I was born in England but have lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for many years. Take a tour with me around some of the best known London sights. Discover parts of the UK capital that you might not know; and enjoy the architecture, the views and the detail of this fabulous city. It is my personal selection.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 26th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Day 4 – on a faulty phone charger, change, and curious cows
Scenery: roads and fields – a ‘pasteurised’ day
Barbed wire fences negotiated: on-going
Animals/birds met along the way: 1 dead, 1 empty shell, 1 left wing; and 100s well and truly alive
People encountered between start and finish: one
16.6 kms / 10.3 miles
Time: 5 hours
It was a dull and chilly start to the day and I left Dounby along the main road as directed. It felt really nice to have my feet on the ground. I passed signs to B&Bs and a hotel, and took note of this information for any readers who might want to visit Orkney but not camp (see accommodation – where I stayed).
I was fielding texts when my attention was drawn by a cock’s wakening call. There was also the enthusiastic tweeting you get at this time of the day – far better than the mobile phone kind. So, I focused my mind on the path ahead, and walked on beside dry stone walls, a big grey house, farms and, looking up, spotted a lone horse.
There was a beautiful loch view as I made my way off the highway in the direction of Howaback.
A westerly wind blew, with the occassional breakthrough of sun. My phone was playing up even more and I knew I must limit my photo taking because of the lack of battery. I was now very disappointed that I had chosen to take my camera out of the pack at the last minute, to lighten it. What’s more I had looked at mobile chargers in the outdoor shop before I left – you know, ones that don’t need an electric wire – and how I wished I had heeded my intuition instead of my purse strings.
The cows had cheery hairstyles, matching quiffs. There was no pavement and most cars which sped by were respectful and pulled out into the middle of the road to give me room when they could. I thanked them all with my Royal Wave.
I turned along the Old Drover’s Track and past the Merkister Hotel.
A black-headed gull startled the ducks and there was a wader which was, well, wading. He had an elongated beak, upturned at the end, and spindly legs to enable him to negotiate the puddly part at the edge of the water. Then in a flash of black and white, he took off. Looking on the internet when I got home it looks like I saw an avocet.
If I had only bought binoculars… Well, it was hard to make choices of what to carry when most of the knapsack was full of tent, ground sheet and sleeping bag. I was carrying it all for the first time to see if I could manage the weight. (see Resources – what I took with me).
Three men were a boat, pootling, when I got nearer the shoreline. I was starting to see more camper vans as well – the tourists were coming. Here was the old mill mentioned in the Route Description of the St Magnus Way website.
I saw sea swans (can you say that quickly?) at Birsay and here there were more, their impressive, extra-long necks and massive, slowly-flapping wings reminded me of those early films of men trying to fly. The grass curved round where it met the gentle waves.
Inland, I headed towards Quean (such great place names aren’t they?). On the way I was struck by the delapidated buildings with missing or staved-in rooves, and a triangular field with only a few random crops all of which had been allowed to go to the white and yellow flower stage, betraying the fact that the land used to be farmed. I spotted old, irregularly shaped stones, but they had no wire attached so perhaps they were standing ones rather than practical supports.
The cloud was hanging wispily over the hills, the sun illuminating small settlements far away.
I had been basking in the landscape around me, the glorious flowers in ditches by the road, but now my right hip (from poor ballet training as a child), and the left sciatic nerve (from a strain during my first pregnancy) started to attract my attention instead. They were probably triggered by walking on the hard surfaces.
Nevertheless I walked on. That house, I muse, must be inhabited because there’s a jaunty wee wooden fellow pushing a barrow with his flower-pot hat on in the front garden.
I admired the pink and white cuckooflowers and felt as if I had all the time in the world – something I never catch myself thinking at home. I watched a cat, on the other hand, racing to avoid the wheels of a fast advancing vehicle. Hmm, that’s an apt metaphor!
I spent some time trying to work out the ‘wheeeeen’ sound. Perhaps it was the wind in the electric overhead wires? It was like a one-stringed cello being played by the elements.
I passed a pond with six black and white duck-type swimming birds in it. They had turquoise beaks – Orkney is a bird watcher’s paradise!
Crouching down to eat my yogurt I thought, now they’ve raised the bottom of the cartons, doesn’t the end always come sooner than expected?
A silent cyclist passes. Mrs Armitage on Wheels comes to mind, a charming book I read and reread to my children when they were young. With illustrations by Quentin Blake, it is about a determined woman whose nose pointed her where she wanted to go. Later she came past in the other direction. I saw no-one else for a long time after that.
I was carrying an extra load of food because I stocked up at the store the night before, just in case I didn’t find anywhere to sup that evening. It was heavier, but oh so much yummier than usual. Being out in the open air all day every day, I was far hungrier than usual. After eating I noticed that my mind was lively and my body sluggish – busy digesting probably.
At one and the same time the sun was warming my left shoulder and the wind was finding the wee crevices between my hat and hoodie. Which was best, midges or wind? It was a bit of a toss up between them, the latter keeping the former at bay.
I tried to put my rubbish in someone’s wheelie bin but it was full to the brim with bottles – you know what they say about Scottish drinking habits.
An empty bird’s eggshell sat at a tilt on the path – a delicate sage green. More poppies drooped their teenage, soft-whiskered heads in mock prayer, scarlet petticoats irreligiously showing under green skirts. Leaves stabbed the sky beside ferns yet to unfurl. Dock and bell, lion and clocks. I’m having more of a wander than a walk, half the time – no wonder it takes me so long to get anywhere! It is more a series of unhurried hiaituses than a hike!
There was a church on the hilltop to my right. ‘School on the hilltop’ was our school song, and as I walked upwards, I not only remembered the tune but also every word. This of course meant that it was then going round and round in my head for a good while afterwards.
