The following itinerary describes daily activities which may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, road conditions, weather conditions, flight or ferry schedules etc. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents prior to departure. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & dinners indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch (on several days this will be a packed lunch provided by the hotel) and D=dinner.
Day 4: Thursday 1 June, Arrive Lerwick – Sumburgh – Lerwick
- Arrival Lerwick by Northlink Ferries at 0730hrs
- Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement, Sumburgh
- Light lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel
- Sumburgh Head: Visitors Centre, Lighthouse & Seabird Colonies of the RSPB Nature Reserve
- Iron Age Broch and Village at Old Scatness: Guided tour by regional archaeologist
We breakfast on board, having already berthed in Lerwick. On disembarking, we board our coach and travel south through the villages and sweeping rural landscape of mainland Shetland. Along our coastal route we may see Shetland ponies and seals, signs of generations of peat digging, and locations from the TV detective series, Shetland.
At the southernmost tip of Shetland, with nothing but the Atlantic between us and Northern America, a narrow strip of land now serves as the island’s airport; but 1000 years ago it was a vital site for the Vikings. We visit their settlement, later called Jarlshof (meaning ‘Earl’s House’) by Sir Walter Scott. The Vikings were not the first to live here, for we walk through almost 4000 years of almost constant habitation; Neolithic and Bronze Age homes sit side by side, and later Iron Age houses and remarkable brochs (windowless towers built on the shores) were followed here by Pictish round decorated wheelhouses. The Norse Vikings then built their very different early medieval longhouses here; this area continues to be studied as an archaeological site of great importance. The Norse did not lose power in Shetland until 1468. A medieval house here from the 1300s and 1400s, with its barn and drying kiln, is remarkably similar to local houses built in Shetland until relatively recently. We can view all this from a platform built into the ruins of the 16th-century house that looms over the site.
After a light lunch at the nearby Sumburgh Hotel (used as a nursing home in the Shetland series), we visit Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve. We hope to see the regular fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes and shags, as well as the ever popular puffins.
We next visit Old Scatness, where a site archaeologist will give us a guided tour of the excavated Iron Age broch and an impressive and thought-provoking reconstruction.
We shall head north again to Lerwick via a different route. We settle into our rooms at the Shetland Hotel and have dinner. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BLD
Day 5: Friday 2 June, Lerwick: Day Excursion to the Island of Unst with Dr Val Turner
- Ferry trip to the Shetland Island of Unst (via Yell and Bluemill Sounds)
- The Underhoull to Lund Trail: a Viking World (incl. the Underhoull Longhouses, Underhoull Broch, boat noosts & St Olaf’s Chapel) – approx. 2 hrs
- “Viking Haroldswick”: Longhouse & Skidbladner Reconstructions
- Unst Heritage Centre & Unst Boat Haven
- Settlement of Skaw & Muckle Flugga
- Muness Castle
Today we explore the Viking heritage of Scotland, accompanied by Dr Val Turner, who has been Shetland’s Regional Archaeologist since the post was created in 1986. Dr Turner has project managed two major excavations for her employers, Shetland Amenity Trust: Old Scatness Broch saw the twelve-year excavation of an Iron Age Broch and Village, which has rewritten the story of Scotland’s Iron Age; and Viking Unst saw the excavation of three longhouses and the construction of a replica longhouse and restoration of a replica Viking longship.
An early morning breakfast fuels us for our drive and the ferries that take us to the island of Unst, the northernmost island in Britain. On arrival we drive to Underhoull where we commence a two-hour scenic coastal walk across to Lund. On our journey we pass the Underhoull Longhouses, the Underhoull Broch which commands excellent views of the bay below, some stone-lined boat noosts (places where longships were pulled ashore and berthed) and St Olaf’s Chapel. This 12th-century chapel, whose interior features a Pictish fish or serpent, was probably built for the occupants of the nearby Viking/Norse settlement. Its graveyard includes three distinctive Viking stone crosses.
From Lund we transfer by coach to ‘Viking Haroldswick’. Here we explore the Skidbladner, a full-size replica of the 24 metre-long Gokstad ship found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880. There is also the reconstructed Viking longhouse where we may gain further insights into the Norse way of life. Nearby, the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven bring us forward to more recent history to reveal how generations of crofters and fishermen have lived and worked in Shetland.
Next, we drive north to the tiny settlement of Skaw, located on a peninsula in the northeast corner of the island. If the weather is clear, we may view Muckle Flugga, a small rocky island considered the northernmost point of the British Isles, although technically the nearby smaller islet of Out Stack is actually farther north. The Muckle Flugga Lighthouse was built by David and Thomas Stevenson. Thomas’s son, Robert Louis Stevenson, visited in 1869 and it is said he returned home with the inspiration for his next book – Treasure Island.
Time allowing, our journey back to the ferries will include a brief stop to see Muness Castle. Built in 1598 by cruel Laurence Bruce, this is a fine example of tower house architecture. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 6: Saturday 3 June, Lerwick – St Ninian’s Isle – Mousa – Lerwick
- Crofthouse Museum
- St Ninian’s Isle Circular Walk – led by regional archaeologist (approx. 3hrs)
- Time at leisure
- Mousa Boat Dusk Trip: Storm Petrels at Mousa Broch
We begin our day with a curator-led tour of Shetland’s exceptional Crofthouse Museum. Here we witness the tough life of a sea-based crofter.
A short drive takes us to the beauty and peace of St. Ninian’s Isle where we cross the tombolo (a beautiful sandy natural causeway) for our 3-hour guided walk, where nature and history complement each other; an Iron Age settlement (c.800 BC to c.AD 400), a stone church and the remains of a later ruined church (c.1100s) all share this isle. It was here that the St.Ninian’s Treasure (c.750-825) was found by a schoolboy in 1958. During this walk we will be accompanied by one of Shetland’s regional archaeologists.
Later this evening we enjoy a real highlight of the tour as we head to Sandsayre Pier and take a boat across to Mousa Broch to experience the nightly swap-over of nesting storm petrel birds roosting in the ruins and nearby field walls. We are so far north that it never gets dark here at this time of year, so the swap-over in the safety of the half-light ‘dusk’ occurs nigh on midnight. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 7: Sunday 4 June, Lerwick – Noss Island National Nature Reserve – Island of Bressay – Lerwick
- Walking Tour of Lerwick’s Old Town
- Shetland Museum & Archives
- Wildlife Cruise of Noss National Nature Reserve and Bressay
We begin the day with a short walking tour of Lerwick’s Old Town led by a local guide. At the restored historic Hay’s Dock we take a guided tour of the Shetland Museum & Archives to explore Shetland’s rich heritage and culture.
Following a light lunch at the museum’s café we take a leisurely walk to the nearby pier slipway for our afternoon cruise to the stunning Noss National Nature Reserve and the isle of Bressay. We get close to the 25,000 seabirds who nest on these noisy cliffs and we also keep an eye open for seals, porpoises, whales, otters and dolphins. (Overnight Lerwick, Shetland) BL
Day 8: Monday 5 June, Lerwick – Shetland Mainland – Kirkwall
- Clickimin Broch, Lerwick
- Stanydale ‘Temple’, near Bixter
- Light lunch at a Local Restaurant
- Scalloway Castle and Museum, Scalloway
- Northlink Ferry: Lerwick – Kirkwall (1730-2300)
After breakfast, we check out of our hotel and take the short drive to Clickimin Broch, located on the outskirts of Lerwick, overlooking the Clickimin Loch. Once inside, the broch towers above us. To the west of the tower survive a collection of structures dating from c.1000 BC to AD 500.
We drive on to mysterious Neolithic Stanydale Temple. Although we shall see many megalithic structures in Orkney, this is the only one surviving on Shetland. It comprises a wall of large boulders, some weighing up to 300kg, forming an oval enclosure measuring 14m by 10m. Its scale suggests that it was a public building but its purpose 5000 years ago can only be imagined.
