The A961 links Kirkwall with South Ronaldsay and the intermediate South Isles, which have been joined together via the Churchill Barriers since World War II.
Kirkwall – Burwick
Heading into Kirkwall
The road starts off towards the south of Kirkwall at a junction with the A960 as the Holm Road, and quickly reaches a TOTSO with the A963 Holm Branch Road, which is now the main signed route around town. The road then passes the famous Highland Park whisky distillery (indeed, there are a few pipes passing over the road as the distillery has buildings on both sides of the road). The road continues south along the Mainland coast, in a series of long straights, one of which is over 2 miles long, albeit over a slight brow. Eventually the road runs out of land and has to take a hard left at St Mary's, running along the shoreside of this pretty village to a junction with the B9052 and the first of the Churchill Barriers. The Barriers were built in 1940-1945 by Italian POWs to block the eastern sea approaches to Scapa Flow.
The first barrier takes the road onto the small island of Lamb Holm, which is where you'll find the Italian Chapel – also built by the Italian prisoners of war. You can almost guarantee seeing bus-loads of tourists along here in the summer. Barrier number 2 follows onto the uninhabited Glimps Holm, soon followed by the third barrier onto the larger island of Burray.
Barrier 3 to Burray
On Burray, the road takes a rather tortuous route, as before the Barriers were opened as roads there was no classified road on the island, and ferries operated in and out of Burray Village at the south end, so the roads north across the island were 'designed' to serve outlying farms and cottages, not as a through route! The road winds southwards, using a natural shingle bank cutting off the Echna Loch lagoon and passing through various settlements before reaching Burray Village. The village is actually bypassed, with the road sweeping eastwards to cross over the fourth and final Churchill Barrier onto South Ronaldsay.
The first bit of road on the island is new, connecting up to the barrier, but then at the B9044 junction, the old route of the B9040 is picked up and followed to the southern end of the island. After a mile or so, we enter the village of St Margaret's Hope - the third largest settlement in Orkney, where you can take the B9043 past the village and catch a ferry to Gills Bay in Caithness courtesy of Pentland Ferries. The road continues out of the village and a mile later the B9042 also heads west along the ragged shore. As the A961 continues south, it passes several tiny, scattered settlements, with a good viewpoint near the top of Sandy Hill. The road is a long, slightly curving straight which is suddenly interrupted by some sharper bends as it winds down to the shore at Burwick. Here the B9041 heads east in a long straight line to Cleat, while the A961 winds westwards around Bur Wick to the end at Burwick, which is close to the southernmost point of Orkney. Here a passenger ferry to John o' Groats can be caught in the summer, a service widely used by coach parties.
The South Isles before the construction of the Churchill Barriers – the current A961 follows the then-B9040
Before the construction of the Churchill Barriers, the A961 only followed its Mainland route, from Kirkwall to the pier in St Mary's. After the Barriers were built, the A961 was extended along a bit of the B9052 and over the barriers as far as South Ronaldsay, where part of the B9040 was upgraded as far as St Margarets Hope; the other islands en route did not have classified roads beforehand. Within the next ten years, the A961 had been extended along the rest of the B9040 to its current southern terminus at Burwick.