I followed my visit to Shetland with a trip to the Orkney Islands.
Always in my mind was the advice of a local Shetlander who warned me that while many think Shetland and Orkney are similar, I'd be surprised by their differences.
As soon as I arrived in Kirkwall, Orkney's main town, I knew they were right. The vibe there was totally different. Not better or worse, just different.
Orkney is a land of vast open spaces, with endless stretches of flat land as far as the eye can see. And it's brimming with ancient wonders: stone circles, burial mounds, Neolithic villages, medieval buildings, and even more recent tales from the Great War. It's like walking on a living history book.
When you bring your camera to Orkney, expect a very quirky archipelago with loads of details to shoot. Every photo you take is a story about Orkney's history, Scotland's history, the UK's history, even Europe's history.
Take your time to connect with the islands and soak up the unique atmosphere, which for me is unmatched anywhere in the UK, or even beyond.
Here are the 20 must-visit photo spots for Orkney (this map provides an overview. You can read the text below for all details about the photo spots, such as where to park and when to shoot).
Let's hear from other lens-wielding adventurers and soak up their Orkney wisdom - check out this video to unleash your photographic passion!
Reaching the Orkney Islands: Your Guide to Getting There
Getting to these remote islands can be a bit of an adventure, but it's well worth the effort. Here's a comprehensive guide on how to reach the Orkney Islands and embark on your very own Orkney odyssey.
Flying to Orkney
The fastest way to reach Orkney is by plane. Loganair, the only airline operating to the islands, offers regular flights from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sumburgh, and Inverness.
If you prefer the tranquility of sea travel, there are several ferry options to get you to Orkney.
- Aberdeen to Kirkwall
with Northlink Ferries
Duration: 6 hours
- Scrabster to Stromness
with Northlink Ferries
Duration: 1:30 hours
- Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope
with Pentland Ferries
Duration 1: 10 hours
Remember, ferry schedules change depending on the season. Don't forget to check the online timetables and book your tickets in advance, especially if you're bringing a vehicle – there's limited space for cars on the ferries.
Also, be prepared for potential cancellations or delays due to bad weather or technical issues with the ferries.
Heading to Orkney is one of the last true adventures to be had in Europe ;-)
Once You're on the Orkney Islands
Getting around Orkney is easy. The islands have a well-developed road network, and most places are easily accessible by car or public transport.
If you're planning on doing some hiking or exploring the more remote parts of the islands, you might want to consider renting a car.
Here are some additional tips for getting to Orkney:
- Book your flights or ferry tickets in advance, especially if you're traveling during peak season.
- Check the weather forecast before you travel. Orkney can be quite windy, so it's best to be prepared.
- Pack for all types of weather, as the temperature can vary greatly depending on the time of year and the time of day.
How long do you need to discover Orkney?
I spent two weeks in Orkney, and everyone I met was pretty surprised, wondering what I was going to do for so long on these tiny islands.
Well, to be honest, even two weeks weren't enough. I didn't get to explore many of the smaller islands. Especially if you're chasing after those perfect photos, you need to be patient and wait for the right weather and the best lighting...
If you're solely interested in exploring the main island and ticking off the most popular spots, 4 days might be enough.
But if you're planning to venture off to the more remote but even more stunning corners of the main island, you should aim for at least a week, or better yet, 10 days on the mainland.
And then there are the countless smaller islands just waiting to be discovered. Each one could take 1-2 days to explore, and don't forget the ferry journeys to get there and back, which means you'll need at least 1-2 nights on each island.
This all adds up to the fact that you could easily spend a month or more in Orkney to see everything there is to see. Or, you could focus on the main island and just come back another time to explore some of the other islands!
Where to stay in Orkney?
The islands are tiny, even the main island.
So, it really doesn't matter if you want to stay in
- Kirkwall (the largest town in Orkney with loads of restaurants and supermarkets)
- in Stromness (an incredibly charming harbour town)
- in St Margaret's Hope (a very picturesque fishing village)
You could even find a remote cottage in the middle of nowhere.
Getting to the photo spots won't take more than 50 minutes to drive - most of the time, only 30 minutes.
