Orkney Unplugged: Our Top Ten!

Why bother with Orkney? Well, two things spring to mind for whisky drinkers: Highland Park and Scapa! However, as WU discovered, there is so much more to Orkney than this fine pair of distilleries. If natural beauty and some of the most important historical sites in Northern Europe pique your interest, then read on for our Orkney top 10 and start planning your next whisky getaway!

 

  1. St. Magnus Cathedral: OK, starting a list with a religious site may not be to everyone’s taste, and whilst not exactly the God-fearing types ourselves, you cannot take away from the architecture and beauty of this place. At its very least, a good place to stop halfway up the hill en route to Highland Park when in Kirkwall.

 

  1. Island Hopping: It is not just about the main island – there is beautiful scenery at every turn, and seeing how this groups of islands are interconnected and how the landscape and climate has shaped the land is breathtaking. Just don’t expect to see too many trees, as the wind is that strong and constant, that they seldom grow that tall on the island, if at all. Little bridges connect some islands, whilst you might need to take a boat or a little plan to jump between others. An adventure in itself.
 

 

  1. Old Man Of Hoy: Sea stacks don’t get much better than this. Located off the cliffs of Hoy (just south of Mainland Orkney), the 137m stack looms out of the water like a guardian of the isles. Plan a trip out to Hoy (for some excellent walking), hop on a boat trip or just take your snaps while on the ferry to/from Scrabster. Climbing the Old Man is also possible if you’re feeling adventurous!
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The Old Man Of Hoy

 

  1. The Smoked Fish Platter At Helgi’s: Scotland’s islands are well known for their seafood and Orkney is no different. Head to Helgi’s just off Kirkwall harbour for this generous serving of mussels, scallops and haddock. They also provide a Scottish twist with their haddock mac n cheese and haggis bhajis. A good (and well kept) beer range from Orkney’s two breweries and a selection of Highland Park and Scapa whiskies mean you won’t go thirsty. Just be warned: booking essential!
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Food, Drink & Smiles At Helgi’s

 

  1. Orkney & Swannay Breweries: how can such a small island contain such a glut of quality alcohol producers? Both breweries are excellent, and they both offer tours and taprooms to sample and savour their wares. Orkney Brewery has particularly good ales (try the Corncrake or the hefty 8.5% ABV Skull Splitter), while Swannay has started producing a craft beer range to rival anything on mainland Britain (try Mutiny for a tropical hit).
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The Orkney Brewery

 

  1. Kirkjuvagr Orkney Distilling: Whisky and beer not enough for you? Well, Orkney now has its own gin distillery too! Orkney Distilling is located right off Kirkwall harbour (not far from Helgi’s). Take a tour of the production facility or just head to the modern bar to try a variety of gins. Perfect as a late night spot.
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Kirkjuvagr at Orkney Distilling

 

  1. The Scapa Experience Tour: If you’re a whisky fan and you’re visiting Orkney then you will no doubt make the time to visit Scapa. Just make sure you take the Experience Tour. Aside from a tour of the distillery (worth it in itself for its fantastic symmetrical still room and views over Scapa Bay) your enhanced visit adds to their two core expressions (Skiren and Glansa) with a dram drawn straight from the cask and a measure of some new-make spirit to fully appreciate their whisky’s journey. Scapa’s no frills style is just as enjoyable as the more grandiose approach of its larger neighbour, so make sure you pay a visit.
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Scapa Tasting Room

 

  1. Skara Brae: The best preserved Neolithic village in all of Northern Europe. Need any more incentive to visit? With a museum and hearty café on-site you can easily spend several hours revelling in this archaeological wonder. The self-guided tour of the village allows you to peer 5000 years into the past and imagine what life was like for these people. The ticket also includes entry into the Skaill House mansion whose grounds contain the Skara Brae UNESCO World Heritage site. Not only that, but the views across the Bay of Skaill are just as worthy of your attention.
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Skara Brae

 

  1. Ring Of Brodgar & Stones Of Stenness: Just down the road from another UNESCO World Heritage site, Maeshowe, lies a narrow strip of land which separates the lochs of Harray and Stennes on Mainland Orkney and is among the richest archaeologically in the world. With not just one, but two, standing stone rings to rival its more popular cousins in Southern England, you can really experience the mystery and wonder of Neolithic Britain as you move amongst the towering stones. If you plan your visit during the Summer months you can even watch archaeologists excavate the massive temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar, located halfway between the two sites. To say this is the greatest mile in British history is not even an understatement.
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    WU Look Over The Ring Of Brodgar

  1. The Magnus Eunson Tour @ Highland Park: Yes, their more expensive (better?) tours will make a dent in your wallet but the Magnus Eunson tour is the perfect combination of price to quality. After an in-depth tour of the historic site, 7 whiskies are laid out for you, ranging from the ubiquitous 12 year old, to the 18, 25, 30 and 40 year olds. A stunning selection that would set you back well over a thousand pounds in any bar! Expertly tutored, yet unpretentious, this is an experience of a lifetime. To top it off, the accompanying tour takes in Highland Park’s famous malting floor, kiln fires and iconic pagoda chimney. Time to book your flight!
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Highland Park Distillery

 

 

On The Way To Orkney?

Travelling to Orkney by car? Well, here are some of the sights that we took in during the trip and would recommend to you too:

Clynelish Distillery: Of course its a distillery! Part of our rationale for visiting Orkney was to also take in the northeast Scottish coast, so, it would be remiss of us to not throw in a few key stops along the way. Clynelish, located in Brora, is one such place. Known mainly for its 14 year old, the distillery has a broad selection of other malts from the Diageo canon if you’re in need of stocking up. Although the visitor space is small, the staff make you feel very welcome by offering samples of their best selling whiskies. Beyond that, a very reasonable price list means you can get proper drams of a range of whiskies. And from 2020 there will be double the reason to stop by as the restored Brora Distillery will begin production on the same site!

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Clynelish Distillery

The View From The Whaligoe Steps Café: No, we’re not quite at Orkney yet, but half an hour from John O’Groats is the small village of Whaligoe. Pretty nondescript–except for its cafe, which is a must stop. Not only is it a cosy space with homemade food, but the view across the North Sea is stunning, especially from its lone outdoor table (weather pending!). Perched atop the cliffs you can scan across the deep blue while warming up with a hot drink. Did we mention there’s free refills on the coffee?

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The View From Whaligoe Steps Café

Pulteney Distillery, Wick: If you are a whisky enthusiast – and let’s face it, you probably are if you’ve made it to this part of this post on this site – then you would probably be inclined to enjoy a trip to try some Old Pulteney. Whilst the town of Wick itself has sadly had its heyday, the Pulteney distillery still produces some well revered single malt whiskies. We’ve posted notes on our distillery visit here and the revamped core range here – but put short: a great distillery tour and tasting opportunity run here.

Pulteney Distillery

[Drafting Note: This post used to have all elements of the trip in the Top 10, as it was effectively our Top 10 highlights on a trip to Orkney. The post has been edited since as it did not feel fair to have a Top 10 post about an island with the first points not on the island. This sort of implied that the island itself did not have a Top 10, but that is far from the case. A beautiful place, and one we’d happily return to again and again.]

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