With a relatively flat landscape and mile upon mile of quiet roads, Orkney is the ideal place to explore by pedal power.
Granted, the wind can sometimes be a challenge, but at some point it’s going to be behind you, right?
Whether you’re a road racer, tourer or serious mountain bike fanatic, there is much for two-wheeled enthusiasts to explore on these northern islands.
If you’re not sure where to start, there are several great routes beginning from Stromness, the second largest town on the islands.
One in particular follows a historical route through the west mainland’s main archeological sites.
Just short of 19 miles in total, the course takes in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar stone circle and the impressive chambered tombs of Maeshowe.
It’s an easy to moderate ride depending on conditions, and is one of the most popular among visitors to the islands.
To begin, leave Stromness and head out towards Shandwick on the A965. About a mile out of town, turn left on to the A967 signposted to Birsay and Sandwick. Enjoy an easy downhill section here with a wonderful view of Loch of Stenness on the right.
The main road will bend right at a signposted junction, while the B9056 carries straight on signposted for Skara Brae.
Take this Skara Brae fork and continue north up the hill where you’ll pass the Yesnaby Road which leads to the coast. If you’ve got time, it’s well worth a short detour here to see the cliffs, which are considered to be one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in Orkney.
Back on the trail you’ll find yourself on a road which hugs close to the edge of the Loch of Skaill.
After the loch there is a turn to the left to reach the complex of Skaill House and Skara Brae (which you can see on a joint visitor ticket).
Skara Brae is of course a stone-built Neolithic settlement, which is thought to be one of the best preserved in Europe.
Uncovered by a storm in 1850, it gives a remarkable picture of life 5,000 years ago before Stonehenge was built.
Skaill House is less well known. A historic manor house built in the 17th Century, it occupies a magnificent position overlooking the bay.
Back in the saddle, if you’re hungry it’s a good idea to continue on this road for a lunch stop at the nearby Orkney Brewery, but otherwise retrace your steps back past the Skaill Loch and turn left on to the B9055 signposted for Brodgar.
With Loch of Clumly to your right and Loch of Harray to your left, it’s a nice wee stretch of road.
Continue to the offset crossroads with the A967 – with Birsay left and Stromness right – and go straight across to continue on the road to Brodgar.
This route will now take you down between the twin lochs of Stenness and Harray and past the Ring of Brodgar standing stone circle.
Exploring the Ring of Brodgar is a must, however the route itself between the lochs is one of the most attractive in Orkney and well worth cycling even on its own merits.
Not far past the Ring of Brodgar are the Standing Stones of Stenness on both sides of the road.
A little further on, this road meets up with the main Kirkwall to Stromness road (A965). This is the busiest road in Orkney and requires a bit more care, especially for younger cyclists.
Turn left to visit Maeshowe chambered cairn, Orkney’s most famous monument after Skara Brae.
As well as the tomb itself, there is evidence of the Vikings who broke into the cairn and left their names and messages carved into the wall in 10th Century graffiti.
After Maeshowe, retrace your steps and continue towards Stromness, through Stenness village on the A965 and over the Brig O’Waithe which connects Loch of Stenness to the sea.
After the brig, take the next left up over the hill for a superb view over Stromness before descending into the town. To avoid the hill, keep straight ahead round the loop and back to Stromness that way.
Although Orkney is rich in ancient archaeological sites, in my view nowhere throughout the islands better demonstrates that than the three west mainland sites.
From the remarkable preservation of Skara Brae to the combination of Viking and Neolithic remains at Maeshowe, and the intriguing but unknown purpose of the Ring of Brodgar, these are three fascinating places to visit set in dramatic and beautiful scenery.
- Route: The west mainland archaeological sites.
- Directions: The circular route begins and ends on the A965 road coming out of Stromness.
- Distance: 18.8 miles.
- Time: Allocate a day to cycle the route and visit each of the archaeological sites along the way.
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate.