The main bus service is run by a company called Stagecoach (who are reliable but expensive) you can check out at the Stage Coach bus routes here: http://www.stagecoachbus.com/localdefault.aspx?Tag=Inverness
In the summer months (on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday)Orkney Community Transport Organisation (OCTO)run a 'Hop-on Hop-off Explorer' service - you can travel around the most popular sights all day for £12:
W. R. Tullock Car Rental was a professional, polite and helpful car rental agent. The car was good quality and drove well, it was a fair price in comparison to other hire companies I used in the Scottish Isles and they have a service direct from the airport which is Very handy. You can just drop the keys off at the airport too if you are leaving out of business hours.
I would recommend them.
These are your option for travel around Orkney:
1) Orkney consists of something like 67 islands, about a dozen of which you would like to explore. Regular ferries connect the largest island "Mainland" with these. Some of the southern islands are connected to Mainland by roads over causeways and two of the northern islands can also be reached by a delightful 8 seater, fly by the seat of your pants, airplane (flies from Kirkwall airport, on Mainland).
2) On the islands you need transport to get about. Going on foot is ok for small distances, like on Hoy or Papa Westray islands, or on special coastal walks but for the most part, walking isn't good for getting places. There are few footpaths or sidewalks so it is common to walk on the road - and you have to, the grass verge will twist your ankle - but it isn't fun with fast cars rushing by - and to be honest it is a bit boring! save the walking for specific places.
3) Hitch-hiking (I ran out of space!)
4) Bicycle - these can be hired but bear in mind two things - the distances are deceptively far and the wind is ever present.
5) Buses and public transport - subsidised by the local council so they exist but on a skeletal timetable - this means you can get places but it can be tough linking up services and you can get stranded. Problem in evenings and on sundays.
6) Taxis - they do a roaring trade, because of the above 1-5 factors and because the arrival of "drink-drivng' laws have hit the social life here but people still have to travel to meet up.
7) Car - expensive to bring one across on the ferry, and expensive to hire on Orkney but both are possible and popular. If you can afford it, do. If you cannot ...
8) Tour Guides - A popular way of quickly getting around the scattered sites is by hiring a guide for a bespoke tour service or joining a larger bus tour (mini-bus or coach). These vary tremendously in style, personality, knowledge and quality - so investigate and ask about. There should be one for you.
From north Scotland there are 3 ferry services making the short crossing of the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands.
It is not cheap - consider leaving your car. Details below (Prices 2004/5).
Gills Bay - St Margaret's Hope
Adult - £11
Car - £25
John O'Groats Ferry:
1st May - 30th september, passenger ferry - no cars! Connects with a bus at Burwick to take you to Kirkwall.
Burwick Day/Period Return £26
Kirkwall Day/Period Return £28
Burwick Single £16
Scrabster to Stromness
Adult Single 12.00 - 14.00
Car (6m) 38.00 - 43.00
Prices vary according to season - see websites for detailed prices.
Note: Prices are Single Fares - so if taking a car across, you must pay both ways, plus pay for every person.
In summary, JOG Ferry is small and sails summer only. It is linked with bus tours. No vehicles.
Northlink Ferry is the biggest and best - a ship designed for longer North Sea Services. It is the most expensive but sails past the highest British cliffs St John's Head and the Old Man Of Hoy (sandstone sea stack).
Pentland Ferry takes the middle distance of the 3 services, is modest and slightly cheaper than Northlink, popular with "no frills" travellers.
I have found going out on the early Pentland sailing (6am) to be best - giving good light and lots of day time. Return with Northlink, leaving Stromness and rounding Hoy before seeing the sandstone cliffs.
The smoothest crossing will be the Northlink service - the size of this ship makes it able to sail open seas calmly.
My first view of Orkney was the welcome harbour of Stromness ... somehow magical all year and all weathers. Come!
(approach via Shetland)
Northlink: Aberdeen - Kirkwall
This is one of the best ways to get around Orkney and see places "off the beaten track" where other tours and public transport never goes.
The tours are for up to 6 people, and supply local food, music and stories, plus demonstrating stone age skills like primitive fire lighting, stone tool making and plant use.
This picture is me, in front of the Stones of Stenness, 5000 year old megaliths (well they are much older but have been standing upright like this for that long, since our ancestors put them there! How? Ask me!)
