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Sailing in the Orkney Isles

Remarkably few yachts visit this stunning sailing ground yet it has many possibilities. Described as "green whales of the Atlantic" the Orkney isles are low lying tranquil farming landscapes where you can hear the call of the skylarks, lapwings and curlews in the summer. The island of Hoy is a bit more rugged with dramatic red cliffs, crashing surf beaches and the famous Old Man of Hoy sea stack gaurd the South Western edge of the Orkney Archipelago. Walking the cliffs here you can see countless Fulmars and the occasional Hen Harrier or Sea Eagle. In the distance the mountains of Sutherland can still be seen. Underground, archaeological riches wait to be discovered.

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Why we love this sailing ground

Sheltered Anchorages and Sounds

Captain Gijs from Tecla describes Orkney as a Northern Scillies in terms of its sailing potential. For an island group in the wild North Atlantic, is has a lot of flat seas and sounds to explore, with fast tides and interesting navigation. The most famous expanse of sheltered sea is Scapa Flow – an incredible natural harbour and big enough to scuttle a German Naval Fleet. There are plenty of anchorages and very few yachts. In summer the sun takes a long time to set up here so plenty of time to organise a BBQ.  It is a very windy place for much of the year, but you can generally see the weather coming, and it is constantly changing. If it looks a bit ‘dreak’ in the morning, never give up on a life outdoors…as it might be glorious in a few hours time.

sailing in the orkney Isles
sailing between the islands in Orkney

Wildlife & Bird Watchers Delight.

In the space of a day walking on Hoy we saw a white tailed sea eagle on her nest, fulmars and kittiwakes, curlew, Arctic Skuas having a splash in a fresh water lake, a snowy white Hen Harrier, skylarks everywhere, and Northern Divers. On the mainland we saw three otters playing in the kelp.

(see separate page on Orkney Wildlife.

Otters on Orkney
Otters on Orkney

Clean air, crystal clear seas.

The light quality here would excite artists and photographers. The islands certainly don’t lack colour. On Hoy the red sandstone cliffs contrast with emerald and turquoise seas. White sand beaches and crystal-clear waters hint of a more tropical location, but a quick thrilling wild swim soon reminds you this is Northern Scotland. Oystercatchers, Dunlins and turnstones run along beaches that were once so tempting for Viking long ships to land on. In wilder spots and sand bars you can find surf breaks that surf magazines would go crazy to feature. Wrecks in Scapa Flow lure divers from all over the world and you can book a dive in Stromness with the right experience.

Radwick Bay on Hoy
Radwick Bay on Hoy

Land Worked Since the Stone Age.

This is a landscape shaped by farmers through the ages, with the mild oceanic climate to help and hinder them. In spring every hillside seems full of gambolling lambs, flower meadows and the sound of skylarks, but the lack of trees is a big clue to the harshness of winter. Even the smallest of islands seems to house several working farms and ten more ruins of past farmers. The layers of history are in the soil with burial chambers, burnt mounds, Neolithic villages and Viking skeletons and relics under every field. It feels easy and safe to wander lonely as a cloud in these big sky and sea landscapes. The turf is soft and outrageously green, the heather on the hilltops flowers in the late summer and the sea looks more blue that it should for a latitude of @@ North.

Many things lie buried in Orkney's soft sandy soils
Many things lie buried in Orkney's soft sandy soils

Archaeologist’s Dream Archipelago

On mainland Orkney the archaeology and history is significant and world renowned, so it is worth signing up for a proper tour. Tecla crew took a guided tour by taxi to some of the historic highlights which help us understand our sailing ground more. Mike and Mary took us around the stone age village at Skara Brae with a cluster of interconnected Neolithic houses, explained the possible purpose of the standing stones of Brodga, we crawled into burial chambers and learnt about Viking murder and mayhem in St Magnus cathedral, where a long ship model sat on the altar.

The Orkney Isles resemble “green whales on the Atlantic Ocean”

stone age house recontructed at Skara Brae
stone age house recontructed and the real thing too at Skara Brae


Unsung Orcadian Heroes – John Rae

Stromness has a waterfront, like many historic ports should have. The many small jetties and wharves still exist and the port buzzes with activity. The main street is an amazing switch back of sandstone slabs and cobbles, where a ‘road’ was created across the ‘grain’ of steps and alley ways that lead from the waterfront. Many Orcadian's left their native land for a life a sea on whalers or working for the Hudson Bay Fur Traders. A young Doctor John Rae was one of them and should have been celebrated as one of the greatest Arctic explorers in Britain. Not only did he chart great tracts of the Canadian North and pioneer effective arctic expeditioning, he discovered the fate of the missing Franklin Expedition and the missing link for the North West Passage. Sadly he upset the British Establishment and Royal Navy, so never received full recognition for his services to the nation.

scurvy hospital in Stomness
scurvy hospital in Stomness
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