Hello and welcome to the December newsletter from Orkney.com.
Keep reading for features and articles all focused on life in Orkney as 2016 comes to close. We’ll be taking a look at some of the Christmas events planned across the islands this month, sharing some of the best Orkney photography of the year and highlighting another wildlife hotspot, plus much more.
New Orkney Visitor Guide out now
The 2017 Orkney Visitor Guide from Orkney Tourism Group has been launched, featuring all the inspiration and information you need to come and visit our islands. The sixty-seven page guide is packed with information on Orkney, including recommended sites to visit, a focus on our nature and wildlife and much more. The guide also includes full details of Orkney Tourism Group members, with details of where to stay in the islands. This year the front cover features the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, tying in with next year’s national theme of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Find out how to get your copy via the Visit Orkney website.
Awards success for local companies
Orkney’s food, drink and craft sectors have been celebrating over recent weeks with a series of national awards heading back to the islands. The Swannay Brewery’s ‘Island Hopping’ claimed the title of Overall Champion Cask Beer at the SIBA Scotland Awards last month. Meanwhile, fellow Orkney Food and Drink member Orkney Fishermen’s Society was the winner of the Sustainable Business Award at the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards. Rounding off a successful month, Orkney Crafts Association’s Hilary Grant Knitwear was named as the Best Scottish Independent Online Retailer at The Herald.co.uk Fashion Awards. Congratulations to all our Orkney winners!
Special status for Churchill Barriers
Two of Orkney’s iconic Churchill Barriers are set to become listed structures, recognising their unique place in Orcadian history. Four barriers were built during WW2 to protect the great natural harbour of Scapa Flow, the home of the Royal Navy during the conflict, from enemy attacks. Now, barriers number 3 and 4 are set to be listed at Category A by Historic Environment Scotland, the highest status of listing. This will mean they are recognised as being of national or international importance. They’re more than just monuments to Orkney’s wartime heritage now – they’re vital transport links and also give visitors the chance to explore more of our special communities. Read our blog for more.
Winter inspiration in the islands
Winter is on the way here in Orkney but hibernation is not an option! There are plenty of things to see and do across the islands during the coming months – you can come and embrace our frosty mornings, our snow dusted hills, our wild coastline and warm and welcoming islands. If you’re still looking for inspiration, we’ve highlighted five of our favourite things to do in Orkney during the winter months – take a look via our special blog on the Visit Orkney website.
Join us on Instagram
Are you following Visit Orkney on Instagram yet? Join in and see some beautiful photos from the islands! Tag your own images with #VisitOrkney and we’ll be able to share your Orkney experiences too.
Win Prizes from Orkney!
Put off your post-Christmas detox plans by entering our competition to win this box of goodies courtesy of Orkney Food and Drink. Sign up to enter via Orkney.com. [now closed]
December in Orkney
December is a month full of activity as we head towards the holidays. From Christmas shopping to tree lighting ceremonies, pantomimes to parties, there is something for everyone.
Communities across the islands will be lit up with festive spirit in the early weeks of December. Christmas tree lights will be turned on in Dounby, Finstown, Shapinsay and St Margaret’s Hope on Friday 2nd December. Ceremonies will follow in Kirkwall, Burray, Sanday, Flotta and Westray on Saturday 3rd.
The ceremony in Kirkwall will include the traditional St Lucy parade and a performance from the Kirkwall City Pipe Band. It all gets underway at 4.45pm, with the Pipe Band due on Broad Street at 5.15pm.
Sunday 4th December will see a special concert in St Magnus Cathedral featuring local artists and visiting Norwegian musicians. Entry is free and it starts at 8pm.
The final tree lighting ceremonies will be held in Orphir on the 4th and in Stenness on the 7th.
Christmas will come to Highland Park on the 3rd of December. The Distillery is hosting a German-market style Festive Fayre in its Malting Room. Local food, drink and crafts producers will be on hand with some special Christmas offers. It’s on between 3pm and 7pm – a great way to kick off the build-up to Christmas.
