Pocket Britain

A calm, remote archipelago, just off the tip of Scotland, and one of the most intriguing destinations in the United Kingdom

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If you were to go to the most northerly point in mainland Britain and look even further north, most of your view would be taken up by the Orkney Islands. This calm, remote archipelago, just off the tip of Scotland, is one of the most intriguing destinations in the United Kingdom.
Historically, the islands were affected by long periods of Pictish and Norwegian control, before their transfer to Scottish ownership in the 15th century. There are many reminders of these periods left on the Orkneys - but oddly, more of the historical sights on display here come from time periods way before that. People were living on the islands from at least 3000 years before the birth of Christ - and in fact, a recent archaeological excavation unearthed a charred hazelnut shell, which was dated to around 6700BC!
The remains from these ancient periods are scattered all over the Orkneys, including several graves and tombs, as well as groups of standing stones. However, the most famous of all these remains is at Skara Brae, where a full village can still be seen, dating from before the Pyramids were even built. It is the most well preserved prehistoric settlement in Western Europe, and is often referred to as the "British Pompeii".
Of course, even without the historical artifacts, the landscapes of the Orkneys would be worth visiting. Much of the land is low-lying and fertile, making for pleasant views at almost any point in the entire archipelago. There are miles and miles of deserted beaches, and an abundance of wild animals and birds.
Each of the islands has its own distinct character, such as Hoy, with its towering vertical cliffs, Flotta, with its World War naval history, and Auskerry, which has been designated as a protected area because of the nesting birds. The island of Gairsay is especially notable for being inhabited by a single family, who issue their own postage stamps!
A trip to Orkney just isn't complete without visiting at least some of these islands - but most visitors spend most of their time on the mainland. This is by far the biggest and most populous of all the Orkneys, housing 75% of the 20,000 residents.
Kirkwall is the main city, and the centre of most of its transport. It is connected by air to most other Scottish cities, and is also home to a large harbour. Views of Kirkwall are dominated by St. Magnus Cathedral, a beautiful building that uses both red and yellow shaded sandstone together to form unusual patterns. Stromness, which is also on the mainland, is a smaller town full of quaint, twisting lanes.
The Orkney Islands have a temperate climate through most of the year, thanks to the warming Gulf Stream. The best time to visit is during the spring and summer, when the daylight can last for more than 18 hours a day! However, visitors in winter should keep an eye out at night. If you're lucky, you can spot the Aurora Borealis - also known as the Northern Lights.
Visitor Information
Skara Brae is open daily from 9:30am to 5:30pm (4:30pm in autumn/winter). Entry costs around £7 for adults, £4 for children (varies in winter). Orkney, Highlands and Islands. Tel: 01856 841 815

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