• Snowy scene in Kirkwall, Orkney

December 2018 Newsletter

Find out all about life in Orkney this month.

Hello and welcome to the December newsletter from Orkney.com - our last issue of the year!

As always, we’ll be bringing you our usual features and photos, all focused on life here in the islands. You can read about our exciting festive events calendar, explore another uncovered Orkney attraction and see some of the best images from our 2018 featured photographers.

Remember, you can always find out more about Orkney and keep in touch on social media too – just click on the links at the top of this page and give us follow.

December's headlines

New Orkney visitor guide is out now

Destination Orkney Chief Executive, Kate Lewington, with the new 2019 Orkney Visitor Guide

If you’re starting to plan your 2019 holiday then you can get all the island inspiration you need from our new Orkney Visitor Guide. It covers everything – from our ancient sites, to nature, food, drink and craft attractions. It also features advice from experts and extensive accommodation listings. You can view the guide online now and order a copy to keep from Thursday 6th December. They can also be picked up from Visitor Information Centres throughout Scotland.

New campus showcases Orkney’s islands of innovation

A multi-million-pound project to create a new home for Orkney's wide range of energy expertise is beginning to take shape in Stromness. The Orkney Research and Innovation Campus is currently being created in the town, thanks to £6.5 million of funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Orkney Islands Council. It’s hoped the project will enhance Orkney’s reputation as a research venue of global significance and attract more people from around the world to come and study and live here. Watch our video to find out more.

Ness of Brodgar dig dates announced

Aerial view of the Ness of Brodgar excavations

The official dates for the 2019 excavations at the incredible Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig have been confirmed. If funding can be fully secured, archaeologists will be back at the sprawling site between Monday, July 1 and Friday, August 23. The Ness is a fascinating place to visit - you can watch experts uncover thousands of years of Orcadian history at the complex, all set in the middle of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an archaeological experience like no other!

Explore Orkney’s Christmas larder

Christmas Carol coffee from The Orkney Roastery, part of Orkney Food & Drink's Christmas larder!

Orkney’s fantastic food and drink producers have been busy planning for Christmas with the launch of some seasonal goodies. Our three gin distilleries have all launched new gins, there's a new rum from VS Distillers, and the Orkney Roastery has its Christmas Carol coffee back on the shelves this month too. The Island Smokery has a special product for your festive cheeseboard as well. Add in chutneys, chocolates, whisky, beer and everything in-between and you can easily cater for Christmas, thanks to Orkney Food and Drink! Find out more via the official website.

Join us on Instagram

Follow Visit Orkney on Instagram to see some beautiful images of the islands. We publish shots from around Orkney every week and you can join in too. Tag your own images so we can share your Orkney journey. Use #VisitOrkney and #LoveOrkney to keep in touch.

December in Orkney

The build-up to Christmas in Orkney is one full of festive fun, with tree-lighting ceremonies, concerts and fantastic shopping opportunities on offer.


For many local residents, though, the weeks leading up to the 25th of December are dominated by one thing, and it isn’t a visit from Santa! The Kirkwall Ba’ returns for the annual battle through the streets of this old town. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day see hundreds of men and boys, separated into the ‘Uppies’ and ‘Doonies’, take part in the traditional street football games. The aim is to carry a hand-crafted leather ball to their respective goals at either end of the town.

The Kirkwall Ba' game in full flow


This ancient game really is a sight to behold. The action is fast and frantic, with a swirling scrum and regular breaks both up and down the street. Being there is the only way to really experience the atmosphere, but always keep a safe distance and don’t get too close to the main action. Both days start at 10am on Broad Street with the boy’s game, then the men follow at 1pm. Don’t miss this unique and special event!

Stromness also has a fantastic festive tradition which was brought back to life last year. The Yule Log will once again be played out on the flagstone streets of the town. Teams of ‘Northenders’ and ‘Soothenders’ will be pitched against each other with the aim of dragging a huge log to their goals in the town centre. The game was a highlight of the Stromness festive calendar until 1937 before being revived in 2017.

The Stromness Yule Log is one of the most unique events to be found in the islands


This year will see the introduction of a junior Yule Log for the first time as part of Scotland’s Year of Young People. It will begin at 2.30pm on Hogmanay, with the main competition set to start at 4pm. There will also be musical entertainment at the pierhead throughout and a fireworks display at the end, bringing something special to Stromness at the end of the year.

Back to the start of the month now, and you can get that festive feeling early with tree lighting ceremonies across Orkney on the 1st. The Kirkwall event sees the traditional St Lucy procession at St Magnus Cathedral. The doors open at 4.45pm, with the Kirkwall City Pipe Band parading on Broad Street from 5.15pm, and the tree lighting following at 5.30pm.

