December 2019 Newsletter

Find out all about life in Orkney this month.

Hello and welcome to the December newsletter from – our final issue of 2019!

Christmas is just around the corner and there’s already a festive feel about the islands.

We’ll be taking a look at just some of the events planned over the coming weeks, as well as exploring another hidden Orkney attraction and picking out our favourite featured photographs of the year.

As always, we’d love to hear from you too - stay in touch on social media by following the links at the top of the page.

December's headlines

Visit the Ness of Brodgar in 2020

Don't miss the 2020 season at the Ness of Brodgar

The dig dates for the new excavation season at the Ness of Brodgar have been announced. Archaeologists will be picking up the trowels and tools at the sprawling site once again on July 6th 2020, with the project running until August 21st 2020. It’s the perfect chance to see thousands of years of history being uncovered in front of you. Daily guided tours will be on offer from July 8th until August 19th.

Explore the hidden corners of Stromness

Stone piers and the sea in Stromness - image by Fiona Annal

Stromness is a town is full of character, with winding stone streets and old piers to walk along, as well as plenty of history to soak in. It’s been the focus of our special travel itinerary recently too. Orkney Instagrammer, Fiona Annal, has always held Stromness close to her heart, so we asked her to share some of her favourite parts of the town – take a look at her beautiful photo-blog to experience it for yourself.

New Orkney Visitor Guide launched

The new Orkney Visitor Guide is out now

The 2020 Orkney Visitor Guide, featuring all the information needed to plan a trip to our islands, is available now. The guide covers everything Orkney has to offer, from our amazing archaeological sites to our extensive wartime history. It also focuses on the rich culture, nature, food, drink and crafts available across the islands. Copies can be viewed and ordered online, and picked up from Visitor Information Centres throughout Scotland.

Orkney firms make an impact in Glasgow

Some of the Orkney stands at Country Living's Christmas Fair in Glasgow

18 local food, drink and creative sector businesses showcased the finest products from the islands at a major festive event in Glasgow last month. The Orkney Food & Drink and Creative Orkney companies took centre stage at the Country Living Christmas Fair, with thousands of people visiting the four-day event. Local gin, oatcakes, cheese, jewellery and knitwear were just some of the incredible Orcadian products on offer, giving customers the perfect excuse to start their Christmas shopping early.

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

With just a few weeks until Christmas, the Orkney events calendar is already filling up fast. Expect shopping opportunities, exhibitions, music, pantos and much more.

The main event though is always on Christmas Day – and we don’t mean the opening of presents from Santa. The Kirkwall Ba’ game is back, and all eyes will be on the streets of the town as the Uppies and Doonies battle for the honours once again. The Ba’ is an ancient game that sees hundreds of men and boys compete to take a hand-crafted leather ball to their respective goals at either end of Kirkwall – the harbour for the Doonies and Mackinson’s Corner for the Uppies.

The Kirkwall Ba' game underway - image by Premysl Fojtu

The boy’s game begins at 10am in-front of St Magnus Cathedral, before the men’s version gets underway at 1pm. Both games can explode into life, with swirling scrums and fast breaks through the streets. There’s always a great atmosphere on the day too, but just remember to keep your distance and don’t get too close to the action! If you miss the Christmas Day fixtures then the sides meet on New Year’s Day to do it all again.

Not to be left out, Stromness has its own festive tradition which has been reintroduced with fantastic support from the local community. The Yule Log competition is back for its third year this Hogmanay, and will see the Northenders face off against the Soothenders in a huge tug of war through the streets of the town. Each side will try and pull a large log to their goal, claiming bragging rights for the year.

The Stromness Yule Log pull has become a popular addition to the festive calendar

The Junior Yule Log Pull will start at 2.30pm at the Pierhead, followed by the Senior version at 4pm. The afternoon will be rounded off with fireworks at 5pm. Head along to experience a real community event with a difference.

Back to the start of the month now and there is plenty of festive fun to be had across the islands. Annual Christmas Tree lighting ceremonies will be held in many of Orkney’s towns and villages. Find out where you can see local lights being switched on via the Orkney Islands Council website.

Christmas just doesn’t feel right without a good pantomime, and there are plenty of options available for you in Orkney this month. The Stromness Drama Club will present ‘Smut’s Saga, or Santa & the Vikings’ in the local town hall between the 5th and 7th. Tickets are available from JB Rosey in Stromness and Ortak on Albert Street in Kirkwall. The Hoy and Walls panto, ‘The Mysterious Matter of the Medieval Monks Manuscript’ is at the Gable End Theatre on the 6th and 7th, with a matinee performance on the 7th too, so folk from the mainland can see it. Book tickets by phoning 01856 791 312. The Orkney Children’s Theatre Club presents ‘Hansel and Greta Save the World’ in the Harray Hall on the 21st and 22nd – tickets are available at Baikie’s in Finstown and at the Herald Printshop in Kirkwall.

Finally, the Palace Players panto, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ runs between the 7th and 14th at the Orkney Theatre – tickets can be bought from AJB Scholes.

