Island Destinations - Sanday


...History on your doorstep

Maps of Sanday in the 1700s show a much smaller island than at present, suggesting that the sea-driven sand may have joined up a series of smaller isles.

The attractive island of Sanday is the largest of the North Isles of Orkney and, as the name suggests, its most outstanding features are the sweeping bays with their white sandy beaches.

Lying nearly 15 miles northeast of Kirkwall, access by air and sea is comfortable and speedy. Sanday is a peaceful place, which requires time to savour its gentle charm. You can fish for trout in the lochs or wander the beaches or eight way-marked walks, visit archaeological sites or watch the basking seals. Sanday offers unlimited opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts both professional and amateur. You can watch fishing boats at Kettletoft, or farmers tending their fields in the long, light days of summer. You may gather your own thoughts and impressions in one of the island bars among the friendly and interested local folk. The island has a swimming pool and community centre adjoining the school as well as a nine-hole golf course. Sanday has two hotels a hostel and several bed and breakfast and self-catering facilities.

Look for the 'Visitor Trail' signs as you explore the island.


The coastline of the island gives easy access to one of Sanday's principal wildlife attractions - seals. Common Seal pups can be seen swimming at Otterswick in June and Grey Seals are born on secluded beaches in November. Another delight of the beaches are the shells - the Cowrie (Grottie Buckie) and the Faroese Sunset being two favourites.

More elusive are Sanday's otters but the alert will find their tell-tale tracks - five toes and a trailing tail - in the sand and their 'spraint' or droppings on prominent knolls or rocks. Sanday boasts all the seabirds, terns and waders found elsewhere in Orkney. Vagrant birds such as Hoopoe, Red-Breasted Flycatcher, Ortolan and Little and Pine Buntings have all been seen in recent summers.


Around 4000BC farmers were settling here, attracted by the light sandy soils, which were easy to cultivate. Great stone tombs were erected, Quoyness being among the finest. The group of hundreds of prehistoric mounds at Tofts Ness is one of the most important funerary landscapes in Britain.

Sanday offered the best conditions in Orkney for arable farming, reflected in the extraordinary density of prehistoric, Viking Age and later settlement. This wealth is indicated by Medieval taxation rolls which valued Sanday land higher than elsewhere in Orkney. Rich farmsteads usually remain in occupation for thousands of years resulting in massive accumulations of successively deserted buildings and midden deposits several metres thick.

Pool was a major excavation site in the 1980s when a succession of Neolithic, Pictish and Viking-age deposits was revealed. Such accumulations have also created the remarkable 'farm mounds', little hills, almost entirely composed of man-made material, striking features of the flat landscape of Lady parish. In 1991 a spectacular Viking-Age find was made near Scar in Burness. This boat burial contained three human skeletons richly endowed with ornaments, household goods and weapons. Such an ostentatious funeral could only have been staged by a family of enormous wealth. Intriguingly, Sanday folklore speaks of a fantastically rich individual once having lived at Scar.

With the exception of Quoyness Chambered Cairn all the archaeological sites are under grass.

Archaeology leaflet available locally.