Orkney is a treasure trove of human history, and its riches range from standing stones that predate the Pyramids to battleships sunk or scuttled during two world wars. But while the cultural heritage of this archipelago off the northeastern tip of Scotland is compelling, Orkney is home to something equally fascinating: a natural history measured in aeons rather than mere millennia.
With internationally important colonies of seabirds, not to mention many birds of prey, waders and waterfowl, Orkney is a true birdwatcher's delight. The islands are also home to an incredible 15% of the world's population of seals, while wildflowers transform its meadows, moorlands and cliffs with the changing seasons.
Grey seals basking on the rocks in Orkney © Patricia Hamilton / Getty Images
The water of life
Orkney’s wealth of wildlife stems from the water swirling around its coasts, the influence of the Gulf Stream, which ensures a mild year-round climate compared to places on the same latitude, and an extraordinarily diverse range of habitats found across its 70 islands, big and small.
The Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea in the tumultuous Pentland Firth, the location of some of the world’s strongest, fastest tides, including the evocatively named ‘Swelkie’, once thought to be the work of a mischievous witch grinding a salt mill into the sea.
The nutrient-rich currents chasing each other back and forth attract fish, which underpin the presence of everything else – from the half-a-million-strong population of seabirds that breed here in the summer to the pods of killer whales sometimes sighted cruising the coasts in search of prey.
Puffins on the island of Westray, Orkney © Bhaskar Krishnamurthy / Getty Images
A network for nature
The coasts – composed of Jenga-like rock stacks, red sandstone cliffs and 85 sometimes ravishing beaches – are the strongholds of seabirds, including 70,000 pairs of puffins. The majority of these charismatic, often comical birds can be found on Sule Skerry, a remote rock to the west of the largest island, known as Mainland. Diehards can charter a boat, but there are easier options.
The next best place to see puffins, which spend just a few months of the year ashore (April to July), is the Castle of Burrian, a rock stack on the isle of Westray, which is connected to Mainland by ferry and inter-island plane.
Puffins also perch on the upper ledges of Westray’s 80m-high Noup Cliffs, the archipelago’s largest seabird colony and one of 13 nature reserves managed by the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The Old Man of Hoy – a craggy icon that features on many Orcadian postcards – is another puffin stronghold, but for those short of time the easiest place to spot them and half a dozen other species is probably the Atlantic-facing cliffs of west Mainland at Marwick Head, also an RSPB reserve.
The dramatic cliffs at Marwick Head, Orkney © James Kay / Lonely Planet
City of the birds
Marwick Head, a raucous, guano-splattered vertical city of seabirds, which visitors hear and smell long before they see, also supports large numbers of guillemots, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes, as well as their nemesis – great skua, the menacing ‘pirates of the sky’ that often rob and sometimes kill other birds.
Skuas also patrol the fossil-strewn clifftops a few miles to the south at Yesnaby, where maritime heath provide the perfect conditions for the Scottish primrose, one of the rarest plants in Britain. Its purple-pink flowers measure less than a centimetre across, so walkers best be careful where they tread.
The journey across Mainland to Yesnaby showcases the other habitats that make up the beguiling tapestry of Orkney’s landscape: glittering lochs full of trout; wetlands bright with marsh marigolds and Lady’s Smock; farmland dotted with curlews and oystercatchers probing for worms.
The Eddie Balfour hide is a great place to watch hen harriers and many other birds © James Kay / Lonely Planet
Best place to hide
Although it experiences frequent gales, Orkney is not a flat, wind-scoured place – undulating green fields give way to heather moors as the ground rises toward gently domed hills, and it is here that perhaps the most prized of Orkney’s feathered inhabitants resides: the hen harrier.
The islands support a quarter of the UK’s population of hen harriers and there’s no better place to see them than the Eddie Balfour hide, a turf-roofed building named after the Orcadian naturalist whose lifelong study of these birds at Cottascarth and Rendall Moss helped ensure their survival.
Opened last year by the RSPB, this sophisticated place with views of fen, heath and moor – plus striking murals inside to keep visitors distracted on a slow day – is also a good place to see some of the island’s other raptors, such as the merlin and the short-eared owl, both of whom depend on the supply of plump Orkney voles.
With a 2.5m wingspan, there's little chance of mistaking a sea eagle for anything else © Blacksnapper / Getty Images
The eagle has landed, again
Another bird of prey has been stealing the headlines of late, though: a pair of sea eagles – the UK’s largest bird of prey – nested in the archipelago in 2015 after an absence of more than 140 years. The same pair returned to the island of Hoy this year, although they have yet to breed successfully.
These awesome birds – known as ‘flying barn doors’ thanks to their 2.5m wingspan – were once common in Orkney; sea eagle talons and beaks were found amid the human bones in a 5000-year-old chambered tomb in South Ronaldsay, now a popular attraction dubbed the Tomb of the Eagles.
Humans drove them to extinction here and across the rest of Scotland, so the birds’ belated return feels full of symbolism. Orcadians recognise that protecting the environment underpins their future prosperity, hence the community’s commitment to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and tidal power; the archipelago has become a leading global centre for the study of the latter.
Orkney's landscape is at its most dramatic on the island of Hoy © Andrea Obzerova / Getty Images
Make it happen
For nature lovers, spring is arguably the best time of year to visit Orkney, although every season has its highlights if you’re prepared to brave the inclement weather. A clear winter night raises the prospect of witnessing the fabled Northern Lights – or ‘Mirrie Dancers’, as they’re known in Scotland.
May is a particularly good month as the wildflowers are in bloom and visitors can enjoy a roster of events – from wildlife photography to nature cruises – as part of the now annual Orkney Nature Festival, which marks the start of the main tourist season.
With cars and bikes for hire, plus an excellent network of walking trails, Orkney is easy to explore under your own steam. But those seeking the nearest thing there is to a guarantee when it comes to wildlife watching should enlist the help of an expert who can take them to the best spots at the right time.
Steve Sankey, a former chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a policymaker at the RSPB, runs highly regarded tailor-made tours for small groups at Orcadian Wildlife, while Sanday – the third largest island – has a resident ranger who organises walks, workshops and more. For many more options, try visitorkney.com.
James Kay travelled to the archipelago with support from the Orkney Tourism Group. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.
Last updated in October 2017.