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.
Day 3 – on mortification, growth, and guilt.
- Scenery: gentle, open
- Lochs passed/seen: Boardhouse, Hundland, Harray, Banks, Sabiston
- Today’s only real danger: cars, and starvation!
- People encountered between start and finish: none
- Theme: growth
- 16.6 kms / 10.2 miles of which 10kms on the road
- Time: 5 hours
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 the Via 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.
3 David Gallagher, ‘Metamorphosis, Transformations of the Body and the Influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Germanic Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries’ p 238.
5 The Hidden Ways, Scotland’s Forgotten Roads by Alistair Moffat p. 17
Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc
Finding your way