A roll-call of local families: Flett from the 1890s; Hourston; Harvey; Merriman; Jonston; Kirkness, and Baikie about whom my friend Elaine messaged me when she heard I was coming. (Her ancestors bore this name.) WG 201964 Private Dudgeon who died on the Seaforth Highlander in 1919 aged 36 years; Betsy Walls and her son, both aged 70 were laid to rest in the same patch of consecrated ground; John Anderson from Applehouse, Harray; A Clouston who became a Flett through marriage; and the sad reminder of Emily Mary aged 3 years and 5 months, eldest daughter of the Reverend Masson, ‘Drawn in tears’ in 1834. So very sad.
I heard a number of Orcadians refer to the part of Scotland where I live, not as ‘the mainland’, as I think of it, but as ‘Scotland’. These islanders have a history of being independent.
‘More than half of Orkney’s councillors have forced through a motion demanding an investigation into “greater autonomy or self-determination” amid the vote to leave the European Union and a possible second independence referendum.
Many residents have hoped for greater autonomy from the Scottish Government in the past, and were promised more powers in the event of Scottish independence.’ Taken from the telegraph newspaper.
I was born in England and have English parents. Although I have lived in Scotland for more than 30 years, no Scot would describe me as Scottish. When I lived in the Forest of Dean years ago (on the border between Wales and England), I learned that you had to be born in the Forest of Dean hospital to be called a Forester, and therefore the threat of closing it was very serious. I wasn’t one of them either.
Issues of identity are at the forefront of many Scottish people’s consciousness just now as the majority of people who are eligible to vote (which includes me) did not elect to leave the EU. Our society is rich with the variety of cultures represented within it, and I am lucky to be able to move around Europe without difficulty.
I cannot identify as either English or Scottish, and perhaps that partly explains my choice of vote, being European IS something I am (but only until March 2019?). My joy of travel is related to many things, but it must be in part to do with this complex sense of identity.
Scots believe birthplace and parentage count most – living in Scotland for ten years doesn’t make you Scottish
I took my attention back to the ground and carried on walking. I spotted an electric blue acoustic guitar through the window – it had a red rim. It was uphill a bit and there were starlings (electric blue they were!), and free range hens. The farm chemicals assaulted my nose buds. Teasal and horsetail grew where I planted my feet. Tyres were piled on top of haystacks. The sun came out for a moment over the green pastures. Four-legged beasts were grazing and a yellow digger was upended, offering them shade.
I was snapping blind by then because with my phone on energy saving mode I couldn’t see the screen properly. It was a noisy stretch: to my right, racing car noises; to the left the bellowing of calving beasts. I was surprised how my feathered friends had barks bigger than their scrawny black bodies. Perhaps they were trying to make themselves heard!
The theme of the day was ‘change’: the constantly changing landscape; the fact that we are born, we live, we die; the weather which changes the sky from grey to blue; war coming and going, and then coming again – every step I took brought about change in me. If I was mindful I noticed those alterations by the minute, the very second even, a sense of some of my cells regenerating and some dying for the last time.
Hub-caps littered the sides of the roads (why don’t manufacturers attach them better?) A line of whites – pants and vests – were neatly arranged for blowing dry. Waterfalls of clematis gushed over the wall. Buds were blushing, ready to open at the first sign of their sun suitor’s touch. Black crows waddled in daisy fields. Is that rain ahead, I asked myself, there being no-one else to ask, not for miles around. Although the clouds were hiding the summits, I knew they were there, clad in pink heather.
Ooh, for a yellow dauber! There were so many places I would have added an arrow if I had a pot of paint with me. Yellow arrows are the signs which hikers look out for when following the Spanish Caminos. Here, on Orkney, the spaces between sign posts were much greater and I was often moving forward on spec, past side options and through open land, just hoping that I was taking the right route. If I found myself going too far without seeing one then I had to simply double back and try another way.
I had developed ‘tarmac foot ‘, as I called it – plantar fasciitis is the official term. It causes a tenderness of the bottoms and a painful tearing at the heels. One thing I did buy before I left was new in-soles and they did seem to be helping.
There were small piles of oats at regular intervals along the road at this stage, a contrast to the Spanish anthills to be found on tracks between Seville and Salamanca for example. Were they to lure the flock?
I traipsed across a pretty stone bridge and admired the gardens, spotting more of the wooden fellows with their flower pot titfers: one fishing, one climbing a ladder. Someone on the island is obviously doing good business making and selling them.
Without my camera I was reduced to sketching. Sweat trickled as I drew. Of course I also had no idea of the time (my phone had died and my watch was left on Egilsay). It didn’t matter. Woolly detritus was strewn all over the grass from the mama sheep – does the hair of all mammals fall out during pregnancy? Once more I hunkered down out of the wind. In the lee of the wall the grass was damp under me and I snacked on a Scottish-sounding apple – a braeburn – probably grown in New Zealand or South Africa.
I had finished my book yesterday and bought a newspaper, tearing out the sports pages to keep my load as light as possible. I admit that I did already feel rather concertinaed, sort of compressed vertically, by my backpack. This is a bit of a problem as I am already diminutive (4 foot 11 and three quarters which is 1.5m) and so can’t afford to lose a single inch.
Wisps of sheep snagged on their barbed boundaries like the white washing I had seen earlier – discarded, uncarded. A concave sow still to give birth, bulged. I passed a woman painting her fence – a human encounter of the kind kind (ugh) – and like ‘the good witch’ in the fairy tales, she bestowed on me good weather for the morrow. A luminous sky was over there where I was not. A warm slab offered me a weary seat – the mind was still willing, but the weight deterred me a while.
Tim Moore (author of Spanish Steps which I had just finished reading) would love the place names round here: Hobbitsville, Hobister, Tuskerbister and Stymilders. Let your imagination run with those and there will be stories aplenty!
The theme of change was still with me: A leopard never changes her spots; change for changes sake; nothing remains constant except change. Every day the environment changed around me and I would take pictures if I could, to fix the place in my memory. People turn up in my life unexpectedly and then they leave – change inevitably happens.
‘Solvitur ambulando’, a Latin phrase meaning, ‘It is solved by walking.’
from Tadhg Talks blog, ‘An Encounter with Vulpes Vulpes in London’.
