The Orkney Islands are not only one of the most stunning locations in the British Isles but they are also steeped in Viking history. 

This archipelago of 70 islands off the northern tip of Scotland was first visited by the Norse in the late seventh century. 

When defeated Viking warriors fleeing the might of Harald Fairhair landed in Orkney, they initiated a period of Norse rule that would last a further six centuries before power was eventually ceded to King James III of Scotland in 1472.

Visitors to the archipelago today will find plenty of sights to savor from both the Viking Age and other eras of Orkney's unique historical past. 

Below, you can find our top five Viking locations in the Orkney Islands. 

Nestled in Orphir, the ruins of the Orphir Round Church are a rare example of a Norse-influenced church in Scotland, echoing the saga-filled past of the Orkney Islands. Photo: Beep boop beep / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Earl's Bu: A scenic saga setting 

In Orphir, a sparsely populated parish on Mainland, the largest of the islands of Orkney, you will find the foundation stones of Earl's Bu, a great hall thought to have been built by Earl Haakon Paulsson in the 12th century. 

The hall is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga: it is the scene of a great Yule feast and the murder of Sweyn Breastrope. 

It is also rumored to be the location of the accidental killing of Jarl Harold, who mistakenly put on a poisoned shirt intended for his brother, Paul.

The saga also mentions a "magnificent church" – thought to be the Orphir Round Church, the remains of which are still visible today. 

In addition to the monuments, you will also discover the Orkneyinga Saga Center. This center brings to life the story of the Jarls of Orkney, using the saga's text and an engaging audio-visual display. 

It is open to visitors from April to September. 

Accessible only at low tide, the Brough of Birsay offers a unique window into the Viking Age, showcasing well-preserved Norse settlements and the remains of a church and adjacent monastery. Photo: rphstock / Shutterstock

The Brough of Birsay: A unique tidal island 

Birsay is undoubtedly one of the most striking Viking sites outside of Scandinavia itself. 

Initially a Pictish settlement, the land was settled by the Norse in the ninth century. 

There are 12 Viking dwellings in all, including one set of stone and turf buildings that date from this initial period and a second set of more developed structures. 

The more developed structures are believed to have been constructed during the reign of Thorfinn the Mighty (1014-1065), who not only became Jarl of Orkney but also extended his control over Shetland and the Hebrides. 

The site also contains the remains of a church featuring Norwegian-style architecture and an adjacent monastery. 

The archaeological remains can be viewed throughout the year, and a small visitor center operates during the summer.

Timing is everything, though: Birsay is a tidal island, and the causeway can only be accessed in the hours on either side of low tide. 

The Maeshowe site, with its impressive chambered cairn and the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, forms a crucial part of Orkney's historical tapestry, showcasing the island's significance from the Neolithic era to the Viking Age. Photo: Krage52 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Maeshowe: An ancient site defaced by Viking runes 

Come for the Vikings, stay for the ancient history. 

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn is located in the parish of Stenness, on the western part of Mainland. Part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the tomb of Maeshowe is thought to have been constructed around 2700 BCE. 

It was later visited by the Vikings, who left some intriguing graffiti in the form of runes, including "Thorni bedded Helgi" and "Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes."

Please note that you can only access the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn via a guided tour. 

This starts and ends at the Maeshowe Visitor Centre in Stenness, and booking is strongly recommended. 

Close by, you will also find the Standing Stones of Stenness, with the remains of four Neolithic standing stones alongside a central hearth area once used for cooking. 

The historic St Magnus Church on Egilsay, with its distinctive round tower, serves as a lasting tribute to Saint Magnus and marks the site of his martyrdom, a pivotal event in Orkney's Viking history. Photo: Robert Beharie / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Beyond Mainland: Rounsay, Egilsay, and Wyre 

Venturing away from Mainland, the island of Rousay is home to one of the freshest Viking finds in Europe. 

In addition to two Norse boat burials, you can also see a Viking Age hall discovered in 2019 that contains a number of small but important finds, including pottery, a bone spindle-whorl, and a Norse comb.

The islands of Egilsay and Wyre are also well worth a visit. 

The former is said to have been the site where Orkney's patron saint, Magnus, was brutally murdered with an axe. 

At Wyre, you will find Cubbie Roo's Castle, which is one of the oldest examples of its type in Scotland and is thought to have initially been constructed as the base for a Viking named Kolbein Hrug. 

St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, a magnificent example of Romanesque architecture, stands as a testament to Orkney's Norse heritage, founded by Earl Rognvald in 1137 in honor of his uncle, Saint Magnus. Photo: Gonzalo Buzonni / Shutterstock

Kirkwall: St. Magnus Cathedral and the Orkney Museum 

Finally, we return to Mainland and Orkney's largest town, Kirkwall. 

Here, you will find St. Magnus Cathedral, the most northerly cathedral in Britain, founded by Earl Rognvald in 1137 (technically a century after the passing of the Viking Age). 

Rognvald named the building in honor of his uncle, St. Magnus. The building's highly distinctive red and white stone was apparently inspired by Rognvald's travels to Rome.

Nearby, the Orkney Museum is also well worth a visit. 

In addition to details of Orkney's incredibly long and varied history, it contains a number of artifacts from the famous Viking boat burial at Scar. 

Another more obscure spot is the remains of St. Olaf's Kirk. Many believe this to be the original site from which Kirkwall takes its name – Kirkjuvagr means "church bay" in Old Norse.

Worth a mention: Deerness. As well as being visually impressive, this large grassy rock contains the remains of a chapel and around 30 late-Norse structures. Though not Viking in origin, the stunning site of Skara Brae, a well-preserved village that is approximately 5,000 years old and sits right by the shoreline in the Bay of Skaill, is also a must-see. 

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