After a light lunch at a local restaurant, we visit Scalloway Castle and the museum. This late 16-century castellated tower house was the home of Patrick Stewart, the Earl of Orkney and Shetland. His oppressive rule earned him the name ‘Black Patie’. The nearby Scalloway Museum takes us from earliest history, through the traditional lives on Shetland to ‘The Shetland Bus’, the clandestine and dangerous heroic wartime operation which ferried men across the North Sea between Shetland and occupied Norway during World War II.
We return to Lerwick to take our evening ferry to Kirkwall. Dinner will be served on board. Gillian will give us a short briefing for tomorrow. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 9: Tuesday 6 June, Kirkwall: Day excursion to the Island of Rousay
- Ferry trip to Island of Rousay
- Taversöe Tuick Chambered Cairn
- Blackhammer Chambered Cairn
- Midhowe Chambered Cairn
- Midhowe Broch
We take a late breakfast this morning and then a short but glorious sea crossing carries us to the small Orcadian island of Rousay. Rousay abounds in prehistoric sites; over 100 have been recorded so far. The variety of structures found include brochs, burial cairns, standing stones, Norse burial cists, earth-houses, burnt mounds or knows, and Celtic chapels.
Our circular coach tour of this island takes us first to Traverse Tuick, the tiny but unique double-storey Neolithic chambered cairn; we take turns to climb down into it.
Not far down the road is the long chambered Blackhammer Cairn with its decorative facing stones. The structure is a typical stalled cairn, with an interior divided into seven compartments by pairs of upright stone slabs. Here, in c.3000 BC, the dead were laid with their ancestors’ bones. Although each of these tombs may have been used for hundreds of years, only a few skeletons were found in each. At least 15 such cairns have been found on the island of Rousay alone.
After a light lunch in a local restaurant with sea views, we drive on to Midhowe Cairn which we reach by a short but steep walk down the fields to the rocky shore. This vast Neolithic burial mound was truly monumental; we view its interior compartments and impressive stonework from walkways above it. Chambered tombs of this kind were communal burial places; the remains of at least 25 humans have been found here.
There are more than 500 surviving examples of brochs in Scotland. Many stood alone, but brochs in Orkney and Caithness, including Midhowe and nearby Gurness, were surrounded by sizeable settlements. The remains of the Midhowe Broch’s circular wall stands to a height of approximately four metres and within the structure the general layout of the ground floor has been remarkably well-preserved. As we enter, we can see the height, the separate rooms and the hearth and vital water well, all within this highly defensible stone tower that dominated the shoreline.
We drive round the island, past Wasbister Loch where Iron Age lake dwellings called crannochs once jutted out onto the waters. We pass Saviskaill beach, a common spot for seals, before catching our early evening ferry back to Kirkwall. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 10: Wednesday 7 June, Kirkwall: Day excursion to Westray & Papa Westray Islands
- Ferry to Westray & Papa Westay Islands
- Westray Heritage Centre: The Orkney Venus
- The Links of Noltland archaeological site, Westray
- Castle of Noltland, Westerly
- Knap of Howar Neolithic House, Papa Westray
- Island Walk incl. the remains of St Tredwell’s Chapel, Papa Westray
We board our ferry early for a wonderful day visiting two islands, Westray and Papa Westray. Westray Heritage Centre houses the Orkney Venus (locally nicknamed the ‘Westray Wifie’). This tiny carving is one of only a few images of humans that have been found from Neolithic Orkney and is Scotland’s earliest such representation. It was found as recently as 2009 and is proudly kept here on the island where it was found.
We drive out to the Links of Noltland site where the Orkney Venus was found. If excavations are ongoing, the site director will give us a tour of this wonderful settlement (c.3300-800 BC) that emerged from the sands on the shore. This area of dunes behind Grobust Bay is also the site of Orkney’s largest Bronze Age settlement, with paved storehouses with cupboards, divisions to the living quarters with (even) a sweat room, middens (rubbish dumps) and evidence of cultivated fields. However, this is a dig against the clock; the winds from the sea threaten to destroy the sites before long.
