Everything west of Kirkwall is known as West Mainland, an area of rich farmland, rolling hills and moorland, fringed by spectacular cliffs along the Atlantic coastline and with the greatest concentration of pre-historic monuments in Britain.
Here you'll find, amongst many others, the well-preserved Neolithic village of Skara Brae, silent monuments to human endeavour in the form of the standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, and the chambered tomb of Maes Howe, with its many still unresolved mysteries. The sights below are listed in an anti-clockwise direction starting from Kirkwall. Phone code: +44 (0)1856
Local Sights & Activities for West MainlandSightseeing
At the far northwestern corner of the Mainland is the parish of Birsay, which was a favourite residence of the Earls of Orkney in Viking times as well as the first seat of the Bishop, before the building of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Earl Thorfinn the Mighty lived here (1014-64) and built Orkney's first cathedral, Christchurch, for the new Bishop.
In the centre of the village are the ruins of the Earl's Palace, built by the infamous Earl Robert Stewart in the late 16th century, and once described as "a sumptuous and stately dwelling". Not much remains today, but enough to give some idea of the sheer scale of the place. Info - Open at all times. Free.Tel. 01856-721205. Close by is St Magnus church, built in 1760 on the site of an earlier church, which in turn was built on the foundations of what is believed to be the original Christchurch. Also in Birsay, just south of the A966 and A967 junction, is Barony Mills, the last working water-powered mill in Orkney. Info - Apr-Sep daily 1000-1300 and 1400-1700. Adult £1.50.
Lying half a mile off the coast near the village is the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island jutting out into the north Atlantic and visible from several other points all the way down the west cost of the mainland. It is only accessible for a couple of hours at low tide (times available from Kirkwall and Stromness tourist offices) but, if possible, it is best seen at the end of the day, as the sun sets - and you'll probably have the whole island to yourself. Pick your way over the shell- and bladderack-strewn causeway and wander at your leisure (but don't forget the tide!) amongst the remnants of a Pictish, and then Viking, community. The island was an important Pictish settlement from around the sixth century, and many artefacts have been found here. Some of these can be seen at the small ticket office at the entrance to the island. The Brough was also the site of an important Viking settlement, and there are extensive remains, including the 12th-century St Peter's church where St Magnus was buried after his murder on Egilsay. You can also walk out to the island's lighthouse along the top of the cliffs and see puffins (amongst other migrating seabirds) and possibly Minke whales, Pilot whales and Killer whales. Info - The tidal island is now managed by Historic Scotland. Open (when tides permit) 11 Jun-30 Sep daily 0930-1830. Adult £1.50, concession £1.10, children £0.50. Phone the Earl's Palace (see above).
At the southern end of Birsay Bay are the wild and spectacular 300 ft-high cliffs of Marwick Head, topped by the distinctive Kitchener Memorial, erected after the First World War to commemorate Lord Kitchener and the crew of the HMS Hampshire, which was sunk by a German mine off the coast in 1916 with the loss of all but 12 of her crew. Marwick Head is also an RSPB Reserve, and during the nesting season in early summer is home to many thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as a few puffins.
A mile inland, by the Loch of Isibister, is another RSPB reserve, The Loons, an area of marshland where you can see breeding and migrating wildfowl and waders. Further east, between Boarhouse Loch and Hundland Loch, is the Kirbuster Farm Museum, the last surviving Orkney 'black house' which was inhabited till the 1960s and gives an insight into 19th-century rural life on the islands. Info - Mar-Oct Mon-Sat 1030-1300 and 1400-1700, Sun 1400-1900. Free.
Skara Brae & Skaill House
South of Birsay, eight miles north of Stromness, in the magnificent setting of the dazzling white sands of the Bay of Skaill, is Skara Brae, the best-preserved Stone-Age village in northern Europe. First revealed in 1850 after a violent storm blew away the dunes, the site dates from around 5,000 years ago and was occupied for about 600 years.
The houses contain stone furniture, fireplaces, drains, beds, dressers and even have damp-proof coursing in the foundations. The whole complex presents a unique picture of the lifestyle of its inhabitants, and there's also a replica 'house' that you can enter, and wander around in through the gloom, empathizing with that 3000 BC lifestyle. The swish, modern visitor centre has a useful introductory video and exhibition which is definitely worth seeing before you look round the site (and it's also worth buying their guidebook). After leaving the visitor centre, you walk down a 'path of time', which takes you back through landmark achievements of the last seven millennia, gradually building up the suspense and putting the achievements of Skara Brae in perspective - they may only be rudimentary buildings that once had turf for their rooves, but they were built 2000 years before the pyramids of Egypt, and in one of the world's most northerly outposts.
During the summer a ticket to Skara Brae includes admission to nearby Skaill House, an early 17th-century mansion which contains a few old artefacts, including Captain Cook's dinner service from the Resolution, but is a bit of a let-down after what you will have just witnessed, not 300 yards away at Skara Brae.