20 Must-Visit Photo Spots in Orkney
Park your car right at the start of the causeway and head down the steps to the beach for an easy 1-minute walk.
The causeway makes for an incredible leading line in your photos. It's only accessible for about two hours on either side of low tide, but I recommend arriving three hours before low tide to capture its best moments. The retreating water offers a new composition every five minutes, with still water on either side, perfect for a long exposure. The rocks and seaweed during low tide can ruin the atmosphere of your shots.
Once the tide recedes, cross the causeway and explore the stunning island and its historical remains. Remember, don't get caught up in the island's beauty – make sure you return before the tide turns.
From the car park, you can also take a footpath along the cliffs towards the east to discover a new vantage point of the islands and the lighthouse. There's also an old boathouse with a grassy roof worth exploring. This viewpoint is great regardless of the tide.
The nearby Earl's Palace and church in the village might be also worth a quick stop.
Weatherwise, you can visit the Brough of Birsay any time of day – sun, rain, cloud, fog, morning, or a colourful sunset. The tide is the more crucial factor.
2. click Mill
The Click Mill, a unique example of a Norse-inspired waterwheel, is a fascinating and well-preserved piece of Orkney's heritage. It's a must-visit for history buffs and those interested in Orkney's rich past.
The mill's unusual design, with its horizontal paddlewheel and two rows of six blades, makes it a standout feature in the landscape and a testament to Orkney's ingenuity.
Park your car at the small lay-by, which can accommodate 2-3 vehicles.
Follow the path until you reach a gate, and then turn left. The mill may not be immediately visible, as it's tucked away in a shallow depresdip.
The entire walk is straightforward, taking no more than 10 minutes, but you'll need to navigate wet grass, so wear sturdy shoes.
Once you reach the mill, feel free to explore it from all angles. It's a charming little structure. You might need a wide-angle lens to capture its unique shape.
You can photograph the mill anytime, but an overcast day is ideal to highlight the green roof grass without harsh shadows.
3. Ring or Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar, a majestic Neolithic henge and stone circle, stands as a testament to ancient craftsmanship and astronomical knowledge. Its imposing structure, with its towering megaliths and imposing earthen bank, creates an awe-inspiring spectacle that transports visitors back in time to a world of rituals and celestial observations.
Park your car in the designated lot, about a 10-minute walk from the stone circle.
Follow the road back to the stones and enter through the gate.
It was freely accessible 24/7 when I visited in late spring 2023, and no entrance fee was required – not sure if this will remain the same.
I recommend going very early in the morning, even in the dark, as the site starts getting crowded with tour buses and individual tourists from 8 am onwards. I had the stones all to myself at 5:30 am!
Feel free to wander around the stones, but please be respectful and don't touch them, not even for that Insta-worthy selfie kissing one of them. It's an ancient monument that deserves our care.
Some parts of the inner path may be closed periodically to let the grass regenerate, but if you're lucky, you'll get to walk on it.
Sunrise at the Ring of Brodgar is magical. The first light hitting the stones creates an enchanting atmosphere.
The ring is massive, so you won't be able to capture the whole circle in one shot. Focus on specific parts or use a telephoto lens to compress the stones and make the scene more intimate.
4. Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness, a majestic Neolithic henge and stone circle, stand as a poignant reminder of ancient rituals and beliefs. Their imposing presence, with their towering megaliths and surrounding henge, evoke a sense of awe and mystery, transporting visitors back in time to a world of ancient practices and celestial observations.
This site is situated very near to the Ring of Brodgar, so I suggest combining both visits by going early in the morning, as both get quite crowded throughout the day.
There's a car park along the main road that fills up as the day progresses but should be ample for early morning visits. From there, it's just a 2-minute walk to reach the stones.
Take your time to explore different angles and viewpoints around the stones. Photograph the stones with the cottage in the middle or check out the stones from the back – their appearance changes depending on your perspective.
Behind the stones lies another prehistoric monument, the Barnhouse Settlement. Follow the path to the left of the stones for about 5 minutes to reach it.
Don't forget to admire the massive standing stone next to the bridge on the main road – it's like an imposing guardian! I found it quite captivating.
