Reaching up towards the Arctic Circle, and totally exposed to turbulent Atlantic weather systems, the Orkney and Shetland islands gather into two distinct and very different clusters. The Orkney archipelago lies just a short step north of the Scottish mainland. With the exception of Hoy, which is high and rugged, these islands are mostly low-lying, gently sloping and richly fertile. Sixty miles further north, Shetland is a complete contrast. Ice-sculpted sea inlets cut deep into the land that rises straight out of the water to rugged, heather-coated hills. With little fertile ground, Shetlanders have traditionally been crofters rather than farmers, often looking to the sea for an uncertain living in fishing and whaling or the naval and merchant services.

Orkney, in particular, boasts a well-preserved treasury of Stone Age settlements, such as Skara Brae, standing stones and chambered cairns. The Norse heritage is equally apparent in Shetland, where there are many well-preserved prehistoric sites, such as Mousa Broch and Jarlshof. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence of the weather up here. More often than not, it will be windy and rainy, though you can have all four seasons in one day. The wind-chill factor is not to be taken lightly, and there’s frequently a dampness or drizzle in the air, even when it’s not raining.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Scotland features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

There's nothing like an amazing view to inspire you to book your next trip, whether you're drawn by rolling countryside, isolated islands or soaring mountain …

30 Aug 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
On the fringes of Edinburgh: 8 ways to explore the city's quirky side

On the fringes of Edinburgh: 8 ways to explore the city's quirky side

During August, all rules and social conventions are put to one side when Edinburgh hosts the world’s biggest arts festival. Actors perform improvised solil…

30 Aug 2017 • Greg Dickinson insert_drive_file Article
A taste of Glasgow's grit: a foodie's guide to the city

A taste of Glasgow's grit: a foodie's guide to the city

Neil McQuillian embarked on a foodie tour of Scotland's "second" city and discovered just what makes the place tick. 

10 Aug 2017 • Neil McQuillian local_activity Special feature
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month