Walking Finstown to Orphir
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 27th 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.
– on timelessness, forgiveness, and dialect
- Criss-crossing the west mainland of Orkney: Having started in Evie in the north east; curved around the cliffs to Birsay in the north west; walked coast-to-coast eastwards to Finstown; today I would drop directly south to Orphir. I didn’t know what I would find
- Why to Orphir if Magnus’ bones weren’t taken there? The organisers of this route write that today’s trajectory ‘shifts attention to Haakon, Magnus’s cousin who ordered his death and ruled the united Earlship afterwards.’
- Highlights: A traditional Scottish moorland, some slopes, and the wonderful shoreline between The Breck and the Bu
- People met : a record 3 (between Finstown and Orphir), then loads after that
- Theme: forgiveness
- Favourite and unusual animals encountered: 1 donkey, Shetland ponies, llamas
- 17.1 kms / 10.65 miles
- Time: 6.5 hours Finstown to Orphir village; another 2 minimum to St Nicholas church and back, but I did have a sleep
A screech of tyres heralded two carloads of revellers needing the toilet at 2am (I was camped beside the public conveniences in Finstown). I got up to retrieve my walking top which I had unwisely washed the evening before (unwise because it was too cold to dry properly), and it was cold on my return so that I stuffed my coccoon with newspaper. As I was awake I texted Heather, my lodger about cat litter, and finally dropped off.
When I woke again the sun was shining on me through the tent and it was warm. I think there may have been dew on the outside of my sleeping bag, but thankfully not on the inside!
I had dreamt my recurring dream of being lost in a big house full of rooms. I am convinced they began when I moved from my small town primary school in Sevenoaks to the much bigger secondary in Tonbridge and could not find the right classrooms. Ah, but this time it was my own house. Now, that’s change for you!
I crawled out and found the calm waters ahead, guarded by the pier on my right with the already warm sun rising behind it, and Snaba or Cuffie Hill to my left. Ahead, I guessed from my map, were the Holm of Grimbister, Scarva Taing, the Skerries of Coubister with perhaps Chapel Knowe broch in the far distance. (A holm is an islet, a skerry is a rocky island, and a broch is a stone tower dating from prehistoric times.)
7am was so quiet. I was delighted to see a sleek headed seal swimming in the bay, watching as it made its way across to the other side and then back again and then climb out onto the jetty. Oh, not a seal, a mermaid, I mean, a woman taking her Sunday morning exercise! She changed in my / the toilets and I couldn’t stop myself going to say ‘hi’. She was as surprised as I was to see someone up at this time, not having noticed my tent.
None of the remaining matches would light my stove, so there was no tea for me, worst luck. (How come I didn’t bring a lighter? It’s not as if I haven’t been camping many times in my life before). Instead I had the Rhubarb Soda I had bought at the post office (made by Bon Accord in Edinburgh £1.50 – delicious).
I was on permanent battery saver now which, because there was no signal anyway, meant I could not book the homewards ferry.
A million drops sat on the blades of grass, shining in the sun, gleaming, a simple collection of diamonds, of miniscule, suspended orbs.
Having charged my phone at the Community Hall the previous evening, I received two air bnb booking texts, making that five in five days – lucky for me August is busy in Edinburgh with the festivals.
I climbed up and onto the moors, first on a path and then into the wilderness. I met a lovely jolly South African lady with a white bun and skyblue clothes. She didn’t have a rucksack or a dog. Once again a woman had appeared, as if from nowhere, to advise me. She said she had searched and searched and there were no St M Way signs, and predicted that the haar would come in again from the east. ‘I’ve walked all these hills but they don’t cater for walkers here on Orkney’, she said.
Of course the higher I got, the more I could see behind me when I stopped to catch my breath: the green lilypad islands in the blue ocean; flashes of silver indicating the main road. It was hard going with the backpack on the uneven ground, though I was glad that I did find the markers when I cast around for them – perhaps I had my eye in after three days.
I was already hungry, but it was OK because I had a whole lettuce in my John Lewis bag (my children would be able to explain, it’s because I believe I need my greens every day!) And talking of rabbits, they were bounding around, keeping me company as I stumbled.
