Orkney Ferries and Air Travel

One of the Northlink ferries to the Orkneys

One of the Northlink ferries to the Orkneys

It is tempting to try and visit many Orkney Islands in an island-hopping day-trip. In reality this is often difficult as the earlier and later sailings, popular for day-trips, get booked up quickly as the ferries often can only take up to 12 cars and 91 passengers.

To fully explore the islands you invariably need your your own car as public transport can be limited and there are few services on the islands themselves. Bike hire is available in Kirkwall and Stromness but not on the islands. It is far better to at least stay overnight on the smaller islands and make sure you book your ferry crossing well in advance, even before you arrive in Orkney – staff manning the booking office can be a bit thin on the ground if you’re trying to organise ferry trips once you arrive in Orkney.

Ferries to the Islands

There are several available options for travelling to the Orkney Islands by ferry. Departure points are from Aberdeen or Scrabster, Gills Bay or John O’Groats on the Caithness coast. Ferries either pull into the ferry terminal at Halston near Kirkwall on the Eastern side of Mainland or at Stromness ferry terminal on the west side of Mainland Orkney. Aberdeen to Kirkwall has a journey time of around six hours but is part of the holiday in itself.

Kirkwall Airport

Kirkwall Airport

Orkney Ferries run inter-island services from Kirkwall to the following Orkney islands: Shapinsay, Westray, Stronsay and Sanday. Although it is tempting to try and visit various islands on day-trips, you’ll be able to appreciate them more by taking a little more time over your visits. In addition, the Northlink Ferries’ car passenger service from Aberdeen to Lerwick in Shetland stops off at Kirkwall four times a week in the warmer months. And they run a service from Scrabster near Thurso to Stromness – with cream teas, good facilities, and excellent views.

John O’Groats Ferries run a service from John O’Groats in the far North East of Scotland to Burwick on South Ronaldsay which is connected to Mainland Orkney by the Churchill Barriers. The ferry crossing takes just 40 minutes. A connecting coach takes you to Kirkwall once on Orkney, and they also offer many tours.

Pentland Ferries run a ferry crossing from Gills Bay, west of John O’Groats in Caithness to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, Orkney. The crossing takes just an hour but needs advance booking.

Check out the inter-island services

There are innumerable small services connecting the islands together, and it is well worth taking at least one of these trips even if you’re not island-hopping and fully intend a static trip! You will often pass nature reserves, historic and military sites and many places of interest en route.

To be sure of times and availability when considering transferring to other Orkney islands, there are lots of factors to take into account, particularly when island-hopping during busy times so do check lists at the local tourist offices or ferry terminals as they are sure to be up to date.

Air travel

Kirkwall Airport is three miles East of Kirkwall and runs scheduled flights to and from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Sumburgh on Shetland as well as inter-island flights. The flight between Papa Westray and Westray is the shortest scheduled flight in the world lasting a mere three minutes maximum! With the usual airport facilities – shop, bar, cafe, payphones, television, broadband, and disabled facilities, this is a cracking little airport.