12-May-2002 -- My hill collecting activities have finally taken me to Orkney, a rather Scandinavian archipelago, just north of Scotland. On our first morning we decided to visit 59N 3 W which by some amazing fluke lies on land, just outside the capital, Kirkwall. Given that Orkney is a wide spread group of small islands, it is very fortuitous that a confluence can be visited without course to a refrigerated transport.
The Confluence is in a large field on the slopes of Wideford Hill just west of Kirkwall. Unlike most of Northern Scotland, Orkney is very fertile and is intensively farmed. Despite modern agricultural practices, there is still plentiful birdlife, and the field was full of Oystercatchers and Lapwings.
The previous visitors described juping downhill from a fence. My GPS took me to the other, uphill side, of the the road and about 200m into the field. The view, as the rain started to fall, was of Wideford Hill and in the opposite direction, a wide bay (Vide -Fjord?) filled with islands of various sizes.
After the visit we drove up Wideford Hill for an introductory view of Orkney and to plan our ascents of various small hills over the coming days.
Orkney is different. Annexed by Scotland in the late 15th Century, it was until then a Viking Earldom and a major political centre. Today although politically part of Scotland, it feels very different and retains a distinctive dialect, accent and flag. The prosperous look of the land, boulder clays upon old red sandstone flags is also strikingly different to all but the very north east of Scotland. Unlike the Western Isles, transferred to Scotland from Norway 200 years earlier there are few Celtic place names or Gaelic speakers.
Long before the Vikings there was an ancient civilisation here, or at least its relics were best preserved in Orkney. Near the confluence you will find chambered cairns, elaborate tombs, astronomically aligned and predating the pyramids by many hundred of years. In the most famous one, Maes How, the 5000-year-old masonry is scarred by runic graffiti by would be Viking grave robbers. There are also stone circles and several examples of entire villages buried by sand dunes, still with their stone furniture and drainage systems. Here you will find the oldest buildings in Europe.
3000 years later on, at the start of the Christian era Orkney was a Pictish land, these mysterious people traded with Rome and left great dry stone castles known as brochs. Unlike the stone age villages these were strongly fortified, but we don’t know who their enemies were.
The golden age was the late Viking era. Long after Nordic Britain had been assimilated into England and Scotland, a Norwegian Earldom thrived in these islands. Here the Viking legacy is of building great churches not raising them. Not only did they leave St Magnus' Cathedral in Kirkwall, still one of the finest mediaeval Scandinavian buildings but traded widely, and almost certainly continued visiting Vinland long after the failure of the 11th century colonists. There is evidence that Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney tried to colonise Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, c 1400AD. He did send a large fleet westward and artifacts suggesting 14th century transatlantic contact have been found in North America and Scotland.
Today as well as the farming and fishing, Orkney is a popular holiday destination, for those willing to brave the almost constant wind. The wildlife, fishing and diving to the wrecks of Scapa Flow are a major draw. The food is not too bad either with top quality sea food, oatcakes, cheese, beer and a couple of malt whiskys.
Topo Map: http://www.streetmap.co.uk/streetmap.dll?G2M?X=342705&Y=1013035&A=Y&Z=4