Robin McKelvie in Orkney: The amber glow glory of Orkney in autumn
You kind of exist between an iron earth and a leaden sky – Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown.
I’m not arguing that Orkney’s myriad isles offer the leaf peeping delights of New England in Fall – indeed there are precious few trees – but the colours displayed here can still be deeply dramatic. As ochre and orange hues burn through the heather and across the moors, the low-slung sun dapples the land with a life-affirming glow that warms me deep inside.
“Orkney, in Autumn?” asked my wife, looking unconvinced. “Isn’t it much better in summer?”. My instant response was that although summer is indeed a brilliant time to hop on a NorthLink Ferries’ ship to Orkney, autumn is perhaps my favourite time to ease across the Pentland Firth and explore an archipelago that looks beyond braw in this most romantic of seasons.
January was actually the month GMB was referring to in his writing, but the Orkney he evokes for me is more the autumnal one. I’m not arguing that Orkney’s myriad isles offer the leaf peeping delights of New England in Fall – indeed there are precious few trees – but the colours displayed here can still be deeply dramatic. As ochre and orange hues burn through the heather and across the moors, the low-slung sun dapples the land with a life-affirming glow that warms me deep inside. Sunrises and sunsets on Orkney in autumn can be off the scale spectacular.
Then, of course, you have a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights in autumn, as we’ve already seen this year. The aurora borealis really comes alive in Scotland, with celestial light shows second to none. With so little ambient light – and often clear skies – Orkney is very well placed for world-class Northern Lights viewing. All you need is a clear night and a slice of luck. Some Orcadians are so used to this delight that they almost take them for granted!
One of the real draws for me on Orkney is always the wildlife and again autumn is a brilliant time to appreciate the wildlife as it gets active in different ways and human visitors tend to be more thin on the ground. This is the time of year when grey seals come ashore for their pupping season. On hilly Hoy you can catch sight of mountain hares too – I love a bracing hike out to view the remarkable Old Man of Hoy rock stack. In the skies look out for hen harriers – head to the RSPB reserves at Cottascarth and Randall Moss, and the Birsay Moors – and the wealth of migratory birds.
One corner of Orkney really blows me away for its wealth of feathered friends in autumn. North Ronaldsay is on the avian highway between Europe and Africa, making autumn and spring here deeply special. The archipelago’s first bird observatory opened on North Ronaldsay in 1987 and it is has not looked back since in ornithologist circles. They are all here, from Marsh Warblers, through to Wrynecks and Marsh Warblers (just one of the warbler species regularly spotted), on to Red-backed Shrike, Whinchats and Tree Pipits. Birds of prey spotted include Osprey, Hen Harriers and Marsh Harriers; with Short-Eared Owls too. I’m a big fan of a local favourite, the Great Skua.
Back delving into the imprint of man, autumn is also a special time to visit Orkney’s treasure trove of prehistoric sights. You get to enjoy the big hitters, like the village of Skara Brae and remarkable henge of the Ring of Brodgar without the crowds. Eking around a village over 5,000 years old, as the autumnal Atlantic surf pounds this ancient shoreline, is a sublime experience.
As is wandering around stones erected in a similar period at the Ring of Brodgar, a humbling experience, made all the more spectacular by the special quality of the light in autumn. Nearby, don’t miss the vaulting Stones of Stenness. This stone circle is a glory to visit as an autumnal hue spreads all around. Make sure when you’re here to also check out the Barnhouse Hide on the Harray loch near the stones, which is a good place to catch sight of an otter or two.
Also within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Maeshowe is, of course, famous for its winter solstice, when the sun casts shards of light right down its 11m-long entrance tunnel into the main chamber. But the autumnal sun and lengthening shadows make visiting it and other burial cairns very dramatic in autumn. I recommend a visit to nearby Unstan Chambered Cairn, as well as Cuween Chambered Cairn and Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn. Chances are, at this trio it will just be you and a tangible sense of millennia of history just blowing in the wind.
There is nothing quite like cosying up in autumn hearing a good yarn. You get plenty of those at the Orkney Storytelling Festival, which this year will be held from Thursday 26th to Sunday 29th October 2023. The likes of renowned British Indian storyteller Peter Chand and Shonaleigh, a drut’syla (storyteller) from the Yiddish oral tradition. They will be on hand at a festival that delves into the world of trowies (similar to trolls), with tall tales and Orkney’s rich oral tradition lighting up the autumn.
Kirkwall is a cosy place to hang out in autumn too. There are strong links to the Nordic traditions on Orkney and you will find a real spirit of cosy hygge here too. I enjoy being tucked up in one of the warm pubs sipping on one of the excellent local malt whiskies. Everyone knows about the world-famous delights of Highland Park, but I’ve a lot of time for the underrated and less well known Scapa too. Scapa Distillery have just revamped their visitor experience so it’s a great time to visit if you like a wee dram.
There is just no bad time to savour the deeply eclectic Orkney archipelago. But for me autumn is the best time to really appreciate Orkney in all its amber glow glory. Autumn on Orkney offers a warm, life- affirming embrace that lies only a short journey away with Northlink Ferries. What are you waiting for?
Robin McKelvie is an award-winning travel writer and broadcaster who has been published in over 200 magazines and newspapers worldwide.