These northern archipelagos offer island hopping and a rich mix of prehistory, Viking heritage, abundant wildlife and independent spirits. But are you swayed by ancient Orkney or rugged Shetland?
Total area: 990 sq km
Inhabited islands: 20
Famous for: Staggering rock formations, ancient sites and 13 RSPB nature reserves.
Total area: 1,468 sq km
Inhabited islands: 15
Famous for: The UK’s most northerly everything! Plus wildlife, wild scenery and excellent Fair Isle sweaters.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses treasures such as Maes Howe tomb, the stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness, and the well-preserved Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. Also visit the eerie clifftop Tomb of the Eagles, on South Ronaldsay.
Three of Shetland’s sites are on the UK’s tentative list for World Heritage status: Mousa Broch (on uninhabited Mousa), an Iron Age roundhouse dating to 300BC; the Iron Age village of Old Scatness; and Jarlshof, where there are remains from the Bronze, Iron, Viking and medieval periods.
There’s plenty of choice for beach-lovers. The Bay of Skaill, next to Skara Brae, is a dazzling sweep of white sand. Waulkmill, on the mainland’s south coast, is an expansive shallow beach, especially at low tide. Or hike to ravishing Rackwick Bay, which lies near Britain’s tallest rock stack, the Old Man of Hoy.
St Ninian’s Isle beach is a photogenic, natural sand causeway, tethering the mainland to a tiny isle where a hoard of Pictish silverware was discovered beneath a church in 1958; replicas are displayed in the Shetland Museum, Lerwick. Other lovely strands include Meal, Spiggie and Skaw, Britain’s most northerly beach.
Drive over the Churchill Barriers (built during WWII to protect the British navy anchored at Scapa Flow) to reach Lamb Holm. This tiny island was once home to Italian POWs who transformed a Nissen hut into a chapel. Divers can explore the astonishing wrecks of multiple German warships, scuttled here in 1919.
Visit Scalloway, former HQ of the top secret WWII ‘Shetland Bus’ – a fleet of Norwegian fishing boats that covertly transported agents and equipment from Shetland to Norway, and returned with refugees. Risks were high, losses heavy. Pay tribute at the memorial by the waterside and drop by the Scalloway Museum for all the heroic detail.
Orkney has some unique shindigs. The North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival (July) celebrates the island’s seaweed-eating sheep and helps repair its dry stone dykes. The Festival of the Horse (August), held in St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, sees girls dress up as working horses and boys compete in a ploughing match.
Shetland is Viking country, and such ties are clearly illuminated at the annual winter fire festivals known as Up Helly Aa. The main event, in Lerwick in January, sees costumed Viking ‘guizers’ with blazing torches parade a galley through the streets before setting it alight. The celebrations continue through to the following morning.
A tough one. Orkney is a world leader in terms of ancient archaeology. When it comes to Viking relics, Shetland offers up longhouses, longships and fiery celebrations. Both islands are rich in wildlife and beautiful beaches, and dish up excellent local food. In the end, it's up to you...
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