Everyone in Kirkwall seems to have a Northern Lights story. Pat Stone, my ebullient guide, recalls how they once nearly blinded her while driving. I tell her I’m hoping to see them this very night – in fact, a chance of glimpsing the Northern Lights is the sole reason I’ve flown out to the Orkneys, a group of 70 islands off the north-east coast of Scotland.

Some islands reach as far north as Norway and I’m told the clear skies above make a perfect stage for viewing what Orkadians call the ‘merry dancers’. Of course, Pat warns, there’s no guarantee I’ll see them.

“Sometimes I get these Americans who write to say, ‘exactly what time will the Northern Lights start?’ I have to tell them it doesn’t quite work that way,” she says.

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There is more to Orkney than its sky, however. It also houses the best collection of Neolithic ruins in Europe. Maes Howe is one of Kirkwall’s many not-to-be-missed sights. The ancient burial chamber predates the Pyramids by 3000 years. From the outside, it resembles a massive anthill. The inside is made up of stacks of flat stones, and I ponder how the ancient peoples carried them – weighing as much as 30 tonnes each – over a six-mile stretch. One theory has it that they glided the stones along roads built of seaweed.

Maes Howe is also linked to the Vikings, who broke into the tomb in 1153. Many left their own treasure in the form of ancient graffiti. Some are the runic equivalent to “Ofram was here”. Some are rude (“Thorni fucked. Helgi carved.”). 

Because the site is so delicate, guided tours are timed and spaces are limited. Reservations are a must.

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Situated along the coast is Skara Brae (pictured). The well-preserved remains of a prehistoric village (even the Neolithic furnishings are intact). For centuries the site was covered with sand, and was only rediscovered after a severe storm unearthed it in 1850. A landowner found the village in his backyard and turned it into Orkney’s first history museum. Other ruins have not been so lucky. A farmer tore down some of the Standing Stones of Sterness because he was sick of wandering gapers crowding his yard.

Highland Park is another major sight. The distillery is one of five in Scotland to still turn its malt by hand. This involves germinating the barley in a heap on the floor and regularly shovelling it. The effort results in a richer flavour.

After a tour, I talk to Highland Park’s Patricia Retson about my Northern Lights quest. She’s seen her fair share of the phenomenon. “Sometimes it looks like a neon curtain,” she muses, “other times like a pair of headlights”.

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That night, I stay up late in hope of catching them from Kirkwall, but the sky is one massive storm cloud. The next morning, I board a tiny plane to North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island, and one of the most remote. Just look at the airport, pictured above. Sixty or so people live here, and they are sorely outnumbered by sheep. The lack of light pollution makes it a great spot for trying to catch the aurora borealis.

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Though the region is sleepy by human standards, it’s Heathrow Airport for birds. Many migrating between Scandinavia and Africa make a layover to relax and feed up. Because of this, and the Caribbean-clear surrounding seas, you can see lots of wildlife here, including puffins and seals.

During migration season, the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory B&B fills up with eager ornithologists. This time of year, I’m the only guest. In the evening, I join the staff for a dinner of North Ronaldsay mutton: the sheep dine almost exclusively on seaweed, and taste resultantly gamey.

That night, the sky is disappointingly cloudy, though I can see a clear patch. The Northern Lights, alas, elude me, but the night is still a vision. The moon is the brightest I’ve ever seen. It shines down through the clouds like a celestial flashlight, infusing them with hues of orange and pink. This is enough for me, and so is the rest of Orkney. I may not have seen the merry dancers, but I don’t miss them, not really. I count a few of the sheep illuminated by the moonlight outside and fall contentedly to sleep.

Daisy travelled around Kirkwall with Pat Stone (orkneyaspects.co.uk) More on the Orkney islands at  visitorkney.com

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Getting there

easyJet flies to Aberdeen from Luton and Gatwick. Prices one-way start from £22.99 (easyjet.com). LoganAir flies to Kirkwall from Aberdeen and North Ronaldsay from Kirkwall. Fares start at £54.99 one-way and £21 return respectively (flybe.com).

Where to eat

Kirkwall locals hit up The Ayre Hotel for large portions of well-priced pub grub. Crab’s always a specialty, though lasagne and chips helps ward off the winter chill. (ayrehotel.co.uk)

Regulars at Wylie’s Tearoom in Kirkwall complain about the ‘Wylie Waddle’, a byproduct of the generous portions. (Harray’s Store, Harray)

Where to drink

Though the décor at The Albert Hotel’s Bothy Bar is somewhat rustic (vintage photos of Orkadian farmers line the walls), the crowd is young and the soundtrack all modern pop. (alberthotel.co.uk)

Orkney’s main nightclub, Fusion, is a great spot to listen to local rock bands, as well as a few major headliners, such as Edith Bowman. (10-12 Ayre Road)

Where to sleep

The polite staff, central location and comfy rooms make The Albert Hotel in Kirkwall a winner. The full breakfast comes with an exceptionally tasty slab of black pudding. (alberthotel.co.uk)

The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory’s super-homey digs make everyone feel at home. Fleur, who manages the place, cooks up a fantastic roast and some mean puddings. Cooked breakfasts and lunches are just as sublime. (nrbo.co.uk)