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!
Collect your travelogue stamp!
If you have one of our paper travelogues you can collect your stamp using the brass rubbing plate located at Stromness Museum.
Why not download the Scottish Islands Passport app to collect digital stamps!
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.
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.