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2011 – The Shetland and Orkney Islands

Date of tour: June 2011
Duration of tour: 4 weeks (one week on Orkney, one week on Shetland, one week to get there from Germany, one week to return)
Total cost of tour (for two people): approx. €1000 to get to the UK and back, plus £2000 in Scotland and the islands.
Orkney map with points of interest
Shetland map with points of interest

Getting there and around

There are currently two ferry services operating between mainland Scotland and the Orkney Islands. The shortest route (approx. one hour) is offered by Pentland Ferries who sail from Gills Bay on the north Scottish coast to St Margaret's Hope for £50 for two people and two bikes. North Link Ferries operates a 90-minute service from Scrabster to Stromness, as well as a six-hour route from Aberdeen to Kirkwall.

North Link Ferries is currently the only ferry operator with services to Shetland. The journey from Kirkwall (Orkney) to Lerwick (Shetland) takes around eight hours. From Aberdeen it takes 12 hours. A return journey for two people and two bikes in a cabin cost approx. £400 in 2011.

Within the Orkney and Shetland Islands there are regular ferry sailings. Orkney ferries have an office with very helpful staff in Kirkwall where you can book journeys on the day of departure. This page provides a good overview of the routes within the Shetland Islands. The website recommends that you book ferries in advance but, for motorbikes, that wasn't always necessary.

To get to Scotland from mainland Europe, DFDS operates a service from Amsterdam to Newcastle for approx. €500 for two people and two bikes in a cabin. (Unfortunately, DFDS stopped operating their passenger route to Edinburgh in 2010.)

Good motorbiking routes

(Click on the photos on the right to enlarge them.)

There are plenty of tarmac roads on the islands so motorcycling is no problem at all. However, remoter locations are accessible only by gravel roads, such as the one in Photo 1 which leads to Noup Head Lighthouse on Westray (Photo 2).

Since most of the roads on the islands offer expansive and impressive views of rolling green landscapes, tall vertical cliffs, long sandy beaches and small coastal villages, it would be difficult to name the best roads for motorcycling. They are all good. Instead, here is a selection of day tours from a base either in Kirkwall (Orkney) or Lerwick (Shetland) which include places worth visiting:

ORKNEY

1. The roads south and east of Kirkwall skirt around sandy bays or lead over causeways (built as defences during the Second World War - Photo 3), so you are always travelling at sea level. On this tour you will encounter the Italian Chapel (see Worth a visit below) and some spectacular scenery, such as the cliffs on the coast of South Ronaldsay (Photo 4) and a sea cave known as The Gloup on East Mainland (Photo 5).

2. There is a lot to explore west and north of Kirkwall and at least two days is recommended. As well as lots of roads leading both around the coast and up and over the small hills in the interior, some notable sights of interest include the neolithic chambered tomb at Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar (Photo 6) and the well-preserved prehistoric village of Skara Brae, which was exposed in 1850 after a violent storm. For those interested in the region's Viking history, a visit to the Orkneyinga Saga Centre and the nearby Orphir Round Church (Photo 7) are worth a visit.

3. The island of Westray is reached by ferry from Kirkwall. It is possible to sail to Westray in the morning, cover all the roads on the island and return to Kirkwall in the evening. The road in Photo 1 and the lighthouse in Photo 2 are on Westray. Climbing the ruins of the 16th century Noltland Castle (Photo 8) gives you a good vantage point to see the surrounding land and seascape (to visit the castle you have to collect the keys from the farm house opposite). The castle is located near Pierowall, where there is a Heritage Centre displaying the skeleton of a sperm whale (Photo 9). From the airstrip on the north end of the island, the shortest scheduled flight in the world runs between Westray and Papa Westray (Photo 10). The flight is operated by Loganair and takes two minutes. There are two scheduled flights per day for £21 return but flights can also be chartered.

SHETLAND

1. On the mainland, there are lots of country roads leading down to bays and beaches (usually dead ends and you have to turn back the way you came) which provide pleasant views of rolling hills and offshore islands (Photo 11). In the summer you will see piles of peat (an important source of energy for the Shetlanders) drying in the fields (Photo 12) as well as the tiny Shetland ponies grazing (Photo 13). There is a nice road leading to Esha Ness lighthouse, at the end of which you can watch the waves breaking against the sheer cliff faces (Photo 14). Mavis Grind (which means "gateway of the narrow isthmus") is a narrow stretch of land connecting Northmavine to the Mainland. On one side of the isthmus is the North Sea and on the other the North Atlantic, with only 33 metres between them. Mavis Grind is a popular crossing point for Shetland's sea otters (Photo 15).

