Orkney holds a unique charm in the winter season. During this time, visitors can enjoy many of our renowned sites without the crowds, and the occasionally tempestuous weather can truly enliven the senses. The islands remain vibrant throughout the season, with an abundance of activities to partake in during the festive period and into the New Year. Here are our top five recommendations for things to experience in Orkney during the winter.

Festive Fun Takes Center Stage in Orkney

During the Christmas season, Orkney bursts with festive energy. Villages across the islands come alive with beautiful trees and lights, immersing everyone in the holiday spirit. Local musicians, featuring fiddles, accordions, guitars, and drums, take center stage, filling various venues throughout Orkney with joyful sounds.

Orkney also offers a fantastic destination for Christmas shopping, showcasing the talents of artisans and craft makers who provide an array of unique and special gifts.

On Christmas Day, hundreds of boys and men from Kirkwall shift their focus away from the presents under the tree to participate in the traditional Ba' game, played in and around the town's streets. The Uppies and Doonies engage in fierce competition, pushing, kicking, smuggling, and sprinting a handcrafted leather ball to their respective ends of the town in games that can last for hours. It's a unique experience; bundle up warmly and bring a bottle, as it's a highly social spectacle for spectators!


Orkney welcomes special guests to its shores

Visitors to Orkney are always greeted with a warm welcome, and this holds especially true in the upcoming months as some extraordinary species choose the islands as their seasonal home.

Orkney plays host to a diverse array of migrating and wintering birds, with a particular focus on ducks and divers. Long-tailed ducks, having spent their summer in the Arctic, can be observed in Orkney. Listen for their haunting 'calloo' cries at the Peedie Sea in Kirkwall or at Echnaloch Bay in Burray.

Orkney serves as the seasonal residence for nearly a thousand great northern divers, constituting a quarter of the British wintering population, along with Slavonian grebes. Both species are globally designated as threatened, making the opportunity to see them in such numbers in Orkney a truly unique experience. Scapa Flow at Hobbister and Echnaloch Bay are ideal locations to witness these remarkable birds in action.

Keep a vigilant eye out for curlews, golden plovers, sanderlings, turnstones, redshanks, and more. Orkney truly stands as a birdwatching paradise throughout the entire year.


Northern Lights grace the night sky

Winter in Orkney brings brief days and extended, dark nights—ideal conditions for catching a glimpse of the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis, locally known as the 'Merry Dancers.'

In moments of favorable weather and clear skies, Orkney's northerly position and minimal light pollution make it a perfect setting for witnessing this phenomenon. The Northern Lights occur when solar wind from the sun collides with magnetic particles in the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in stunning displays of color in the northern sky.

Orkney's beaches, coastline, and countryside offer optimal vantage points to observe the Northern Lights. Stay updated with sightings and photos by following the Orkney Aurora Group on Facebook, ensuring you don't miss a moment. Additionally, you can use Aurorawatch to stay informed about potential displays.


A season-long showcase of coastal charms

A touch of wintry weather won't deter our island communities from extending a warm welcome to visitors in the winter months. What better way to clear the mind and unwind than on one of our enchanting islands, boasting deserted beaches, tranquil landscapes, and amiable residents?

Papa Westray has curated a series of special events aimed at showcasing the island's nature and heritage, offering accommodation packages for those seeking a distinctive winter retreat. Meanwhile, neighboring Westray features excellent sites and a plethora of high-quality accommodations for a rejuvenating post-festive break.

Embark on an adventure to explore the tallest land-based lighthouse in the UK in North Ronaldsay, or invigorate yourself with a leisurely stroll on the picturesque beaches of Sanday, Stronsay, and Eday. For a shorter excursion, the inner isles of Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre, and Shapinsay provide archaeological wonders, scenic walks, shopping, and even a castle!

Let's not overlook Hoy and Flotta, with their rich wartime heritage sites and some of Orkney's most breathtaking landscapes. Plan your island-hopping experience through the Visit Orkney website.


Open doors all year round

If you're considering a visit during the winter months, anticipate welcoming open doors and a plethora of intriguing sites to explore. In Orkney, things certainly don't come to a halt.

Our Historic Scotland sites continue to showcase thousands of years of Orcadian history. Why not delve into them with a complimentary tour offered by the Ranger Service? Alternatively, for indoor exploration, ascend the upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral. If your interest lies in food and drink, consider booking a tour of the Orkney Brewery or the distilleries at Highland Park and Scapa.

Delve into Orkney's wartime heritage with a guided tour of Ness Battery in Stromness. If witnessing our talented artisans at work intrigues you, the Orkney Crafts Association's Craft Trail offers a personalized tour of our islands, complete with ample shopping opportunities along the way.