St Magnus Cathedral will host Orkney Camerata’s performance of Handel’s Messiah on the 11th of December at 7pm. Tickets are available from the Pier Arts Centre, Kirkness & Gorie and Sheila Fleet Jewellery.
If you’re still working your way through your Christmas shopping list then take advantage of Kirkwall BID’s Late Night and Sunday openings throughout December. Local shops will be open until 7pm on the 15th and 22nd, with doors also open on the 11th and 18th for Sunday shopping days between noon and 5pm.
There is a Christmas Bazaar in the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret's Hope on the 3rd and 4th too with plenty of gift ideas, hot drinks and homebakes between 1pm and 4pm.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a good panto – and there are plenty of performances across Orkney this festive season! Kirkwall Arts Club performs 'Cinderella' in the Orkney Theatre on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Catch ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ in the St Andrews Hall between the 7th and 9th and ‘The Snowflake Factory’ in Stromness Town Hall between the 8th and 10th. The Birsay Hall hosts ‘Calamity Jeannie’ from the 6th until the 10th too.
Some of the finest Orcadian artists are displaying their work in the annual Pier Arts Centre Christmas Exhibition this year. More than 130 artists and makers have submitted pieces, with the exhibition open until Christmas Eve.
The Centre also has a special Christmas Family Afternoon on Saturday 10th December with festive arts and crafts activities. It’s free and folk can drop-in between 2pm and 4pm.
Meanwhile, remember to head to St Margaret’s Hope for the annual Christmas Exhibition in The Loft Gallery. ‘Illuminate’, featuring works by the students at Orkney College, will be open until the 17th of December.
Orkney’s wildlife will be on show all month, despite the winter weather. The local branch of the RSPB has a number of events planned for December, including a chance to spot birds at Marwick on the 4th of December between 2pm and 3pm. Head to the Hoy Kirk on the 9th to hear about the year's activities there, including an update on the island's sea-eagle pair. The boat leaves Stromness at 5.45pm and returns at 10pm. You can also join experienced staff and volunteers at the Barnhouse hide on the 10th of December between 1.30pm and 3pm to see the hundreds of birds that winter on the Harray loch.
One of the more unique events in Orkney takes place just before Christmas. On the shortest day of the year the midwinter sun shines directly down the entrance tunnel of the Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe as it sets behind the Hoy hills. It’s an incredible sight and you can follow it live via webcams installed inside the tomb. Find out more from our special blog last year.
If you want to experience more of our UNESCO World Heritage Site this month then take advantage of our free Ranger tours. Join a guide to uncover the secrets of the Standing Stones of Stenness on Wednesdays at 10am, then at the Ring of Brodgar on Thursdays at 1pm.
There's always plenty of music to enjoy in Orkney at Christmas time. On Wednesday 21st December Skaill House will host an intimate performance from Orcadian group 'Gnoss' at 7pm. Tickets include a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie but booking is advised on 01856 841 501.
Boxing Day and the 2nd of January will host the Kirkwall Ba’ games this year, with Christmas Day and New Years Day falling on a Sunday. As usual, the traditional street football games will see the Uppies and Doonies battle through the streets of Kirkwall to get the hand-crafted leather ‘ba’ to their respective goals. There is a boy’s game at 10am before the men’s version begins at 1pm – join the crowds on Broad Street for the throw-up and take in this unique and dramatic experience.
If you’re still in the party mood after Christmas then head west to Birsay for the annual Festive Fling. The Community Hall will host music by the Eastie Boys on the 27th of December at 9pm. In Kirkwall there is live music available on the 27th, 28th, 29th and 30th with gigs in various local pubs including the Auld Motorhoose, the Torvhaug and the St Ola Hotel.
Hogmanay is a night for celebration in Orkney – a number of local pubs host live music to bring in the bells and there is a gathering with the Pipe Band on Broad Street too. In Stromness, the Pier Head is the meeting place to see the New Year in.
We’re all too aware that the December weather in Orkney can be challenging at times, so be safe in the knowledge you can always retreat inside to the safety of the silver screen. The cinema at the Pickaquoy Centre will be showing the likes of ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, ‘Arrival’, ‘Bad Santa 2’ and ‘Moana’.