St Magnus Cathedral at Christmas


Elsewhere, there will be tree lighting ceremonies in Sanday and Westray too. December 2nd brings the traditional tree lighting concert at St Magnus Cathedral, featuring the Mayfield Singers & musicians from Norway. It starts at 8pm.

Now, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a good panto, and there are plenty of options in Orkney. On December 1st, the Stromness Drama Club has ‘Treasure Island’, a pop-up panto, in the Town Hall from 7.30pm. December 4th sees the launch of the Kirkwall Arts Club panto, ‘Rapunzel’, in the Orkney Theatre at 7.30pm. It’s on between the 4th and 8th and tickets can be bought at The Reel in Kirkwall. The Birsay Drama Group’s pantomime, ‘Snow White & The Magnificent Seven’ will be held in the Birsay Hall on the 4th, too. Tickets can be bought at Palace Stores.

Orkney is a fantastic place to pick up some perfect presents for Christmas. Kirkwall BID’s Festive Day Out is on December 2nd, featuring promotions, tastings, beauty treatments and treats throughout the town’s shops between 12pm and 5pm. There’s also a Christmas Bazaar in the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret’s Hope on the 2nd between 11am and 4pm.

Orkney is a fantastic place to buy quality Christmas gifts


Music is a big part of the Orkney events calendar at this time of year. There are concerts and gigs galore to enjoy. There’s an afternoon of Christmas music in the St Nicholas Kirk in Holm, accompanied by warm Christmas punch, from 2.30pm on December 2nd. Then, on December 9th, take in a Christmas concert at the Orphir church between 7pm and 9pm.

Orkney Camerata’s winter choir will be performing in St Magnus Cathedral on the 9th from 7.30pm, too. Tickets can be bought at Sheila Fleet Jewellery, Kirkness & Gorie and the Pier Arts Centre. Then, if you’re still looking for some festive fun post-Christmas, the Sound Archive at the Old Library in Kirkwall has a series of fantastic gigs planned. Find out more via the official Facebook page. The Birsay Hall also hosts its annual Festive Fling on December 29th with live music by Wayward from 9.30pm. Tickets will be on sale at the hall on the 1st between 2pm and 3pm.

There are still plenty of chances to get out and about during December. On the 2nd, join Orkney Field Club members for a walk around the RSPB Brodgar reserve, where you will get the chance to see large flocks of wintering wildfowl. Meet at the Ring of Brodgar car park at 1pm. Then, on December 8th, join the RSPB at the Cottascarth reserve in Rendall to learn how to make festive treats for the birds in your garden. It’s on between 10am and 2pm. The Orkney Field Club will also be hosting a walk at the Orkneyinga Saga Centre in Orphir on the 16th from 11am.

The Ring of Brodgar in winter


You can take advantage of free guided walks at the Standing Stones of Stenness every Wednesday (not December 26th) at 10am, and at the Ring of Brodgar on Thursdays (not December 27th) at 1pm. Tours of the upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral are also available on Thursdays and Saturdays at 11am and 2pm – phone 01856 874 894 to book.

If the winter weather is wild then you can always retreat indoors. There are some fantastic exhibitions on across the islands this month. The Pier Arts Centre has its annual Open Exhibition, featuring work by local artists and makers, until December 22nd. The town’s Northlight Gallery has ‘Woman’s Suffrage: A Work in Progress’ until the 6th, and the Waterfront Gallery hosts ‘Feast’, by local and guest artists, until mid-February.

The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness


Catch ‘Six of the Best’, featuring work by artists including Diana Leslie and Carry Welling, at the Loft Gallery in St Margaret’s Hope until the 18th, and ‘The Art of The Ba’ at the Old Library in Kirkwall until the 5th of January.

History-fans can visit the Orkney Museum between December 8th and February 2nd to see ‘Vanishing Point – Paintings by Jeanne B Rose’, with work inspired by the Ness of Brodgar’s artist-in-residence scheme. Meanwhile, the Stromness Museum has its ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘From the Trowel’s Edge’ exhibitions until March 31st.

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 our 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.

Wild Orkney

December can be a tough month for wildlife watching in Orkney! But, there are still some places that are perfect for experiencing wild Orkney in terms of wildlife, and sheltering from wild Orkney in terms of weather!


Kirkwall’s Peedie Sea is a great example of getting the best of both worlds. You can see some beautiful birds at this old boating pond, but you’re also just a short walk from Kirkwall’s town centre and a hot drink, or something stronger!