As we head for the ferry to take us to Papa Westray, we pause to explore the ruined Castle of Noltland. This formidable tower house, bristling with gun holes, was built in the 1500s. Although it was never finished, there are many fascinating details to discover in its stonework.
We board our ferry as foot passengers to sail to Papa Westray, where we walk a couple of panoramic miles (transport will be available for those who wish it) along the spine of the island to a peaceful field beside a rocky shore. Here we visit the extraordinary, partly subterranean, Knap of Howar: this is the oldest house in Northern Europe. We enter through its original threshold which is joined by a very low corridor to a contemporary ‘workshop’. Its wall cupboards, room dividers and hearths seem pristine, but Unstan Ware pottery found here proves that this early farmstead is c.5500 years old; that’s older than Skara Brae and nearly 1000 years older than the pyramids. A picnic lunch gives us a leisure time to enjoy the atmosphere of this special site.
To return to our ferry and our journey back to Kirkwall, we take an idyllic walk along the east coast of the island, along a grassy track above the shore and past the remains of St Tredwell’s Chapel perched on a small mound on a peninsula in St Tredwell’s Loch. Built on an Iron Age site, this medieval church was revered until recently as a pilgrimage site associated with miracle cures by St Tredwell, a holy virgin who lived in the 700s. A nearby sandy bay welcomes us back to the ferry pier. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 11: Thursday 8 June, Kirkwall – Orkney Mainland
- Iron Age Broch of Gurness
- Dounby Click Mill
- Causeway to Brough of Birsay: remains of Pictish, Norse and later settlements
- The Earl’s Palace, Birsay
After breakfast, we drive to the Broch of Gurness via Eynhallow Sound. This solid Iron Age structure glowered at the distantly visible Midhowe Broch across the waters on Rousay. The Broch of Gurness boasts many features such as room divisions, an interior spiral staircase and a surrounding ditch. Its stone walls rise high above us, reminding us of the powerful defensive function of these structures. Huddled around is the best-preserved broch village in Scotland; its many dwellings, built between 500 and 200 BC, are squeezed side by side within an outer wall. By the AD 300s though, the broch village had fallen into disuse and a Pictish ‘Shamrock’ shaped house was built within its ruined area.
We drive on, pausing at the Dounby Click Mill. This is the last of the horizontal watermills of Orkney. Although this is a restoration of a mill from early 1800s, it demonstrates an ancient technique, barely changed since the Norse or ‘Click’ Mills (so-named due to the noise they made) used in the Viking era. Within the small stone mill we may view all of its internal machinery including a horizontal paddle wheel, grind-stones, hopper and meal bin.
After lunch, we drive to the Brough of Birsay where we walk across a tidal causeway. Once on the isle, we tour the remains of a secluded medieval monastery and view (a copy of) the carved Pictish Stone that survived here. A walk up onto the top of the headland should give us glimpses of puffins and other sea birds.
Our coach ride back to Kirkwall includes a stop at the picturesque Earl’s Palace in Birsay. This fine courtyard castle was the home of Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots; its many gun ports reveal how troubled the times were in the 1500s.
We return to the hotel for a short talk by Gillian and dinner. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 12: Friday 9 June, Kirkwall – Orkney Mainland – Stromness – Kirkwall
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Skara Brae & The Ness of Brodgar
- Afternoon at leisure in Stromness
- Scarpa Flow
- The Ophir Round Kirk & Orkneyinga Saga Centre
We spend the morning visiting Skara Brae, one of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, the collective name given to a group of Neolithic monuments found on the mainland, which was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. This group of monuments consists of four sites: Maeshowe – a unique chamber cairn and passage grave; the Standing Stones of Stenness – four remaining megaliths of a henge; the Ring of Brodgar – a stone circle forming a henge monument; and Skara Brae – a cluster of eight houses reputed to be the best-preserved Stone Age village in Europe.