Info - Apr-Sep daily 0930-1830. £4.50, concession £3.30, children £1.30. Oct-Mar (Skara Brae only) Mon-Sat 0930-1630 and Sun 1400-1630. Adult £3.50, concession £2.60, children £1.20. Joint ticket for all Orkney Historic Scotland monuments also available. Tel. 841815.
A short distance inland from here, at Sandwick, is Orkney's only brewery, housed in the old Quoyloo School. It brews the island's Raven Ale and various bottled beers, including Skull-splitter, named after the Viking Earl, Thorfinn Skull-splitter. South of the Bay of Skaill is Yesnaby, one of the most spectacular places on the islands, where the cliffs have been eroded into a series of stacks and geos by the fierce Atlantic seas. An exhilarating, and precarious, half-mile walk south from the car park and old Second World War lookout post brings you to Yesnaby Castle, a huge sea stack similar to the Old Man of Hoy. It's a dramatic sight, especially in a full force gale. Sleeping
Standing Stones of Stenness & Ring of Brodgar
Northeast of Stromness on the road to Kirkwall is the tiny village of Stenness, near some of Orkney's most interesting prehistoric sites. The Standing Stones of Stenness comprise the four remaining stones from an original circle of 12 stones, dating from 3000 BC. The largest of the stones stands over 15 ft high. Info - Free. A path leads from the stones to the nearby Barnhouse Settlement, a recently excavated Neolithic village.
About a mile northwest of Stenness is another stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar. This is a particularly impressive henge monument. It is over 100yds in diameter and 27 of the original 60 stones are still standing, some of them up to 15 ft high. Given the importance of these sites, it is particularly refreshing to realize when you get there that you can walk about amongst the stones in the still calm of a summer evening, with only a few oyster catchers for company, but both do get busy with coach parties during the day. Info - Free
Less than a mile northeast of the Stones of Stenness is Maes Howe, the finest Neolithic burial chamber in Europe. It was built around 2750 BC, making it contemporary with the Standing Stones and Skara Brae, and is amazingly well preserved. A huge mound covers a stone-built entrance passage which leads into a central chamber - over 12 ft square and the same in height - with three smaller cells built into the walls of the tomb. A fascinating feature of the site is that the winter solstice sun sets directly over the Barnhouse Stone, half a mile away, and shines down the entrance passage of Maes Howe and on to the back wall of one of the cells.
When it was opened in 1861, no human remains or artefacts were found, giving no clues as to its usage. However, in the 12th century Vikings returning from the Crusades broke into the tomb searching for treasure. They found nothing but left behind one of the largest collections of runic graffiti anywhere in the world, as well as carvings of a dragon, serpent and walrus. Many of the inscriptions are pretty basic, along the lines of "Thorfinn wrote these runes, but some are more intriguing, such as "Many a woman has come stooping in here no matter how pompous a person she was".
A guide gives you an excellent overview of the chamber's mysterious architectural attributes, but the fact remains that the history of this extraordinary place is still largely unsolved - something that obviously adds to the site's attraction. Unfortunately, you do not get the chance to spend very much time in the chamber, so you are unlikely to uncover any great secrets.
Info - Tickets to Maes Howe from Tormiston Mill, on the other side of the road, where there's a an exhibition, introductory video and café. Apr-Sep daily 0930-1830; Oct-Mar Mon-Sat 0930-1630 and Sun 1400-1630. £2.80, concession £2, children £1. Joint ticket for all Orkney Historic Scotland monuments also available. Tel. 761606.
On the southern shores of West Mainland, overlooking Scapa Flow, is the scattered community of Orphir, which has a few sights worth visiting, especially if you're heading across to Hoy from the ferry terminal at Houton, a little further west.The main point of interest in Orphir is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre, where a small exhibition and video introduces the saga, written circa 1200, possibly by an Icelander, which tells the history of the Viking Earls of Orkney from around 900 AD to 1200 AD, when the islands became a part of Scotland rather than Norway. As you would expect, there's plenty of gore and Machiavellian goings-on, including an assassination attempt that went disastrously wrong, when a poisoned shirt meant for Earl Harold was unwittingly and fatally worn by his brother Paul instead. Info - All year daily 0900-1700. Free.
Behind the centre is The Earl's Bu, looking out across Orphir Bay south to Cava Island. These are the 12th-century foundations of the home of the Norse Earls of Orkney written about in the saga. Inside the cemetery gates is a section of the circular church built by Haakon and modelled on the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
West Mainland Hotels & Accommodation
D Woodwick House, Tel. 751330. A very comfortable country house hotel offering good food and occasional cultural events. Good value. The Eviedale Centre beside the junction of the road to Dounby, Tel. 751270, open April-October, has a small bothy and campsite. The Mistra is the local village shop, post office and pub.Transport
On Mon there's a bus between Kirkwall and Birsay with Shalder Coaches,