The Orkney Islands of Scotland

Noup Head Lighthouse on the island of Westray, the largest of the Northern Isles of Orkney.
Noup Head Lighthouse on the island of Westray, the largest of the Northern Isles of Orkney.

Orkney is one of the most beautiful places in the British Isle, characterized by rolling green field, rugged coastline, and fascinating pristine beaches. It is an archipelago in Scotland’s Northern Isle, comprising of approximately 70 islands and series with 20 of the islands inhabited. Orkney is located off the north coast of Great Britain, approximately ten miles north of the coast of Caithness. It is separated from the mainland by a 6.2 mile wide seaway known as Pentland Firth. The Orkney Islands have been inhabited for over 8,800 years, with Scandinavian clans dominating the area in the 8th century BCE. This article explores the Orkney Islands, their features, population, and interesting facts.

Four of the Populous Orkney Islands

Orkney Mainland

Orkney Mainland is the largest and the most populous island in Orkney. It is the center of Orkney’s ferry and air connections. Mainland Island covers an area of approximately 202 square miles. It links the northern isles to the southern isles. The Stromness, Kirkwall, and burghs of Orkney lie within this island. Orkney Mainland accounts for three-quarters of Orkney’s population, making it the most densely populated island of the archipelago. There are three settlements on the island; Finstown, Stromness, and Kirkwall, which is the capital of the island. Mainland is connected to other islands such as Ronaldsay and Burray by road. The island has an abundance of wildlife, with the seabirds dominating the surrounding.

South Ronaldsay

South Ronaldsay is the second-most populous island and the fourth largest by total area. It is a southern isle located off the north coast of Scotland and connected to the Mainland by the Churchill Barrier. The island covers an area of approximately 19.2 square miles and has a population of approximately 909 people. The main village of South Ronaldsay is the St. Margaret’s Hope which is also the third-largest settlement of Orkney. The island is popular for the “Tomb of the Eagles” which was discovered in 1958. The site had 16,000 and 725 human and bird’s bones respectively. There is also a broch site which is believed to be the burial place for Thorfinn “skull splitter.”


Westray is the largest of the northern isles and the 6th largest island of the Orkney with an area of approximately 18.2 square miles. It is also the third-most populous island with a population of 588 people. Westray and the neighboring Papa Westray are believed to have been joined. The ongoing excavation on the island has so far revealed over 30 Neolithic and bronze age buildings. Some of the island’s attraction include Noltland Castle and Noup Head Lighthouse. Fishing and cattle farming remain Westray’s major activities.


Hoy is the second-largest island of Orkney after the Mainland with a total area of approximately 55 square miles. With a population of 419 people, Hoy is the 5th most populous island. The island has some of the highest sea cliffs in the UK while the highest point on Orkney, Ward Hill, is also on this island. Hoy was a naval base for the British ship in both the First and Second World Wars. It is also an important bird area, especially great skuas.

The Grouping of Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands are grouped into three; mainland, north, and south isles. The Mainland Island is Orkney’s largest island. The north isles are relatively large and connected to the Mainland Island by ferries and air services with farming, fishing, and tourism as the major sources of income. The southern isles surround Scapa Flow. Most of the inhabited islands are the northern group of islands (13 islands). Only six south isles are inhabited.

The Orkney Islands of Scotland

RankIslandGroupPopulation (2013)Area (ha)Highest point (m)
1Orkney MainlandMainland1716252325271
2South RonaldsaySouth Isles9094980118
3WestrayNorth Isles5884713169
4SandayNorth Isles494504365
5HoySouth Isles41913468479
6BurraySouth Isles40990380
7StronsayNorth Isles349327544
8ShapinsayNorth Isles307294864
9RousayNorth Isles2164860250
10EdayNorth Isles1602745101
11Papa WestrayNorth Isles9091848
12FlottaSouth Isles8087658
13North RonaldsayNorth Isles7269023
14WyreNorth Isles2931132
15GraemsaySouth Isles2840962
16EgilsayNorth Isles2665035
17AuskerryNorth Isles48518
18GairsayNorth Isles3240102
19Holm of GrimbisterNorth Isles3168
20Inner HolmSouth Isles127

More in World Facts