If you’re wondering how to get to Orkney, you’ve come to the right place. During my time living on Orkney, I had the pleasure of experiencing everything from small boat to twin engine plane when it came to crossing the Firth. And on occasion, I survived a few rough ones… so it’s always worth checking that boats are running during adverse weather.
To start with, why not consider one of the four boat crossings… one ferry leaves from Aberdeen and other three depart from the North coast of Scotland (perfect if you’re doing the North Coast 500). There are 3 car ferries to Orkney and 1 foot passenger ferry.
Ferry Crossings to Orkney
We’ll start with the ferry crossings that are available from mainland Scotland to Orkney. Here’s a map that pinpoints the exact location of the four ferry terminals where you can catch a boat to Orkney. Read below for further details on each crossing.
Aberdeen to Kirkwall [Crossing time 6 hrs] – Northlink Ferries – Car Ferry
The first option is to catch the ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall. NorthLink operate a night ferry which stops off in Kirkwall, although don’t fall asleep as you might end up in Shetland! The two modern ships used for this route are large at 125 metres long and carry freight as well as your car.
You won’t be disappointed by the facilities either. It’s possible to book a cabin with an ensuite bathroom should you feel the need for a little luxury. For the ultimate ferry-crossing experience, you can take the Magnus Lounge upgrade with free tea, coffee, snacks, newspapers and charge points.
Feeling bored? How about watching a movie in the on-board cinema? Other options to pass the time include having a drink at the bar, a tasty meal in restaurant or a spot of shopping.
John O’Groats to Burwick [Crossing time 40 mins] – John O’Groats Ferries – Foot Passenger Only
So, you have made it to John O ‘Groats, but you find yourself staring across the ocean longing for further adventure. Well fear not, this isn’t the end of the road. There are ways to cross the wild waters of the Pentland Firth which thankfully don’t include swimming.
This ferry is for foot passengers only so check the other options if you’re planning on taking your car across to Orkney. The MV Pentland Venture isn’t the largest ferry at 33 meters, with a maximum of 250 passengers, but it does get you across the water rapidly. It’s also a great price at £20 a pop, plus your bike and dog are free.
Facilities are more basic, consisting of toilets and coffee. Once you reach the other side, a transfer bus to Kirkwall will be waiting for you and will take around 40 minutes to reach the capital. In addition, there is an option to board a connecting bus in Inverness that meets the ferry. Please note this service only runs from May through to September.
Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope [Crossing time 1 hr] – Pentland Ferries – Car Ferry
Gills Bay is also located on the North coast of Scotland, a stone’s throw from John O’Groats. Having taken this boat recently, I can confirm that the restaurant on the MV Pentalina, makes a mean bacon roll. Outside there is a viewing deck with seating and inside some big comfy chairs next to large picture windows.
The view is incredible as the boat weaves its way through some of the 70 islands that make up Orkney. If you have your car onboard, then you have chosen the quickest and cheapest way to cross the watery stuff.
The boat itself is a modern powerful Catamaran which is large enough to carry lorries as well as cars. You will arrive in the picturesque fishing village of St Margaret’s Hope with a 25-minute drive to Kirkwall. We chose the short drive south to visit the Tomb of the Eagles first. Check out our itinerary if you opt for this particular ferry crossing.
They have also added a second boat to their fleet, the MV Alfred, which according to their website is ‘the cleanest and greenest ferry of its kind, with over 60% less fuel consumption and CO2 emissions than similar ferries serving the Scottish islands’.
Scrabster to Stromness [Crossing time 1h30] – Northlink Ferries – Car Ferry
Scrabster is located on the North coast of Scotland, 1½ miles from Thurso and 22½ miles from Wick. This route is also is also run by the NorthLink ferry company and the MV Hamnavoe boat has a similar flavour to the Aberdeen ferry. It’s smaller at 112 meters, but it’s plenty big enough to transport freight as well as passenger cars. For me, the top reason to choose this option would be the incredible view you get of Rackwick Bay and the Old Man of Hoy during this crossing.
If you are a fan of the finer things in life, then take advantage of the comfortable Magnus Lounge for £7.50. You will get a free bacon roll and coffee on a morning sailing or a drink at the bar during the afternoon crossing.
Scrabster is a 35-minute drive from John O’Groats and 30 minutes to Gills Bay. One the other side, Stromness is Orkney’s second largest town with a good range of restaurants, hotels and shops to explore.
Flights from Mainland Scotland to Orkney [Flight time around 1hr]
The final option, which is by far the easiest and quickest, is to make like Nelly Furtado and fly like a bird. It may seem strange, however, I know many Orcadians that still refuse to use a ferry and instead prefer to fly. Despite being an island race, some locals harbour a deep fear of the sea and what it is capable of on this wild northern coast.
Flights from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow & Inverness to Kirwall – Loganair
The Scottish airline Loganair (once a division of Flybe) operate regular flights from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness to Kirkwall airport which is located just 10 minutes drive from the town centre. The planes are compact, featuring as many as two propellers, plus there’s no long queues for baggage on arrival. It feels like a private charter flight with a tartan twist, check out the paint job. It’s all very convenient too, but you will need to hire a car, unless Kirkwall is your only destination.
Flights from Edinburgh, Glasgow & Aberdeen to Kirkwall – British Airways
If you feel like spending a little more, British Airways also fly direct from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen to Kirkwall. But be aware that prices can be double that of Loganair and there is not a big difference in the plane.
Once you arrive in Orkney you may also wish to use Loganair to island hop. There are flights between the mainland and the outer isles such North Ronaldsay and Eday. Why not experience the famous flight between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray, it’s the world’s shortest scheduled flight and takes a whopping 2 minutes! Jet lag is not a problem.