If you’re looking to do some serious Christmas shopping then Orkney is a fantastic place to pick up your presents. Check out the Creative Orkney and Orkney Food & Drink websites to explore some of the goods from our talented local producers. Kirkwall’s BID scheme has also launched a brand-new gift card, which could prove to be a brilliant stocking filler this Christmas. The electronic card can be spent in more than 80 businesses throughout Kirkwall, encouraging folk to shop local. Cards can be bought online and will be sent to you or your named recipient, along with a gift wallet with details on the value and the activation date.

The new Kirkwall Gift Card will be launched at the start of December

Meanwhile, the Kirkwall BID Festive Day Out takes place on the 1st between 12pm and 5pm, offering plenty of seasonal fun, discounts, tastings and much more. There’s also Festive Sunday Opening on the 15th of December too.

There’s always plenty of live music over Christmas. Things get underway early on the 7th with a return performance from the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. They’ll be taking to the stage in the Pickaquoy Centre to play new tracks and some old favourites too. Tickets can be bought online.

The Winter Choir and Orkney Camerata Christmas Concert is in St Magnus Cathedral on the 8th, with tickets available from Sheila Fleet’s, Kirkness & Gorie and the Pier Arts Centre.

St Magnus Cathedral will host the Winter Choir and Orkney Camerata concert this month

Later in the month, the Sound Archive in Kirkwall has two gigs planned, with Will Atkinson taking to the decks on the 27th, followed by the Stereo Lobsters on the 28th. Tickets can be bought from Grooves or online.

You can pay a visit to the Orkney Museum to see an exhibition of Baltic Bowls and Riga Cups, featuring a colourful Russian link in the 1800s. It’s on display until the 16th of February.

There’s also a number of Christmas exhibitions on offer across Orkney. The For Arts Sake Gallery in Kirkwall has its Festive Open Exhibition at the moment, and the Pier Arts Centre’s annual Open Exhibition features work by nearly 200 local artists and makers. It’s open until Christmas Eve.

The Exhibition Room at The Old Library in Kirkwall has its Christmas Collection of work by local artists on display until mid-January, and there’s also a Feast of Paintings and Craftwork at the Waterfront Gallery in Stromness until mid-February. Finally, you can see work by Sanday-based artist Bill McArthur in the Highland Park shop in Kirkwall until January.

Some of the work by Sanday artist Bill McArthur, on display in the Highland Park shop on Albert Street in Kirkwall

Remember to check the Pickaquoy Centre Cinema schedule in December – there’s the usual mix of silver screen fun along with a number of National Theatre and Royal Ballet performances planned too. There might even be a festive-themed film or two as well.

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 might be a cold month to be out and about, but Orkney’s wildlife is always worth watching, whatever the weather. Local wildlife photographer, Raymond Besant, has been sharing some of his seasonal highlights.

Geese feeding in Orkney’s fields is a commonplace sight now but I remember in the 1980’s rushing outside upon hearing the calls of greylags and pink-footed geese streaming overhead in their classical v-shaped flying formation. Even more exciting was the distinctive honking call of a flock of whooper swans newly arrived from Iceland and I love to see these birds to this day.

This species was once a common breeding bird in Orkney and occasionally the odd pair will still breed here. Its cousin the mute swan is a much more common sight these days but you still have a good chance of seeing this beautiful bird throughout the winter months.

Whooper swans in Orkney - image by Raymond Besant

Sightings can be a lucky coincidence as you drive around the Orkney mainland in particular as they like to feed in stubble fields and grass pasture fields, often close to the road. There’s just something ephemeral about them. Maybe it’s the fact they have flown such a long way to be here, or maybe just seeing something slightly more exotic in the shorter, darker days of December is enough to raise your spirits.

Whooper swans often travel and feed together in family flocks and you’re likely to see a greyer (and slightly pink!) looking version alongside the adults. This is this year’s young accompanying their parents. It’s possible to see mute swans in fields but it’s much more likely to be a flock of whoopers.

Luckily for us they are fairly trusting too, so if you park up next to a field where they are feeding and sit quietly for a while the chances are they will go about their business allowing you some fantastic views. You can however also find them on freshwater lochs. A good bet is Skaill Loch in Sandwick just before Skara Brae, where a small group can usually be found feeding towards the west side of the loch.

Whooper swans in an Orkney loch - image by Raymond Besant

I enjoy seeing them most feeding amongst the stubble fields and this could be almost anywhere in Orkney! Previous locations include Graemeshall, St Andrews, Skaill, Harray, Sanday and North Ronaldsay. Do keep a lookout amongst the mute swans on the Peedie Sea as the occasional whooper does appear here.

Another visitor from the north which is a real delight, and currently to be found in the gardens of Kirkwall and Stromness, is the waxwing. A beautiful little bird the size of a starling, it gets its name from the red waxy-looking bobs to be found on its wings. With a deep peach coloured head, a punk hair-do and black robbers mask, it really is a striking-looking bird.

They hail from Scandinavia and arrive here from across the North Sea in search of food. A good breeding season and a poor crop of berries mean they have to move further afield to find enough food. Generally, their giveaway is their trill call. As striking-looking as they are, a small flock of these birds sitting on the telegraph wires in poor light can easily be overlooked as starlings.