Skara Brae, located on the shores of the Bay of Skaill, was revealed after a terrifying winter storm blew the sand-dunes away in 1850. The homes had survived virtually intact, protected by the sand that filled them; hearths, beds, dressers (or altars), storage tanks and even indoor toilets survive, all dated from between 3300 BC and 2200 BC. The people who lived here would have seen, or even taken part in, the building of the stone circles of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the Ness of Brodgar ceremonial centre. While the homes themselves are too fragile to enter, we have access to an exact replica so that we can feel just how homely they were. A small museum and film, as well as café and shop, make this a site to linger in. There is time to visit 17-century Skaill House with its collections of prehistoric and historic items (including Captain Cook’s dinner service) and paintings. Alternately, you may wish to use your free time to walk along the fabulous bay and enjoy the scenery.
Our coach takes us down past the Neolithic Heart of Orkney – the Ring of Brodgar, the Ness of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness – to provide a sense of connection between these and Skara Brae.
On arrival in the picturesque harbour town of Stromness we have leisure time for lunch and to view the town’s many attractions. There is an art gallery, winding streets, great little museum (with finds from the Ness of Brodgar), and cafés and shops full of unique gifts.
You may, on the other hand, wish to take a walk past the poet George Mackay Brown’s house, and the well that was used in the 1700s by Captain Cook’s vessels (the HMS Resolution and the HMS Discovery) on their fatal return from seeking the North-West Passage. Sir John Franklin’s ships also loaded here in 1845 on their arctic expedition. If you continue up to the end of town there is also an enjoyable walk along the coast.
Our return drive to Kirkwell takes us along the south coast of the Orkney mainland, along Scapa Flow where Lord Kitchener’s ship was destroyed and where the World War I interned German battle fleet was scuttled. The tragedy of the World War II torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, continues to be marked by a buoy. We also make a short visit to the circular church of Orphir built in the 12th-century and its visitor centre where we hear of the dramatic Viking Orkneyinga Sagas.
This evening you have time at leisure to choose your own dinner venue. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) B
Day 13: Saturday 10 June, Kirkwall: Day Excursion to the Island of Hoy
- Ferry to island of Hoy
- Dwarfie Stane
- Old Man of Hoy Sea Stack
- Hackness Martello Tower and Battery
- Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum
A drive across to Stromness and a ferry trip takes us to the mountainous island of Hoy for a day’s guided tour. The rocks here were carved out to make the 8.5m long Dwarfie Stane, possibly the only Neolithic rock-cut tomb in Britain. We consider the effort required to carve out this tomb using just stones, antlers and bones. We pass on to the cliffs and view the Old Man of Hoy, the sea stack made famous by the transmission on television of its climb by Chris Bonnington and his team in 1967.
Our tour includes the Hackness Martello Tower and Battery that defended merchant ships during the Napoleonic era; barrack room furniture and memorabilia vividly bring this age to life. We continue by exploring the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which tells the story of the naval anchorage during World War I and World War II. We then sail back to the Orkney Mainland and head to our hotel. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 14: Sunday 11 June, Kirkwall: Shapinsay Island & Orkney mainland
- Ferry to Shapinsay Island
- Burroughston Broch
- Odin’s Stone
- Shapinsay Heritage Centre & Mill Dam RSPB reserve (time-permitting)
- Tour of Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall
Our morning ferry takes us the short distance across to Shapinsay island. We sail past the Victorian Balfour Castle and the Lighthouse on Helliar Holm. We drive across the island to visit the peaceful Iron Age Burroughston Broch, set in an idyllic shoreside location overlooking the North Sea far from the tourist trail.
At the head of Veantro Bay we pause at solitary Neolithic Odin’s Stone, thought to be associated, 4000 years after its original use, with Viking offerings to Odin.