It is simply not done in hiking circles, to have a carrier bag but there was no room in my rucksack for food. I hung it from my straps where it swung annoyingly when I got into my stride and had to be restrained when clambering over stiles. It lasted the whole 10 days! Maybe I should have got people to take photos of me and tried for sponsorship – missed a trick there.
There are clumps of Lady’s Mantle down in the ditches, out of the wind and by the side of the stony track.
Forgiveness is an end-point: only after a proper process of understanding both points of view, acknowledging the hurt or the sadness, and coming-to-terms with all of that can we forgive and then act on it. I shed terrible tears on watching the part of the film ‘Calvary’ where the main character (played by Brendan Gleeson) goes into prison to see his son and you know he has been forgiven. My reaction was testimony to the power of this in my life. ‘I think forgiveness has been highly underrated’, says Gleeson’s priest.
After a while the track peters out and it was just me surrounded by hillocks of heather and bog cotton – rabbit tails on spindly stalks. Mossy mounds had green spears poking out of them, and there were the sort of birds which hover and flutter just above the ground in constant conversation. In places there were canine and then human footprints.
Gradually the landscape started to remind me of Highland walks with its peat banks, bogs and pools. Scrambling through the scratchy shrubs was painful on my knees but I avoided squelching underfoot. It had become very, very quiet. There was no bird song.
Forgiveness is offered to those who ‘follow the faith’, on earth by priests, and elsewhere by God, so it is said. To promise it to a child, who early on has no understanding of sin – not of others’ or their own – is to immediately puzzle her. It is a suggestion that there is already something wrong with that child, that she has already transgressed, and if there is no internal cognition of this, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. What else, but that child grows up with an aura of mistake, not able to make an actual connection between the forgiveness and an awareness that forgiveness is necessary.
Yes, in fact there were odd snatches of various sounds – the distant thrum of an engine, for example. And I could see oil tankers far away on my left. Amethyst violets and rose quartz orchids were glinting at my feet, and then I was on a soft downhill track again.
I came across a pregnant donkey and two brown-and-white Shetlands. She came up close, sort of in-breathed at me and flicked her left ear. It was the ponies who got the carrot which was intended for the donk.
And … what’s more, to be an adult who can offer a child forgiveness sets the offerer apart, as is often the aim. Again, the child is reduced to a transgressor, and what’s more, encouraged to understand that the adult is even more powerful than adults already are compared to children, and yet it is most painfully obvious to them that adults are not always good. How to make sense of that? These things I was with as I walked.
A bird mewed, a flap-fast one, its wings tipped with white. There was rather scaredy herd (or flock) of llamas (with crias which is what the young ones are called), and the ubiquitous wind turbine at Kebro Farm, where like all the places I passed farmers were working even though it was a Sunday. In this area there are many incredibly confusing signs saying to go back up (arrows and ‘To Oback Cottage’ etc). Note: Ignore them and keep on going down. There is eventually a St M Way sign at the junction when you get there!
In the same way as Reading is a town of roundabouts, and Glasgow’s all traffic lights, so Orkney’s made up of a complex network of fences, poles upstanding and barbed wire, deadly taut and ready to snatch enough wool to knit a sheep or catch an unsuspecting elbow in passing.
With four per cent of battery left on my phone I could check the time, but why bother? Instead I watched a butterfly doing what butterflies do, and let a chunk of Orkney fudge melt in my mouth leaving a too sugary, but addictive residue.
There was no need for me to be anywhere by any given time – being close to midsummer and because I was so far north, there was endless daylight. In fact there was almost no night. It has been said that stress levels are particularly high when deadlines of time and distance are combined (ie I have to get across town by 8am), so it is a good sign that I can let that go and relax into the walking. I will get there when I get there, that’s my motto.
I noticed, that like the three guys last night who accompanied the lead singer of ‘The Once‘, the sheep looked identical but had different voices – some bass, some treble and some soprano, or is it counter tenor?
I liked the grey cows – I was not sure I had ever seen grey ones before. (No photos, for the above reasons). I went past birds doing that spectacular balancing thing where they sway on top of stalks so thin that the human eye cannot see them, thinner than one of their own legs. How do they do that!