I had reached the haven which is Binscarth Woods and my tiredness disapparated. I sketched the scenes of pink blooms under yellow gorse, undulating walls and fence posts which leaned on account of the wind. Unfortunately here in this beautiful place, there were dog-poo bags hanging from a tree like they do in Edinburgh. Why? Never mind, because twisted silver branches, fragrant roses, wild garlic and bluebell woods made up for it. Here were dells such as are inhabited by fairies and blithe sylvan spirits. The evening sun accompanied me out into the grassy field and there I came upon Finstown.
Finstown (say Fin-s-toon)
Finstown is named after Phin, an Irish soldier, who established the Tody Hole Inn, in 1821.
What did I see first? The Baikie Stores wherein more kindly women offered me tea (the cafe was of course shut by this time). I left my phone to charge out-the-back, and bought a replacement cup (mine had broken when I threw my rucksack over a fence so I could slip underneath it). I picked up some local news – it seems that although the fog was down over this village, apparently the sun was shining everywhere else! I perused the magazine rack: Orkney Farmer; Farmers Guardian; The Scottish Farmer; Smallholder; and my favourite, Classic Tractor. I could have added a CD to my basket entitled ‘Orkney Rocks’ which included ‘Fields of Gold’ which we sing in my choir back home.
I took a walk, scouting for a place to pitch my tent. On the way down the hill I visited the post office. Outside was the inscription: Come sit on the peedie porch with me, our ice cream is cold and the warm welcome is free. (Peedie means little). It was certainly warm, and I was able to buy a book by local author, Lorraine Bichen – ‘Three Weeks and Counting’. I was warned it was sad one, and sad it was. Later I met the Post Office couple again and they offered me their floor to stay on. I was settled by then but was very grateful for the thought.
I visited the rather old-fashioned Pomona pub I had been told about, where Wilma who had been there for many a long year was as sweet as anything. She couldn’t offer me food, but said I could eat mine in her bar if I bought a drink. The only other person in there, a guy from Skye, laughed his head off when I asked if there was wifi! I eschewed a beverage and continued on down looking for a site. On my way back up later to retrieve my phone, he was waiting for the bus and we had a chat about his work at the timber yard. What a friendly lot they all are!
After that, on a whim, I popped into Creation Cuts and asked the proprietor Gillian how much she would charge for washing my hair – what with not having been able to take a shower for a few days and all. She said yes, and wanted to know if I was alone and what was I up to. In the end she did it for me for free and I loved her for it.
That evening I set up camp on the shore and had such a struggle to boil my pasta, I used half a box of matches and my new solid fuel stove, but the wind was against me. I tried to light one in the tent. The tip broke off suddenly and made a hole in my new orange mat – disaster. Then I decided to give up on the outdoors and squatted down by the wash hand basin of the public toilets next door out of the wind, nervous in case anyone discovered the smoke or I burned the floor. All was well. Soon my tummy was filled at last.
While I was taking my walk, Orkney was alive with the Folk Festival. Someone suggested I take the bus back to Stromness to take advantage of it, but happily I didn’t need to because there was a satellite concert playing at the Firth Community Centre. When I arrived the first notes were being played. The tickets were sold out and I was really lucky to get a return. Can you guess who was compèreing? The very same minister who set up the St Magnus Way and who had given me a lift into Dounby the day before! And who should I sit next to in the audience? the couple from the post office. I felt like a real local knowing people like that. Top of the bill was the Quebecois band ‘Le Vent du Nord’ and the evening was wonderful – I fair jiggled about in my seat with enjoyment.
It was very cold in my sleeping bag that night- even with Kiersty’s thermals on – and many drunken revellers interrupted my sleep when they stopped their cars to use the facilities at the back of me. However, I survived to tell another day and this was the view I woke up to. How absolutely beautiful was that.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 25th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Last night I camped in the site just outside Birsay. I walked past the Man’s Well which was part of today’s route quite by chance on my way to have supper at the Barony Hotel. The water of the well was said to wash the body of St Magnus before he was canonised. Nowadays it is used for brewing ale and mixing with whisky at New Year! Mons (Norwegian) and Mansie (Orkadian) are both variations of the name Magnus, whereas it is thought that the Man of the Well’s title is the Norse version.
Barony is a working mill famous for its Beremeal, and I had bere bannocks in the cafe in Kirkwall on my final day. Bannocks (this link will take you to a recipe) are a sort of flattish quick bread with the consistency of scones and they were made with flour from here.
Under the aqueduct by the mill wheel runs the lovely Boardhouse Burn (small river) which drives it, lined with shining marsh marigolds. I negotiated more of Orkney’s famously person-proof gate locks, crossed over the almost hidden boardwalk (not ‘under the boardwalk’!) and sloshed around in the soggy ground. I was making my way, through another tight kissing gate, back into Birsay village where the only public toilets of the day’s hike are to be found.
As I waded once again through stinging nettles, I recalled the idea of a nettle shirt. It was called a celice (1) back in the days, and is a way to cause oneself suffering as ‘a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh .. often .. worn during Lent.’ Sported by Abbess Teresa of Avila, (‘a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order’ (2)), this is another example of my many Christian references, things which spontaneously come to my mind when I am on pilgrimage. What with the barbed ring above and this notion, it seems that I am again concerned with the idea of choosing hardship as a way of … well, what?
A number of answers come to mind: being good, becoming a better person, proving one’s worth, deserving a prize….
In his book, Metamorphosis (3), David Gallagher discusses the fairy tale in which a sister picks and tramples nettles (thereby stinging her bare hands and feet) to sew shirts for her brothers to change them back from swans to men after they were cursed. In the version I read and reread as a child, the girl cannot speak whilst sewing. The villagers therefore become suspicious and start to burn her as a witch. As a result of being singed to death, she doesn’t completely finish and so the youngest brother retains a swan’s wing instead of his left arm. Gallagher theorises that, “..the partial transformation is a coded religious message that women should continuously courageously strive and be virtuous in society and support their male counterparts.”