5. Hall of Clestrain
The Hall of Clestrain was a magnificent 18th-century mansion, now a ruin, that stands as a testament to Orkney's rich history. It was the birthplace of John Rae, the Arctic explorer who discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage. The hall's ruins, surrounded by rolling hills and a picturesque loch, is a great lost place photo spot, especially with the long drive which can be used as a leading line.
This spot is particularly stunning in late spring or early summer, when the meadow flanking the long driveway transforms into a riot of wildflowers, creating a captivating foreground for your photos.
There's a small public car park just behind the farm, although it might feel like you're intruding on private property. But don't worry, the Hall is open for visitors.
From the car park, you're free to explore the Hall as much as you like, any time of day. It's a truly quirky and quintessentially Orkneyian photo spot. A gloomy day will emphasise the melancholic atmosphere best.
6. Kirkwall harbour
Kirkwall Harbour Street, a delightful stretch of cobblestoned lane, is the heart of Kirkwall's historic old town. It's a vibrant hub lined with charming shops, traditional pubs, and lively cafes, perfect for a leisurely stroll or a cozy coffee break. The street's characterful architecture, with its colourful houses and towering church spire, provides a picturesque subject to your exploration with your camera.
Parking is easy and usually free (in 2023) right next to the small harbour, making it a convenient starting point for your exploration.
If you visit early in the morning, you might be lucky enough to catch reflections of the traditional Orcadian houses in the harbour pool, creating a picturesque scene.
7. Earl's Palace kirkwall
The Earl's Palace, a Renaissance-style ruin, stands as a reminder of Orkney's history. It was once the grand residence of the Earls of Orkney, a powerful family that ruled the islands for centuries. Today, the palace's ruins, adorned with ivy and steeped in mystery, offer a glimpse into a bygone era and provide a unique perspective on Orkney's past.
To photograph the outside of the palace, you don't need to pay an entrance fee. Feel free to roam freely and capture some of the beautiful details in the old walls.
Parking is available along the main road, and if you arrive early, you'll likely find a spot.
For the best photographic results, we recommend visiting during a day when the sun is shining too harsh. This will help you capture the details of the stonework without harsh shadows and contrast.
8. St Margaret's Hope
St Margaret's Hope, affectionately known as "The Hope" or "The Hup," is a charming village nestled on the northern coast of the island South Ronaldsay. It's a peaceful haven and gives a taste of its authentic island life. From its picturesque harbour to its historic landmarks, St Margaret's Hope is a delightful destination for those seeking a blend of tranquility and cultural immersion in their photos.
Park your car in the convenient square right next to the village. From there, take a 5-minute stroll north along the road towards the pier where the Pentland Ferries depart. As you look back towards the village, you'll be greeted with a vista of the sheltered bay, adorned with the traditional Orcadian houses. If the weather and tide align, you might even catch the mesmerizing reflections shimmering on the water's surface.
The village is bathed in golden sunlight during the afternoon and evening, creating an enchanting atmosphere. I highly recommend visiting during this time to capture the captivating beauty of the setting sun.
Another excellent photography spot is the slipway, located just as the houses begin. During low tide, you can venture out onto it, but be warned – the name "slip" is quite literal! The surface is exceptionally slippery, so proceed with caution.
9 . Italian chapel
The Italian Chapel is a remarkable example of art and craftsmanship created during World War II by Italian prisoners of war stationed in Orkney. Despite the harsh conditions and limited resources, these skilled artisans transformed two Nissen huts into a beautiful chapel, adorned with intricate carvings, paintings, and religious symbols. The chapel stands as a poignant testament to the human spirit, demonstrating how even in the midst of conflict, creativity and beauty can flourish.
Park your car in the designated area right in front of the chapel's entrance.
The chapel is open during specific hours, which vary depending on the season, so make sure to check the opening times beforehand.
There's a small entrance fee to pay.
From the outside, use the path leading towards the chapel as a leading line in your composition. But don't miss the opportunity to step inside when it's not crowded. The chapel's interior is breathtakingly beautiful, and it's mind-boggling to think what these skilled artisans were able to create with such limited resources during wartime.
