Off the far north coast of Scotland, the Heart of Ancient Britain awaits with nature, history, and truly wild adventure.
Closer to the Arctic Circle than to London, Scotland’s Orkney Islands are a world apart. As soon as you cross the Pentland Firth, you’ll find a culture dominated more by the spirit of the Vikings who once ruled the islands than by mainland Scotland’s Celtic origins. Coastal walks and drives along winding country roads are the easiest way to get a taste for the scenery. Many visitor attractions shut down in winter, but it’s also the best time to witness the Mirrie Dancers, or northern lights. In spring and summer, the mainland and other large islands come alive with visitors “from sooth” (nearly all the world is south of Orkney), and camping provides some of the best ways to experience the essence of the archipelago.
Orkney’s mainland and the island of South Ronaldsay, connected by a string of causeways known as the Churchill Barriers, make for the perfect mini road trip. Follow the wild west coast from the fishing village of Stromness to the Brough of Birsay, explore the World Heritage-listed Heart of Neolithic Orkney, tour the Orkney Creative Trail to experience the best of the islands’ handmade goods and larder, and make your home for the night under a sea of stars.
Orkney’s “High Isle” offers up the area’s most dramatic landscapes. Ward Hill, the tallest point in the 70-island archipelago, can be climbed by adventure purists with no set route. The Old Man of Hoy, a sandstone sea stack facing back toward northern Scotland, greets those arriving to the islands on the Hamnavoe ferry and is the focal point of one of Orkney’s most popular treks. Graemsay, the “Green Isle,” is lesser known, so those who travel by passenger ferry from Stromness will likely have its shores to themselves.
The northernmost of Orkney’s North Isles are easy to see on a single trip if you fly via Loganair’s inter-island service. On North Ronaldsay, visit the island’s bird observatory to spot rare migrating species, catch a glimpse of Fair Isle on a fair day from the lighthouse, and head to the shore in search of the semi-wild North Ronaldsay beach sheep. Travel between Westray and Papa Westray on the world’s shortest commercial flight, enjoy stunning headland walks on both islands, and visit the oldest house in Europe—predating Stonehenge—on Papa Westray. All three islands have their traditions, and each offers up a unique adventure to Hipcampers who linger long enough to take it in.
Endless crystal clear bays and white sand beaches are standout features on Sanday and Stronsay, set to the north of mainland Orkney. The two low-lying isles teem with wildlife and each has a closely knit local community composed largely of crafters, farmers, and fishers. These islands are great to explore on bike or foot and provide an excellent spot for a night or two of camping.
A short hop away from mainland Orkney, Rousay is home to the most important archaeological mile in Scotland, the Westness Heritage Walk. Stroll through time as you pass through a Neolithic mass burial chamber, a ruined Pictish broch (fortified tower) at the edge of the sea whose spiral stone steps end abruptly in mid-air, and a medieval church abandoned during the Highland Clearances.