That’s just a taste of events in Orkney during December. There’s always lots more happening around the islands – keep up to date with the Visit Orkney events page, pick up a copy of local newspaper ‘The Orcadian’ every Thursday or tune into BBC Radio Orkney every weekday morning from 0730 on 93.7FM or on Facebook.
Where to watch Orkney's wildlife
If you’re a fan of wildlife then Orkney could be a dream destination for you. Join Alison Nimmo from RSPB Orkney as she highlights another island nature hotspot.
Right now it’s worth pausing to catch the ‘calloo’ calls of the gorgeous long-tailed ducks, which have recently returned here from a summer breeding on northern tundras. You can pick out the males by their needle-like rear ends. Mingling with mallards, mute swans, tufted ducks, goldeneyes, the odd red-breasted merganser and wigeons with their musical whistles, it’s a cut above the average duck pond!
Long-tailed ducks are actually considered vulnerable to extinction – they’re on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species – so it really is special to have them here so easy to admire.
Off the water, feeding redshanks stalk the edges and at high tide you may find ringed plovers and turnstones roosting on the causeway. In full view but easily overlooked are the flocks of gulls – fascinating to watch and get to know better. Have you ever spotted a gull stamping or ‘paddling’ with its feet on the grass? This simulates the impact of raindrops on the ground, enticing worms up to the surface to be eaten. Once in a while you might even pick out a rare visitor like an Iceland or glaucous gull, more normally found in the Arctic.
Summer is a distant thought, but the return of warmth and light will also bring terns, swallows and house martins back to feed here, while scurvy-grass, with its glossy dark green leaves, flowers around the edges between April to July – look out for white to pale violet flowers with a delicate honey scent.
A year in pictures
We’ve been sharing some fantastic shots by local photographers over the last year, showcasing both some talented amateurs and the beautiful scenery of the islands. We’ve picked eleven of our favourites to round the year off.
Orkney is full of talented photographers and some of them are kind enough to share their images of Orkney with us every month. In May, Sanday-based wildlife photographer Adam Hough included this shot of an otter at play on the island's shoreline in his selection. We loved how it appears almost camouflaged amongst the seaweed.
July's selection was taken from some of the most popular images on the Visit Orkney Instagram feed. We launched the account in late May and have really enjoyed sharing and posting images of the islands. This one of the village of St Margaret's Hope by @olgabuhagiar really caught the eye. Remember you can share your images of Orkney on Instagram by using #visitorkney.
September was a month of blue skies and sunshine and the mood was captured perfectly by local photographer and musician Louise Bichan. She shared this beautiful shot of Scapa Flow with us as part of her choice of images.
Last month's photographer has created plenty of positive feedback across our social media platforms. Neil Ford's shot of the sun setting at Marwick bay is a classic example of the slow end to an Orkney summers day.
Take a look at our gallery below for our other favourites from a year of photography in Orkney - and don't worry, we'll be bringing you more next year!
Spectacular sites in Sandwick
December’s area focus takes us to the west mainland and the parish of Sandwick. Home of some of Orkney’s finest sites and scenery, it’s a place well worth discovering.
Sandwick is one of Orkney’s largest parishes and the chances are you’ll spend a lot of time here if you’re visiting the islands. It’s full of viewpoints – from beautiful lochs to spectacular cliffs, coastline and historical attractions.
The parish occupies a large stretch of Orkney’s west coast as well as some of the county’s finest agricultural land. It’s a hive of activity during the spring and summer months as tourists and farmers share the roads. Most visitors take a direct route to the coast and the jewel in Orkney’s archaeological crown.
Arguably the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe, Skara Brae is a stunning network of Neolithic homes perched on the edge of the islands, its high walls sheltering the buildings from the Atlantic Ocean. It was uncovered following a storm in 1850 and is thought to date back to around 3200BC. It’s possible to walk through the settlement and imagine how some of Orkney’s earliest inhabitants lived and worked – a truly incredible experience.
