Orkney – England’s furthest point north

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I know Orkney is a long way north, but not this far. We wake up south of Glasgow and spend the whole day driving, and driving, and then driving some more. The Cairngorms pass to our right beneath a cap of scudding cloud, Inverness rewards us with a hasty shopping spree to prepare for the week of wilderness ahead, and then the road continues. Further and further, ever further north, past smaller and smaller settlements and houses, and soon we’re near the most northerly point in this nation of ours. But before we catch the evening ferry to Orkney we snatch a few routes at one of the less frequented crags in Britain – Mid Clyth.

We’ve only got a couple of hours but it’s enough for Callum to whizz up a bold and classic E5, Tom to pocket the only thing resembling an offwidth on the crag – even if it is merely E2 – and for Callum to try a stunning looking new line. With longer he may have made it, but an onsight, first ascent of hard E7 is quite an ask, and with only 40 minutes before we leave for the ferry he ends up down climbing from the rickety skyhook crux. In the end we make it to John O’ Groats for the obligatory end-of-the-world snaps, then roll onto the ferry to whatever it is that lies beyond the end of the world.

There’s something about ferries that compound the sense of adventure, and on arrival in St Margret’s Hope I remember to put my watch forward by an hour, only to then remember we’re still in Britain. Leaving the ferry I double check which side of the road I need to be on, then set off across a landscape that is bleak, flat and devoid of trees. It’s Viking country, a harsh land where life looks hard and tenuous, and that’s in summer. There are cows and meadowgrass struggling in the breeze, and the architecture is that depressing, faded pebbledash so characteristic of the Highlands. If pebbledash can fade, that is. 

This whole island feels like it’s hunkered down against the elements, a kind of survivalist place governed by the wind and the cold and the rain, although it’s only the first of these that’s raking the island today. The clouds are racing, scattering a patina of sunbeams across the land, and we’re treated to a spectacular, rich-light sunset at around 10pm. I say that, but I’m not sure the sun really sets up here at this time of year since even by 11pm its still light.

Next morning and the forecast that brought us to the far, far north of Scotland turns out to be wrong. It’s raining. A bunch of fronts stacked in the Atlantic throw a heavy slew of showers over the islands we hope to climb on, so we retire to a café before the second ferry crossing required to reach Hoy – a ferry to increase the adventure factor further. Over coffee I film a quick interview with Tom where, in a moment of unsurpassed cultural faux pas, he tells the camera that: “We’ve come up to the furthest point north. It’s as far as it’s possible to come in England…” This already silent Scottish café grows quieter. “Bravo!” call a couple of sea-hardened fishermen at the other end. In good natured jest, I hope, but if so then only just.

And now we’re crossing the sea again in the hope that this afternoon’s weather will improve. We’re all increasingly excited at the prospect of finally getting on the fabled sandstone of Hoy, putting up a few new routes perhaps, standing on the top of the Old Man, and having a good, proper adventure. We just need that high pressure resting over England (south) to udge north, and we’re set.

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