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Guide to Winter Roads in Orkney

Winter Road Treatment in Orkney

The Council maintains roads in Orkney to allow safe movement of vehicles and pedestrians and to minimise delays due to wintry weather conditions. From October to April road and weather conditions are monitored to provide a winter service for the treatment of ice and snow.

It's not possible to treat every road at the same time so priority routes have been established:

  • First priority is given to identified strategic routes and principle roads.
  • Second priority is given to other important routes, school bus routes and known trouble spots.
  • All other routes will only be treated if conditions persist and resources are available.

Treatment of ice and snow on roads and footpaths is a daytime service only in Orkney, starting at 6am and ending at 16:00 for footpaths and 6pm for roads. Only emergency treatment is provided overnight and a formal standby system for staff and salting machinery is in place.

OIC has up to 12 gritters on the Orkney mainland and gritting machinery on all of the isles.

You can find details of the priority routes in the Winter Service Plan, available from the 'Related Links' section of this page.

Operational Procedure

At mid-day each day, the Councils’ Roads team analyses Met Office weather forecasts in conjunction with road surface temperature data gathered from weather stations at Kirkwall airport and Mill of Rango in Sandwick to predict likely road conditions overnight. Pre-salting is carried out as required in the late afternoon on Priority 1 routes to prevent ice formation overnight and resources are organised to start salting again at 6am.

In times of snow, especially when drifting is widespread, and in extremely icy conditions the need to revisit main and priority routes can cause delays in treating lower priority routes. Nevertheless the Council’s roads workforce will be doing their best to cover routes as quickly as conditions permit.

Motorists should be mindful of actual conditions at all times and drive accordingly.

Route Priorities

Obviously it is not possible to treat every road and footpath at the same time, so salting and snow clearing takes place according to a carefully devised priority system Maps detailing the priority of all routes can be found in the Winter Service Plan.

  • Priority 1 roads are treated first with lower priority routes following when conditions justify treatment. Priority 1 routes will also be pre-treated following receipt of frost or snow warnings.
  • Priority 2 routes will be treated when adverse conditions become apparent and when all priority 1 routes have been completed.
  • Priority 3 routes are not normally treated unless conditions are severe and likely to persist for several days.

Each priority type is outlined in more detail below.

Priority 1 Routes:

Priority 1 routes are primary routes and important principle roads serving as main routes between communities and providing access for the emergency services. These include:

  • Roads leading to important industrial establishments.
  • Roads leading to Hospitals, Fire Stations.
  • Roads leading to Transport Terminals.
  • Selected bus routes.
  • Important journey-to-work routes.
  • Known trouble spots.

Priority 2 Routes:

  • Principal roads not listed as Priority 1.
  • Other known trouble spots not on Priority 1 list.
  • Town centres.
  • School bus routes (Priority 2s) treated before other priority 2 routes on school days where resources permit.
  • Surgeries.

Priority 3 Routes:

  • All other roads, starting in the most populated areas
  • Rural roads to shops, post offices etc
  • Housing scheme roads with steep accesses
  • School bus routes are treated as Priority 2s on school days


Like roads, footways are categorised into priority routes, with priority given to those footways which carry the greatest number of pedestrians, that is from residential areas to the central areas of town where shopping, commercial and community facilities.

The tips below relate to keeping paths outside your property clear of snow and ice. They reflect guidelines being developed nationally by Transport Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and are based on some frequently asked questions:

Can I clear my path or pavement outside my house, shop or office?

There is no law preventing you from clearing snow and ice from paths or pavement outside your house, shop or office. Doing your part may help the local community and will be very helpful to the more vulnerable members of society. In severe weather Council employees may be very busy clearing other areas and priority and lifeline routes.

Some people may be unable to clear their paths. Being a good neighbour and clearing their paths for them is the kind of practical step that most of us can take during cold weather.

Practical tips for clearing paths and pavements

  • Do not use hot water. This may melt the snow and ice initially but will refreeze quickly to a form a very slippery surface.
  • Wear suitable warm clothing and footwear with good grip.
  • If shovelling snow, think about where you are going to put it, so that it does not block other people's paths or the road. Make sure it will not cause problems when it melts. Piling snow over gullies or drains may stop melting snow from draining away.
  • Traffic will find it difficult to stop quickly in icy conditions, so make yourself visible if working near a road and do not take unnecessary risks in the road.
  • It's much easier to clear fresh snow than hard packed - start as early as possible.
  • Clear a small path down the middle of the area to be cleared first, so you have a safe surface to walk on.
  • Spread some salt on the area you have cleared to prevent ice forming. Remember salt can be washed away and you may need to repeat salt spreading. Ordinary domestic table salt or dishwasher salt will work – bulk bags of salt can be purchased locally. There are several grit bins located throughout Orkney for self help. A full list of these can be found in the Winter Service Plan. If you notice a grit bin is low in salt, please advise the Council by calling Customer Services on (01856) 873535.
  • If there is no salt available, then a little sand or ash can be used to provide grip.
  • Particular care and attention should be given to steps and steep slopes - additional salt could be used in these areas to reduce the risk of slipping.
  • Take care, use common sense and don't do anything which would be likely to cause harm to others.

Driver Safety Advice

Look Out For Black Ice!

Black roads do not mean ice free roads. In winter weather ‘black ice’ can be particularly dangerous – it is not readily visible and can persist or recur even after salting.

In extreme conditions salting and gritting will not prevent the build up of ice on roads. Drivers should take account of the prevailing weather and road conditions and drive accordingly.

In severe wintry weather:

  • Only make journeys that are absolutely necessary.
  • Think about whether you can take - or offer - a lift in a suitable vehicle.
  • Check the weather forecast and road conditions before travelling.
  • Ensure your vehicle is prepared for your journey – ensure windows and mirrors are clear of ice and snow build-up before setting out. Carry an ice-scraper and de-icer fluid or spray.
  • Carry warm clothing, food and drink, winter footwear, a spare blanket, a torch, mobile phone and spade or shovel in your vehicle.
  • Allow extra time for making your journey at reduced speed.
  • Tell someone at your destination what time you expect to arrive.
  • Use main roads as much as possible. It is better to travel a little further on a main road which has been treated than to use minor untreated roads.
  • Use dipped headlights when driving in poor conditions.
  • Avoid sudden turns or harsh braking or acceleration.
  • Drive in a higher gear than usual to help prevent loss of grip.
  • Allow extra braking and stopping distance on snow covered, slushy or icy roads.
  • Take care when travelling behind winter service vehicles and maintain a safe distance behind them.
  • If stuck in snow, do not abandon your vehicle – stay until help comes,. If you must leave your vehicle, try to make sure it is out of the path of gritters and snow ploughs.
  • When stuck, keep the vehicle’s engine running to keep warm but ensure adequate ventilation to avoid build up of suffocating exhaust fumes.
  • If your journey is not absolutely necessary, don’t set out.

Road Information

If you must make a journey in difficult conditions, listen to local radio stations for weather forecasts and road condition updates. 

Orkney Islands Council:

Business Hours, Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:00.

Telephone: 01856873535.

Urgent Out of Hours Telephone: 01856876338.

Useful Websites:

  • Weather forecasts from the Met Office.
  • Travel alerts from the AA, RAC and Traffic Scotland.

These links are available from the 'Related Sites' section of this page.

Visit OIC’s Emergency Planning Page for Scotland-wide advice, available from the 'Related Links' section of this page.

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