Seasons in Orkney
Although it's often said that you can experience all four seasons in a single day in Orkney, there are still clear distinctions as the months pass by. From the appearance of lambs and cows in the fields during Spring and the long, hazy days of Summer, to the harvest of Autumn and the wild and invigorating Winter, Orkney has a season for every mood.
Spring in Orkney is a magical time when wildflowers carpet the islands and the days lengthen after the long winter. The month of May has the second highest average hours of sunshine of the year, after August. Lambs are born and skip around the fields and cattle taste their first fresh grass as they are turned out after a winter in a warm byre. Seabirds arrive in their thousands to nest on the cliff ledges. In fact spring is a great time for humans to visit too while there are plenty of beds to be had, before the festivals and summer events lure the bulk of visitors to the islands. And Orkney’s fantastic ancient monuments and attractions are that bit quieter too.
Beware though in late March when equinoxal gales can hit the islands, bringing a dramatic element to the scene, making a walk down the street an adventure in the wind. But even the April showers here can have a good side to them, for this is the time for brilliant rainbows, casting their arcs of colour high in the sky which can be seen for miles. By sunny May you have good chances of enjoying more peaceful times sitting by harbour sides and on garden benches watching the world go by. And even if the day starts unpromisingly, the weather can change to glorious sunshine and often does.
On 17 May Orcadians celebrate ancient Norse connections by marking Norwegian Constitution Day with visiting friends from Norway with a parade, concert and dance. And at the end of May the air will be alive to the sound of many fiddles as the Orkney Folk Festival gets underway in venues across the county.
If you are not used to the early dawn of an Orkney summer’s day, you may waken very early. In high summer in June there is almost continual daylight. Orkney’s latitude at 59 degrees north means the sun is above the horizon for 18 hours. It rises at around 4am and sets at about 10.30pm. But it is still twilight for much of the night as the sun only dips just below the horizon. This period of not-quite darkness is known in Orkney as the ‘simmer dim’. You can celebrate the summer solstice on June 21, the year’s longest day, at the standing stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar in West Mainland. This is marked with music, poetry, readings and a tour. Folklore in Orkney tells of the Mither of the Sea, a goddess who takes up residence for the summer around Orkney, keeping the sea calm and warm.
Summer is the time when most of Orkney’s festivals are staged. St Magnus Festival in June showcases music and drama and attracts international musicians. Shopping Week in Stromness in July offers week-long activities and concerts and Orkney’s famous agricultural shows held across the islands in August are a chance for farmers to be recognised for their hard work in the year. You can witness the historic tradition of the Riding of the Marches, designed to keep marauders out of Kirkwall, step back in time at the Vintage Rally and witness the unique Boys’ Ploughing Matches in South Ronaldsay when boys plough mini furrows on the beach and boys and girls dress up as plough horses in intricate costumes. These are popular days out for visitors and locals alike.
Those who are keen to learn more about Orkney’s history, traditions and way of life can sign up for the summer school run by the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall.
It’s tough to fit everything in. If you'd rather have a more leisurely time of course, you could just relax and enjoy Orkney’s unspoilt beaches.
As the long bright days of summer shorten there is still plenty to inspire and lure you as Orkney moves into its autumn glory. It’s not just the amazing scenery, clear air and crystal waters, archaeological wonders and stunning food. There are plenty of events and activities that only happen at this time of year which make Orkney an irresistible destination.
In September there are still two festivals to enjoy – the Orkney International Science Festival with speakers from around the globe and topics to debate and explore – and the Orkney Blues Weekend with back to back performers from other countries and parts of the UK and local bands showing off their talent. The dramatic storms of the autumn equinox are a good opportunity to experience the storm-lashed splendour of the west coast. Gorgeous sunny still days contrast with wild moments.
From October grey seals give birth to their pups, an autumn spectacle that produces around 5,000 pups a year. Fifteen per cent of the world’s grey seal population make their home in Orkney. Although many of the seabirds have left these shores, winter migrants are arriving here too including geese, ducks and Whooper swans. In October you can enjoy the Orkney Storytelling Festival and listen as Orcadians have traditionally listened to tales around the peat fire. Autumn and winter are a chance to socialise and pass on stories. And even though we don’t have many trees, pockets of woodland reveal their autumn colours or are enrobed with berries, while underfoot you can hunt for fungi.
As the busiest times of the farming calendar are over, parishes and isles celebrate Orkney’s bounty at harvest homes and Muckle suppers. Traditional Orkney food is served and cups and prizes are handed out before a ceilidh band plays for dancing. You can experience dances unique to Orkney and even to the individual isles with an Orcadian dance partner always willing to show you the steps.
Why would you consider Orkney a good place to be in the depths of a northern winter? Simple. There are many reasons why Orkney is a great place to visit at the back end or beginning of the year with unique events and a chance to be part of the community.
December: in the lead up to Christmas there are concerts, art exhibitions and talks and lectures to attend and of course the pantomime season gets into full swing. Oh yes it does! During the first week of December a huge Christmas tree gifted by Orkney’s twin region, Hordaland in Norway is lit at a ceremony marking the festival of Scandinavian St Lucy outside St Magnus Cathedral. Local schoolchildren and dignitaries parade with Norwegian guests while Kirkwall City Pipe Band plays. Inside the cathedral a tree from the forest near Grimstad in Norway is also lit. This remembers that Grimstad was the childhood home of St Magnus and his nephew St Rognvald, who built the cathedral in Kirkwall to honour his martyred uncle. More Christmas trees are lit throughout Orkney’s parishes and isles throughout the week. On midwinter’s day on December 21 (and for three weeks either side) you can visit the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe in Stenness and watch for the magical moment when light travels down the tomb’s passageway to illuminate a stone inside. You can watch this on a webcam but nothing beats the near mystical experience of the real thing. On Christmas Day the unique Ba’ game, a mass game of football is played through the streets of Kirkwall involving hundreds of players. There is fierce competition between the Uppies and Doonies who aim to get the ba’ to their goals – the Doonies in the harbour and the Uppies opposite the Catholic church. The Boys’ Ba’ and the Men’s Ba’ are also played on New Year’s Day.
On Hogmanay folk gather on the Kirk Green in Kirkwall for the bells at midnight or in Stromness at the Pierhead for the ships’ whistles to sound. January and February are the quietest months in Orkney – a chance to enjoy the peace or gather for fireside storytelling and catch up with family and friends.
Inside Nature and Wildlife
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