This program was custom designed to combine hiking in spectacular locations with a wealth of fascinating history and archaeology.
This itinerary is subject to change. Travel demands flexibility. We will strive to balance adaptability with remaining on schedule. Please trust that, when it is not possible to follow the plan laid out below, your program leaders will work to find substitutions that retain the quality of this Study Travel program. Various details may be added or changed due to information obtained while making reservations, or perhaps on site, especially because of the weather. All meals are included from dinner on May 10 through breakfast on May 21.
Monday, May 9 Depart USA
Individual departures from your home town.
Tuesday, May 10 Aberdeen — Kirkwall
You should plan to arrive in Aberdeen no later than 1 pm. We will meet at the Aberdeen ferry terminal at 3 pm for the ferry to Kirkwall on Orkney, where we will stay 5 nights.
Wednesday, May 11 Broch of Birsay, Magnus Kirk, Skara Brae
Today we will explore the northwest of Orkney Mainland. The Brough of Birsay tidal island can only be visited at low tide via the 240m causeway over the Sound of Birsay. Now uninhabited, there are Pictish, Norse and medieval remains. The Norse settled on the island in the 9th century. Later, a small church and monastery were built on Birsay. Our walk also includes visits to the Earl’s Palace and Magnus Kirk. In the afternoon we will visit Skara Brae, possibly Orkney’s most exciting archaeological site. A sandstorm buried the original village in about 2500 BC, preserving it until another storm in 1850 revealed it. From Skara Brae we will walk south along the spectacular coast with geos, natural arches, caves, and sea stacks. A local archaeologist will join the group. Total of 6.5 miles, 520ft of ascent.
Thursday, May 12 Islands of Rousay and Egilsay
Today we will take the ferry to Rousay, where we will wander through 5,000 years of history, visiting burial cairns, including Midhowe, the ‘Great Ship of Death’, Pictish brochs, Viking settlements, remains of the period of the Earls and the troubled crofting times, and the ruined St Mary’s Church. We then sail to the Island of Egilsay for our first St Magnus Way pilgrimage walk. Egilsay marks the place where Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, was murdered, most likely in 1115. We will visit three key historical sites: the Magnus memorial, the beach, and the ruins of St Magnus Kirk. A local archaeologist will join the group. 2 miles, 180ft of ascent, and 3.5 miles, 205ft of ascent.
Friday, May 13 Ophir and Stromness
We start the day with a visit to the Italian Chapel. It was built during World War II by Italian prisoners of war who also built the Churchill Barriers to the east of Scapa Flow. The chapel was made from two Nissan huts joined together and leftovers from work on the barriers. We then go to Ophir. Ophir is linked to Hakon, Magnus’s cousin, who ordered his death and in penance made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We visit the remains of Orphir Kirk, Scotland’s only surviving circular medieval church, Earl’s Bu, and the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which tells the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. The afternoon is free for exploring Stromness, the second large town of Orkney, which has a museum, arts center, and interesting shops. 2 miles, 105ft of ascent.
Saturday, May 14 Isle of Hoy
We will take the ferry across the Scapa Flow to the Isle of Hoy. Hoy, the second largest of Orkney’s islands, is different from the others in that it mostly consists of high uncultivated land. We will drive to the west of the island where we will walk along spectacular cliff-top scenery to the sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy, a vertical pillar of red and yellow sandstone rising 450 feet from a sea-level plinth of lavas and volcanic ash. 5.75 miles, 720ft of ascent.
Sunday, May 15 The Heart of Neolithic Orkney and Kirkwall
We will visit several important Neolithic sites on Mainland Orkney: the Ring of Brodgar, the Ness of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and Maeshowe, which is Britain’s largest chambered cairn. This, the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney,’ was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. We will then walk the final part of the St Magnus Way from Scapa to Kirkwall, finishing at St Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137 by Earl Rognald, nephew of Magnus. We’ll fly to Shetland in the late afternoon and transfer to our hotel near the airport where we will stay 3 nights. Total of 4 miles, little ascent.
Monday, May 16 South Mainland and Isle of Mousa
We will start by exploring the south Mainland. We will walk across a sand bar (tombolo) to St Ninian’s Isle, followed by a visit to Jarlshof, which was occupied for more than 4,000 years. In the afternoon we will take a boat to the uninhabited island of Mousa, which is famous for its Iron Age broch—the world’s best preserved Pictish broch. It rises to 40 feet, and the skill and accuracy of its builders has resulted in a 2,000-year-old construction that appears today as though the builders have just laid the last stone and gone home for the night. A local archaeologist will accompany the group. Back on Mainland, we will travel north to our hotel near Brae, our accommodation for four nights. 4 miles, limited ascent.
Tuesday, May 17 Culswick and Lerwick
We’ll go to the Westside for one of the finest walks in this part of Mainland at Culswick. The hike follows the track through a dramatic valley, which narrows and rises when we reach the cliffs. Near the coast, the track rises and Culswick Broch and ramparts appear ahead, above the Loch of the Broch. From the broch we head southeast along the cliff tops with sea stacks and caves. There are remains of a monastic settlement on one of the sea stacks and a tiny dwelling on another. We then head for Lerwick where you can explore its shops and its excellent museum. 4 miles, 460ft of ascent.
Wednesday, May 18 Eshaness
We will travel north to the Eshaness peninsula. The Eshaness peninsula tells a fascinating story of a long extinct volcano. The spectacular cliffs we see today cut right through the flank of what was the Eshaness volcano. The sea has exploited cracks in the volcanic bedrock to carve out this dramatic array of stacks, geos, and blowholes including the Hols o Scraada (Old Scratch, or the Devil), formed when the roof caved in at the end of a deep and narrow sea cave stretching more than one hundred yards from the coast. Another highlight is an active storm beach still being shaped by hurricane force winds from the Atlantic in the winter. Today we transfer hotels for the last three nights. 4.5 miles, 200 feet of ascent.
Thursday, May 19 Isle of Unst
Our visit to the Isle of Unst is a day of “northernmosts”; the most northerly island, village, beach, and bus stop. We will take two ferries and drive across the Isle of Yell to get to Unst. The rare serpentine rock underlying the islands is the remnant of a lost ocean sea floor: the Lapetus ocean of 600 million years ago. The rock gives a barren and stark look to the landscape and has created habitats for rare plants and flowers. Unst is also famous for its Norse archaeological sites. We will visit a replica Viking longhouse and longship. We finish our day on Unst with a visit to Hermaness Nature Reserve. The hike on good paths and boardwalks brings us to a huge and spectacular gannet colony on cliffs 558ft/170m high. This is a great place to see puffins. Total of 4 miles, 560ft of ascent.
Friday, May 20 Fethaland
Fethaland is the northernmost part of the mainland of Shetland. We walk to a ruined Haaf (meaning open sea) fishing station dating from the late eighteenth century. The ever-enterprising lairds established this and other Haaf fishing stations on remote north-western parts of Shetland to profit from the catch of ling and cod during the summer months. Extremely brave fishermen ventured 50 miles out into the Atlantic ocean in open boats called sixareens. Set within the fishing station is a large circular Neolithic house and a ruined iron age broch. Other places of interest during the walk are a Viking soapstone quarry, a 6th century chapel site, and an abandoned settlement situated on precarious headlands. 6 miles, 450 feet of ascent.
Saturday, May 21 Fethaland to Aberdeen, Depart Scotland
It will be an early start today in order to catch our flight back to mainland Scotland. We travel south to Sumburgh Airport for our flight to Aberdeen, arriving in Aberdeen at about 9:30 am. Be sure to book onward flights that allow enough time for a flight delay this morning.