10. Churchill Barriers
The Churchill Barriers, a series of reinforced concrete causeways spanning the narrowest channels leading into Scapa Flow, were constructed during World War II to prevent German submarines from entering the strategic anchorage.
The stark remains of the SS Reginal, a steamship deliberately sunk to block East Weddell Sound, stand as a poignant reminder of the wartime measures taken to safeguard the British fleet.
Today, the barriers and the sunken ship provide a fascinating glimpse into military history and offer a unique photographic opportunity.
There's a tiny parking space right next to the Churchill Barrier 3 causeway. Climb onto the rocks of the causeway or head down to the beach to get the best views of the shipwreck.
To enhance your composition, consider using an ND filter and a tripod. These tools will blur the water and give the photo a surreal, minimalist feel.
The best time to capture these remnants of World War I is during the evening sun and sunset. The golden hues and changing light will create a truly mesmerising scene.
11. St Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, an architectural marvel is the most northerly cathedral in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1137, the cathedral's stunning Romanesque architecture, adorned with intricate carvings and stained glass windows, evokes a sense of awe and reverence.
Plan to be an early riser and catch the cathedral bathed in the first rays of the sun. It's totally worth waking up early for – the morning light will paint the cathedral in a golden and reddish hue, and you'll have the whole place to yourself.
Parking is a easy in the morning, with plenty of spots along the side streets opposite the back entrance to the graveyard.
While the cathedral is picture-perfect from every angle, I particularly love the view from behind the church amidst the old, weathered gravestones. The contrast between the ancient stones and the vibrant cathedral creates a truly evocative scene.
12. Marwick Bay
Marwick Bay, with its dramatic backdrop of Marwick Head and the Kitchener Memorial, is simpyl great for photographers seeking captivating long-exposure shots. The bay's shores are adorned with remnants of old shipwrecks that serve as fascinating foreground elements. When the tide recedes, rocky ridges emerge, offering another excellent foreground for those armed with an ND filter and tripod.
Park your car in the designated lot just above the bay and embark on a gentle descent to the shoreline. Explore the area to find the perfect spot where the interplay of rocks, ridges, tidal pools, and shipwreck pieces creates a good composition.
For those seeking a detour, a short walk south along the path will lead you to traditional fisherman's huts, making them the perfect subjects for a few additional shots.
Whether you aim to capture the enchanting sunrise, the vibrant midday skies, the colorful sunsets, or the raw power of a storm with crashing waves, Marwick Bay will deliver stunning photos throughout the day.
13. marwick head
Marwick Head, a clifftop nature reserve on the Orkney mainland, holds a historical significance as the site of the sinking of HMS Hampshire, a British warship carrying Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener. To commemorate the tragic event, a 48-foot-tall granite memorial tower was erected in 1926, offering panoramic views of the surrounding coastline and the sea where the ship met its demise.
Park your car at the Marwick Bay car park and start walking towards the headland along the public footpath. Stroll along the flat shoreline, but be prepared for a bit of uphill climbing as the path ascends the cliffs. The ascent can be quite steep in some areas, and wet conditions can make the path slippery, so exercise caution. The entire hike should take about 30 minutes.
Once you reach a point where the cliffs make a bend, you'll be greeted with a breathtaking panorama of the Kitchener Memorial standing proudly atop a vertical drop. Keep your eyes peeled for puffins, which frequent the cliffs during their breeding season (May to August).
If the wind isn't too strong, this is an ideal spot to capture long exposure shots that blur both the waves and clouds. Just remember to pack your tripod and ND filters for optimal results.
The late afternoon and sunset are particularly magical times to visit this spot.
Stromness, the second-largest settlement on Orkney, is a charming harbour town with a rich history and a vibrant cultural scene. Nestled on the coast of Hoy Sound, Stromness boasts a picturesque
setting, with narrow cobbled streets, colourful houses, and a bustling harbour dotted with fishing boats and ferries.
Park your car along Ferry Road and take a short, scenic stroll towards the town's heart, where you'll be enveloped by the enchanting labyrinth of narrow alleys and colourful houses. Take your time to wander through these hidden gems, snapping captivating photos at every turn.
