Top destinations to visit by ferry in the north of Scotland

top destinations to visit by ferry in north scotland go-hi image

We recently announced the addition of NorthLink Ferries on the Go-Hi platform, which now offers users mainland-to-island transport links in the north of Scotland, from Aberdeen and Caithness to the beautiful and expansive Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.

NorthLink Ferries offers efficient and frequent sailing journeys to these islands with up to three return journeys each day between Scrabster, Caithness and Stromness, Orkney. There are also journeys each night from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland (and vice versa), with seven sailings per week travelling through Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital.

NorthLink ships offer superior safety and comfort and feature well-appointed bars and lounges, gift shops, on-board entertainment, restaurants, places for children to play and a range of modern cabin suites, which include en-suite facilities and a television.

If you need to book travel while you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, Go-Hi is your one-stop shop for door-to-door travel. The Go-Hi smartphone app allows you to find, book and pay for all your travel in one place, including buses, trains, ferries, taxis, bike hire, car club, car hire, flights, and hotels.

We’ve compiled the very best that these locations have to offer while you are island hopping with NorthLink, beginning with the mainland ferry links of Aberdeen and Scrabster, through to Stromness, and Kirkwall in the Orkney isles, and further north to Lerwick in the Shetlands.

Castle of Mey, Scrabster Go-Hi Travel App

Scrabster, Caithness

Scrabster is found a mile and a half north-west from the centre of Thurso at the west end of Thurso Bay and is the most northerly large port in mainland Britain. The port can be found by the grass-covered Holborn Head cliffs which expand towards the North, which means Scrabster looks east across Thurso Bay towards Dunnet Head, rather than North towards Orkney where travellers can catch the ferry.

As with many of the Scottish Highland locations, the origins of Scrabster can be traced back to the Norse era. Viking longships found the ideal place to stay in the city’s natural harbour. The old Norse term for Scrabster was ‘Skarabolstadr’ of which the translation is debated. Some say the term translates to ‘clifftop homestead’ whereas others believe it mentions the seagull’s homestead which are widely found across the harbour.

Visitors can find the Castle and Gardens of Mey close to this area which was the summer residence of the Queen Mother. The Castle of Mey shows not only the history of the region but also offers contemporary travellers a café, animal centre, a two-acre garden and informative guided tours.

Close to the area, you can also find Victoria Walk which is a beautiful clifftop walk from Scrabster to Thurso which takes in views of the Pentland Firth all the way through to the Orkneys. A common sight in the area is the traditional Caithness flagstone fencing.

Thurso Pier has expansive views looking back to the town and the beach. On clear days, you can easily look back to see Scrabster and it is the perfect location for stargazing when the weather becomes cooler. While you’re in Thurso, why not check out Wolfburn Distillery which is the most northerly whisky distillery on the Scottish mainland and features guided tours, a gift shop, along with tastings of handcrafted whisky made from the finest ingredients.

Earls Palace, Kirkwall Go-Hi Travel App

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

Kirkwall is the main town of Orkney, the commercial centre of the island. While tourists may be influenced by the still and quiet landscapes, the main shopping street and ferry dock have a comparatively busy atmosphere. Orkney’s capital has a unique character with a wide bay, atmospheric paved streets, and turning wynds (lanes).

The distinctive St Magnus Cathedral is featured in the centre of town, which is also close to the Earl and Bishop’s Palaces which are also worth a visit. The original area of Kirkwall is a fine example of an ancient Norse town being established in the early 11th century. Kirkwall’s name itself is derived from the Norse ‘Kirkjuvagr’ which translates to ‘Church on the bay’, referring to the St Magnus Cathedral. The Orkney Museum can be found in this location close to Broad Street. Here you can view various artefacts and exhibitions, connecting the endless history between these islands.

Despite its Viking roots, Kirkwall is a cosmopolitan area, with a varied range of restaurants, cafes and hotels. The town centre won an award in 2019 for being Scotland’s Most Beautiful High Street. Shops line the main street of Kirkwall with a range of independent retailers that can be found in the town centre. Here you can find a variety of goods, from the finest locally sourced food and drink to fishing equipment.

The harbourfront of Kirkwall is another beautiful location where you can find gulls, ducks, and swans throughout the year. Overlooked by some of the town’s best restaurants and pubs, you can watch the local fishing fleet heading in and out of Kirkwall Bay. The Orkney Distillery is also a perfect place to go after a busy day of sight-seeing which offers award-winning gin tours.

Clickimin Broch Lerwick Go-Hi Travel App

Lerwick, Shetland Islands

From the capital of Orkney, we now move onto the capital of Shetland which is called Lerwick and is the island’s only town. The population of the town itself is around 7,500 which provides the perfect getaway from the everyday hustle and bustle of city life. Half of the island’s 22,000 inhabitants live within 10 miles of this location.