2. The island of Unst (Scotland's northernmost inhabited island) also has some interesting sights to offer (see Worth a visit below). The island is reached by ferry via the island of Yell. The ferries run frequently throughout the day, so visiting Unst on a day trip from Lerwick is easily manageable. The road to Skaw past Nor Wick (wick means bay) is the most northerly accessible road in the UK.

3. The road south of Scalloway (where there is a memorial to the Shetland Bus (Photo 16), to remember the boats that helped many Norwegians flee persecution by the Nazis in the Second World War) continues to narrow until it reaches a white sandy beach in a bay just past a group of farm houses called Papil (Photo 17).

4. Finally, if your idea of motorcycle fun is spending a weekend living in a large field with 500+ other motorcyclists, drinking lots of alcohol and not doing much motorcycling, then you may be interested in visiting the Simmer Dim rally which has taken place in the Shetland Islands around the summer solstice every year since 1982.

Accommodation

1. TOP TIP Considering the size of the Orkney Islands, it makes sense to station yourself in one central location and to do day tours from there. The Pickaquoy campsite in Kirkwall offers a very reasonably-priced site with excellent facilities (including a kitchen and social room) in a prime location. The campsite belongs to the sports and entertainment complex next door, which has a swimming pool, gym and cinema and which hosts music and local cultural events, such as the annual St Magnus Festival.

2. As in Kirkwall, the campsite in Lerwick on mainland Shetland is also attached to a leisure and entertainment complex and has beautiful views over a small loch (Photo 18). From the hill next to the campsite you can see for miles over the whole area (Photo 19). This is also an ideal location to station yourself in order to explore the islands, although the campsite could benefit from a more comfortable social room and a more amiable warden (moving the picnic tables is strictly forbidden!).

Food

Eating
As can be expected in a coastal economy, seafood features a lot on the diet - from the well-known fish and chips to a wide range of other tasty seafood. An Orkney Islands speciality is lamb from sheep which have been reared purely on seaweed on the island of North Ronaldsay. This diet is said to give the meat a very distinct flavour.

Drinking
The ales produced by the Valhalla Brewery (Shetland) and the whisky from the Highland Park distillery (Orkney Islands) are representative of two typical types of alcoholic drink enjoyed in the islands. A non-alcoholic drink which is popular all over Scotland is Irn Bru (Photo 20).

Prices are reasonable and the cost of food and drink needn't take up a large part of your budget.

Worth a visit

ORKNEY

1. The capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, is a pleasant, bustling town with a lovely harbour front (Photo 21) and some interesting sights to visit:

2. The Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, approximately eight miles south of Kirkwall, was erected by Italian prisoners of war who had been brought in to build the causeways mentioned above. They built it in their free time using whatever resources they could lay their hands on. Thanks to post-war restoration work, it now has a very pretty interior (Photo 23).

SHETLAND

1. Lerwick, Shetland's capital, is a lovely little harbour town with steep, narrow alleys and grey stone buildings (Photo 24). Sights worth experiencing are:

2. Two notable sights worth visiting on Unst are:

Recommended reading and viewing
Lonely Planet guide to Scotland, Neil Wilson and Andy Symington, (2013: Lonely Planet Publications)
Between Weathers: Travels in 21st century Shetland, Ron Macmillan, (2008: Sandstone Press)
Between Weathers official movie site

Back to all tours
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1. Some routes are not too comfortable on road bikes 2. Noup Head Lighthouse on Westray 3. Causeway between Orkney Mainland and South Ronaldsay 4. Cliffs on the coast of South Ronaldsay 5. The Gloup, East Mainland, Orkney 6. Ring of Brodgar, Orkney 7. Orphir Round Church, Mainland, Orkney 8. Noltland Castle, Westray 9. Sperm whale skeleton, Westray Heritage Centre 10. Westray airstrip with final destination in the background 11. View from North Mainland, Shetland 12. Peat drying on The Shetland Isles 13. Shetland ponies are no taller than a one metre fence 14. Cliffs at Esha Ness 15. Mavis Grind, Shetland 16. Memorial to the Shetland Bus, Scalloway 17. Beach at Papil, Shetland 18. Clickimin campsite with view over Clickimin Loch 19. View of Lerwick from Staney Hill 20. Fish and chips and Irn Bru 21. Kirkwall harbour front 22. St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall 23. Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney 24. Houses in Lerwick 25. Lerwick town and harbour 26. Fort Charlotte, Lerwick, Shetland 27. Hay's Dock, Lerwick, Shetland 28. Up Helly Aa paintings and coats of arms 29. Stained glass window in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland 30. Seal relaxing in Brei Wick, Lerwick, Shetland 31. Valhalla Brewery, Unst Shetland 32. Bus shelter on Unst, Shetland Orkney map with points of interest Shetland map with points of interest