farmland and some pretty views of the sea, but not much else.
This sea is actually the famous Scapa Flow, which played host to the British Naval fleet during both World Wars. It was from here that the Great Fleet set out for the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and also where the German fleet was bought to after the 1918 Armistice before it was scuttled.
In WW2, HMS Royal Oak was anchored in Scapa Flow when she was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, which caused Churchill to order the building of the ‘Churchill Barriers' to protect our ships. The barriers can still be seen today. We actually really enjoyed learning about this period of history. As an ex-Naval Officer, I'd heard lots of the stories- but seeing it for ourselves made it a lot more real.
Gills Bay Ferry from St Margarets Hope- back to mainland Scotland
The journey back was from St Margarets Hope back to Gills Bay (nr John o'Groats). This was with Pentland ferries. This ferry was slightly quicker than our journey out and only took about an hour. We sailed out over Scapa Flow and luckily the sea was as calm as before- although the bikes were still strapped down well.
We arrived back in Gills Bay without incident and even made it to the chip shop in Castletown before it closed. We strapped the food on the bike behind me and it was still warm & delicious by the time we got back to the van- a perfect end to a day of adventure!
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about visiting Orkney:
Do I need a passport to visit Orkney?
Nope. Not at all. You might need photo ID if you have to collect tickets or if you have applied for some sort of discount on the ferry, but that's it. Easy peasy!
Can you take a car or motorhome to Orkney?
Yes! The main ferries to Orkney are more than big enough to accommodate cars, motorhomes, campers or motorbikes (which is what we took!)
Do you NEED a car on Orkney?
Honestly, unless you're going on a coach tour, you need some form of transport on Orkney. There is public transport, but it's not as frequent as you might hope.
Having your own vehicle will allow you the freedom to go where you wish, beat the coach crowds and explore at your leisure. We enjoyed riding our motorbikes, but having a car or even better the motorhome with a toilet and kettle would have been even easier! We might even have spent the night motorhome wild camping in Orkney, which would have been fun!
Driving/ riding a motorbike in Orkney
Driving in Orkney is very easy. The roads are tarmac (tarmacked??) and signposted and the traffic is not very busy at all. It's mainly single track ‘A' roads- don't think we had any dual carriageways and certainly no motorways, so there is plenty of time to look around you and enjoy the incredible views.
There is a lot of farmland and green open spaces, with peeks of the sea beyond. For some reason, I expected there to be more mountains- like the Scottish Highlands, but it was relatively flat with a few moderate hills at best.
How long should I spend on Orkney?
If you're just doing Mainland, a day trip is doable, but a bit rushed, especially in Summer if you want to do all the attractions.
If we went back, we'd take the motorhome and stay for a night or two, giving us time to really explore and learn more about the history of the Islands.
How to visit Orkney- final thoughts
All in all, our visit to Orkney was a great day trip- even with the downpour and a tired and slightly grumpy teenager. It was an excellent way to spend our time once we'd reached the north of Scotland and we recommend it to anyone.
Have you ever visited Orkney? Did you have a good or bad experience? Let me know in the comments below.
How else can I help you today??
Planning a trip to Orkney or Scotland? These posts might help:
- 5 of the best scenic road trips in Scotland
- The ULTIMATE 7-10 day Scotland Itinerary
- Isle of Skye itinerary– everything you need to plan your perfect visit
- Scotland- Complete travel Guide