10km (6 1/4 miles) N of John o' Groats (mainland Scotland), across Pentland Firth; 451km (280 miles) N of Edinburgh
To visit the Orkney Islands, an archipelago measuring about 81km (50 miles) from northeast to southwest, is to look at 1,000 years of history. Orkney is a virtual archaeological garden. Some 100 of the 500 known brochs -- often called the "castles of the Picts" -- are found here. Built by Orkney chiefs, they were fortified structures where islanders could find refuge from invaders, and wells inside provided water. The Orkneyinga Saga, written in the 9th or 10th century, is the record of the pomp and heraldry of Orkney's "golden age."
Covering a land area of 978 sq. km (378 sq. miles), the islands lie 10km (6 1/4 miles) north of the Scottish mainland. The terrain has lots of rich and fertile farmland but also dramatic scenery: Britain's highest perpendicular cliffs rise to 346m (1,135 ft.). The population of the entire chain is less than 20,000, spread sparsely across about 29 inhabited islands. The people are somewhat suspicious of strangers, and if you meet an Orcadian in a local pub, you'll have to break the ice. The climate is far milder than the location would suggest because of the warming currents of the Gulf Stream. There are few extremes in temperature. From May to July, the sunsets are astonishing, with the midsummer sun remaining above the horizon for 18 1/4 hours a day. The Orcadians call their midsummer sky "Grimlins," from the Old Norse word grimla, which means to twinkle or glimmer. There's enough light for golfers to play at midnight.
The Orkneys are also known for their flora, including the Scottish primrose, which is no more than 5 centimeters (2 in.) in height and is believed to have survived the Ice Age by growing in small ice-free areas. The amethyst with a pale-yellow eye is found only in the Orkneys and parts of northern Scotland.