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.
The Fossil Museum and Heritage Centre in Burray is well worth a stop-off and has a community tearoom.
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. 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.