Mainland Orkney | Colin Nutt

Island intro

From its 1,000-year-old capital and ancient brochs to its thriving creative scene and peaceful nature reserves, Mainland Orkney has lots to explore!

Ask an Islander

We asked locals on Mainland Orkney to tell us why their island is special. Here’s what they said:

From the East Mainland, with its low-lying and fertile farmland, to the West Mainland, known for its historical and archaeological sites, Orkney’s largest island has lots to see and do.

The island is home to Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, which was founded by Norse adventurers 1,000 years ago. Stromness, the second largest town, with its winding, narrow streets, has remained unchanged over the centuries, retaining much of its original maritime charm.

Orkney remains probably most famous for its outstanding archaeology and, in 1999, UNESCO awarded the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – including Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness – World Heritage Status for the outstanding testimony the monuments bear to the cultural achievements of the Neolithic peoples of Northern Europe. It’s thought that the Standing Stones of Stenness could be one of the oldest stone circles in Britain. There were originally twelve stones, with some standing up to six metres high, focused on a large hearth in the centre.

In Kirkwall, the stunning Romanesque St Magnus Cathedral, made from striking red and yellow sandstone, was founded in 1137 and took around 300 years to complete. It was dedicated to Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney.

The island also played a pivotal role in both World Wars and poignant reminders of these turbulent periods are etched on the landscape. Across the Mainland, you will see sites integral to Orkney’s wartime history.

The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness houses an impressive collection of British fine art, island artists and visiting exhibitions. The iconic building won the Andrew Doolan Award for the Best Building in Scotland in 2007.

<pFor a unique and unusual Christmas tradition held on Christmas and New Year's Day check out ‘The Ba’ game. This is a traditional street football game involving teams from different parts of Kirkwall. Two teams of 'Uppies' and 'Doonies' compete through the streets of Kirkwall to bring a hand-crafted leather ball to their respective ends of the town. It's an incredible sight with an electric atmosphere and buckets of friendly local rivalries!

Getting Here

Northlink Ferries operates regular sailings between Aberdeen on the Scottish mainland and Kirkwall, and between Scrabster on the Scottish mainland and Stromness.

The Churchill Barriers make it possible to travel by road from Mainland Orkney to South Ronaldsay, where two further ferry services operate to the Scottish mainland.

Find out more about getting to  South Ronaldsay.

Loganair operates regular flights between Kirkwall on Orkney and Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness on the Scottish mainland. It also operates a service between Kirkwall and Sumburgh in Shetland.

Mainland Orkney lies at the heart of the Orkney islands, meaning there are multiple ferry and flight routes to the outlying islands departing from various points on the island.

Explore More

Want to find out more about Colonsay and Oronsay and explore more of our amazing islands?

Download the free Scottish Islands Passport app to:

  • discover your perfect island match,
  • find out about the experiences each island has to offer,
  • collect passport stamps for the islands you visit,
  • find information on accommodation, travel and island amenities.

Get Your Passport

You can find lots more information about things to see and do on the island, see some amazing island photography and collect your island stamp by downloading our app.

Download the app

App in phone

Download the Scottish Island Passport app to collect your island stamps! The app also provides lots more information on each island including recommendations from locals about things to see and do, info on how to get around, more stunning photos and useful offline maps.

  • Unlock Stamps - Collect them all! Stamp your passport when you visit each island - with an individual stamp designed to represent a unique aspect of island heritage.
  • Experiences - Discover the best experiences each island has to offer – from local boat trips to exciting traditional festivals, there is something for everyone.
  • Maps - Navigate the islands with useful offline maps, handy for areas where internet connectivity is weak.
  • Travel Jounals - Create an in-location travel journal with pictures from your island adventures, to look back on your trip.
  • Favourites - keep track of your most loved islands with the favourites feature. Available to access from your account on both the app and web.