Explore wild landscapes and a culture with hints of Scandinavian influence.
At the outer limits of the British Isles, Orkney and Shetland are made up of around 170 islands – roughly 35 of them inhabited.
Catch the train to begin your adventure: either head for Aberdeen, or take the scenic Far North Line to Thurso. From there, you can catch ferries to the islands, north of mainland Scotland.
Both island groups share a rugged beauty and natural landscapes; they’re a place of charming towns, villages, and long, empty sandy beaches. They’re both steeped in history too. Skara Brae on the Orkney mainland is older than the pyramids; Shetland’s well-preserved archaeological sites and ruins date back to Neolithic times.
And for those interested in flora and fauna, the natural landscape is the star of those show. The islands are home to many species of seabird, and are one of only a few places where you’ll find the rare Scottish Primrose.
Getting to the ferry terminals by train
Take the train to Aberdeen for the ferry to Kirkwall (Orkney) and Lerwick (Shetland), and to Thurso for the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness (Orkney)
- Edinburgh to Aberdeen – approx 2 hours 35 minutes
- Edinburgh to Thurso – approx 8 hours 20 minutes
- Glasgow to Aberdeen – approx 2 hours 30 minutes
- Glasgow to Thurso – approx 7 hours 40 minutes
A trip to Orkney
You can catch the boat to Orkney from Aberdeen or Thurso.
The train journey to Aberdeen from Glasgow or Edinburgh takes you up Scotland’s east coast where you’ll cross the famous Tay bridge and enjoy some great views towards the North Sea. The sea journey from Aberdeen to Kirkwall takes around four hours.
The train journey to Thurso takes you through Perthshire and the highlands, along the scenic Far North Line. From Thurso, it's a five-minute taxi journey to the ferry terminal at Scrabster (book your taxi in advance – they get busy), where the ferry sails to Stromness in Orkney.
You could start your exploration of Orkney at Kirkwall, the ancient capital and largest town on the ‘mainland’. The town has a distinctly Scandinavian feel about it; the narrow streets and pathways will remind you of a medieval time, while the magnificent Viking cathedral of St Magnus keeps a watchful eye over the town.
If you arrive at Stromness you’ll spot the houses along the shore with their own piers. You can discover the narrow streets and passageways and pop in on the internationally renowned Pier Arts Centre, as well as a range of commercial art and crafts galleries.
No trip to Orkney would be complete without a visit to Skara Brae. This stone built Neolithic settlement is just seven miles north of Stromness making it an easy journey by car or by bike. At around five thousand years old, it’s Europe’s most complete Neolithic village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A trip to Shetland
You’ll need to travel to Aberdeen to catch the boat to the Shetland capital of Lerwick. The sail takes over 12 hours – longer for boats that stop at Orkney on route. When you arrive, you’ll see the strong Scandi influence in the names of many of the streets, and in the accents of the locals.
Shetland’s coastline and dramatic interiors match that of Orkney and are among the most unique you’ll come across. Its ruggedness, seclusion and numerous sea lochs makes it an ideal habitat for wildlife.
Like Orkney, Shetland’s history stretches back well before its colonisation by the Norsemen. The Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick traces the history of the islands. And you can still see some of it first-hand – including the prehistoric settlement at Sumburgh and the finest example of an iron age broch (a round tower) on the small island of Mousa. If you can make it all the way to Unst, you’ll be standing on the most northerly inhabited island in the UK.
If you visit Shetland at the end of January, do your best to catch the spectacular Up Helly Ah festival. Celebrating the islands’ Viking history, it seems like the whole Shetland population is involved and culminates in a torch lit procession and burning of a Viking longship.
Find out more
Ways to save...
- Spirit of Scotland travel pass : 1-2 weeks of train, ferry and coach travel covering the whole country
- Rail & Sail : combine train and ferry travel into one ticket for more convenience and better value
- Kids for a Quid: for every paying adult, up to four children aged 5-15 can travel for £1 each
- Railcards : see if you could save with a national or regional Railcard