There are nine surviving houses, complete with Stone Age furniture. There is also a complete replica house to give people the chance to experience life in the village. Historic Environment Scotland also operates a visitor centre, shop, café and interactive exhibition at the site. Guided tours are available too – it’s a ‘must see’ during your visit to Orkney.
Next door to Skara Brae is Skaill House, the finest 17th Century mansion house in Orkney. It has been open to the public since 1997 and it’s a fascinating trip back in time, full of interesting artefacts collected by Lairds over hundreds of years. There is a joint entry ticket available with Skara Brae access during the summer months, and Skaill House now also offers a garden to explore, falconry displays and a well-stocked gift shop.
It’s impossible to visit Skara Brae without stepping onto the beautiful beach at the Bay of Skaill. This wide arch of sand is one of the most spectacular in Orkney, both during the summer months and in the face of westerly winter gale! It’s a great spot for beachcoming – read our blog about searching the area for interesting items found after a high tide.
You can walk south from the bay too where you’ll find the Hole o’Row, a natural arch that is engulfed in sea water during wild weather.
Yesnaby, south of the Bay of Skaill, is simply one of the most popular viewpoints in Orkney. The area’s cliffs and headlands offer fantastic sea views and it is a great place to visit in all kinds of weather. North from the car park you’ll find the Broch of Borwick, an ancient structure perched on the cliff edge. Head south and you’ll see the Brough of Bigging, a huge headland with superb views of the cliffs to the north and south, including a glimpse of the Old Man of Hoy if the conditions are right.
Further down the coast and you’ll see the sea-stack of Yesnaby Castle, a two-legged stack sitting in its own bay. It’s well worth taking the fifteen minute walk south from the car park.
Yesnaby isn’t all about the views though. Explore the surrounding land during the summer months to spot the rare Primula scotica. It’s also a hotspot for fossils too so remember to keep your eyes open. It’s a place that is worth more than one visit. One day you’ll experience calm weather and glowing sandstone cliffs as the sun sets into the sea. The next could bring crashing waves and sea foam flying over the headlands as bands of rain come and go. It’s a truly special place.
You might need something to warm you up after a trip to the edge of the islands. One place to head to is the Orkney Brewery in the small settlement of Quoyloo. Based in the former school, the Brewery is one of the most popular tourist attractions on the mainland and offers tours, delicious food, a great shop full of local goods and, of course, some of the fantastic beer.
Nearby the eagle-eyed visitor might spot the remains of two wartime airfields, at Twatt and Skeabrae. Some of the old military buildings still remain and it’s hoped tours of HMS Tern, the Twatt airfield, will be available in 2017. Aerial views of the area show the outlines of the runways at the sites, a reminder of Orkney’s wartime heritage.
If you’re en-route to Yesnaby or the Bay of Skaill, it’s well worth following the road round Voy for lovely views over the Stenness Loch. During the summer you’ll be able to see cows in the fields, birds on the blue loch and beautiful, rolling green farmland.
As you can tell, Sandwick is a very popular place for visitors. But it’s also a favoured destination for people looking for the best of what Orkney has to offer. It’s close to the village of Dounby, one of the largest settlements on the mainland. It includes a thriving school, community sports facilities and shops – including an excellent butchers, newly re-fitted Co-op, a pharmacy and a popular hotel, bar and restaurant. There are also two stops on the Orkney Craft Trail in the village as well as the post office and doctor’s surgery.
The parish is proud of its agricultural heritage which means there is still very much a rural feel to the area, but with Dounby and Stromness on the doorstep it really is connected to all the services you’d expect.
If you’d like to find out more about property available in Sandwick then take a look at our property listings for the latest updates from Orkney’s main estate agents.
For visitors there are some fantastic accommodation options – search for your ideal home from home with Visit Orkney.
Thank you for taking the time to read our latest newsletter – hopefully there has been something to inspire you to make a visit to Orkney, for a short trip or a more permanent stay.
In the meantime, it’s cheerio from Orkney, for now.