In Orkney, you may touch ancient stones as readily as you may shake the hand of a modern day hotel keeper. You may find wild nature and you may experience the welcome of community. You can hear the fiery notes of fiddle tunes set against the voices of the sea.
Orkney is an intriguing place to visit in every season. In midsummer, though, there are unique experiences.
A bit of geography and a touch of history will help you choose what to explore.
Set ten miles off the north coast of mainland Scotland, the seventy or so islands which make up Orkney are both remote and accessible. It takes a bit more than an hour’s flight from Glasgow or Edinburgh, for instance, to reach the city of Kirkwall on Mainland, the island on which most folk live. You can reach several places on Orkney by ferry, too – fairly short trips leave from John o’Groats and Thurso, or if you are up for a longer journey, from Aberdeen.
People have been living on Orkney for thousands of years. Ten thousands of years, in fact. When you visit in midsummer, you can visit ongoing excavations at the Ness of Brodgar on West Mainland during in July and August. Rangers, archaeologists, and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands are often on site and there are open days when you may get a first hand look at what they are discovering. The Ness of Brodgar dates back some 5000 years. New discoveries about ancient life are still being made. Some scholars think it may be as important as Stonehenge. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, which is includes the Ness of Brodgar, Skara Brae, the standing stones of Stenness, and many other places in the islands, is one of six world heritage sites in Scotland.
Standing stones have engaged people’s imaginations across the centuries. In recent times, they have featured as a pivotal point of the Outlander series of books and television shows, for instance. No one knows exactly what standing stones were for – a place to observe the stars, to plan planting and seasonal changes, a place of worship, or something else entirely? On Orklney at midsummer one of the groups of standing stones you may visit is the Ring of Brodgar. Should you be on Orkney at summer solstice near the end of June or at Lughnasadh in early August, you may observe or take part in celebrations based on material from the order of Druids.
As Orkney moved from ancient to medieval times, travelers and settlers from the Nordic lands made their way to the islands. Scholars debate whether the transition from Pictish to Nordic rule was violent or peaceful. However that occurred. Orkney was under Scandinavian rule from the eighth century until 1468.
A part of medieval Orkney which remains is Saint Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, which was built in the 12th century. Both Romanesque and Norman elements appear in the cathedral. There are also many reminders of the Norse connections to Orkney, among them this statue of Saint Olaf of Norway.
The Orkneyinga Trail will help you trace other Viking sites in the islands. It is named for a famous medieval manuscript which, among other things, tells the story of Saint Magnus and his martyrdom.
Music is a part of life in Orkney, in festivals and day to day in pubs, schools, and homes. In midsummer, the Saint Magnus International Festival is the big deal. Classical music is often the centerpiece of performances on offer at the festival, with other strands including folk music, jazz, and literature included as well. Performances by area school children are a well loved part of the festival too. Events are held in many venues, including Saint Magnus Cathedral itself, and in historic Skrail House near Skata Brae. The Saint Magnus festival happens each year in mid June. At this writing in 2018, the upcoming schedule includes chamber music, classical guitar, a group which crosses genres between folk and classical music, a classically trained Canadian soprano leading an evening of spirituals and gospel music, students from local schools with music on what it is like to grow up in Orkney, a renown poet from Belfast, a group from Lithuania whose music ranges across jazz, classical, pop, and other genres, a concert on a ship which will sail from Norway for the festival…you get the idea: the festival is wide ranging in its choices.
There is plenty of opportunity to hear music outwith festival schedules, and at festivals outwith midsummer, too. You may readily hear music at pub sessions, and perhaps, if you’re invited, in a friend’s kitchen. Internationally touring artists, especially folk musicians, like to include Orkney in their itineraries. In this midsummer of 2018, that includes the trio of McNally, Bichan, and Hearn in which Orcadian musician Louise Bichan teams up with her friends from Boston, Katie McNally and Conor Hearn , to share fiddle and guitar music with Scottish, Cape Breton, Orcadian, and Americana roots.
Orkney’s fine seafood, fresh root vegetables and greens, and other local foodstuffs, are not specific to midsummer, but will certainly be available for you to enjoy on a visit in the midsummer season. Neither are the range and excellence of the work of Orkney craftspeople and artists summer specific but many have open studios and shops in summertime. Something summer specific you may not expect in these northern isles: gardens. Sometimes there’s a garden festival; sometimes there are tours and trails laid out for you to explore.
Then there the puffins (and other birds) to look for
Whatever your focus in exploring midsummer in Orkney, you will find a warm welcome.
Brilliant sunsets, too…
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