6 Fantastic Cycling Routes in Orkney

The Orkney Islands are fantastic to explore by bicycle – cycling is a great pace at which to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and enjoy the fresh air. Bicycles can also be taken free of charge on our ferries! We asked Sean Chalmers, NorthLink’s resident cycling expert about his favourite places to go and he came up trumps with six brilliant Orkney routes for keen cyclists!

The B9055 will take you past the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. This is a lovely road with the Loch of Stenness on the right and the Loch of Harray on your left.

You’ll find two easy routes, two moderate routes and two hard routes here. All routes can be easily adapted so that you see everything you wish to see! We hope we give you some inspiration for a great cycling holiday in Orkney!

Easy Cycling Routes in Orkney

Despite being labelled ‘easy’, this is a 22 mile route! It’s an adaption of the most common route taken by visitors to Orkney who hire a bike, as it takes in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe.

We recommend leaving Stromness and taking the A967 road to Sandwick. 4 miles in, you’ll come to a junction where the A967 takes a sharp right turn up a hill and the B9056 road continues straight on. Take the B9056 and you’ll pass the Yesnaby Road (there are some beautiful cliffs well worth visiting here) and 6 miles in, you’ll find yourself on a road which hugs close to the edge of the Loch of Skaill! After the loch, there’s a turn to the left to reach Skara Brae.

After Skara Brae, take the B9056 past beautiful Skaill beach and up to Quoyloo. We’d recommend continuing straight through the crossroads at Isbister’s Stores (a favourite shop of ours). Don’t continue on the B9056 as this involves turning left and cycling up the hill towards Marwick! Head past the petrol pumps and you’ll take a twisty downward slope towards the Orkney Brewery (which is a great lunch stop). Continue past the Brewery until you meet the A967 and take a right back to Stromness. This long straight road reaches a hill after around 2½ miles, at the crest of which take the road to the left, the B9055, which is marked ‘The Ring of Brodgar’.

After 2½ miles you’ll see that the road passes between the Loch of Stenness on the right and the Loch of Harray on your left. The Ring of Brodgar will be clearly visible on your right, and after ¾ mile, the Standing Stones of Stenness are on your left. Continue on the B9055 and you’ll meet the A965, the main Stromness to Kirkwall road. To get to Maeshowe, a mere ½ mile away, turn left. To head back to Stromness, a 5-mile cycle along this main road, turn to your right.

The East Mainland route is a great one which takes in many of the highlights of the East Mainland but also the connecting South Isles. It’s 24 miles long and we’ve started this route at our Kiln Corner office and recommend cycling up Castle Street and Broad Street to see St Magnus Cathedral. If you follow the A960 which runs up the hill road past St Magnus Cathedral, you’ll reach Bignold Park and a turn to the right down the A961. Stay on this until you reach a junction where the road meets the Holm Branch Road. Continue on the A961 past the Highland Park Distillery (which offers brilliant tours and tastings!)

The A961 is a 5 mile long straight road, but to your right you’ll have fantastic views of Scapa Flow. Keep an eye out for the buoy which marks resting place of the sunken Royal Oak. You’ll soon reach the village of St Mary’s and the road will follow the coast and will turn to the left. Just outside St Mary’s is the first of the Churchill Barriers, and we’d recommend crossing it to reach the island of Lamb Holm and The Italian Chapel.

One your way back across the Barrier you’ll see a very fine Totem Pole (carved by members of the Squamish First Nation Indians and Holm folk) and a road, the B9052, which is signposted to Deerness, leading to the right. Follow this and you’ll see some very fine coastal scenery and old WW2 ruins. 3 miles on you’ll meet the A960; turn left back towards Kirkwall. You can continue straight on this road, but we’d recommend taking a detour up towards Tankerness, beautiful Mill Sands and the Sheila Fleet Jewellery workshop. You can rejoin the A960 at Kirkwall Airport and make your way back to Kirkwall, but for fine views of the North Isles, we’d advise a detour to Craigiefield road and back to Kiln Corner via the coast!

