The best of Orkney in a day from Inverness

This trip is in principle available any day of the year as a private trip except
25/26 December and 1/2 January.
Please note - this is
not a scheduled tour. For details of
scheduled tours from Inverness to Orkney run by John o'Groats Ferries please
click here.

This is the only day-trip from Inverness to Orkney which visits the top prehistoric sites - Skara Brae; the rings of Brodgar & Stenness; and Maeshowe - and which gives you sufficient time at each of these antiquities. You will also see a number of important features relating to the World Wars, and have a short time in Kirkwall, Orkney's capital.
For our crossings to Orkney we use MV Pentalina (Pentland Ferries). During the crossings we see a wide variety of wildlife; often seals are seen before we leave mainland Scotland and seabirds are seen on all trips. Click here for a map showing the relationship of Inverness to Orkney.

0600 hrs We meet you at your accommodation in Inverness. Drive north by the coast road to Gills Bay (near John o'Groats), with a breakfast/comfort stop. On our way we pass cliff-top castles, wild moorland scenery and a variety of prehistoric sites usually including the broch of Càrn Liath.
0930: Depart Gills Bay for the scenic 1-hour crossing, taking us under Stroma, Swona and the great gun emplacements which guarded Hoxa Sound during the Second World War.

Day Trips Orkney, North of Scotland Overnight Tours, Private Guided Tours - Go-Orkney, Puffin Express
Swona, where the Pentland Firth meets Scapa Flow. This island, which rarely experiences frost, is at the same latitude as frigid Churchill on Hudson's Bay, haunt of the ice-bear! Swona is now uninhabited, except by seabirds and its famous herd of feral cattle.
Dunnet Head, most northerly point of the Scottish Mainland, can be seen in the background to the right of the cottage.

1115: Arrive at St Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldsay, most southerly of the inhabited islands of Orkney. Drive north over the Churchill Barriers, soon arriving at:
  • Kirkwall, the county town of Orkney. Our time here is limited and depends on how punctually we've arrived in Orkney. Usually we have 15-30 minutes, time to visit Saint Magnus Cathedral and view the exteriors of the Earl's & Bishop's Palaces.
  • We now drive to West Mainland, to Skara Brae, best-preserved stone-age village in Europe. We have about 1½ hours here; you may spend some of your time in nearby Skaill House, with its account of the discovery of Skara Brae. (NB: while Skara Brae is open all year, Skaill House is usually closed autumn to spring.) This is also our lunch stop.
  • A fifteen minute drive brings us to the Rings of Brodgar (see photos below) and Stenness - we spend up to 45 minutes at these two great circles.
    Prehistoric Tours in the Highlands of Scotland Prehistoric Tours in the Highlands of Scotland
    Left, a general view of part of the Ring of Brodgar, with the Loch of Harray in the background; right, a stone struck by lightning in the 1980s, with the flake split off lying beside the stone

  • Maeshowe - widely considered to be one of the finest passage graves in the British Isles - is just a few minutes' drive from the Stones of Stenness. However, visits there have become complicated since the closure, in late 2016, of the car park at the former visitor centre at Tormiston Mill.
    In April this year (2017) a temporary visitor centre was opened at Stenness, a mile to the west of the footpath to Maeshowe. I have not found that site particularly helpful and, until I actually do a tour with the new system, am not sure exactly how much time it may take.
    I can assure prospective clients that we can definitely arrange a visit to Maeshowe for them if this is an absolute priority; however, it may mean spending less time at Skara Brae or the rings of Brodgar/Stenness. (No time restriction on Saturdays in May and June, and all days in July and August, when the ferry timetable allows us an extra hour in Orkney.)
    If Maeshowe is not an absolute priority, we could visit the nearby Unstan Cairn; or the Broch of Gurness in the north of Mainland.
    Prehistoric Tours in the Highlands of Scotland
    The view on 27 March 2017 over the Broch of Gurness towards Eynhallow and Rousay

    Prehistoric Orkney Trips Maeshowe from the air. Beyond, the lochs of Harray and Stenness; the Ring of Brodgar is between these lochs, on a brown knoll almost directly 'above' the mound of Maeshowe. This is the Neolithic heartland of Orkney and only GO-ORKNEY takes you to Maeshowe on a day tour from Inverness.

    Click above for a detailed picture of Viking 'twig' runes inside the tomb

    Pictures by Richard Welsby

    We drive east to Kirkwall, where we may have a little more time; then we return to the ferry terminal at Saint Margaret's Hope for departure just before 5pm (1650 hrs)*.
    2100-2115hrs: Return to Inverness, passing the stone 'circle' - actually more a horseshoe - of Achavanich. en route, and drop you at your accommodation.
    *On Saturdays in May and June and every day in July and August the return ferry leaves Saint Margarets Hope at 1800 hrs, giving you a whole extra hour in Orkney - click here for more information.

    The above is our suggested itinerary. However, since this is a private tour you may of course select whichever features of Orkney you wish, which fit within the time available.

    Available Dates
    This tour is available in principle any day of the year except 25/26 December and 1/2 January. Send us the date(s) you wish and we'll let you know if they're available. We put up the available dates for each month towards the end of the month before.
    No available dates left in May. Dates for June will be put up before the end of this month (May); or send us a request.

    Eating/Meal arrangements
    Assuming we have made normal progress, we stop about 0820 hrs at a supermarket in Wick. At the cafeteria you can get hot or cold breakfast and drinks. There are toilets, and you can also buy picnic and snack food.
    Lunch: Some accommodations in Inverness can be quite insistent about leaving cold food out for your breakfast. At 0530 in the morning, even I don't usually have much of an appetite! If your accommodation is on a "bed & breakfast" basis you may be able to negotiate a packed lunch in lieu of breakfast. Otherwise, as noted above, you can get picnic food at our stop in Wick, or you can lunch in the café at Skara Brae.
    Snack food is also available on the ferry on the northward crossing (c. 0945-1100 hrs), bacon rolls and such like. Snack food and (usually) soup are available on the return south crossing. (No food is included in the tour price.)

    Cost. Another page gives prices, how to book, and how to contact us. Prices given include all surface transport, by vehicle and ferry, from Inverness to Orkney and back, and within Orkney, and including ferry fares; and guidance. No food or admission charges are included.
    Both Skara Brae and Maeshowe are in the care of Historic Scotland; at that site you will also find details of concessionary schemes such as the Explorer Passes. We also give you detailed notes on the trip, and guide books on the major monuments and other aspects of Orkney are available for you to read on the journey north, or on the ferry.

    Our long experience of Orkney means that, as far as possible, we arrive at the principal sites when there are few other visitors. We can't always promise this; when there's a cruise ship in, even we may meet up with them. (Click here for cruise ship dates in Orkney.) The photos below tell their own story:

    Day Trips Orkney, North of Scotland Overnight Tours, Private Guided Tours - Go-Orkney, Puffin Express Day Trips to Orkney, North of Scotland Overnight Tours and Private Guided Tours from Go-Orkney and Puffin Express
    The left picture is how the bus park at Skara Brae often looks when we arrive - just one little coach! The right picture shows it as we're leaving - we're nearly always ahead of the crowd!
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