The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Exploring towns and villages

Looking across to Stromness. (c) SFLPS.

There are two main towns in Orkney, both are on the mainland.

Kirkwall is the largest and oldest of the towns and grew during the Norse period when Saint Rognvald built the cathedral in memory of his martyred uncle Magnus. Some argue the cathedral makes Kirkwall a city.

Stromness was named by Viking settlers, but it was during the days of sail that the town developed in response to the needs of international shipping.

Both developed around the pier and in the past were predominantly fishing towns. Kirkwall has expanded greatly in recent years and the harbour is less important than it once was, but Stromness is much smaller and is still very much a fishing town and everywhere you go you will see boats, creels, piers and signs of nautical activity.

Both towns have traditional winding streets, and Stromness has a flagstone and cobbled street throughout the entire length of the town. The cobbles were laid in the time of horse-drawn transport to help the horses get a better footing in steep or slippery conditions.

The houses are narrow and have their gable ends on to the sea. For those interested in architecture it is worth looking upwards to the roofs as many houses have crow-stepped gables, multiple chimneys and flagged roofs. Some houses were originally roofed with straw thatch and the angle of the roofs are particularly high to enable water to run off the thatch.

There are a number of villages around the Scapa Flow area and most were established as a result of the fishing industry. Holm, Burray and St Margaret's Hope grew up as a result of the herring industry. During the boom years the fishermen and gutters who followed the herring needed places to stay so hotels and shops were established to accommodate them. 

Longhope on Hoy was established during the Napoleonic Wars when merchant ships paused here to obtain supplies before leaving British shores.

The village of Orphir is the only one which does not lie close to the sea. It is situated almost midway between Kirkwall and Stromness and was a place to stop and rest during the days when all travelling was done by horse.

Economic and environmental pressures have changed the face of Orkney's industries, and fishing does not benefit the economy as much as it once did. Villages which used to be hives of industry are now quieter, although the piers still see considerable activity through recreational sailing and other watersports. Each year a regatta is held in Longhope and in Holm, and both are well attended.

Orkney has a relaxed way of life in comparison to more urban places. It is possible to walk about the towns and villages at a comfortable pace, and relatively unhindered by traffic or rush. The pace of life in the smaller islands is event more laid back. All in all, Orkney is a good place for visitors to take their time and enjoy the peace and quiet.