Moderate Cycling Routes in Orkney

Hoy is a fantastic island to see by bike, and, as with the NorthLink Ferry Service, the inter island ferry service, run by Orkney Ferries, also carries bicycles free of charge!

The 42 mile-long route we suggest taking starts in Stromness, taking the passenger ferry MV Graemsay from the pier opposite the Stromness Hotel to Moaness on Hoy. Once on Hoy we’d recommend visiting the beautiful beach of Rackwick by first taking the B9049 and then the B9047 and the following the signposted road to Rackwick which travels around the base of massive Ward Hill. Around 2½ miles into this route you pass the Dwarfie Stane on your left. After six miles you’ll arrive in Rackwick. You can either enjoy the beach or take a walking trip up to the Old Man of Hoy. Please be aware that a trip to the Old Man from Rackwick is a three hour return journey, so we’ve not factored this into our cycling route!

Return from Rackwick on the same road – it’s a good road but is only single track, so please be aware of any cars behind you! When you rejoin the B9047 turn right instead of left back to Moaness. Turning right will take you on a long coastal road to Lyness, and you’ll have brilliant views of Scapa Flow and the South Isles. If you’re feeling fit, we’d recommend continuing past Lyness to Longhope. This involves cycling round a long bay, passing The Lifeboat Museum at Brims and Melsetter House.

Take the same road back from Longhope to Lyness to catch the ferry back to the mainland. If you’ve time, The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum at Lyness is a fantastic stop. You can enjoy a cup of tea served by a waitress in a dress from the forties! The ferry from Lyness will take you back to Houton in Orphir. Cycle uphill till you meet the A964 and turn left. You’ll have an easy 6 mile run through Orphir and Stenness until you meet the main Kirkwall to Stromness road, the A965. Turn left and follow the main road for 2½ miles back to Stromness!

The 35 mile Orkney Loch Route takes you around many of the West Mainland’s stunning lochs, and it’s a great run for experienced cyclists who have already seen the main attractions of Orkney.

We’d recommend setting off from Stromness and taking the Sandwick road, the A967. Stay on this road when, after 4 miles, it takes the sharp turn uphill to the right. This means you’ll miss Yesnaby and Skara Brae and head up to Birsay instead, passing close by the Loch of Boardhouse. We’d always recommend a stop at Birsay to see the Barony Mill, Earl’s Palace and the Brough of Birsay. However, after Birsay, head east, taking the A966 towards Evie.

Once you get to Swannay, turn to the right and take the Hundaland Road. This is a lovely scenic and quiet road which will take you past the Loch of Hundaland on your right and Kirbuster Farm Museum on your left. When you meet the A986, turn left towards Dounby. When you reach the village of Dounby you’ll see a crossroads in the very centre. Turn right, taking the B9057, the Vetquoy Road. You’ll meet up with the A967, the long stretch of road you were on before. Turn left and cycle for around 1½ miles until you reach a hilltop junction, with a road to the left, the B9055, which is marked ‘The Ring of Brodgar’. Take this road!

The Ring of Brodgar will be visible on your right after 2½ miles and after ¾ mile, the Standing Stones of Stenness will be on your left. This is a lovely road with the Loch of Stenness on the right and the Loch of Harray on your left. Shortly after the Standing Stones of Stenness you’ll meet the A965, the main Stromness to Kirkwall road. Turn to your right and cycle the five miles back to Stromness!

Hard Cycling Routes in Orkney

The West Mainland route is for cyclists who are used to travelling long distances in one day – it is 58 miles long!

This route starts in Stromness, taking the A967 and then the B9056 past Yesnaby and Skara Brae. At the Quoyloo crossroads turn left and head up the hill to Marwick Head and into Birsay. Turn left onto the A967 and head towards the Brough of Birsay. To reach this you’ll have to turn left again onto the A966. this tidal island should be easy to find as it’s visible from some distance away.

