Walking holidays in the UK


Walking in Orkney and Shetland

Walking the farthest reaches of the UK

Taylor St. John
By Taylor St. John

The Northern Isles feel a world away from the mainland UK—both Orkney and Shetland are closer to the Arctic circle than to London—yet these rugged archipelagos at the collision of North Sea and Atlantic Ocean are surprisingly accessible.

You’ll find independently-minded locals strongly connected to their Nordic heritage, Neolithic history that predates Stonehenge, and wide open landscapes that roll straight into the sea, rich in wildlife and beckoning to be explored on foot.

UK Ring Of Brodgar Orkney Scotland A neolithic stone circle and henge

The Ring Of Brodgar, a neolithic stone circle on Orkney


No trip to Orkney is complete without a visit to the several UNESCO neolithic sites on the island. Afterward, enjoy a peedie dram of Highland Park or Scapa Whisky on a tour of the distilleries, both near Kirkwall. In Sumburgh, Shetland, visit the Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlements that span 4,000 years of early history. In Unst, Shetland, look toward Britain’s most northerly lighthouse, Muckle Flugga, perched on an outcropping of rock that juts defiantly toward the Arctic.

Need to know

Northlink operates a 90-minute ferry service from Scrabster to Stromness (Orkney) and a 12-14.5-hour ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick (Shetland), with a stop halfway in Kirkwall (Orkney) at least three days a week. Loganair flies to Kirkwall and Lerwick from several airports across mainland Britain, and their Orkney inter-island service is an excellent way to explore the southerly archipelago’s outer islands, including the world’s shortest scheduled flight from Westray to Papa Westray.

A central base in Lerwick, Stromness or Kirkwall will allow you to maximise a shorter trip—especially if traveling without a car. Accommodation can be found in village inns and hotels or a wide range of independent rentals. If you have extra time, be sure to venture to Shetland and Orkney’s outer isles. Each has its own unique character, and you can enjoy empty stretches of coastline and heritage sites (such as Northern Europe’s oldest home on Papa Westray) all to yourself.

In summer, Orkney and Shetland benefit from between 18 and 19 hours of daylight. This swings drastically down to six in the winter. While both islands are known for extreme wind, you are more likely to see the sun in the Northern Isles than in the west of Scotland. Best to be prepared for every type of weather, as in all of Scotland!

While the bulk of tourists visit the islands between May and September, the winter holds its own bit of magic, with the chance to see Mirrie Dancers (Northern Lights) and experience festive cultural traditions like the ancient game of Ba, a sort of full-town rugby game played on Christmas and New Year’s Day in Kirkwall and the Viking fire festival of Up Helly Aa held in January and February across Shetland. If you’re arriving in winter, keep in mind you will have limited daylight for walking and prior planning is essential as accommodation, transport and meal options are more limited.

Walking holidays on Orkney and Shetland

Walks range from short and easy loops on well-defined paths to longer cliffside walking with tougher ascents or traversing open heathland and hills. Many short walks are accessible right from villages for those without cars. There are a handful of walking companies that offer both guided and self-guided holidays on Orkney and Shetland. Keep in mind that longer walks from most rural locations will require a car.

On Hoy, the ‘High Isle’, walk from Moaness to Rackwick Bay through Orcadian novelist George Mackay Browne’s “hidden valley of light.” Continue along a cliff path toward the towering sandstone sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy. The newly developed St Magnus Way pilgrimage route follows the 55-mile journey of the martyred Earl of Orkney as it crosses Egilsay, then zig-zags across the Orkney mainland. On Shetland, ferry to the Island of Noss National Nature Reserve for a challenging 5-mile coastal loop and some of the best birdwatching in the Northern Isles.

About the author

Walking in Orkney and Shetland

Taylor St. John

Taylor is a freelance travel journalist based between Glasgow and the east coast of the U.S. She writes for publications like HuffPost UK, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Country Walking, easyJet Traveller and Orkney.com.

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