An ancient northern realm of myth, mystery, and the magic of the isles’ natural beauty
Day 1: Ferry to Orkney / Kirkwall
After breakfast, travel by land through Easter Ross, Sutherland and Caithness to Scotland’s northernmost point at Gill’s Bay, where we board a ferry to Kirkwall, the Orkney Islands’ main town. During a short crossing of the Pentland Firth, we pass the uninhabited island of Stroma before entering Scapa Flow, a natural harbor has historically provided an important war-time base. At the end of the first millennium, Kirkwall was a seafarers' hub within the Norse empire, linking Scandinavia with outlying areas like Shetland, Iceland, Argyll, the Western Isles and parts of Ireland. From the small village of St. Margaret’s Hope, we travel by car to explore a small chain of islands connected by the Churchill Barriers on the east side of the Scapa Flow, then spend the afternoon in bustling Kirkwall. Enjoy a scenic walk through the town's narrow flagstone streets, a foray to the ruins of Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace, and a visit to the 12th-century St. Magnus Cathedral. We continue to Burray village, a short distance over a causeway onto the red sandstone isle of the same name, which will be our base for the next three nights as we explore the Orkneys' history, culture and nature. Burray is a haven for a wide variety of birds, drawn to the small island's varied range of habitats. Our hospitable inn overlooks Scapa Flow and Burray Harbor, with its active fishing fleet. Keep an eye out for seals bobbing in the water, too.
Day 2: Exploring Orkney’s Stone Age Heritage
Human habitation in Orkney dates back thousands of years, and these mystical isles are a treasure trove of ancient archaeological sites. The Stone Age village of Scara Brae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Europe’s most complete Neolithic settlement, consisting of 10 remarkably well-preserved clustered houses. Maes Howe, a chambered cairn and passage grave, prompts further wonder as we contemplate the superb craftsmanship of these Stone Age artisans. We also visit the spectacular Ring of Brodgar, the finest-known truly circular ring of standing stones dating to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, and the nearby henge made of even larger megaliths, Stones of Stenness. As we head toward the Yesnaby coast’s red sandstone cliffs, our relaxed pace allows plenty of time to drink in scenery abundant with marsh marigold and spring squill and watch for wildlife like grey and common seals, curlew, redshank, lapwing and a plethora of seabirds nesting on rocky ledges.
Day 3: Nature, Culture and History in the Orkneys
Today we first head toward Orkney’s southern islands, connected by causeways built during World War II. We stop at the Italian Chapel, an intricately painted masterpiece built by some 550 Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa in 1942 and brought to Orkney as laborers on the Churchill Barriers. This causeway system was designed to protect the large natural harbor at Scapa Flow after a German U-boat torpedoed the HMS Royal Oak, sinking the ship and its crew of 833. Heading to the west mainland, at rugged Marwick Head we overlook Orkney’s largest cliff-nesting seabird colony, where up to 25,000 breeding seabirds can be seen on this mile-long stretch of red sandstone cliffs, possibly including gannets and auks, along with a view of the Kitchener Memorial. At The Loons Reserve, we visit one of the archipelago’s largest wetlands, abundant with ducks, including breeding wigeons and pintails, plus Greenland white-fronted geese and Scotland's rare great yellow bumblebee. Heading to coastal Birsay, a village that has been continuously occupied for more than 5,000 years and was once the center of Viking power, possible visits may include the Earl’s Palace ruins before we travel inland to the Birsay Moors Reserve, a wild and windswept landscape that is home to short-eared owls, hen harriers and nesting Arctic skuas. Descending to another stretch of coastline where terns and red-throated divers are often spied, we encounter a wide sweep of sand and the imposing remains of the Broch of Gurness, an Iron-Age tower.
Day 4: Fly to Edinburgh / Depart
We spend our final day exploring the eastern coast of Deerness. Stops may include the site of the Brough of Deerness, where the remains of a 10th-century Norse chapel and settlement perch on a giant grassy rock jutting into the North Sea, and Mull Head Nature Reserve, a heath and sea cliff refuge for myriad seabirds. Seals, dolphins and passing whales are commonly sighted offshore. Arriving back in Kirkwall, the town’s quaint shops offer one last chance to pick up some gifts and souvenirs. Our Expedition Leader will transfer the group to the airport in the afternoon to fly back to Edinburgh and connect with flights home.