The West Mainland is home to some of the finest archaeological sites in the world, showcasing thousands of years of Orcadian history.
But there’s also a fantastic range of natural attractions to take in, including bird reserves, beaches and sea stacks, and thriving communities full of local shops, talented makers and cafes offering delicious delights.
First time visitors to Orkney can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to see and do in the West Mainland. The best advice is to take your time and slowly soak up the sites and scenery.
The ancient locations that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, are understandably at the top of most itineraries. Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and the sprawling Ness of Brodgar dig are evocative, mystical sites. Picture Neolithic villages, towering monoliths, burial tombs, Viking graffiti and ongoing excavations of 5000-year-old buildings and you get the idea.
There are other archaeological attractions in the area, with the chambered cairns at Unstan and Cuween offering a hands-on experience – and they’ll often be quieter than the main sites.
Orkney’s history isn’t fully focused on the Neolithic though. The Iron Age Broch of Gurness is one of the best examples of its kind, and the Earl’s Palace in Birsay is a 16th century courtyard castle built by Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. More recent history is showcased at places like Skaill House, Corrigall Farm Museum, Kirbuster Museum and HMS Tern, the remains of a WW2 airfield.
One location in particular offers almost all of the most popular elements of Orkney in one place. The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island off the west coast of the West Mainland. A causeway is uncovered at low tide, leading visitors to the remains of a Pictish and Norse settlement. It’s also one of the best places in Orkney to spot puffins during spring and summer. Add to that the craggy cliffs and views out over the Atlantic, and rockpools teeming with life as the tide rolls back, and you won’t regret a visit here. Tide times are available online.
The Brough of Birsay is just part of an incredible coastline that climbs out of the sea and stretches as far as Stromness. Highlights include the towering cliffs at Marwick Head, the ancient geology at Yesnaby and the sea stack castles of Yesnaby and North Gaulton. You can even walk the west coast if you’re feeling fit – it’s the perfect chance to experience wild Orkney at its best. Much of the St Magnus Way route is based in the West Mainland too.
There are some beautiful beaches in the area - the Bay of Skaill, Waulkmill and the Sands of Evie are the pick of the bunch - and ample opportunities for wildlife watchers. Seals and otters can be seen at the Brig o’Waithe and in the Stenness Loch, the RSPB sites at Birsay Moors and Cottiscarth are perfect for spotting red-throated divers and hen-harriers, and the coastline is full of seabirds in the summer months.
The West Mainland is home to some of Orkney’s finest farmland and you’ll often meet tractors and combine harvesters on the quiet roads here. It’s full of vibrant hubs, including the villages of Finstown, Dounby and Palace. These communities offer excellent shops and services, and you’ll find bars, cafes, restaurants, honesty boxes and even an artisan sourdough bakery as you journey through the parishes that make up the area.
Many of Orkney’s talented makers are based in the West Mainland. The Orkney Brewery and the Swannay Brewery produce award-winning beers, and the Barony Mill offers a fascinating glimpse into the past. The area inspires crafts businesses too, including jewellery designers, woodturners, potters and artists. Orkney’s Creative Trail gives you the chance to meet the makers and see them in action in workshops and studios.