Between the prehistoric sites and natural beauty alone, even a few moments on Orkney’s striking islands make for a mind-reeling experience! There’s nothing more humbling than gazing up at the mighty standing stones or peering down into one of the world’s best-preserved Neolithic settlements.
Orkney’s many museums pay homage to these wise ancient sites and host a compelling collection of locally unearthed objects, some of which are over 5,000 years old. Explore our edit of the best museums in Orkney and step into a bygone past worth stumbling across.
Orkney Fossil And Heritage Centre
Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Maritime Museum, History Museum
The Orkney Fossil And Heritage Centre is a journey through time and a total paradise for archaeology, geology and history enthusiasts. Based on the island of Burray in the most atmospheric converted farm buildings, this hidden gem has an impressive collection of fossils from Orkney and further afar. A wealth of facts join the extensive rock and fossil collections (which include a fossil that’s approximately half a billion years old), along with intricate illustrations of 380-million-year-old fish.
The Heritage Galleries are overflowing with exhibits surrounding boat building in Burray, the First and Second World Wars, the construction of the Churchill Barriers and the famous Italian Chapel. The museum’s contents were donated by local builder Ernest Firth, who along with his father collected fossils from their quarry, as well as numerous heritage objects from furniture and china to cameras and tools. The tearoom is to die for!
Famous for being situated in the same vicinity as Orkney’s own Skara Brae, one of the world’s best-preserved Neolithic settlements older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, Skaill House holds the key to endless fascinating items, including Neolithic and Iron Age finds. Most of the objects and artefacts were collected and accumulated by the many Lairds that once graced this mansion house. Perhaps the most famous of all was Laird William Watt of Skaill who first discovered Skara Brae in 1850 following a storm. Built by Bishop Graham during the 1620s, Skaill House features a maze of captivating rooms and is restored as a 1950s family home.
The Stromness Museum offers an abundance of information and objects that divulge all the details about Orkney’s natural and maritime history. This volunteer-run gem dates back to the 1800s and holds the title of Scotland’s second oldest museum. The Victorian natural history collections range from fossils and bird eggs to sea creatures, while the maritime selection features model ships, gripping travel accounts and more. Also on display are exhibitions about Orkney’s wartime involvement and links with Canada and the Arctic. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the Ethnographic Gallery, which holds curiosities gathered by Orcadian adventurers over the years.
An unmissable attraction, the Orkney Museum boasts a wealth of collections and artefacts detailing Orkney’s rich history starting from the Stone Age all the way through to the Picts and Vikings to the present day. Unsurprisingly, the museum’s contents are of great international importance and a source of perpetual inspiration amidst the scientific community. The fact that the museum operates out of Tankerness House, an age-old home passed down for three centuries to members of the Baikie family of Tankerness, only adds to the historic allure. Along with a vast selection of photographs, the Orkney Museum hosts an ever-changing temporary exhibition programme.
Located in Kirkwall, the Orkney Wireless Museum is brimming with devices that capture the imagination. And it all started with a love of wireless sets! The founder, the late Jim MacDonald, collected copious wireless devices over the years before transforming his life-long passion into a museum. Collections include both domestic and defence wireless equipment from years gone by that help narrate Orkney’s wartime history. As well as a hyper-local glimpse into how radio helped defend the home fleet at Scapa Flow, visitors can marvel at a spy suitcase radio, crystal sets, WWII maps and charts and even try their hand at ‘Tennis’ on an early computer. It offers an unrivalled, intimate glance at the evolution of radio, including novelty kinds disguised in sauce bottles, breakfast cereal and even an apple!
A popular must-see place located at Lyness Pier on Hoy, the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum looks at Orkney’s importance and involvement during the two World Wars. Highlights range from old photographs and oral history accounts to weapons, exclusive film footage, historic boats and vehicles. Although the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum is currently undergoing major renovations until its grand re-opening in 2020, there will still be a temporary pop-up exhibition at Lyness, along with guided walks along Lyness Wartime Trail. This walk includes a visit to Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery.
The Kirbuster Farm Museum on Birsay stands out as the last un-restored example of a traditional ‘firehoose’ in Northern Europe. The house, which still has its central hearth complete with peat fire and stone neuk bed reminiscent of Neolithic interiors, was occupied up until the 1960s and is the former home of the Spence and Hay families. Adding to the experience is an Edwardian parlour and charming Victorian gardens. The implement shed boasts a fascinating range of farming memorabilia too. Visitors can also test their putting skills on the green and investigate the back garden’s Trowie Trail. This place is a must-visit for those eager to explore Orkney ancestry and delve deeper into Orkney in times past. Free to all, the museum is open between March and October.