Calder, Simon, The Independent (London, England)
Traveller's guide Beyond the north coast of Scotland, this windswept yet beautiful archipelago brims with history and wildlife, says Simon Calder
Landscapes and seascapes that make you feel you've found one of the rawest edges of the world; activities from horse-riding and wildlife-watching to world-class diving; and a history that stretches from the last war right back to the dawn of civilisation - you can experience all this without leaving Britain, in the archipelago that lies just beyond mainland Scotland.
Orkney (never "the Orkneys") comprises a huddle of islands in the upper Fifties. That refers to its latitude, but as it happens, the ambience harks back to the 1950s, too. Some of the shops and cafs seem to have changed little in the past half-century, while passengers on "domestic" flights between the islands escape any security checks. If the notion of a beautiful and tranquil backwater studded with intrigue appeals, you need not look much further than John O'Groats.
Kirkwall is not exactly a throbbing metropolis, which is, of course, part of the charm. It is the location for the northernmost cathedral in Britain: St Magnus, named after Magnus Erlendsson, the 11th-century "martyr of Orkney" (01856 874 894; stmagnus.org). The mighty structure of red and yellow sandstone is best explored on an organised tour of the upper level (Tuesday and Thursday, 11am and 2pm; admission 6.50).
Just across the road, you can explore a pair of ruins: the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces. These elaborate structures speak of the tangled history of Orkney, tussled over by Norse and Scots warriors. Like many Orkney sites, the palaces are open only in summer (April- October); 9am-5.30pm daily, 4.50. Another intriguing attraction is the Wireless Museum (full of old radios - nothing to do with internet broadband; orkneywirelessmuseum.org.uk, 10am-4.30pm daily, 2).
The capital is on the northern side of Mainland, a splat of land that bulges to the west and is squeezed in several places to the east. There is more than enough on this island alone for a good few days' stay - not least because you can explore two extra islands without getting your feet wet. Burray and South Ronaldsay are connected by causeways, constructed by Italian prisoners during the Second World War. They provide protection for Scapa Flow - the vast, deep natural harbour guarded on its south-west flank by Hoy.
Orkney has exported its people far and wide - as most prominently revealed in the pretty port of Stromness, to the west of Mainland, and the arrival point from Scrabster on Scotland's north coast. In the late 18th century, three-quarters of the men in the Hudson's Bay Company were Orcadians, who were judged "more sober and tractable than the Irish", and cheaper than the English. There is also a plaque marking Mrs Humphrey's House, which served as a temporary hospital in 1835-36, "for scurvy-ridden whale men who had been trapped in the ice for months". You can find out more at the fascinating Stromness Museum at 52 Albert Street (01856 850 025; 10am-5pm daily; 3). And pay a visit to the welcoming Pier Arts Centre in Stromness (01856 850 209; pierartscentre.com), the former offices of the Hudson's Bay Company and now a gallery and community hub; open 10.30am-5pm.
Stromness is also the departure point for ferries to Moaness on Hoy. Orkney's second-largest island, Hoy is distinct because of its dramatic terrain - rising to the archipelago's highest peak, the 1,571ft Ward Hill. Close by are the highest sea cliffs in Britain, and out at sea the 450ft stack, the Old Man of Hoy.
The North Isles - starting with Shapinsay, Wyre, Egilsay and Rousay - are, in comparison, sparsely populated and, in the wrong sort of weather, bleak. If you can devote several weeks to an Orkney exploration, then you could certainly visit them and discover treats such as the Victorian frivolity of Balfour Castle on Shapinsay, now an exclusive country-house hotel (01856 711 282; balfourcastle. …