So not only does it seem that my early reading habits allowed me to confuse religious advice and folklore, but the Brothers Grimm and the like (who wrote the stories) might have either been purposefully threading morals through their work or doing it unwittingly.
When I was about to leave for theVia Sacra (Austria) I asked the customary question: what is my focus for this Way? What came to mind was the phrase ‘to atone for my sins’ which surprised me because I am not a Christian now (although I was raised in that tradition and went to a Church of England (CoE) primary school), and I reject the idea of Original Sin.
My known reasons for making a pilgrimage are many: spiritual development, yes; time away from my busy life; a place for contemplation and meditation; and more. I can only notice, on account of the topics which arise as I trek, that the concepts and ways of thinking which come from the bible and church teachings are insidious. Instilled at an early age, and reinforced as they are constantly in the world around me, they are still ‘live’, and consequently they need to be reassessed, to be addressed.
Why? (I ask myself again). Because if there are powerful belief structures which underpin my way of thinking then I need to know what they are. If this way of thinking is the cornerstone of my attitude to work, the foundation of my choice-making; if it is this which supports my interaction with others but I am unaware of it, then I will be basing my life on, and sending out powerful messages about, something which I might more mindfully choose not to.
An enormous black cow (which looked like a bull to me) sat in the corner by the kissing gate. S/he took absolutely no notice of me, its belly spreading out comfortably on the grass. Men worked on the right, their overalls at their waists; a little girl was shooting hoops against the house wall; I visited the St Magnus’ Kirk and read The Ballad of St Magnus pinned on its post (which I did not like), and admired the view of sea and sand from whence I had come, as directed by the St Magnus Way website.
It was a blowy stretch across the dunes, reminiscent of parts of my Normandy grande randonee. Oh dear, I was hungry already and had almost no supplies with me. I hoped Twatt (a ribald name if ever I heard one) had a shop. It wasn’t very easy to find the markers here but I knew the basic direction I was going in and the route description helped.
Then up a small hill I went and onto the first road of the day, but hey, after yesterday, road was okay for a bit. It was gentle: the cows looked at me and me at them. The views were vast.
From high up I could see a tractor going backwards. It was surrounded by what looked like midges from a distance,but was in fact a swarm of gulls.
When technology teaches you a lesson
Every time I took a photo with my phone, I saw incoming emails and was fielding them accordingly. I was getting annoyed. Looking back at my notes, I wonder why I just didn’t ignore them until later. Guilt – that’s the answer! Comments from others about the amount of time I am away from home trigger my natural guilty thoughts along the lines of, ‘I ought to be responsive, responsible, working’. I have an open ‘ought’ channel!
Despite becoming aware of this years ago, ‘ought’ still plays a large part in my life – like a leaping, prancing devil, it taunts and prods me. Getting away into these quiet environments with my feet on the ground, allows me to identify the interface between ‘ought’ and ‘want’, to look that fiend in the eye. (A devil is traditionally a ‘bad’ thing, but in this case it is something waking me up and alerting me to a necessary change.)
In Shiatsu we believe everything ultimately shares the same source (we call it Ki, a Japanese word for an Eastern concept), and that’s my explanation for being able to hear someone else’s thoughts (you know when you phone and the person on the end says, I was just thinking about you). Yesterday I had fancied I could hear the sheep chatting with each other. Is that even possible? If yes, then perhaps my phone was listening in to me!
Lucien Levy-Bruhl, a French philosopher, calls this ‘participation mystique’ (mystical participation) and it occurs beyond our logical, rational thought processes. It is like a ‘sense’ that we have but seldom use now , but it can be increased by usage, like a muscle, if we choose to exercise it. (4)
Anyway, bit by bit my phone just stopped charging, leaving me without the means to take photographs (having forgotten that on my last walk a similar thing happened for a different reason and I resolved to bring my camera the next time!) Day by day it caused more problems and I spent valuable time trying to right them. It was not until my train journey home when I sat next to a woman who insisted she use her own charger, that I started to identify the root of the problem and by the time I was home the phone was back to full speed! Coincidence?
‘I came greatly to value that solitude and self-reliance and was at peace in a landscape that was neither empty nor quiet. All around me I felt the ghosts of an immense past, I heard their whispers and I smiled when they walked by my side…’ (5)
It was possibly the deadness of the phone which made me let go of that guilt and, instead, focus on the walk. It did warn me. I took no heed. It warned me again. Still I continued to allow myself to be distracted, until it only gave me an hour or so of charge at a time and meant I could not communicate with anyone (see the Orphir to Kirkwall walk) or record my delightful surroundings as much as I wanted to.
I observed my environs as I tramped on: a random cliff lay beside the road with nesting gulls; here were the first horses, but as yet no donkey except in the book I was still enjoying before falling asleep.
One singularly unimpressive and rather diminutive stone stands in a field on the left at this point – the Strathyre Mans Stone.
‘Jutting skywards from Orkney’s gentle landscape are a number of ancient standing stones, each a stark reminder of our prehistoric heritage. First cut from Orkney flagstone and erected before the Egyptians had begun constructing their pyramids, Orkney’s stone sentinels have withstood rain, wind and sun for thousands of years. ….To our modern minds, the society of Neolithic man is difficult to comprehend – a society where everyday life, religion and ritual were inextricably linked.’ (6)
A bus slowed and the driver gestured, the face communicating, did I want on? Noooo!
I was amused by a flock of black cows with brown and white offspring (well after using swarm for birds, a flock of cows was no surprise!). Two birds I fancied I hadn’t seen before flew by – one tiny with an ill-matching loudness which started with an emphatic tongue-behind-the-teeth sound; the other with wings where the black ends are much wider than the narrower part that is nearer its body – it squeaked and swooped at top speed.
After a while on the tarmac, I had a good idea and made a most successful boot to shoe change. Hiking boots are not made for road walking so my feet appreciated that and it was just about warm enough.
Growth was the set-theme of the day (again from the St Magnus Way website). I wondered, does growing always mean getting older and becoming more adult, or is it spiritual growth which in my case may be to become more childlike?
