Wideford Hill holds a special place for me, I must have more fieldnotes from this place than any other ancient site, its combination of fantastic views, impressive construction and overall sense of presence, makes it a one of Orkney’s best chambered tombs.
I see the tomb perched on its hill often as I pass by on the Stromness to Kirkwall road, and I always make a point of visiting here at least once each time we are in Orkney, and as today, I like to walk from the house in Kirkwall out of town on the Old Finstown Road, before ascending the hill to the cairn, like a pilgrimage of sorts.
The day is filled with beautiful sunshine today, the hill a beacon ahead of me as I walk. It’s a good hours trek from Kirkwall, although of course you can drive and park near the top of the hill if you want easier access. The path that curls around the flanks of the hill which leads to the tomb is dry today after the recent clement weather, but at times can be difficult going, its peaty, muddy surface often rough, so a good pair of boots is advisable. The old gate with the woollen ‘offerings’ mentioned by Carl is still next to the path, and just beyond in the distance you can make out the fence that surrounds the tombs enclosure.
As you circumvent the hill the views open up over the Wide Firth looking out down Mainland, with Finstown spread out around the bay, and the sister tomb of Cuween hill just visible on the horizon if you know where to look.
The layered wedding-cake like construction of the tomb stands out, the stonework exposed and giving a fine example of how these corballed tombs would look beneath their grassy mounds. Checking on the ‘municipal’ torch (how many of these would find ‘doon sooth’?) I’m pleased to see it’s all present and correct, and in working order, although once I slide open the rooftop entry hatch the bright morning sunlight floods the chamber and its clear no torch will be needed today.
Inside the cool damp exterior I sit and soak up the vibes. The corballed stonework is exquisite and two low entrances enticingly open into side chambers. Today I’m content just to sit in the main chamber, not wishing to get myself too muddy by squeezing into the side cells. It was in one of these cells that I experienced what I can only describe as a presence, the first time I was ever here some fifteen years ago. As I sat inside the chamber in total darkness, I became convinced there was someone else in there. I could even hear their breath in the silent chamber, but as I reached out, all I could feel were the cold chamber walls. It didn’t feel at all threatening at the time, quite the opposite in fact, and I felt a real sense of welcome and belonging, and since then I’ve always felt Wideford Hill was a special place.
After a while I emerge back into the sunlight, and sit atop the cairn to write my fieldnotes. Mainland seems stretched out before you and it’s easy to recognise why this was designated as a sacred space. It still feels that way now, come and visit and experience some of Orkney’s magic for yourself.
16/06/2013 - Standing in front of Wideford cairn I could not believe just how wonderful and beautiful it is. Something built by humans to be so completely in tune with the surrounding landscape. We had walked over from Fairy Knowe, across the tops of Keelylang Hill, Burrey Brae and Wideford Hill itself. The cairn getting slowly ever closer on a lovely warm day. After spending some time exploring inside, we sat down on the grass outside the cairn, just gazing out over the Bay of Firth. Life doesn't get much better than this.
We took the minor road to the top of the hill and parked near to where the road takes a sharp right. From here a ‘path’ can be seen which heads north, across the hill, to the chambered cairn. I didn’t feel up to taking Dafydd with me and I ventured out alone.
The ‘path’ starts fairly flat and it gradually descends down the far side of the hill.
You can see the fenced off tomb from quite a distance.
Although the weather had been mainly dry for a week the ‘path’ was still very muddy in places.
Luckily the weather was again fine although it was a bit windy – not surprising given where I was!
On the way towards the tomb was a wooden gate festooned with what I guess were some sort of woollen ‘offerings’ – teddies, woollen squares, bits of material etc – all very odd.
Somebody had left a name attached to one of the ‘offerings’ – Hegasaer.
Going through the gate I went straight to the H.S. box to get the torch.
Unfortunately the torch was broken (looked like it had been dropped) but luckily I had my head light with me.
I slid the metal hatch back and descended down the ladder into a large puddle of water.
The tomb was a lot larger than I was expecting – particularly given the size of the original entrance.
The stonework was of the high standard I had now come to expect on Orkney – these builders certainly knew what they were doing.
There were lots of names and dates scratched into the stonework.
In terms of location I would say this is the best burial chamber I have ever visited.
The views from the tomb are fantastic and are worth the walk in their own right.
I now had the task of walking back to the car – this time uphill.
Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem but the way I was feeling it felt like I was walking up Mount Kilimanjaro!
I huffed and puffed, stopping more than walking, my legs felt like they had turned to lead.
By the time I got back to the car I wasn’t looking my best!
I was glad I made the effort to see this site as it is most certainly worth the effort.
It is just a pity that I wasn’t feeling too good to perhaps fully appreciate it.
Drive up almost to the top of the hill, park and walk down to the tomb. It's a horrible walk on a rough, well marked track for about 3/4 of a mile, but by christ, it's worth it. What a fabulous tomb!
Nestling into the hillside, the crouching, squashy pancake layers of the mound don't come into view until you're quite close. It has a little passage entrance at the front - too low to get through - but on the top of the mound, which you just can't resist climbing on, is a large horizontal metal sliding door. I pulled it back to reveal a dark gaping space with a metal ladder, inviting me to get in! I'd already grabbed the torch which Historic Scotland had politely left in a weatherproof box next to the information board, so down I went.
What magnificent construction! Corbelling just like at Maeshowe and Fairy Knowe - tight, precision engineering and a tall, tall chamber, boxy and with three side chambers and the front passageway going off it.
This was probably my favourite tomb of all on Orkney. Tons of character, fantastic views, beautiful construction, lots to discover and poke about with. It wasn't long before Moth and Hob were inside, too, crawling into side chambers, squealing with delight, taking photos and generally having the sort of great time that only modern antiquarians do. Jacqui descended into the tomb and even Cloudhigh and claustrophobic Jamesie got in. It was quite a party.
The walk from the road at the top of the hill is rough. I can't imagine it would be much fun in wet weather, as it is a rut through about a foot of peat. Could be quite tricky.
However, it's worth the effort. This is a fantastic space. The slidey metal hatch, the useful torch in a box, the superb quality corbelling and the ladder down into it all contribute as does the excellent view.
The passages are very low and muddy knees seem to be the order of the day to get into the side chambers.
I visited four tombs (5 if you include Mine Howe), on Orkney, this was the best by far. It isn't as grand as Maeshowe, but it has a superb beehive corbelled chamber, and a much more emotive sense of place.
"Orkney Today" and "The Orcadian" of June 4th 2009 reported the discovery by tractor wheel of an otherwise undetectable potential tomb at Heathfield, beehive shaped and built straight into the bedrock,with a lintelled space opposite the corbelled cell. The farmer is leaving the field unused for any purpose until funds can be obtained for it to be investigated further - geology means geophysics has produced little result [if I had been the farmer I'd put a fence round an area the size of the known tomb and cultivate the rest - as long as he leaves it alone they will procrastinate unless he does a Ronnie.
Passed by what looks to be the site today, a piece of rough land, along a line of telegraph-type poles in what is now a field of low pasture. Not what you could call a hillcrest but rather a small plateau. This is an area often well-drenched (one reason the new route is such a pain as the tourist doesn't find out until the top of the new bit) and more like somewhere to find a souterrain like Rennibister. The top is level with ground level and even if there had been something above this isn't much of site to look onto things or be looked up to, kind of the minimum required for positioning a chambered tomb. The farm drains where an earlier subterranean structure was found, so we could be looking at an area of these similar to Hatston (2 each at Grain and the aerodrome runway). So to me a likely example of the old 'gallery grave' earthhouse class.