The view from the quay towards the town is also a must-capture. Take a moment to admire the bustling harbour and the quaint houses lining the harborfront, their reflections shimmering in the water.
While Stromness is beautiful at any time of day, an overcast day is particularly enchanting for capturing the town's unique charm. The soft, diffused light will evenly illuminate the alleys and houses, avoiding the stark contrast between bright sunlight and deep shadows.
15. Castle o'Burrian
Castle o'Burrian is a sea stack that stands off the coast of Westray, one of the North Isles of Orkney. This natural wonder is renowned as a top spot in the UK to spot adorable puffins during their breeding season, from April to August.
Orkney Ferries operates a regular ferry service between Kirkwall and Westray, taking about 1 hour and 30 minutes. If you want the flexibility to explore the island, you can bring your car along. However, be sure to book your ferry journey in advance, as car slots are limited.
Consider taking the early morning ferry to Westray to maximise your day.
Staying overnight on this serene island is also a fantastic option, as it truly offers an unforgettable experience.
Once you reach Westray, drive for a quick 5 minutes to the car park located at the trailhead for Castle o'Burrian. Start the easy, mostly flat 15-minute walk to the puffin spot.
Upon reaching the sea stack, prepare to be amazed by the sheer number of puffins – hundreds upon hundreds! Grab your long lens and be patient as you capture these charming, comical birds in action.
Near the stack, you can descend to a natural amphitheater-like setting to observe the birds. Alternatively, the upper path, along the cliff's edge, also provides incredible opportunities to photograph the puffins from close up, even within 50 centimeters.
Just be cautious as you approach the edges, as the terrain is crumbly and steep.
While it's common to encounter crowds, if you arrive early, you'll have ample space to enjoy tranquil birdwatching. The weather conditions aren't crucial – less sunlight is generally better for close-up shots. Even a light drizzle can work.
16. Noup Head
Noup Head and its iconic lighthouse are the undisputed photographic gems of Westray, offering an exhilarating landscape of sheer cliffs plunging into the wild Atlantic Ocean. With the thunderous waves crashing against the rocks, the dizzying heights of the vertical cliffs, and the cacophony of seabirds soaring overhead, this is an adventure you won't soon forget.
To reach this breathtaking destination, hop on a ferry from Kirkwall, where Orkney Ferries operates a frequent service. The journey across the choppy waters takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Just remember to book your ferry tickets in advance, as car slots are limited.
Once you arrive on Westray, drive to Pierowall and follow the signs towards Noup Head. While you can technically drive all the way to the lighthouse, it's not advisable unless you have a sturdy off-road vehicle. The road is incredibly rough and resembles a dried riverbed rather than a proper thoroughfare.
A much better option is to park your car at a small car park near a farm (see link to parking spot above) and continue the journey on foot. The walk is a strenuous uphill climb, taking at least an hour (or longer depending on your fitness level). But the breathtaking scenery and the sense of accomplishment make it all worthwhile.
Once you reach the lighthouse, carefully position yourself at the cliff's edge to capture the majestic interplay of sea, cliffs, and lighthouse in your camera frame. Be extremely cautious – you're standing on the edge of a very high drop. Don't risk anything for a perfect shot. Some of the rocks are even overhanging, so ensure you're always on the safe side.
This spot is stunning at any time of day, with or without sunshine. If you're lucky enough to stay overnight on Westray, sunrise and sunset will be nothing short of magical. Just be prepared to walk back in the dark, so familiarise yourself with the terrain beforehand.
17. Noltland Castle
If you're making your way to Westray anyway, don't miss the chance to visit Noltland Castle, a captivating medieval ruin near Pierowall. This impressive fortress was built in the 16th century.
Explore the ruins at your own pace, freely and without an entrance fee.
You can even climb up the tower for breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
And if you're feeling adventurous, you might even encounter the castle's resident ghost hound – there have been regular sightings!
To reach Noltland Castle, you'll need to take the ferry from Kirkwall. For more information on the ferry schedule and timings, check out the two photo spots I mentioned earlier.
Parking is conveniently located right next to the castle, and you can visit it in any weather – it's a great place to escape the crowds and delve into the medieval world.