There were more standing stones on the edge of a loch – they looked as if they were at home in their natural environment, probably a result of longevity; There was inevitably a cold wind down by the water. Yes, they all warned me: everyone I had spoken to had mentioned the wind – everybody!
Snippets of dreams where I was dancing with another younger woman swayed in and out of my mind. We were tied together by a thread – the image intrigued me.
I carried on along an eternal, straight road (this is real life btw, not my dream). It was not quite the Spanish meseta and maybe not even Roman. For perhaps the first time I sang out loud: The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles. I once walked with someone who sang to me – those were happy days.
Thank the Lord for chocolate. And for the people who gave me a flapjack (cake) yesterday. I loved them. Still the king cups shone by the side of me, providing the missing sunshine.
Did you know that the inside of lamb’s ears is pig-pink and that they chop off their lovely wiggly tails? Shame on them. (Oops there I go again. I expect there is a very good reason).
There is both unexpected and inescapable growth in self-care when taking a pilgrimage – indeed you cannot progress without it. I must look after my feet and fill my belly. When I sit and write, I forget those things – it’s hard to extricate myself from the laptop – but when I walk I have no choice.
Off road again, I wondered whether to go back to boots. I was at the head of the Loch, me and the caterpillars which had possibly followed me from Egilsay.
Growth (see how the theme has lodged and reappears, how I thought, then walked, then thought, then…). Growth: learning to hold the unnecessary or unwanted away without resentment. Which is harking back to the guilt of course.
I took a small break (without lunch, worst luck) and mini-meditated instead. I took lovely deep fragrant breaths, but a Shiatsu School Edinburgh idea interjected. I sat with my knees out to the sides, soles together, to ring the changes with the hip position, to be different from all that forward moving activity.
Oh, I think excitedly, I could write a St Magnus Way book. I could spend the 5 weeks between the French teaching weekends penning it in the Autumn. Another ‘good’ idea! I got very excited.
Then I was on a typical St M path again. Could I see the way? No. Could I see the bog? Yes! The boots won the day. It was altogether too wet, bumpy, harsh-heathery and possibly sporey-caterpillary to risk sandals.
Cows had obviously been lying in the mud given that their tummies were caked brown. It was really hard going and I recommend you wear long trousers if you want to try it. There was petrolly, peaty water in the channels made by the farm machinery. Birds insistently squeaked and tweeted, and then I heard the one with the wings described above and it woolf-whistled at me!
Who said a pilgrimage should be easy? Surely, I thought, the point is how I cope with adversity. Growth, you see.
Then there was a thundering and a mooing, and all the adult bovines in the paddock I was walking past closed ranks with the calves in their midst to protect them.
At Hilldyke the farmer had the WD40 out and the cattle were still lowing in my wake. A group of calves were up close by the fence of the field as I made my way downhill with a misty view. I was being bombarded by small, black insects on account of the lack of wind, but somehow the turbines were happily spinning away anyway. It was sort of too dark with sunglasses but too squinty without.
On the whole The St Magnus Way is well signposted with its very small black and white logos. They are not Spanish-Camino-yellow but pretty efficient, so that with your eyes peeled you can find them, although the Route Description (pdf download) is needed to supplement.
Away from the, it must be said, unusually pretty corner, I decided to walk on and the setting was once again utilitarian: barns and houses – more low-lying grey abodes presumably built like that to avoid the worst of the gales.
breezes loosely captured can connect us with the very edge of the infinite
Charles Moore in his foreward to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows
Later: trees (there aren’t normally so many here due to the wind), and flowers, and a VW in a field.
There’s a sense I often have that nature has its own colour scheme. Here the floral show is immaculate: the juxtaposition of colours, the relative heights, and the arrangement rival any church display
I was getting a little weary, maybe because of being hungry, and I found myself wondering why my pal Magnus went all round the houses. After all, there’s no hill and it doesn’t look like a bog. Surely he would have gone as the crow flies. Ah well. More road walking.
The sheep are all different colours according to the farm. The cerise-rinse sheep reminds me of that book….
My hands were a tad sore from holding and prodding the baton yesterday. Ditto my shoulders, but luckily not the right hip which had been a problem from my old dancing days. I could feel it first thing this morning, but not now thank goodness.
I walked through Beaquoy, a collection of houses, pronounced, so Kiersty kindly told me, beck-woy.
In the distance the hills were still topped by mist. Yep I reckon that must be Dounby over there, I thought, and these are definitely midges (yuk), although I have found a new use for the scarf with the annoying tassles that get caught in the rucksack when I try to do it up: I can use it like a horse tail!
Not long after this I arrived at my destination and the first building I noticed was somewhere to eat. Twatt hadn’t yielded any shops or cafes, just dwellings, and I was famished. I had heard the sound of kids playing before I got there – a nice welcome.
According to the conversations I had had with locals, Dounby seemed to be best known for its co-op. I spotted home-grown potatoes showing their heads under the string in a garden, the memory-laden smell of cut grass an actual pavement under my feet Hooray! I had got here without serious injury before the tea shop shut… oh no, no, the tea shop was closed. Never let it be said that a closed sign stopped me when I was starving after a long day’s hike!
Dounby – host of the annual West Mainland Agricultural Show and home of the Church of Scotland minister whose idea it was to start this pilgrimage in the first place:
I had that same sense of embarrassment coming into a civilised area with unshaven legs, and into the cafe with my massive pack and muddy boots that I had had before, but the staff were kind and helpful. They let me in and fed me but I think it was because they heard my tummy rumble.
I had a nice plate of fresh crab sandwiches with crisps and grapes whilst listening to ‘I tell you what you want, what you really, really want’ on the radio. (There were plenty of gluten free options).
I took the chance to have a look through local leaflets and found info on some of the places I will be going to. It was a pity I missed the Kirbuster Museum – it has a putting green; I liked the creative combination of Judy’s Fabric and Jokeshop; the Hill of Heddle is home to the motor cycle scrambling on Sundays – I hoped I wouldn’t have to walk there then; and there is an Orkney Men’s Shed which I am sorry not to be the right sex for as it sounds fun. I could not find a St Magnus Way leaflet at the campsite in Stromness, nor here. I did, however, spy a recipe for Rhubarb and Lentil Curry in The Orkney Advertiser which I might well try when I am back home.