Time permitting, we shall visit the Shapinsay Heritage Centre and the RSPB reserve, Mill Dam, home to a wide variety of wildfowl. In summer, you may see large numbers of breeding pintails, redshanks and wigeons.
After lunch, we voyage back to Kirkwall in time to enjoy a ‘wee dram’ on our tour of the Highland Park Distillery.
This evening we dine together at the hotel. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BLD
Day 15: Monday 12 June, Kirkwall: Orkney Mainland
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Standing Stones of Stenness
- Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
- Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site: Ring of Brodgar
- Unstan Chambered Cairn Tomb
Today we continue visiting some of Orkney’s most important archaeological sites in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. We begin at the Standing Stones of Stenness. Over 5000 years old, this constitutes one of the earliest stone circles on Orkney. Although only four of the original 12 stones still stand, these are impressive as each reaches a height of 6 metres.
Just yards away we explore the Barnhouse Neolithic settlement, perched on the edge of the loch. The site provides an interesting contrast to the neighbouring village of Skara Brae; the site has 15 small round free-standing dwellings in varying stages of development.
From the Barnhouse Settlement we can see Maeshowe Chambered Cairn; we shall drive round to visit this cathedral-like tomb on a guided tour. Considered the finest chambered tomb in North West Europe, it is more than 5000 years old. This impressive monumental tomb also features runic graffiti left by 12th-century Norse crusaders on the walls of the main chamber.
We pass the solitary Comet Stone and eat a picnic lunch before our walking tour around the Ring of Brodgar. A perfect circle, built in c.2500 to 2000 BC, this was one of the last of the stone circles. The third largest stone circle in Britain, it covers an amazing 8500 square metres, and all its stones had been brought from a different part of the island. Twenty-seven of its original 60 stones survive.
We drive back past the Ness of Brodgar site and on to the Unstan Chambered Cairn. This burial mound sits on a peninsula jutting out into the loch. Views across to the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness provide a fresh view of these truly unique Neolithic monuments. Unstan Chambered Cairn, which was probably built as a communal burial place, is another example of a stalled cairn. Excavations here uncovered a remarkable collection of pottery bowls, all of the same design. Similar bowls were subsequently found in several other Neolithic tombs in Orkney, and are known as ‘Unstan Ware’. Several of the reconstructed vessels are in the National Museum of Scotland. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) BL
Day 16: Tuesday 13 June, Kirkwall: Orkney Mainland
- Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
- Rennibister Earth House
- St Magnus Cathedral: Guided tour
- Afternoon at Leisure in Kirkwall
A short drive from Kirkwall takes us to the foot of the rough track leading up to Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn. The view alone from here across the sea and hills would be worth the short walk but this small, very personal, intimate Neolithic tomb has a surprise within it; its stonework and corbelling is astonishing. The cairn attests to a belief in an afterlife 5000 years ago; there is evidence of complex burial rites. Bones of men, dogs and oxen were found buried here.
Descending to the coach we are just minutes from Rennibister Earth House, thought to date from the first millennium BC. The function of such Iron Age underground tunnels, called souterrains, remains a mystery; theories include that they were storehouses or defensive hiding holes. We climb down the short metal ladder into the remarkably constructed site. Inside the main chamber, the drystone walls curve upwards to a corbelled roof supported by four stone pillars. There are also five small stone alcoves built into the walls of the chamber.
Following our visit to Rennibister Earth house we return to Kirkwall for lunch at leisure. We then continue with a guided tour of the medieval St Magnus Cathedral and hear the interesting stories connected with it. It was founded in the 12th century by the Viking Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle, St Magnus whose relics were hidden within its walls. Known as the ‘Light of the North’, it was built by the same Norman masons who built Durham Cathedral.
The remainder of our afternoon is at leisure in Kirkwall. You may wish to visit the ruins of the medieval Earl’s Palace and the medieval Bishop’s Palace just opposite the Cathedral (covered by your ticket for Skara Brae), explore the Orkney Museum, shop for take-home gifts or simply relax. (Overnight Kirkwall, Orkney) B