Between the picture-perfect towns of St Margaret’s Hope and Stromness, the world-renowned Pier Arts Centre and famous Orcadian artists such as Sylvia Wishart and Stanley Cursiter, the Orkney Islands have always been Scotland’s number one arts and crafts capital.
In Orkney, an unbridled creative spirit extends to every far-flung space of the historic landscapes. Besides, the natural light and frequent Northern Lights shows are too magical not to be portrayed in some form of artwork! From highly detailed tapestries to soul-moving wildlife paintings, explore our edit of Orkney’s best art galleries.
An artistic gold mine to come from Stromness, Wildscape Gallery on Victoria St houses the paintings, prints and cards of Orkney wildlife species and landscapes by world-renowned wildlife artist Tim Wootton. Critically acclaimed Orkney-based artist Wootton has endless accolades and a never-ending list of nominations to his name, including being shortlisted for the Young European Bird Artist of the Year in 1999, Winner of Wildscape Magazine’s Wildlife Artist of the Year 2008, BBC Wildlife Magazine Wildlife Artist of the Year 2010 and Winner Birdwatch/Swarovski Artist of the Year 2011. The beautiful works by this artistic wonder can also be found gracing many wildlife publications in the form of illustrations. Everything is a joy to look at.
Bursting at the seams with unrivalled talent, the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery is home to celebrated Orcadian artist Leila Thomson, whose giant bespoke tapestries never cease to stir the imagination and capture the soul. Inspired by the landscape of Orkney and the rhythm of life on the islands, Thomson comes from a long line of artists and is a graduate of the prestigious Edinburgh College of Art. Her ornate tapestries can be found embellishing a whole host of private collections across the globe. Thomson’s talented daughter Jo, another ECA graduate, also has a studio and exhibition space within the gallery. It’s an art lover’s dreamland.
An unmissable place, the Pier Arts Centre is a shining creative beacon not just for the people of Orkney but to those much further afar too. This world-renowned institution houses an outstanding collection of British fine art by major 20th-century artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis. Donated by the author, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner, this permanent collection is celebrated as one of the finest of its kind in the UK. Along with contemporary pieces, artworks by Orcadian artists Sylvia Wishart and Stanley Cursiter are also featured. Based in a complex of historic buildings, including a glorious postmodern shed, the Pier Arts Centre boasts changing exhibitions and events; it is also a partner of Tate.
Papey Listskjul or Papay Arts Centre is a sparkling jewel in Orkney’s resplendent art crown. Based on the wee island of Papa Westray, the very same destination (along with Westray) famed for hosting the world’s shortest commercial flight, Papey Listskjul is a not-for-profit, independent transmedia art project that places focus on experimental and place-specific art. Formerly known as Land Art Papa Westray, this creative endeavour kicked off in 2007 and has since evolved into a base and venue for art exhibitions, music gigs, art residencies and the Papay Gyro Nights Art Festival. Since its inception, the project has played host to over 40 art residencies and created ‘the most complete study and documentation of the island through film, music, sound art, architecture, visual art, performance and writing.’ Papey Listskjul has no fixed venue as such and instead explores its island for locations to set up studios.
Based on the breathtaking island of Westray, the Wheeling Steen Gallery is a must-visit for art lovers with a discerning eye. The gallery is a full-blown family affair run by innovative husband-and-wife duo Edwin and Elaine Rendall, whose ancestors have lived on Westray for centuries. The Wheeling Steen Gallery, which is Old Norse for ‘Resting Stone’, is chock-full of wonderful art prints (on both cards and canvas), photography collections, gifts galore and everything else in between, including the actual cabin salvaged from a Gothenburg-bound Norwegian barque ship that washed up on Westray in 1879. Between Edwin’s original art and the highly detailed crofting and fishing community scale model alone, this remarkable place rests in a league of its own.
Situated in the charming village of St Margaret’s Hope, the Workshop and Loft Gallery has graced Orkney since it was first established as a platform for local craftspeople in 1978. As well as crafts, this artistic haven specialises in high-quality knitwear, all of which is created from impeccable yarns using a range of contemporary and classic designs. The Workshop holds the key to an exclusive range of knitwear woven by local artisans adept at traditional knitting skills and using hypnotic patterns inspired by island life and the surrounding shores. A fantastic range of local arts and crafts masterpieces like jewellery, ceramics, prints, textiles, photographs and cards are also available. Hugged by cascading rays of natural light, the Loft Gallery is a cosy, intimate venue adored for its monthly exhibitions.
Tucked away on Victoria St, the Waterfront Gallery adds to the inimitable arty feel encompassing the seaport of Stromness. This picture-perfect gallery is filled to the gunwales with watercolours, oils, etchings, embroideries, pottery, glass and sculptures. The shop overflows with an abundance of high-quality keepsakes by local artists, ranging from Orkney-made craftwork to local folk music CDs. Just one glance and the overwhelming creative nature of the Orkney Islands makes itself known loud and clear. Numerous exhibitions by groups of local artists and single artists run throughout the year in this irresistible venue, which was once a Drapers situated with its own stone pier where workers would receive cargoes of fabrics from incoming boats. It’s a gem within a gem.
For contemporary splendour, look no further than the Yellowbird Gallery based on the north-west corner of Mainland Orkney, a stone’s throw from the Brough of Birsay. Inspired by the wondrous bird colonies that call Orkney home (as well as the islands themselves), the works housed here are created by local contemporary artists Lesley Murdoch and Jon Thompson. Known for stunning landscapes, Murdoch is moved by the magical play of light akin to Orkney, while bird-art guru Thompson is a deftly skilled artisan when it comes to depicting the local bird species in wood carvings. The gallery is small but bursting with charm and innovation. Bird lovers, be warned – this place will fly away with your heart!