Great Museums to visit in Orkney

There are a great many cracking museums to visit in Orkney, but we particularly recommend the Orkney Museum, Stromness Museum, Scapa Flow Visitor’s Centre and Kirbuster Farm Museum as great places to go in Orkney.

The Orkney Museum is located opposite St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall in Tankerness House – a rabbit warren of a building! Tankerness House has a tranquil garden to explore on a sunny day, and fascinating artefacts to see all year round.

Read on to find out some fascinating facts about each!

Tankerness House museum
Orkney Museum in Tankerness House, Kirkwall photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Orkney Museum

The Orkney Museum is located opposite St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall in Tankerness House – a rabbit warren of a building! Tankerness House has a tranquil garden to explore on a sunny day, and fascinating artefacts to see all year round. A trip here compliments any holiday to Orkney – at the Orkney Museum you can see artefacts found in Skara Brae and other Orkney attractions. The staff at the Orkney Museum are very friendly and knowledgeable too!

  • The summer 2015 Exhibition, from May to September 2015 is entitled ‘Orcadians in the Trenches: The Land War‘.
  • Some of the artefacts in the Orkney Museum from the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae are 5000 years old.
  • The iconic plaque (pictured below) from the Scar Viking boat burial as well as Viking combs and gaming pieces can be seen here.
Scar plaque
The Scar Viking boat burial plaque photo © Copyright Charles Tait
  • There’s a brilliant Ba’ exhibition, which details the history of the game.
  • The gardens are home to the Groatie Hoose, a summer house made using volcanic ballast stones from the pirate ship Revenge and decorated with seashells (Cowries are called groatie buckies in Orkney)

“In the Second World War, the base at Lyness was known as HMS Prosperine and was home to 20,000 servicemen and women. It is fitting that the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum is located here.”

Entrance to the Orkney Museum is free and the museum is open from Monday to Saturday, from 1030 to 1700 (closed for lunch from 1230 to 1330).

Find out more about the Orkney Museum.

Stromness Museum
The Stromness Museum photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Stromness Museum

The Stromness Museum is situated in the south end of the town in a waterfront building opposite the home of poet George Mackay Brown. Given it’s location, Stromness Museum has a nautical theme – you can see artefacts from the sunken German High Seas Fleet, items from Hudson’s Bay, artefacts from Stromness’s whaling past and displays about the explorer Dr John Rae (pictured below). The 1st Floor exhibit contains stuffed birds, sealife and other animals, and is always a hit with children!

  • The summer 2015 Exhibition, starting in April 2015 will contain Art and Artefacts from Ness of Brodgar dig!
  • As well as artefacts from the wrecks of Scapa Flow you’ll also see the propeller from the torpedo which sunk the Royal Oak.
A display in the Stromness museum showing John Rae in a cloth boat
A display in the Stromness museum showing John Rae in a cloth boat photo © Copyright Charles Tait
  • Fossils to view on the first floor include the backbone of a Plesiosaurus, a fossil seed fern and fossilised sharks’ teeth.
  • See if you can find the whales’ eardrum, and the cow’s hairball!
  • The gift shop is a great place to buy unique Stromness souvenirs and presents.

Stromness Museum is open from 1100 to 1530, Monday to Saturday between November and March. In the summer the Museum is open between 1000 to 1700, 7 days a week. There is a small entry fee.

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum in Lyness, Hoy, Orkney
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum in Lyness, Hoy, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum

Whilst other Orkney Museums deal with ancient artefacts, the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum covers much more recent history. Orkney, and in particular, Scapa Flow, was the Royal Navy’s main anchorage in both world Wars and the museum is housed in an oil pumping station of the former naval base at Lyness on Hoy. The ferry to Lyness from Houton arrives close by, so despite its island location the museum is quite easy to reach!

  • Artefacts from WW1 include the propeller from HMS Hampshire (pictured below) and guns salvaged from the German High Seas Fleet.
  • Artefacts from WW2 inclde boom defence nets (which stopped enemy ships entering Scapa Flow), vehicles and guns.
Scapa Flow Visitors Centre propeller
Scapa Flow Visitors Centre propeller photo © Copyright Charles Tait
  • In WW2, the base at Lyness was known as HMS Prosperine and was home to 20,000 servicemen and women. It was also the base for the salvage of the scuttled German High Seas Fleet.
  • There is a large photographic display as well as an audio visial display.
  • During summer you can get soup, sandwiches, hot food, cakes and biscuits from the Pumpwell Café.

Entrance to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum is free. Visit the website for opening hours.

Kirbuster Farm Museum, Orkney
Kirbuster Farm Museum, Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Kirbuster Farm Museum

The Kirbuster Farm Museum, along with the Corrigal Farm Museum are located in the West Mainland and offer a glimpse into the old farming life of Orkney. Both are great places to visit, especially for animal lovers, but we’ve singled out Kirbuster because it has a central hearth and beds (pictured below) boxed into the side of the room. This room layout doesn’t seem to have changed between Skara Brae (3000BC) and Kirbuster Farm (1700AD).

  • Kirbuster Farm Museum is a traditional ‘firehoose’ and you’ll often find a peat fire burning and kippers being smoked – it’s very atmospheric!
  • The shed contains a large collection of farming memorabilia. There’s also an Edwardian parlour and Victorian Gardens.
Kirbuster Farm Museum bed
Kirbuster Farm Museum bed photo © Copyright Charles Tait
  • The curator will often give you a tour.
  • Kirbuster Farm Museum has a kiln where bere grain was roasted for liquor. The farmers shared the building with their animals!
  • Children will enjoy the trowie trail and the putting green.

Entry to the the Farm Museums is free and opening hours can be found on the Kirbuster Farm Museum website and the Corrigal Farm Museum website.

Magnus DixonBy Magnus Dixon
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, adores audiobooks and films, eats a little too much for his own good.

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Header image: Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum in Lyness photo © Copyright Charles Tait