The Mainland of Orkney is pinched by an isthmus about a mile across between Kirkwall in the north and Scapa Bay in the south. The portion of the island to the east of this, about a third of the total, is known as East Mainland.
The main road east from Kirkwall takes you over moorland before curving downhill towards Kirkwall Airport. This is the hub for services to outlying islands, as well as the main link to airports elsewhere in Scotland. The airfield itself was built as RAF Grimsetter during WWII and was later transferred to the Royal Navy. The history of air transport in the area goes back to 1933, when Captain Ted Fresson established an air service from Inverness. He used an airfield at Wideford, next to the main road a mile west of Kirkwall Airport. Today its location is marked by a cairn.
Beyond the airport, side roads take you to the area known as Tankerness. At the far end of this is Rerwick Head, still carrying the lookouts and coastal artillery emplacements that were used to help guard the approaches to Kirkwall during WWII.
Tankerness is also home to the deeply mysterious Mine Howe. This underground chamber, reached by 29 stone steps leading steeply down into the ground, was rediscovered in 1999 and later featured on the TV program Time Team. For a time it was open to the public, but on our most recent visit in 2018 appeared to have been abandoned. The purpose of the chamber remains a mystery.
Following the main road further east takes you across a narrow neck of land to Deerness. Overlooking this strategically important site is the earthworks of a broch called Dingieshowe, a Norse name meaning parliament mound. Deerness is a rocky near-island that finishes at the Mull Head Nature Reserve. Nearby is the Brough of Deerness, a rocky outcrop that is home to the remains of a Norse settlement.
On the south side of East Mainland is the village of St Mary's, developed for herring fishing and now a centre for water sports. South east of St Mary's the road crosses a causeway to the island of Lamb Holm. The causeway is better known as Churchill Barrier Number 1, one of four built during WWII to block off the eastern routes to Scapa Flow. Overlooking Barrier Number 1 is a totem pole placed here in 2007.
The construction of the Churchill Barriers followed the sinking on October 1939 of HMS Royal Oak. The German U-boat U-47 found a way to evade the blockships placed in the channels during the first world war, torpedoed the Royal Oak with the loss of 834 men, then made good its escape.
The Churchill Barriers remain as a chain of causeways linking together five islands. Another monument to the same era lies on the north side of Lamb Holm. The Italian Chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war working on the construction of the barriers. It remains today as a wonderful and enduring tribute to the spirit of those who built it.
Having crossed to Lamb Holm the main road makes use of three other barriers to cross to the islands of Glimps Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay. South Ronaldsay is by far the largest of the chain of islands stretching south from Mainland. At its southern tip is Burwick, terminus for the 45 minute crossing by the passenger-only John o' Groats Ferry.
Near its northern end is the pretty village of St Margaret's Hope. This has tremendous charm and atmosphere. It also serves as a point of entry to, and exit from, Orkney. Pentland Ferries operate a car ferry service from here to Gills Bay near John o' Groats, a one hour crossing that makes an attractive alternative to the more established route from Stromness to Scrabster, near Thurso.
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