Unfortunately for the waxwings, they often arrive here once the berries have already been stripped off the trees by starlings, blackbirds and redwings. They do however readily come into gardens and will happily feed on Rosa Rugosa and cotoneaster berries. You can also do your best to attract them into your garden by splitting some apples into quarters and skewering them on branches or bamboo poles. There is no danger of frightening waxwings, they are very trusting. This however can lead to their untimely demise if you have cats in the garden!

Apples are perfect for attracting waxwings to your garden - image by Raymond Besant

One of the most frustrating aspects of birdwatching in Orkney is seeing what in the birding world is known as an LBJ, or a little brown job. Everyone has seen them! Be it flitting around in a bush in the garden or taking off from a fence post whilst out walking in the hills. One such bird that might fit this category is the twite, a small finch found throughout Orkney. They are a bird of open country, coastal fields and barbed wire and often found in small flocks where you can identify them by their metallic ‘twite’ call as they bounce away to the next field or fence post.

They can easily be confused with its cousin the linnet, but are generally more streaked and have a stubby little yellow beak. In fact, you may find flocks of mixed finches together – linnets, greenfinches and even snow buntings can be found noisily feeding in stubble fields. All this activity attracts attention though, and you may be lucky enough to see the sight of a hen harrier flushing a flock, or a peregrine or our tiny falcon, the merlin, dashing through at breakneck speed in pursuit of a meal.

Flock of twite in Orkney - image by Raymond Besant

Find out more about Raymond’s work via his official website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

His new book, 'Naturally Orkney Volume 2' is out now, focusing on Orkney's coastline and all the sights and species that can be found there. You can order your copy online.

Focus on photography

We’ve had some fantastic images from our featured photographers over the last eleven months, so we’ve picked our favourite shots of the year for you to enjoy once again.

What a superb selection of photos we’ve been able to share from our featured snappers in 2019. We’ve had shots of island life, wonderful wildlife imagery, stunning sunsets and much more over the last 11 months, as well as plenty of hints and tips about where and when to get out with your camera in Orkney.

Our February contributor, Maciek Orlicki, certainly put us in the mood for some summer weather with his image of Rackwick beach in Hoy. Maciek told us that he especially enjoyed landscape and nature photography, and just a glance at this shot shows that he certainly knows how to get the best of the Orkney scenery.

Hoy regularly features in the albums we receive from our photographers. The island is such a contrast to the rest of Orkney, with its high hills, rugged landscape and huge cliffs dropping dramatically to sea level. One location in particular, the Old Man of Hoy, always encourages people to get their cameras out, and Nick McCaffrey was no different when he tackled the trail on the west coast. This incredible drone shot was the result.

Many of our photographers talk about their love of wildlife, and the challenges faced when trying to capture certain species on camera. Graham Campbell was our March guest and he regularly spends the summer months collecting images of wild Orkney, from short-eared owls to orca. We loved this shot by Graham of puffins, which you can see at various locations here between April and July.

Our May blog was by Andras Farkas, who has amassed a beautiful collection of drone photography of Orkney. We instantly loved this shot, looking over the Stenness Loch to a wintry Hoy, which really showcases the different shapes and sizes of the Orkney landscape.

Take a look at our gallery below to see our favourite images from all our other talented photographers that have shared their shots over the last year.

Explore hidden Orkney

Every month we take a look at a special site or attraction in Orkney that might be slightly off the beaten track. For December, we’re heading upstairs in one of the most beautiful buildings in the islands.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call St Magnus Cathedral a hidden attraction, given it stands proudly in the centre of Kirkwall and is visible for miles around. But many visitors just spend time on terra firma, taking in the sights of this grand sandstone structure from ground level.

There is an alternative option, though. Every Thursday and Saturday, the cathedral custodian leads small groups on tours of the building’s upper levels. You’ll wind your way up spiral, stone staircases and through tight passageways, stopping off to see some incredible historical artefacts and to enjoy a different view of the ‘light of the north’.

Some of the old cathedral artefacts on display in the upper levels

Items including old cathedral plans, windows, furniture and even Kirkwall’s hangman’s ladder are on display on the first floor, and you’ll also get the chance to see the cathedral clock mechanism. The huge bells that ring out across the town are a highlight of the trip upstairs too – as long as your tour is timed to avoid the top of the hour!

The St Magnus Cathedral bells

Best of all, though, is the view you’ll get from the base of the cathedral spire. With unobstructed views of the centre of Kirkwall, Kirkwall bay and out over Scapa Flow, you could spend hours soaking it all in before heading back through the maze-like network of passageways to the ground floor.

A tour of the upper levels is definitely the best way to get the most out of your visit to this stunning building. Make sure you book in advance, especially during the summer months, as tours are very popular. Read our blog and watch our video to find out more.

See more of our hidden Orkney attractions via our interactive 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, and your Orkney experiences with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or E-mail.

In the meantime, we hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and we’ll see you in 2020.

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

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up to receive our newsletter and get the latest updates from our beautiful, vibrant islands.
Sign Up Now