At the first sight of the Milestone Church the sun came out.
I had popped into the pharmacy to find out about tetanus. Having had no recent jab, I wanted to know the symptoms, just in case my elbow (see above) was infected. Of course they wanted me to go to the medical centre, but I had been bathing it in tea tree oil from the very start and keeping it clean. There was no sign of anything being wrong and I had no internal fever or heat.
I wanted to meet the man who had started all this and the girl in the shop told me where the manse was, so before pitching camp, I set off on what turned out to be the next day’s walk: back to Quilco, then right to North Bigging (needing to ask for directions along the way).
This little critter came running and snarling at me and I am sorry but I laughed at him.
A man came into the garden rounding up his hound but there was no friendliness, nothing even approaching a friendly buen camino.
There was an option to go up a hill, but I am afraid I didn’t do that. Afraid of what? Growth? I said hi to a Shetland pony, happy with my tummy full. I realised that what I feared was another long stretch of the long and winding road before I could knock on the Curate’s door. I must have been tireder than I thought. It was sunny and a bit of a climb.
When I walk and start to feel my back straining, I remember to hold those there pelvic floor muscles up and pull my naval to my spine, focusing on the core, especially when I am pooped and I can feel my innards heavy inside me (given that I am at the age when these things start to happen).
It was a bit of a disaster: I found the house – grand it was – but it was deserted. I left a phone message and waited in the garden, had a little sleep in fact and it was hot. Then I walked back a bit until I found yet another person to ask and it turned out I had been at the wrong place, probably Hollardyke House. On I went until I found a house with a sign saying ‘Manse’ with kids playing in the garden. How silly of me! So, I did meet David McNeish and he was most welcoming and picked me up at the main road 10 minutes later and dropped me at the church, given I had done that part of the walk for tomorrow already. He said it was no problem to sleep beside the church.
The public toilets were next door to the hotel (above) and because the church was closed I had to use them for my ablutions – except in the middle of the night. The next day I realised that there might have been security cameras spotting me while I dropped my drawers – Oh dear, I really hope not!
The St Magnus Way website has excellent resources although one needs time and forethought as well as a working phone to download and listen. I expect some folk would be better organised than me and love to do this as they walked.
I don’t know why everyone is infected with this wanderlust, even sensible Mr Knightly.1
Between 21 – 30 May 2018 I walked the St Magnus Way pilgrimage on Orkney (55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days), and made a visit to the Isle of Egilsay where St Magnus is supposed to have been murdered and initially buried.
I have written about each day’s visit or trek – the route highlights and difficulties; there are pages on the practicalities of getting there and back, accommodation and what I took with me (or wished I had or had not taken!) and there’s a section on how to find the path with my final reflections on making a secular pilgrimage.
The St Magnus Way is a pilgrimage that was opened in 2017. It is not known how many backpackers have walked it since then, but it has been extremely popular with Orcadians, and attracted a great deal of press attention.
The path respects the traditions of Orkney’s medieval pilgrims and particularly of the Earl Magnus (c. 1080 – 1118), whose bones were supposed to have been taken around the mainland after he died. I visited the places associated with his history, death, and with Haakon’s, his cousin, he who ordered his murder. I got an incredible sense of the history and storytelling associated with these islands.
St Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine, intelligent look about him. He was a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money, sound with advice and altogether the most popular of men.2
I am a 54 year old woman and made the trip alone, travelling 294 miles (473 kms) from my home in Edinburgh. I like to offer Shiatsu in return for board and lodging, both as a way to get to know local people and to recognise their kindness. For 3 out of the 9 nights on the island I make this exchange, and the rest of the time I camped.
Starting with a trip to the tiny island of Egilsay, my journey encompassed the communities of Evie, Birsay, Dounby, Finstown, Orphir and Kirkwall, moving along stunning coasts and through isolated moorland. I had adventures and learned some fantastic lessons along the way.
Like the other secular pilgrimages and long-distance walks I have completed, I took the opportunity to think and reflect. Pilgrimage, by its very nature, raises some ‘big questions’ and allows time to think about them.
‘To choose silence is to be quiet with intent.’ 3
Many of the resources on the St Magnus Way website were really useful. I particularly enjoyed the focus topic for each day, and the initial selection and distribution of stones.
I would like to thank the following people for bed, board and friendship: Meg and Frank (Evie), Kiersty (Evie), and Ragnild, Christopher and the boys (Kirkwall). It was a pleasure to spend time with you all and I am most grateful for your hospitality.
The St Olav’s Way in Norway is also connected with Viking tales. It is much longer, but would be a good follow-up to this if you are interested in Norse tradition. St Olav’s Way blog
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 22nd May 2018, my first full day on the islands. At the bottom of this post you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
It was a fitful and very cold night with the engine of the ferry droning in the distance and the birds whining overhead. The rain drummed on the tent roof and I certainly needed the (borrowed) blanket from the campsite sitting room. I woke early to strike camp for the first time and was mighty glad to have my cup of tea before walking back through a deserted Stromness to the ferry terminal. I only just made the 6.10am Stagecoach ‘by the skin of my teeth’.
It was already light and so I enjoyed the short trip to the outskirts of Kirkwall: flat green fields and the occasional hill flashed past and I ate a cracker, some pecans and lettuce (for my French readers, no, this is not normal British breakfast fare!) The day brightened a little but it was hat-gloves-and-everything-I-had-that-wasn’t-packed weather. When the sun shone for a few seconds it was really warm! A cuckoo called.
The second leg of the journey (by local bus this time) was to Tingwall, and I was deposited at the top of the small road. If it is a safe place, the drivers of Orkney buses will stop anywhere along the route when you flag them down or make a request. It was only 15 minutes walk to the jetty where everything was closed at that early hour.
