Robin McKelvie in Orkney: Embracing winter in the northern isles
Winter in the Northern Isles. It’s the time when Orkney has that spectacular light show with the Winter Solstice at Maeshowe, making Winter a great time to visit. But – and it’s a huge but – there are myriad reasons to hop on a NorthLink Ferry and set sail for a winter break in this archipelago.
You can see the Northern Lights regularly here in winter, also known as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’. It is one of travel’s great experiences, and the Northern Isles are the best place to savour the epic drama of the aurora borealis in the British Isles.
Across Orkney, Winter is an ace time for life-affirming strolls. There is nothing like yomping across a wild moor, or a white sand beach, in the Northern Isles on a crisp Winter’s day. Chances are you will be all alone, bar the ghosts of the Vikings, the whistle of the wind and the occasional call of the bountiful birdlife.
Winter isn’t just a good time to visit Orkney, but a brilliant one. The isles may be low on tourist crowds, but our feathered friends flock to what is a world-renowned fulcrum for migrating and wintering birdlife, with plenty of year-round ‘locals’ too. Species to look out for include everything from Great Northern Divers and Sanderlings, through to ubiquitous Curlews and the more exotic Slavonian Grebes.
Dedicated birders tend to head for spots around the vast natural harbour of Scapa Flow and the birdlife here really is remarkable. But there are birds all over Orkney at this time of year even in the capital of Kirkwall. I always enjoy a wee walk by the water at the Peedie Sea, where the ducks are the perennial stars alongside visitors popping in for a stop off. It’s a cosy spot for a stroll and quite sheltered, with cosy cafes and bars just a short stroll away afterwards.
In Kirkwall, and the other welcome settlements, on Orkney Winter is ideal time to get cosy and enjoy the swathe of superb local food and drink. Why not check out the Taste of Orkney Food and Drink Trail?
This excellent trail sweeps around ten Orcadian businesses, who offer visitors to the island something extra, whether it be tours, tastings, or other visitor experiences. Together these marvels are an ideal introduction to the richness of Orkney’s produce from land and sea.
There is whisky from both Highland Park and Scapa Flow (both are world famous creators of single malt whiskies), but also less-known JM Gow Rum and Deerness Distillery (who conjure up spirits and liqueurs). Then there is Orkney Distilling, with their acclaimed Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin. I’m a massive fan of the Orkney Brewery, with their comforting Dark Island ale an ideal winter warmer. I once spent a glorious hour in their bar enjoying it on tap just metres from where it was magically created. Don’t forget Swannay Brewery – their hoppy Orkney IPA is lovely, as is the rest of their range.
After a couple of drinks, we need some food now and we’ve come to a great island. Other businesses included in the Taste of Orkney Food and Drink Trail, include the Orkney Cheese Company, where that famous full-flavoured Orkney Cheddar is made. Barony Mill are Orkney’s only working watermill, with a heritage stretching back to the nineteenth century. Pick up some oatcakes to go with your cheddar. Complete your Orkney feast with something from JP Orkney – Jane and Paul’s Orkney Produce. Their chutneys and pickles are crafted with an Orcadian passion that will by now be familiar in their seaside Birsay kitchen, using homegrown fruit and vegetables, such as rhubarb, chillies, green beans and courgettes.
Opening times and experiences vary with the season and holidays, so always check what is on offer in advance. Whether you get to a site directly or not, you can also sample their wares all over Orkney in shops, cafes and restaurants. There is also a wealth of online shopping opportunities so you can enjoy a taste of Orkney at home.
In Orkney, you can see the Northern Lights regularly here in winter, also known as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’. There is nothing like seeing the green – and orange and pink too – lights sparkle across the heavens. It is one of travel’s great experiences, and the Northern Isles are the best place to savour the epic drama of the aurora borealis in the British Isles.
I’ve given you a taster of why you should visit Orkney in Winter. And, of course, you still have the deservedly world-famous delight of the Winter Solstice at Maeshowe to savour at this deeply special time of year in a deeply special part of the planet.
Robin McKelvie is an award-winning travel writer and broadcaster who has been published in over 200 magazines and newspapers worldwide.