Museums and Galleries
Orkney has a rich historical and artistic background, and the islands play host to a number of innovative, interesting and exciting museums and galleries. You can spend hours looking back at five thousand years of life in Orkney, and even see some of our artists and craft makers in action!
Orkney Art Galleries
Orkney’s crystal clear air and magical northern light inspires many local artists and other creative souls who have been lured to our magical shores. There are enough art galleries here to keep visitors busy for weeks. Many have changing exhibitions and run courses. Other artists work in private studios but exhibit locally. A selection of galleries includes:
- Britt Harcus, artist and illustrator. Wellpark Garden Centre, Kirkwall
- Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, South Ronaldsay. Beautiful woven tapestries by Leila Thomson, other pieces by other family members
- Land Art, Papa Westray. Project exploring island landscape. Exhibitions and touring programmes
- Loft Gallery, St Margaret’s Hope. Cooperative arts and crafts and exhibition space
- Northlight Studio and Gallery, Stromness. Work and short courses by tapestry artist Ros Bryant who also carves stone
- Peter Rowland Silversmith, Orphir. One-off commissions in gold and silver
- Shorelines Gallery, Finstown. Paintings and prints by Jane Glue
- Waterfront Gallery, Stromness. Crafts, paintings and prints by local artists. Exhibitions
- Wheeling Steen Gallery, Westray. Photographs and art by Edwin and Rosemary Rendall. Tearoom.
- Wildscape gallery, Stromness. Paintings of Orkney birds and landscapes by Tim Wootton
- Yellowbird Gallery, Birsay. Contemporary art. Landscapes by Lesley Murdoch, bird painting and bird and moth jewellery by Jon Thompson
Orkney’s rich heritage and colourful history is told in its many museums through traditional display cases, interactive games and even farmhouses where you can dress up like our ancestors.
A must-see is Stromness Museum, the second oldest independent museum in Scotland, which showcases Orkney’s strong maritime and natural history. Since 1837 the museum has curated treasures from around the world, many collected by Orkney seafarers and adventurers. The Victorian natural history gallery holds a stunning collection of bird eggs, fossils, sea creatures, mammals, butterflies and moths. You can find out about famous ships which sailed into Stromness including Captain Cook’s Resolution and Endeavour and learn of Sir William Franklin’s fateful journey. Arctic explorer Dr John Rae's links with Canadian native people and whale fishing have special exhibitions and you can see Robert Louis Stevenson’s signature.
Orkney Museum in Tankerness House, Kirkwall, a fantastic laird’s townhouse, is home to exhibits chronicling 5,500 years of Orkney’s history from Neolithic times to modern social history. The photo archive is fascinating and you can see such treasures as a Viking grave plaque. There are temporary exhibitions too. Also in Kirkwall you can see a hangman’s ladder and other interesting relics if you take a tour of the upper floors of St Magnus Cathedral. Orkney Wireless Museum in Kirkwall has an extensive collection of early domestic radio and wartime communication systems used in Orkney and also features early television sets. Knowledgeable staff are on hand to explain how equipment worked.
Two farm museums in West Mainland give a taste of the hard life on the land in Orkney. Corrigall Farm Museum in Harray is a traditional ‘but and ben’ house typical of the 19th century. There are hands-on activities for children, farmyard animals, peat fires, a working barn and grain kiln. You can take part in activities at certain times to learn ancient farming skills. Kirbuster Museum in Birsay is a 16th century homestead with a central hearth and stone neuk beds. Both have gardens to explore and gifts for sale.
As well as a huge fossil collection, the Fossil Museum and Heritage Centre in Burray features an exhibition about the building of the barriers and a local heritage museum. It also has a community tearoom with a great selection of homebakes.
Orkney’s importance during two world wars is told at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum at Lyness Pier on Hoy, right where the Houton ferry ties up. Inside wartime buildings and an oil storage tank you can watch film footage, view photographs listen to oral history accounts and see vehicles, weapons and historic boats.
The North Isles tell their stories too. Sanday has a heritage centre telling the story of the island, while Westray Heritage Centre is a mine of information with an archive to browse in, natural history displays and the Neolithic carved Westray Stone. Neighbouring Papa Westray’s Bothy Museum at Holland Farm gives you a taste of old farming life with box beds and many interesting artefacts and is open free at all times. The Rousay Heritage Centre is another unmanned historical resource. There is even a Fairy Museum on Westray.
Pier Arts Centre
Voted the best building in Scotland in 2007, the Pier Arts Centre houses an important collection of British fine art donated to ‘be held in trust for Orkney’ by the author, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner (1904–2005). The centre’s permanent collection of 100 pieces includes work by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicolson and Alfred Wallis. There is also a year round programme of changing exhibitions, often national touring collections of contemporary art, and an annual open exhibition showcasing a huge range of art from the talented local artistic community. Artists in residence have been involved in innovative projects, often working with industry. The Pier Arts Centre also runs educational events for children and adults and hosts literature readings, gallery talks, small concerts and other events for local societies and groups. Gallery catalogues are published and are sold in the shop with other art books and upmarket merchandise and cards.
The centre first opened in 1978 and re-opened in July 2007 following a two year, £4.5 million Lottery funded redevelopment of its buildings. It is housed in buildings on one of the historic piers in Stromness right on the harbour’s edge. Edward Clouston, a 19th century merchant and agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company built an office and store on the pier. A drawing room from the house forms part of the centre which links historic buildings. In 2008 the Pier arts Centre was long listed for the Art Fund Prize for its sensitive and well received development.
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