Orkney and, above it, Shetland: the most Northern, isolated parts of the British Isles. OutUK's intrepid gay explorer Adrian Gillan nears this brink: secret Shetland sex sect and Orkney orgy shocker, or extreme non-scene, great gay get-away - perfect for that queer detox or remote romantic retreat?


On landing in Kirkwall, wonder through its narrow, craft-filled streets and absorb the ancient, intimately vaulted St Magnus Cathedral, containing the remains of local skull-crushed Viking earls! Check into gay-welcoming Albert Hotel and sink a jar at adjoining Bothy Bar - full of friendly young locals, happy to chat or receive your gaze.

Just along the waterfront, have another drink at Graham Norton's favourite, the Ayre Hotel. Then up the stakes at Kirkwall's first, and still only, nightclub Fusion a few doors down. A mid-floor same-sex snog may raise the odd eye-brow - where wouldn't it? - but you'll have few problems here.

Kirkwall on mainland Orkney.
Next day, head to the south and east of the mainland, down across the Churchill Barriers - drivable causeways between a string of islands, built by Italian POWs during WW2 in a bid by Allies to stop German U-boats attacking the British fleet moored within Scapa Flow. Spend a few highly moving minutes reflecting on their labours inside the utterly unique Italian Chapel by the northern-most causeway - a gloriously decorated Catholic chapel, built by the same POWs out of little more than a tin hut and a can of paint. Wander alone (or hand in hand) through the amazing nature reserve at Deerness - a headland surrounded by sea, where gay lovers will startle little more than huge flocks of birds or the odd prize bull!

Then head north again on Orkney Mainland and brace yourself for one of the true treats of your trip: a stay at Woodwick House in Evie where your gay-beckoning hosts - lovely young James and Thorfinn, his snow white cat - will lavish you with attention in front of cosy fires and over delightful home-grown suppers. This warm, welcoming and comfortable historic country house overlooks the island of Gairsay and boasts its own private beach at the bottom of the garden. An extraordinary, peaceful location set in unique and beautiful surroundings, and only twenty minutes from either Kirkwall or Stromness! Gay weddings possible in the garden's dovecot chapel!


Woodwick House is also within easy reach of Orkney's World Heritage Status Neolithic sites - tombs, stone henges, complete villages - some dating back to 3500 BC.
If Shetland's main treasures are natural, often linked to the sea, then Orkney's are definitely land-based and all-too-human, stretching back into the dim shadows of time.

The haunting stone henge rings at Stenness ("Temple of the Moon", 3500 BC) and nearby Brodgar ("Temple of the Sun", 3000 BC) will simultaneously set your pulse apace and soul at peace.

Their neighbour, Maeshowe (9m W of Kirkwall on the A965), is the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe and, yet again, more than 5000 years old - complete with boastful, raucous graffiti left by Viking thieves a mere 1000 years ago!

Two of the orginal neolithic stones at Stenness.
And anyone with even an ounce of humanity will be utterly blown away by Skara Brae (19m NW of Kirkwall on the B9056): the best-preserved group of Stone Age houses in Western Europe, dating to 3100 BC - that's 600 years before even the Pyramids in Egypt. The houses contain stone furniture, hearths and drains and give a remarkable picture of life for our brothers and sisters back in Neolithic times.

Before you jet back to civilisation and your 21st Century bustle, spend a night in at Orkney's second biggest town (population 2,000), Stromness - thrust into the limelight recently when local lad Cameron won Big Brother IV. The sizable and comfortable Stromness Hotel will happily accommodate all gay requirements. It has a fine dining room overlooking the harbour, as does Julia's or the livelier Ferry Inn.


British Airways fly from Aberdeen in cute little twin-propeller aeroplanes taking 50 minutes to Kirkwall (for Orkney) and 70 minutes to Sumburgh Airport (for Shetland). You used to be able to fly between the main islands that comprise Orkney and Shetland, in what was BA's and the world's shortest scheduled flight - under two minutes, but that opportunity no longer exists. You have to go back to mainland Scotland and then change, which takes hours!

NorthLink Ferries operate regular services connecting Lerwick, Kirkwall and Aberdeen. Star Rent-a-Car Limited (22 Commercial Rd, Lerwick and Sumburgh Airport; T: 01595 692075) are the main hire car firm on Shetland while WR Tullock (Castle Street, Kirkwall and Kirkwall Airport; T: 01856 876262) are the main hire car firm on Orkney, founded by a man who personally knew Henry Ford and Marconi!

The Shetlands


Ayre Hotel (Ayre Road, Kirkwall, T: 01856 873001; Website)
Albert Hotel & Bothy Bar (Mounthoolie Lane, Kirkwall; T: 01856 876000; Website)
Breiview Guest House (43 Kantersted Road, Lerwick; T: 01595 695956)
Busta House Hotel (Brae; T: 01806 522506; Website)
Captain Flints (Market Cross, Lerwick; T: Tel: 01595 692249; Temporarily Closed - Covid Restrictions)
Da Haaf Restaurant (Port Arthur, Scalloway; T: 01595 880 747; facebook)
Ferry Inn (10 John Street, Stromness; T: 01856 850280; Website)
Fusion (Ayre Road, Kirkwall; Temporarily Closed - Covid Restrictions)
Julia's (20 Ferry Road; Stromness; T: 01856 850904; facebook)
The Lounge (Mounthooly Street, Lerwick; T: 01595 692231facebook)
Stromness Hotel (The Pierhead, Stromness; T: 01856 850298; Website)
Woodwick House (Woodwick Bay, Evie; T: 01856 751330; Website)

You can find more useful information at VisitScotland.com, VisitShetland.com and VisitOrkney.com. You can also get a great-value pass for getting into most of the historical sites you are likely to come across at Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions.

Photography by Paul Tomkins courtesy VisitScotland and Scottish Viewpoint

Revised January 2022.


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