• Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Five things to do this winter

The islands certainly don't shut down for the season - there is always plenty to do over the festive period and into the New Year.

Orkney is a special place during the winter months.

Visitors can have many of our most famous sites to themselves and the sometimes wild weather can really invigorate the senses. And although the days may be shorter, that just means you have less time to pack everything in!

Here are our five of our favourite things to do in Orkney during winter.

Orkney comes alive over Christmas. With beautiful trees and lights in villages across the islands, there is no escaping the festive spirit. Local musicians take centre stage during the holidays, with fiddles, accordions, guitars and drums all helping fill various venues throughout Orkney. Keep your eye on our events page for more details, and remember to check The Orcadian, Orkney's weekly newspaper, for up-to-date information.

However, there won’t be much Christmas spirit on display during the traditional Kirkwall Ba’ games this year. Hundreds of men and boys, forming teams of Uppies and Doonies, will compete to try and force a beautiful, hand-crafted leather ball to their goals at opposite ends of the town. It’s an historic game and certainly one for spectators to enjoy – seeing the scrum form in-front of St Magnus Cathedral in the heart of the town is a spectacular sight.

The games are played on Christmas Day and New Year's Day (unless they fall on a Sunday, in which case they're played the following day) with the boy's game beginning at 10am and the men’s version starting at 1pm. Both can last for hours so remember to wrap up warm, bring a bottle, and don’t get too close to the action!

Stromness also hosts its own festive tradition with the revived Yule Log event. It sees teams of Northenders and Soothenders battle in a huge tug-o-war to drag a large log to their respective ends of the town. It's traditionally held during the afternoon on the last day of the year.

Orkney always offers a warm welcome to visitors, and that's certainly the case over the coming months for some very special species making the islands their home.

We host a wide variety of migrating and wintering birds, especially ducks and divers. You can spot long-tailed ducks here after their summer in the Arctic. Listen out for the haunting 'calloo' cries at the Peedie Sea in Kirkwall or at Echnaloch Bay in Burray.

Orkney is also the seasonal home to nearly a thousand great northern divers - a quarter of British wintering population - and Slavonian grebes. They're both designated as threatened species globally, so the chance to see both in such quantities in Orkney is a real unique opportunity. Scapa Flow at Hobbister and Echnaloch Bay are the perfect places to see them.

Keep your eye out for curlews, golden plovers, sanderlings, turnstones, redshanks and much more too - Orkney really is a birdwatching paradise all year round.

Winter in Orkney brings short days and long, dark nights - perfect conditions for catching a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, or the 'Merry Dancers' as they're known locally.

When conditions are right and skies are clear, Orkney's northerly location and low levels of light pollution make it a prime place to spot the phenomenon. It's caused by solar wind from the sun colliding with magnetic particles in the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in displays of colour in the northern sky. You might not see a Lapland-esque show, but it can still be a stunning sight.

Orkney's beaches, coastline and countryside provide excellent spots to watch the Northern Lights. The Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook keeps folk up to date with sightings and photos so you won't miss a thing, and you can use Aurorawatch too. Check out our guide to seeing the Merry Dancers in Orkney.

A little bit of wintry weather isn't enough to stop our island communities from welcoming visitors over the coming months. Where better to clear the head and relax than one of our beautiful islands, with deserted beaches, peaceful landscapes and friendly residents.

Papa Westray and neighbouring Westray have excellent historical sites and plenty of high quality accommodation options for a post-festive break.

You can explore the tallest land-based lighthouse in the UK in North Ronaldsay, or be refreshed with a stroll on the beautiful beaches of Sanday, Stronsay and Eday. If you prefer a shorter trip, the inner isles of Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre and Shapinsay offer archaeological treasures, walks and wildlife. And don't forget Hoy and Flotta, with their rich wartime heritage sites and some of Orkney's most stunning landscapes.

Find out how you can explore Orkney's islands this winter.

If you're planning to visit over the winter months, expect open doors and plenty of interesting sites to see. Things certainly don't come to a stop in Orkney.

Our Historic Scotland sites showcase thousands of years of Orcadian history - why not experience some of them with a free tour from the Ranger Service? If you'd rather be inside then you can explore the upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral or, if food and drink is your thing, take a look at some of the destinations you can visit on the Taste of Orkney Trail.

You can also experience Orkney's wartime heritage with a guided tour of Ness Battery in Stromness. And if you want to see our talented makers in action, the Creative Orkney Trail will take you on your very own tour of our islands, with plenty of shopping opportunities throughout.

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