It was a much smaller ferry to Egilsay, stopping at Wyre and twice at the more popular Rousay where 21 passengers got off. We all watched with admiration as the scarlet mail vans reversed at high speed down the steep and narrow ramp onto the boat. 5 minutes later they zoomed back onto dry land. It was a moment for the bag and news to be exchanged, and this happened at each docking – obviously something they do every day.
I chatted to 2 sisters who were on Orkney for the folk festival, and the one who lives in Germany kindly lent me her wireless phone charger which helped a little. Unfortunately I disengaged from it quickly as they arrived at their destination and left my lead attached. I only realised later that evening when I received a text (I had happily given them a card with my details on it because they wanted an air bnb in Edinburgh). How kind they were! They left it at the Ferry Hotel in Stromness for me to collect a week later.
So, what’s the Magnus saga?
Earl Magnus Erlendsson and his cousin, Earl Hakon Palsson jointly ruled Orkney. After a dispute they agreed to have a peace meeting on the island of Egilsay, but Hakon broke their agreement. He arrived with three times more men than he had said he would and promptly ordered his servant to kill Magnus. When the poor man refused, Hakon demanded that his cook do the deed. Orkneyjar takes up the story:
‘Magnus made three suggestions that would save Hakon from breaking his oath by killing an unarmed man. The first, that Magnus would go on a pilgrimage and never return to Orkney, was rejected, as was the second, that Magnus be exiled to Scotland and imprisoned.’
Hakon ordered that his cook carry out the crime. He was loathe to do it, and it is said that Magnus forgave him before he did so. It was for this reason that he became a martyr and, consequently, a saint. The murder was supposed to have taken place at the ruined church with its unusual round tower (0. 5 miles from the jetty). His remains originally lay where there is a monument erected on Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) land a little further away. Later, so it is related, his bones were taken on a journey to the West Mainland and it is this route which part of the pilgrimage follows.
The tiny island of Egilsay
Egilsay lies north east of the West Mainland. There are a scattering of farms and some valuable RSPB sites. The beaches are spectacular. I alighted from the ferry with a couple of walkers who told me that there might be a community centre which serves teas. Otherwise, there is almost nowhere to shelter, just 6.5km squared of smooth fields with a single main road zipped up down the centre. There are swathes of protective irises planted to attract the corncrakes who nest on the ground, and kingcups (marsh marigolds) galore.
The ruined church itself sits in the middle of a sloped field not more than 10 minutes clambering over fences away from where the ferry comes in. Perched there with only blue sky surrounding it, one can imagine it hosting any number of dramas down the ages. With a stepped, gabled wall and plain, arched window at one end; and a blunt cone of a tower at the other, there is no shelter except a rather out of place old school desk and battered chair in an arch. Once the others had left, I wedged myself in a corner, leant back and shut my eyes. Still, I imbibed the energy of this ancient place with the sun on my face. I fancied I could hear the cries of children, the fervent sermonising of the ministers and prayers of the blessed from the past.
I dawdled among the graves, reading names and dates as you do, appreciating the old and the really old stones. No-one disturbed me. There are signs with historical information for tourists, but otherwise just the sound of the sea and of course the birds who are the principal inhabitants of this isle. My rucksack and I went off to explore.
Oh, it was glorious to be going slow again! I had such a peaceful time wandering around, loitering on sands and by roadsides, watching bird antics and trying to work out what type they were. I met two policemen who I was told, later, were there to check for gun licences – they were having lunch on the beach; I called ‘hello’ to one working farmer, and was given a lift by another who stopped beside me on the road and asked if I was going for the return ferry – that was when I lost my watch! He told me he came from Buckinghamshire in England and has stayed ‘for the space and to get away from the rat race’.
It’s an island of tricky gates (the kissing ones are only just possible to fit through with a rucksack), but there were lapwings squeaking attention, sounding like someone blowing between two blades of grass; my old friends, the hairy caterpillars, like soft porcupines creeping between stones; hovering skylarks constantly thrilling; honking geese straining their necks and leaving greeeny-white cylinder-shaped turds behind them; oyster catchers with their classic Balenciaga black and white stripes; fields of dandelions and daisies and all manner of delightful things which the rare yellow bumble bees clearly adored.
On the ferry on the way back I asked if I might stop on Rousay. The sailor worked out that it was a quarter of the distance and so would cost me an extra £2.25. For a reason I cannot now remember I decided not to, even though I knew there was a pub there where I could have a cup of tea and charge my mobile.
I was calm inside when I stepped foot on the West Mainland again, but it wasn’t to last. I trekked to the Wildlife Centre – shut; I wondered if Kiersty lived further down that road but when I turned on my phone, it died; So I laboured in the other direction, beside the extremely busy thoroughfare to Evie – 3.1 miles (5 kms); I stopped at the school and asked a man collecting his kids – he kindly gave me a lift to the cafe but it was shut, and then to the post office which wasn’t; I must have looked and sounded slightly strange because it took the post master a while to soften, but slowly soften he did – he kindly took my phone and charged it behind the counter; I was able to find Kiersty’s address – yes, it was where I guessed it might be! I texted her; I started to walk back – and had to stop every 5 minutes to rest I was so exhausted.
And…then… she came to rescue me.
She was so welcoming and friendly even though we had never even spoken. She showed me Betty’s Reading Room, she took me home and cooked for me and gave me a glass of wine and a comfy bed. The next morning she lent me thermal underwear and a high vis jacket. She was great craic – what a gem!
Granton Harbour (built in the 1830s and historical site of the first electric car factory) to South Queensferry – an easy and utterly heavenly walk which takes you along the shore, through woodland and between agricultural pastures.
This blog contains directions for the walk, together with a collection of observations.
Today was everything that is quintessentially reminiscent of my childhood in British springtime: bluebell woods and wild flowers by the path side.
I left at 11.20 and arrived at 4.20, but as my friend Ann said when she told me about this walk on Friday, it depends how many times you stop! I think I probably had half an hour at the cafe and half on the beach so I would allow 4 hours.
