Where to live in Orkney?

Stromness. (Sigurd Towrie)

Orkney can be divided into three distinct regions – the North Isles, the South Isles and the Mainland.

The Mainland

Somewhat confusing to start with but this is the name of Orkney’s largest island, which sits in the middle of the archipelago.

The majority of Orkney’s estimate 22,300 population live on the Mainland, with the greatest concentrations around the towns of Kirkwall and Stromness.

The Mainland can be divided into two sections by a line running north-south through Kirkwall. These are known locally as the East Mainland and West Mainland.  

The Mainland is sub-divided into 13 parishes, these being: 

  • West Mainland: Firth, Rendall, Evie, Birsay, Harray, Sandwick, Stenness, Orphir, Stromness. 
  • East Mainland: Holm, St Andrews (divided into two districts, Tankerness and Toab), Deerness 
  • The final parish, St Ola, surrounds the town of Kirkwall.  

Each parish has its own distinct community, and most have a shop and a primary school, as well as a community centre. 

Kirkwall is the main population centre and as such is the county’s main employment hub.

Most of the staff who work at the Archaeology Institute in Kirkwall either live in Kirkwall itself, or commute easily from the towns of StromnessDounby, Finstown or St Margaret’s Hope, or from more rural areas of Orphir, Holm, Stenness, Evie etc. Commuting by car is a maximum of 30 minutes, and there is a regular bus service between Kirkwall and Stromness, and Kirkwall and St Margaret’s Hope.

The South Isles

Hoy, Walls, Flotta, Graemsay, Lambholm, Burray, South Ronaldsay, Glimsholm

Some of the South Isles are linked by road – Burray and South Ronaldsay – connected to the Mainland by the Churchill barriers. Hoy and Flotta are served by ferries from Houton, in Orphir, while Graemsay and North Hoy have a passenger-only ferry from Stromness (foot ferry). Despite the short crossing times, living in Hoy and commuting for work in Kirkwall is not particularly easy.

The North Isles

Outer North Isles: North Ronaldsay, Sanday, Westray, Stronsay, Eday, Papa Westray
Inner North Isles:
Shapinsay, Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre

The larger Outer North Isles are accessible by ferry from Kirkwall. With a journey time of 1.5 hrs, these islands are not easy to commute from into Kirkwall. There are also flights to these islands from Kirkwall Airport.

Short crossing times and regular ferries mean that residents of the Inner North Isles of Rousay and Shapinsay can also commute – in fact several archaeologists live in Rousay! The Shapinsay ferry runs from Kirkwall, while Rousay is serviced from Tingwall in the West Mainland, with regular buses running between it and Kirkwall.