Tours also go to the smaller islands, or include walks, depending upon guests wishes. A very professional, caring and friendly service. Have a look at the website.
Catching the 6am ferry from Gills Bay (the vehicle ferry - not the John O' Groats passenger ferry) to St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay (joined to Orkney Mainland by road) ... not only is this the cheaper ferry crossing for cars but it is the quicker and more old fashioned.
You get wonderful glimpses of the coastline and seals basking, before arriving.
Take the early ferry to get excellent light in the morning for photographs.
A good Youth Hostel on the mainland of Scotland enables you to do this easily with no hassle.
Ever wondered how the huge megaliths (big stones) were moved, 5000 years ago?
Only a few people - no slaves.
Lots of stone, some timber and plants.
Use stone and wood wedges to split desired block off from bedrock. Utilise natures power in "freeze-thaw" (water expansion).
Take a strong timber pole (about as big as your hands, round) and use it as a lever.
Now all you need is some beach pebbles, stone blocks, seaweed and cordage made from plant fibres.
Manpower needed, 2-3 people.
You can do it as the academics assume, and the public think unquestioningly ...
Get a whole tribe of people and drag them away from their daily farming, fishing, cooking and crafts.
Chop down numerous uniform logs for rollers (timber like this doesn't grow on Orkney, so you'll need to beachcomb). Wrap strong fibre cordage around the megalith and pull like crazy with people moving the log runners as you go.
Pray to a God you don't have rough ground or up hills. And hope the cordage is strong enough.
When stone is where needed, invent the lever for moving into place, scratch head and wonder why you didn't use levers before. Invent some simple machines and send most of tribe back to work, so you all can eat. Procede as for first option above.
Sit back and admire handy work. Nice architecture - this should last for at least 30 years. Maybe longer.
From the above, you should realise that levers and wedges were essential either way (brains or brawn) you move megaliths, if only to quarry the stone block. I find it odd that people should use brain power and then abandon it in favour of manpower, to the detriment of food production.
Earliest Neolithic - Turkey & Mesopotamia:
Baalbek Stone Mystery
Megaliths of Malta
The biggest (and most expensive) way into Orkney is from Scrabster (by Thurso, on the Scottish mainland) to Stromness (Orkney Mainland).
The service is now operated by Northlink Ferries and is only really worth it for two reasons:
1) The View of the Cliffs of Hoy (and The Old Man of Hoy)
2) Stromness Harbour and Hamnavoe
There are two other Ferry options to reach Orkney from the north of Scotland - the John O' Groats passenger ferry (no cars) and the Pentland Ferries service from Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope. Both are cheaper, but still quite costly.
Ferries also run from Aberdeen and other Islands, during summer (details to follow)
The first time I went to the islands, I took the train to Inverness, stayed overnight and then caught the 'Orkney Bus'. This leaves twice a day from Inverness bus station and drives you up the north-east coast of Scotland to John o'Groats.(fantastic scenery all the way). You have time to explore the tiny harbour area before boarding the passenger ferry (included in ticket price) to cross the Pentland Firth, keeping an eye open for birds and seals of course. On landing in South Ronaldsay, you get on the bus to Kirkwall (about 45 minutes, also included in ticket price). Kirkwall TI office stays open until the bus arrives, to sort out accommodation if necessary. It's a lovely way to approach the islands for the first time......you get a real sense of their remoteness and of their difference to mainland Scotland.
I love walking, but when I stay on Mainland I always save up and hire a car. There are buses, but there is so much to see and so little time............... I use James Peace's firm in Kirkwall (they pick me up from the airport too) and have nothing but praise for their friendly and helpful service. They didn't even laugh when I couldn't find reverse on the brand new Cleo they gave me!
Mainland would be good for cycling too, as the roads are quiet and well-maintained. Tourist Information in Kirkwall could help with cycle hire.
From Tingwall on Orkney mainland you can take a boat to the island of Rousey.
On Rousay it's hard to get around. I think there are a few taxi-busses around that show you around on the island. That's what we did at least but my university had organized is so I can't tell you any details.
To get to Stromness on Orkney Islands you can take a ferry from Scrabster in the north east corner of mainland UK. You will get to see dolphins on the way if you are lucky. Or beautiful scenery like this....
The crossing takes approximately an hour... enough time for some cans of Newcastle Brown Ale for us ;-)