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?

Scotland's pro-gay tourist authority, VisitScotland, swiftly deleted a "family run" Highland guest house from its records recently, after its owner branded a gay couple "sexual deviants" whilst refusing them a double room because of their "perversion". Chucking this rotten apple has, not surprisingly, ensured that you can expect a gay welcome in even the remotest of peaks or glens.

And you can't get more remote than Orkney or Shetland. Which is why - though still an assuredly relaxed, gay-friendly setting - they make the ideal location to detoxify and purge oneself of those big city scenes; or enjoy an utterly unique romantic isolation, far from the watchful crowd.

In many ways, more Scandinavian than Scottish - though falling fully under UK and Scottish laws - both Orkney and Shetland have a long liberal tradition, stretching from the Vikings to the present day MP. Rest assured: all hotels and guest houses mentioned here are avowedly completely gay-friendly.

The coast at Esha Ness.


Over 300 miles north of Edinburgh lies Shetland, more than half-way between London and the Arctic Circle.
London is closer to Milan than to Lerwick, Shetland's main town. Like Orkney, the place is rich in bird life, sea mammals, archaeology, hill-walking, spectacular cliffs, wild flowers, arts and crafts; and both groups of islands know extremes of 24 hour light midsummer and not far off 24 hour darkness midwinter - both times bringing out differing, magical qualities in both landscape and local people. Lerwick the chief town and port of mainland Shetland.
Shetland's 100+ islands boast over 900 miles of dramatic and varied coastline, over 200,000 puffins on a good day, a mere 20,000 humans (a third of whom live in Lerwick) and over 5,000 years of human history, etched across over 6000+ archaeological sites.

Gannets shelter on the Isle Of Noss an uninhabitated bird sanctuary.

As your flight from Aberdeen touches down at Sumburgh airport on the rugged southern tip of Shetland, jump straight in your hire car - really, the only way to get around the Northern Isles - and whisk to the prehistoric and Norse settlements at Jarlshof - (at Sumburgh Head, 22m South of Lerwick on the A97) featuring Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch (circular castle keep), Viking long houses, a medieval farmstead and even a 16th century laird's house.

Then, exchanging historical for natural delights, head up coast to the spectacular tombolo across to the small island of St. Ninian's - a tombolo is a sandy beach causeway between an island and a mainland that almost never disappears beneath the waves, even during a storm at high tide. Stroll the ¼ mile stretch of fine white sand, with surf breaking up on either side of you! Invigorating yet strangely unnerving! Then head up towards Shetland capital Lerwick, branching off for lunch or dinner at Da Haaf Restaurant in Port Arthur, Scalloway - part of North Atlantic Fisheries College - for inexpensive, high-quality sea food overlooking the water.


Once in Lerwick, check straight into gay-friendly Breiview Guest House which overlooks Breiwick Bay , a short stroll from an amazing, atmospheric prehistoric stone broch and from the centre of town.

Unlike the archly Protestant Western Isles - notably the Outer Hebrides - the Northern Isles are far less religious, more steeped at heart in earthy Viking, pagan culture. They have had Liberal MPs for decades from former Party Leader Jo Grimond to present-day Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael

Top gay composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies fell in love with Orkney and made it his home from the early 70's onwards, founding the world-renowned annual midsummer St Magnus Music Festival in main town Kirkwall in '77. He lived for years on Hoy before migrating north to Sanday. Much of his music - not just self-proclaimed pieces like raucous Orkney Wedding with Sunrise or haunting Farewell to Stromness - is clearly influenced by this remote, wild, history-steeped scape. He and his long-standing male partner are well known and respected throughout the islands.

Despite repeatedly slagging off teetotal Orcadian fish trader and Big Brother IV winner Cameron from Stromness, comedian and TV presenter Graham Norton is reputedly a big fan of Orkney and has stayed at the Ayre Hotel by the harbour in Kirkwall.

"Orkney does have a gay community and lots of potential for everyone" - Sheila Faichney, Orkney Tourist Board, on a discreetly uncommercialised but definitely respected local queer population.

For some entertainment why not try internationally renowned music venue The Lounge in Mounthooly Street for one of its traditional melodious sessions which usually occur on Wednesday or Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons. Then hop across the road to the lofty bars at vibrant Captain Flints to sip and gaze out over the harbour.

Next day, take in some of the amazing scenery and fauna to the north of Shetland's mainland. Keep 'em peeled for seals curling and basking on sandbanks and some of the most spectacular cliffs and cut-off beaches in this part of the world. A must is to spend the night at the Busta House Hotel in Brae - dating back to the 1580s, and the most northern haunted hotel in Britain, complete with gay-friendly ghosts - some of whom regularly appear in the fine restaurant, begging for food!

But don't fill your tum too much ahead of the choppy 5½hr crossing between Shetland (Lerwick) and Orkney (Kirkwall). Even on a mild day, once out in open water between the North Sea and the mighty Atlantic, you may intend to eat on board, but you might just not!



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; Website)
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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