Lerwick has an interesting history as it was an unofficial marketplace for Dutch fleets in the 17th century which led to it being demolished and then rebuilt over a long period of time due to its alleged illegal status. The hamlet was once called Leir Wick (meaning muddy bay) and was demolished on two separate occasions in the early 1600s, before being slowly rebuilt throughout the 1800s when Victorian architects began to build expansive villas and public parks in the area. One of these buildings is the Lerwick Town Hall, which is a monument that can still be visited today.

To learn more about Lerwick’s unique history, a visit to the Shetland Museum and Archives is recommended. The museum houses 3000 artefacts, featuring Pictish art and boats along with internationally famous textiles. The extensive archive collections can help you to learn more about this cultural and historical background.

Not only does Lerwick hold a distinctive history, but there are many places to enjoy art, food, drink and culture in the area. Mareel is the centre of Shetland’s music, cinema and creative industries scene where visitors can relax for a coffee or catch one of the many performances held at the venue. There is also Lerwick Brewery which was launched in 2013 after three brothers decided to begin making their own craft lager, that has grown into a solid range of alternative lagers and offers tours of the brewery.

Situated on the outskirts of Lerwick is Clickimin Broch (Broch meaning fort in Scottish), a well preserved and restored Iron Age, stone-built round house, which has evidence of settlement spanning over a thousand years. It’s fun to explore, free to enter and easy to get to at the edge of Clickimin loch.

Stromness, Orkney Go-Hi Travel App

Stromness, Orkney Island

Stromness was a safe haven in Viking times as a whaling and herring fishing point. The maritime heritage of the island is clear to see for all visitors as the heart of Orkney’s diving industry. Arriving in Stromness from your ferry, you will see the colourful houses and bright lights of the harbour which welcomes you to Orkney.

Stromness is a combination of lanes, piers, slipways and flagstone streets. The feel of the town is steeped in history, but its vibrant inhabitants keep the area contemporary and modern. The town of Stromness is known for its art being home to the largest creative community in the Orkney Island. In the centre, you can find many galleries and artist studios across the main streets, along with the internationally renowned Pier Arts Centre. The arts centre is free to enter from Tuesday to Saturday making it a cheap and fun day out for all the family.

Stromness also has a diverse range of food and drink on offer, with locally-sourced produce and meat being used in local restaurants and cafes. There is farmed local beef, lamb, salmon, and shellfish, along with delicacies such as the renowned seaweed fed sheep of North Ronaldsay which is the most northerly island from Orkney.

To learn more about the history of Stromness, it is worth exploring the Stromness Museum which explores the evolution of the town from the 16th century to modern day. Across the town, you can find blue plaques which mark distinctive buildings and stories of interest for tourists.

Aberdeen Cairngorms National Park Go-Hi Travel App


Aberdeen is Scotland’s third-largest city after Edinburgh and Glasgow and is the perfect choice for a city break due to its historic cultural heritage and young, adventurous residents, blending the old with the new.

The city is unique as travellers can have a wander down the main street of the city in daylight as the night draws to a close, even by 11pm. This is because of the proximity of the main street to the sea where ships make their departures adjacent to city centre routes. Visitors can sometimes spot dolphins that visit the harbour of Aberdeen’s port.

Thanks to the city’s position in Scotland, there are endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. Try paddle boarding through sea coves, surfing in the city centre, hitting the slopes at Snowsports centres, or climbing Munros in the Cairngorms National Park. The location is also ideal for cycling and for the more adventurous traveller, you can find all-terrain cycle routes across this location.

There are miles of colourful coastal villages and relaxing beaches to be discovered in and around Aberdeen. You can venture into the rustic countryside to see vast Lochs and endless mountainscapes.

Aberdeenshire is locally known as ‘Scotland’s Castle Country’ due to the 263 manor houses and enchanting castles that have resided in this land over time. One of the most dramatic castle ruins is Dunottar Castle which is around 20 minutes from the city centre. The most well-known castle in Scotland and holiday home of the royals, Balmoral Castle, can also be found in Aberdeen. Craigievar Castle was said to inspire Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.

Talking of films, The Crown, The Dark Knight Rises, The Queen, Mary Queen of Scots, Peaky Blinders and Victor Frankenstein were all filmed across Aberdeenshire.

Choose Go-Hi for your next visit to the Northern Isles of Scotland

Go-Hi’s recent partnership with NorthLink ferries ensures that passengers have a truly seamless, door-to-door experience when travelling from the Scottish coastline to the northern isles. It is simple for passengers to book, pay for, and carry tickets for different transport methods as they are all stored within the Go-Hi smartphone app.

Go-Hi’s advanced journey planning feature will also find the most efficient and cost-effective routes to get from A to B. Next time you’re planning to view these beautiful locations across the Scottish Highlands, start your journey with Go-Hi.