18. Windwick Bay
Windwick Bay, a sheltered cove on South Ronaldsay in Orkney, is a haven for seals. These playful creatures can often be seen (and heard!) basking on the rocks, swimming in the bay, or even playing with each other.
Windwick Bay is a great place to visit any time of year, but it is especially popular in the spring and summer when the seals are raising their pups.
Park your car in the designated spot, big enough for only 2-3 vehicles.
From there, embark on a descent towards the rocky beach.
The path might seem hidden, especially during spring or summer when overgrowth obscures it. But don't worry, it's there, on the left side of the car park. Be cautious, as the path is steep and slippery in some sections, and watch out for nettles.
Once you safely reach the shore, grab your tripod and ND filter. This spot offers endless photo opportunities, with the ever-changing rocks in the water, depending on the weather and tide.
The evening light and sunset are particularly nice at Windwick Bay, so plan your visit accordingly.
Yesnaby cliffs are a dramatic expanse of Old Red Sandstone rock formations on the rough west coast of Orkney's mainland. These towering cliffs, reaching heights of up to 100 feet, provide stunning views of the surrounding coastline and the vast expanse of the North Sea. The cliffs are also home to a unique geological feature – the Yesnaby stack, a two-legged sea stack that stands as a testament to the power of erosion.
Park your car in the spacious lot next to the old gun battery.
Even from the car park, you're treated to breathtaking vistas.
However, to reach the iconic two-legged sea stack, you'll need to embark on a 25-minute stroll along the coastal footpath towards the south. The path meanders up and down, but nothing too strenuous.
A word of caution – as mentioned earlier, the cliffs are made of Old Red Sandstone, a crumbly and unstable material. Yesnaby has a rather infamous reputation for accidents, some even fatal, due to visitors venturing too close to the cliff edges, especially in windy conditions.
Exercise extreme caution, respect the power of nature, and prioritise safety over that Insta-worthy selfie.
Even an experienced tour guide lost their footing and didn't survive.
If you approach Yesnaby with mindfulness and respect, you'll discover a tranquil and awe-inspiring place.
Sunset and evening hours are particularly enchanting.
For those seeking long-exposure shots, a tripod and a filter are highly recommended to capture the smooth movement of waves and clouds.
20. Skara Brae
Skara Brae, the world's most complete Neolithic village, is an archaeological treasure trove nestled on the Orkney mainland. This well-preserved settlement, dating back to 3180-2500 BC, offers a glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors. Its stone houses, hearths, and furnishings provide a tangible connection to the past, making Skara Brae a must-visit for history buffs and curious photographers alike.
Planning your visit to Skara Brae is crucial to avoid disappointment. Book your ticket well in advance to secure your spot, and aim for the earliest time slot possible. Later in the day, cruise ship passengers descend upon the site, making it incredibly crowded and difficult to appreciate. Failure to book in advance could result in being turned away at the visitor centre, particularly during peak season (June to September).
The visitor's center has a spacious car park, from where it's just a pleasant 10-minute stroll to the archaeological site.
Your exploration will be closely monitored by guards, ensuring that you respect the delicate environment and refrain from touching any vegetation – not even touching the grass with a toe... Despite these restrictions, Skara Brae's uniqueness makes it a must-see.
As part of the entrance fee, you'll gain access to the Skaill House, a grand Orcadian estate, which is well worth a quick stop to admire its historical charm.
A few last (eccentric) words...
Ever heard the saying that every British village needs an eccentric resident to be complete? And these eccentrics are usually endearing and well-loved by the rest of the community.
Well, I like to think of Orkney as that eccentric resident in the "village" of the UK.
Everyone in the UK loves Orkney. Everyone can't help but smile when talking about it. And everyone has their own eccentric Orkney stories to share.
Many of Orkney's photogenic spots are unlike anything you've ever seen before. Have you ever seen a chapel built from Nissen huts? And the locals themselves are – well, Orcadians. Not British, not Scottish, but Orkney islanders through and through.
This makes a trip to Orkney a voyage into a different world, even if you are well familiar with the UK.
So, embrace the eccentricities, soak in the unique experiences, and make some truly memorable memories (and photos) in this extraordinary corner of the UK.