“The natural world is where we evolved. It’s where our minds evolved. It’s where we became who we truly are, and it’s where we are most at home.” – Michael McCarthy –
It starts among wasteland and industrial plots – either side of West Harbour Road.
Once away from the traffic, I saw a circle of gulls mimicking a mothers group, just out at sea; a pair of multi-coloured sparrow-small birds (red, black, brown and white) which played by the water line; and eider ducks swam by – she brown and he black and white.
The little girl who held her mother’s hand was leaping for joy over the waves
The tarmac way stretching from Granton through Silverknowes (1 mile) to Cramond is perfect for wheels of all sorts – scooters, roller skates and blades, prams, wheelchairs and bikes. Dad said, ‘look no hands’, and wobbled dangerously. As he passed me he muttered, ‘harder on this bike’!
It can be crowded at weekends at this stage, but at other times so very peaceful. As I passed, I caught the fragrance of elderflower and meadowsweet. The Edinburgh airport flight path is parallel to this trek so planes roared periodically overhead.
Past Gypsy Brae, I spied Almond House Lodge. At the corner you can cross to Cramond Island at low tide but beware! People often get stranded.
On the left are public toilets and then a steep slope up to the village. By now you will have passed two ice-cream vans. There are two cafes: the Cramond Gallery Bistro near where the Roman statue of a lionness was dredged up in 1977, and further on past the marina, the Cramond Falls cafe. There I stopped for a delicious green tea and what was not really a scone, but nice cherry cake just out of the oven. I sat in the ‘walled garden’ listening to a woman read out a most distressing text from her son.
A duckling was nudged by its mother; a tan-headed crested grebe ducked and reappeared, its tuft upright though wet. Thin, shiny-green beech leaves looked almost plasticky, matching the weed drifting in the river. The sound of bubbling water and the ‘creep creep’ of birds surrounded me.
One of a pair of women in serious sun hats were the first to say ‘good morning’, an hour and a half into my walk. She was American. ‘Oh’, she said as I went past, ‘I’ve been saying good morning all this time and it’s the afternoon!’ and laughed. Later there were many friendly families of cyclists cheerfully greeting me.
The path is generally very easy to follow, but do keep taking the right hand fork if you have a choice.
Take a right at Dowies Mill Lane where there is a playpark and Shetland ponies. I realised I was already at the field I was told about and, yes, there was a just-newborn foal in a woman’s arms. Last week’s littl’un was being trotted round the field by its mother. The two other adult horses were curious, and crowded round the shed door to view the new arrival.
Then take a right again at Cramond Brig (bridge). (You could go left for the cycle path back to Edinburgh, or straight on for the continuation of the Almond Walkway).
After Bridge Cottage (above), go up the lane by the Cramond Brig Inn and keep right until there are signs to South Queensferry. The road travels through the Dalmeny Estate by a bank of comfrey, white dead nettle, dandelions, pink campion and buttercups. Flies looped the loop after each other in front of my nose. A cuckoo called; a bee buzzed by my ear; white cherry-blossom petals wafted.
When you get close to the sea take the left fork signed John Muir Way (JM Way).
A group of women came up behind me with their Glasgow accents. In fact, all day I heard almost as many foreign languages as I hear when walking in mainland Europe.
Turn left again at the beach. Here one can take a tiny right hand détour to lie on warm sand and sit on the promontory of Eagle Rock with its chocolate seams, in a beige cove. I looked back to my right at Cramond Harbour with a beautiful view of the island.
I meditated on the sound of the waves and tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore the fly crawling up my arm. I smelled the beautiful briney sea (sing-along-a Bedknobs and Broomsticks fans).
Oyster catchers, and curlews with long sabre-curved beaks perched on the starboard side.
At the cottages, stay right on the JM Way.
There was a coconut scent of warm gorse here. The ash trees had young leaves, no black nibs to decorate them as it was April. I stopped and hung over the dinky wooden bridge and heard a bumble bee and the trickling brook.
Two geese flew over and honked. It was definitely spring – everything and everyone was in pairs. I will be honest, I wanted the whole world to be in love.
First I walked past the impressive Dalmeny House and very shortly afterwards, the grey stone Barnbougle Castle owned by the Earl of Rosebery and extremely private. This is where I saw my first magenta rhododendron buds. I was on cycle route 76 as well as the JM Way.
A great arc of precisely patterned oyster catchers alighted in front of the couple who sat quietly side-by-side at the shoreline. Later I spotted the birds lined up neatly, a flock on a rock, like white cake-icing.
I passed a mum taking a snap of dad up a tree, son in his bike helmet looking up into the branches nervously. As I waded through springy undergrowth to get a shot, I disturbed spider filaments which clung to me and tickled as I got back to the path. There were cerise stalks and seed cases of the sycamore and a pollen-yellow clutch of unfurled ferns.
To my mind it was a shame about the yapping dogs on the beach and the droning of the water motorbikes; but a kid hurling stones, boys paddling and little girls rock pooling all seemed idyllic.
‘Do you trust me’ asked a lady’, shrilly? And then she laughed with a wicked stepmother sort of laugh. A black lab rushed up to me with a ruby, lolling tongue implying, ‘you might want to lie down but I want you to throw the stick’.
I passed out of the Dalmeny Estate through the Longcraig Gate at South Queensferry. If you do not want to walk the whole way, you can park at the foot of the rail bridge there and walk part of the way in the other direction. You could also take the train from Edinburgh to Dalmeny Town and cycle (£4.70 return with Scotrail).
A lad said, ‘Don’t you hate it when you get a speck of sand between your toes and then there’s a blister?’
Under the famous rail bridge I found myself on New Halls Road where perhaps 50 bikers with their beards and bald heads brummed their engines. I had a refreshing half of Holyrood pale ale in The Hawes Inn.
There are many steep steps to the station and tiny little signs. When you find yourself in the middle of a housing estate, go straight on (not right) and it is on the left. (I am not quite sure why I got a return except that my head is always ‘mince’ after a walk. The guard said if he had sold it to me on the train he could have refunded it!).