Orkney Rings

On The Sea Roads


By Road

If starting from Kirkwall, take the A964 south-west, and approach Orphir by turning left onto Gyre Road. Then follow the A964 to Stromness. If starting from Stromness, you can visit Orphir by taking Cairston and Howe roads from the ferry terminal, then briefly a right turn onto the A965, before a right turn onto the A964. Follow this to Orphir then return to Stromness.

After Stromness, take A965 east, along the Loch of Stenness. You can continue a little further east to visit Maes Howe. Afterwards, return a bit and turn onto B9055 to Ness of Brodgar, including the Standing Stones and the Ring of Brodgar.

Continue along B9055 and then B9056 to Skaill Bay and then B9056 and then A967 to Birsay and its broch. From there take A966 to Tingwall, where you can get ferries to Rousay, Wye and Egilsay.

From Tingwall, continue south by A966 to Finstown, then A965 to Kirkwall and its cathedral (turning right at the roundabout at the end of this road onto A963, the cathedral being accessible via a left turn onto West Castle Street, then right onto Albert Street).

From Kirkwall, take A960 to Deerness. Then backtrack and take left turn onto B9052, then left towards south to A961 bridge onto Burray and South Ronaldsay, following the road south to theChurch of St Mary’s and Tomb of the Eagles.

If you can, take a ferry from Kirkwall to Westray and Papa Westray.

By Public Transport

From Kirkwall, take the Stagecoach no. 2 (dir Hobbister) to Orphir. Alternatively, if coming from Stromness, take the no. 5 (dir. Houton) to Orphir. Then take the 5 northwest to Stromness, its destination. From Stromness take the X1 to Ring of Brodgar. Return to Stromness, then take the 7 north to Birsay. From there, take the 6 to Tingwall and then the ferry to Wyre and the other small isles.

Retunring to Tingwall, take the 6 to Finstown and Kirkwall. If you can, take a ferry from Kirkwall to Westray and Papa Westray. From Kirkwall, take the 3 to Deerness. From Kirkwall you can also take the X1 to Burray.

To check times go to Traveline Scotland and click on Plan your Journey on left side of page.

Journey Links

Resist the temptation to begin with St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, as it belongs to a sequence and a story. Instead take the first ring west along the coast to Orphir. The apse survives here of a famous round church based on the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, recalling Earl Rognvald’s pilgrimage after the building of his cathedral. Continue on the coast road to Stromness, Orkney’s second port, which is celebrated as Hamnavoe in the stories and poems of its best known literary son, George Mackay Brown, whose bench sits on Brinkie Brae above the harbour, still watching all of life go by. Continue north from Stromness on the east side of Loch of Stenness, turning round the head of the loch to view a Neolithic sacred landscape writ large.

It is only in recent years, with the excavation on Ness of Brodgar of an enormous Neolithic temple enclosure that people have realised that this whole area has a unity of design. On this side of the Ness are the Stones of Stenness, and on the other the Ring of Brodgar, and the Ring of Bookan a little to the northwest, as well as Maes Howe chambered cairn down whose passage the midwinter sunset gleams. The openness of the landscape to sea and sky makes the perfect setting for such cosmic theatre. Awesome for once may be the correct adjective.

Returning back over the Ness, we continue north to Skaill Bay where the Neolithic village of Skara Brae is still battling the encroaching sea. Here is the domestic counterpart of the cosmic grandeur. Proceeding north we come to Brough of Birsay which plays an important part in the Magnus story. Here on the tidal island there was a Celtic monastery later succeeded by a medieval church and Norse settlement. At the mainland village the church was for a while the bishop’s own kirk and it was here that Magnus’s remains were brought to be buried, and here that the first miraculous happenings started the Magnus cult against the wishes of both Earl and Bishop.

Follow this story round the north end and down the east side where Rousay dominates the outlook. In the narrows is Eynhallow- the Holy Isle- where there was a medieval monastery. This island often disappears and magically reappears in Orkney folklore. Next appears the island of Wyre, nurse of two famous poets, Bishop Bjarni in the days of the Norse Earls and in the twentieth century Edwin Muir, one of the outstanding spiritual voices of his time. Northeast of Wyre is Egilsay with the Church of St Magnus on its soutrhern tip. This is where Magnus was murdered on the shoreline. The ferry from Tingwall plies to Rousay, Wye and Egilsay.

Swing south to Finstown at the head of Firth Bay, and then we are set fair for our pilgrimage to the great shrine of Magnus at Kirkwall. Here the saint was enshrined after the move from Birsay instigated by Earl Rognvald and his father Kol who may have been the visionary behind the whole project. Remarkably for Scotland the axe- cloven skull of Magnus remains in position inside the massive righthand pillar beside the choir, while Rognvald’s skull is in the lefthand pillar, indicating his later status as a second saint. This extraordinary survival receives only a modest mention on a small plaque, since as Murdoch Mackenzie observed (approvingly) of Orkney in the eigthteenth century, ‘the Religion is Presbyterian, as Established in Scotland, without Bigotry, Enthusiasm, or Zeal’.

A second ring goes east from Kirkwall to the Brough of Deerness. This was the site of a substantial early Celtic monastery with chapel and cells, though access is now difficult because of erosion of the land bridge. Come back southeast to St Mary’s and then Lamb Holm where the lovely Italian Chapel was built, and later lovingly restored, by prisoners of war who never forgot their hospitable treatment at the hands of the local people. Going on into Burray and South Ronaldsay, by the Churchhill Barriers built belatedly to protect the Scapa Flow anchorage from submarine attack, we must imagine a network of Norse chapels succeeding and extending the Celtic pattern across the landholdings. Only some of these survived to become later chapels and churches, but they demonstate the ready welcome that Christianity received in Orkney. At the southern end of South Ronaldsay St Mary’s Church is one such site, while at nearby Isbister is the intriguing ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, a prehistoric burial cairn with its own special symbolism.

If time allows, each of the northern islands has its own sites and attractions, not least Westray and Papa Westray, where there is a very old pilgrimage tradition associated with St Boniface and St Triduana (Treadwell Loch) the healer, which probably predates the Magnus developments.

Broken is the dripping honeycomb
Releasing the sweetness of honey
Dispensing goodness with its fragrant scent.
The holy man is slain
But his miracles arouse wonder
Enlighten the blind, purging anger.
Captives are freed by the martyr’s help
And the shipwrecked loosed from death.
Joy comes to the sorrowful, healing to the sick,
And sound hope in time of danger and distress.
The alabaster jar is broken, but the aroma
Spreads far and wide, fragrant anointing.
( Aberdeen Breviary, Adapted )

Pilgrim Journeys