Coming back, take the A966 eastwards, heading towards Evie. This is a great road, with stunning views of the North Isles! Take the same road all way through Evie (the Broch of Gurness is a great detour), past the Tingwall Ferry Terminal, and through Rendall back to Finstown. All in all, this is a 17 mile journey!

When you reach Finstown, turn left, taking the A965, and head towards Kirkwall. When you reach Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral and the Earl and Bishop’s Palaces are great stop. Take the A963, following Junction Road and head towards lovely Scapa Beach and then onwards, turning left onto the A964. The Scapa Distillery Visitor’s Centre is here and well worth visiting.

The A964, which runs through Orphir is a wild and lovely road. You’ll have fantastic views of Scapa Flow, and the beach at Waulkmill and the Round Kirk are both well worth stopping for. The road from Orphir to Stenness is a fine run too – and you’ll see Stromness to your left, and possibly MV Hamnavoe! When you reach the junction where the A964 meets the A965, turn left and cycle for 2½ miles back into Stromness!

The Orkney Tour is for the most experienced cyclists, taking in 87 miles! It’s also a great way to see the majority of Orkney’s sights in one route.

The route starts by leaving Stromness and heading towards Stenness on the A965. Just after Stenness Village, turn left, taking the B9055, and passing the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. When you meet the A967, turn right, taking that road for around 20m, and then turn left, taking the B9055 for a cross country route to Skara Brae. You’ll meet the B9056 at the Skaill Loch, turn right onto this road, and cycle around the loch – you’ll see the gates to Skara Brae shortly!

Back on the B9056 you’ll reach the Quoyloo crossroads. You can carry on through and visit the Orkney Brewery (a great place for a bite to eat). At the Quoyloo crossroads head up the hill towards Marwick. Marwick Head and Marwick Bay and lovely places to visit, but we’d recommend turning right from the B9056 and heading towards The Loons. At the Loons there’s a brilliant bird hide and the RSPB Listening Wall, where you can see the many waders that live there!

When you reach the A967, turn left and head towards Birsay. Turn left onto the A966 and head down towards the Brough of Birsay, which is a great place for a rest! When returning, stay on the A966 towards Evie. There’s a great view of the North Isles to be had, and the Broch of Gurness, outside Evie Village is well worth visiting. After Evie Village we’d recommend taking the road signposted to Woodwick House. Taking the Gorseness Road will take you past the Rendall Doocot, which is an amazing building. You’ll rejoin the A966 outside Norseman’s Village. Turn left and continue on to Finstown.

Upon reaching Finstown, turn left onto the A965 and head to Kirkwall. We’d recommend taking Castle Street and Broad Street so that you pass the St Magnus Cathedral and the Earl and Bishop’s Palace. Take the A960 past Kirkwall Airport and just after, turn left down the road marked ‘Tankerness’ for a scenic detour. Once you turn left back onto the A960, continue for a couple of miles until you see the St Andrew’s School. Turn right, taking the B9052, which passes the school and heads towards St Mary’s. You’ll reach a Totem Pole and the first of the Churchill Barriers. Cross the Barriers onto Lamb Holm to see the Italian Chapel.

Return across the barrier and turn left towards St Mary’s, taking the A961 for 6 miles back to Kirkwall. You’ll pass the Highland Park Distillery as you arrive in Kirkwall. Take the Holm Branch Road and cycle past Scapa Beach. Turn left and join the A964 to Orphir. You’ll pass the Scapa Whisky Distillery, enjoy views of Scapa Flow and Hoy, and after 14 miles you’ll meet the A965. Turn left and after ¼ mile turn left up the Howe Road and cycle the last 2 miles into Stromness!

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: Cycling in Orkney and resting in Finstown photo © Copyright Billy Fox