Day 1: Ferry to Orkney / Kirkwall
Travel overland this morning to Gill's Bay near Scotland’s northernmost point. Here, we'll board a ferry to Kirkwall, the main town in the Orkney Islands, making a short crossing of the Pentland Firth and passing the uninhabited island of Stroma before entering the great natural harbor of Scapa Flow, which 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 road along a small chain of islands connected by the Churchill Barriers on the east side of the Scapa Flow to reach bustling Kirkwall, the capital of the archipelago. 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. 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 nature, history
and culture of the Orkneys. 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.
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, a relaxed pace allows plenty of time to drink in scenery
. Wildflowers are abundant, with marsh marigold and spring squill dotting the landscape. Watch for grey and common seals offshore, as well as waders like curlew, redshank
and lapwing, and myriad seabirds nesting on rocky ledges.
Day 3: History and Nature in the Orkney Isles
Today we first head toward Orkney’s southern islands, connected by causeways built during World War II. We stop at the Italian Chapel to admire this 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. , sinking the ship and its crew of 833.
Heading to the western mainland, we stop at rugged Marwick Head overlooking Orkney’s largest cliff-nesting seabird colony. Here, up to 25,000 breeding seabirds nest on this mile-long stretch of red sandstone cliffs, and we look for gannets and auks
. We'll also have a view of the Kitchener Memorial, stand a lonely crenellated tower honoring the memory of Lord Kitchener, who died in 1916 when the H.M.S. Hampshire
sank nearby. Of the 667 officers and crew on board, only 12 survived.
At The Loons Reserve, we visit one of the archipelago’s largest marshes, home to abundant ducks including breeding wigeons and pintails, plus Greenland white-fronted geese and Scotland's rare great yellow bumblebee. Our next destination is coastal Birsay, a village that has been continuously occupied for more than 5,000 years and was once the center of Viking power. Here we'll explore the ruins of the Earl's Palace, the stone fortress-residence built by Earl Robert Stewart in the 16th century. Traveling inland, we reach the Birsay Moors Reserve, a wild and windswept landscape home to short-eared owls, hen harriers and nesting Arctic skuas. Descending to another stretch of coastline where we often spy terns
and red-throated divers, we encounter a wide sweep of sand and the imposing remains of the Broch of Gurness, an Iron-Age tower.
Day 4: Deerness / Fly to Edinburgh / Depart
We spend our final morning exploring the eastern coast of Deerness. At the Brough of Deerness, the remains of a 10th-century Norse chapel and settlement are perched atop a giant grassy rock jutting into the North Sea. Nearby, Mull Head Nature Reserve is a heath and sea cliff refuge for myriad seabirds. Seals, dolphins
and passing whales are frequently in view offshore. Arriving back in Kirkwall, there's a chance to browse the town’s quaint shops for one last chance to pick up some gifts and souvenirs. Your Expedition Leader will accompany you on the transfer to the airport this afternoon to fly back to Edinburgh and connect with flights home.