There’s something going on in Orkney. This archipelago off the north coast of Scotland welcomed 36,000 tourists. By that figure would almost quadruple. Cruise ship arrivals have surged as well, dropping off then rapidly shuttling away again in excess of 95,000 passengers every year.
They come because Orkney has something very special to offer: wildly dramatic coastal scenery, fascinating from world-renowned Neolithic ruins to the more recently built curio that is the Italian Chapel, and a thriving population of birdlife in some of the RSPB’s most celebrated reserves.
So while we’re not well-disposed towards cruise ship tourism and all the problems it causes, we certainly can’t fault people for their interest in Orkney. But there’s a much more enjoyable and sustainable way to explore these beautiful islands: on foot.
Walking in Orkney is, without a doubt, the best way to enjoy these sea-swept landscapes with their unique heritage and wildlife. As David Kay from our specialist partner Ramblers Vacations puts it: “When the cruise ships are in they can immediately double the population of Kirkwall. We have to coordinate closely with the bus company on cruise ship days to ensure our groups can get where they need to, but that also gives us the advantage of knowing where the cruise groups are going to be and when so that we can avoid them. In truth, though, they stick to the honeypot sites, and within a short walk you’re in a completely peaceful atmosphere again.”
Accompanied by knowledgeable local guides, often experts on Orkney or birds, you’ll roam between remote beaches, turf-roofed fishermen’s huts, small villages, and spectacular clifftop viewpoints, on well-marked trails across open heath, moor, and hillside.
There are distinct advantages to walking with a guide in Orkney. Hiking alongside a local opens your eyes to elements of nature and culture that you might otherwise miss while glued to your own map and compass. A professional guide will ensure that you stick to marked trails, avoiding damaging vegetation and that you keep a safe distance from the wildlife. They can bring to life tales of Viking conquest and how prisoners of war managed to construct a charming little chapel from old Nissen huts, convince you that Orkney whisky tastes better than any other when you’re visiting an island distillery, and tip you off as to where your best chances are of catching sight of a whale off the coast. They help you elude large coach groups with practiced skill, and in return, you’ll be providing valuable employment and income for communities that often rely upon it.