Kirkwall's Peedie Sea is a great place to watch birdlife


A wander around the Peedie Sea can bring plenty of wildlife delights. At this time of year, you might see mallards, mute swans, tufted ducks, goldeneyes, wigeons – you name it! Keep your eyes open for some stunning long-tailed ducks too, which will be back in Orkney after a summer on northern tundras.

They’re on the red list of threatened species, so getting the chance to see them in the centre of Kirkwall is really special.

Long-tailed duck - image by Derren Fox


Elsewhere in Orkney, we’d definitely recommend taking a trip to one of the RSPB hides across the islands. The Eddie Balfour hide at Cottiscarth in Rendall is one of the very best, with views out across the moorland. It’s a prime spot to see hen-harriers on their way to roost, and ravens displaying in late winter.

The fantastic Eddie Balfour hide at RSPB Cottascarth


Another brilliant hide to head to is at the Loons and Loch of Banks reserve in Orkney’s west mainland. Tucked away overlooking a large wetland area, you could see flocks of Greenland white-fronted geese, or perhaps a water rail in the reedbeds.

Of course, if you want to brave the December weather, then there are plenty of wildlife opportunities throughout the islands, including seal pup-watching. Just remember to wrap up warm!

Focus on photography

We’ve had some fantastic images from our featured photographers over the past year, showcasing Orkney through the eyes of our talented residents. We’ve picked some of our favourites to enjoy once again.


Our featured photographers in 2018 have come from across the islands, all with different ideas and inspirations. We’ve had images of island life from Eday, coastal scenes in South Ronaldsay and wonderful wildlife shots too. They’ve also shared some of their favourite photography haunts and advice over the months.

As you can imagine, Orkney’s stunning coastal scenery regularly makes an appearance in our features. James Grieve was our November photographer and we loved his shot of a snowy Scapa Flow.

Our ancient sites are amongst the most photographed locations, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see more of them! Martin Lever has spent a lot of time focusing on places like the Ring of Brodgar, and he included this excellent shot in his September album.

Sunsets and sunrises are really beautiful times to be out and about with a camera in Orkney. Our relatively flat landscape offers the opportunity for big skies and lots of lovely light. Graham Duffin took advantage of these conditions when we featured him in May, with this dramatic shot at the Bay of Skaill.

If there is one species of wildlife that always seems happy to pose for a photo, then it’s Orkney’s puffin population. These colourful characters don’t bat an eyelid at a camera – as Nicolle Windwick experienced when she took this photo, part of her April blog.

We’ve also picked a favourite shot from all our other featured photographers over the last year - take a look at their work in our gallery below.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our photographic journeys in 2018. We’ll be bringing you more in the New Year.

Explore uncovered Orkney

Every month we try to highlight an Orkney attraction that might pass you by when you’re visiting the islands. To round things off for the year, we’re focusing on a special little spot, right in the heart of Kirkwall, a stone’s throw from St Magnus Cathedral.


Tankerness House Gardens, behind what is now the Orkney Museum, is a green haven in the centre of this old Viking town. And, at the bottom of the beautiful garden, is the ‘Groatie Hoose’, one of the most unique buildings you’ll see anywhere in the islands.

The Groatie Hoose in Tankerness House Gardens


It has a quite incredible history. It was originally constructed as a summer house for former Provost of Kirkwall, James Traill. It was built using volcanic stones salvaged from the ballast of infamous pirate John Gow’s ship, ‘Revenge’. Gow, known as ‘the Orkney pirate’, was captured in the islands in 1725 before being hung in London in 1729.

The summer house made from his ship’s ballast sat in the grounds of Traill’s house on Kirkwall’s Bridge Street for centuries, surviving his death, renovations, building works and, eventually, a huge fire in the late 1930s.

Originally a summer house, it was built using volcanic stones from the ballast of pirate ship 'Revenge'


Then, in 2005, the building – known locally as the ‘Groatie Hoose’ because of its spire decorated with cowrie shells, or ‘groatie buckies’ in Orcadian dialect – was moved piece by piece to its current home in Tankerness House Gardens.

Groatie buckies, or cowrie shells, were used to decorate the spire


So, next time you visit the gardens on a bright, summers day, make sure you pay a visit to the Groatie Hoose – a beautiful building with a brilliant and fascinating story behind it.

Explore our other Orkney locations with our special map.

And finally...

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.

We’re always keen to hear from you too - share your news, views and comments on the newsletter, Orkney.com and your Orkney experiences with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or E-mail.

We hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020

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