Walking Dounby to Finstown
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
- Theme: Change
- 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.
Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc
Finding your way