The farmers forked the deep brown, well-rotted manure onto a trailer; an ideal lane between fields offered springy soil that actually massaged my feet from the underneath; there was only one place where I had to step into an empty blue trough and cling onto the, yes you guessed it, the barbed wire, to avoid the too-marshy path. There were bog grasses there, honed to a calf-tickling tip, but space enough to walk inbetween.
I was heading for the nearly-full moon. Every time I needed a pee I had to take the rucksack off and it required a sort of humpfy-jump to get it back on and arrange all my layers – the tucking in was the worst. I cracked my knee which certainly got the blood flowing again. ‘It’ll pass’, I reminded myself.
I was just as I was about to head off up the hill to the right across the moors towards Orphir after the last sign, when I most unexpectedly spotted a couple coming up. She was pregnant and telling amusing stories to the man with her – great to hear them laugh! My phone was dead by then so how lucky it was that I saw them, because Orphir wasn’t on the right in that direction at all!
Down I went, taking the correct course. There was a bed of irises, a red bridge and the delightful sound of trickling, peaty, crystal-clear Scottish water. I found another bird’s wing, pure snow-coloured with bones attached, and a patch of curly white feathers to mark the spot. Butterflies played above like the very spirit of the bird which had died, like the petals of today’s flowers come to life.
Barnacle is a beautiful poem by Roseanne Watt about finding a goose wing on the salt marshes of Shetland.
It was hot by this time with a welcome breeze by the burn. There were no signs (although the notes I had made from the route description last night were pretty good from here on), so I trusted my instinct, tripping on downhill now.
For some reason I had put my single double-layered sock into the rucksack before leaving home, and now it had come in useful because I dropped one of yesterday’s pair down the loo when changing in a tight space with an armful of clothes, and after washing it hadn’t dried in time. (I had no idea what happened to the pair. I left them both to dry on a rack in Salamanca and one wasn’t there on my return).
I guessed the repeated but uneven banging up on my right must be people hunting. On the far left I could see a gorgeous beach – Waulkmill Bay I identified from the map – and I would have enjoyed a paddle there and then. Despite another internal debate about the way I decided to keep going on straight. The cuckoo called and I had a sudden memory – did my dad collect butterflies? I must have been very, very young.
Much as I deplore the waste and emissions of plastics, and of course a wooden staff is more traditional for the pilgrim, this baton is better: wood ones chafe the palms after several hours. What a marvellous view I had from up there! It was still a bit misty to be sure, but I could see all the islands, tankers and trawlers, big ships and little boats, as well as what looked like a submarine.
I always talk to the animals I meet, especially the farm ones. I expect they have a relationship with humans already, and probably my mum used to do that and I learned it from her. Perhaps she still does! I was so glad to have my map because I couldn’t connect the Route Direction info with the reality on the ground and got confused.
The two wooden men either end of a bench wi flooer pots atap thar heids cheered me up. In the same way I think in French or Spanish when walking in those countries, I seemed to be rocking some variation of the Orkney tongue in my head.
Then I came across a field of delightful weeny Shetland ponies, foals and their families – somehow I felt a bond! I was gutted that I couldn’t take any photos.
‘Bin fer a dander?’ (Have you been for a walk?), a gentleman asked me as I turned onto the road. There was a further man hanging out washing in his boxers at the next house – he scuttled inside sharpish when he saw me! At the brow of the hill, the wooden fella was half way up a ladder. And as I walked into Orphir there were full-sized horses who looked gigantic in relationship to the mini ones from 15 minutes back.
Then I was in civilisation: coachloads, a duet on a tandem, ‘sites available for eco-new builds’ the sign said, and another wooden bench – this time there was a bear at one end and a fish at the other and the top of the back of it was the fishing line connecting them both. Whoever makes these garden ornaments is very inventive.
Orphir (say ‘offer’ like the Queen does, or ‘Or’ followed by the ‘fa’ from ‘titfer’)
I went straight on through the village initially, towards the round tower of Earl’s Bu in the hot sun. But then I changed my mind and went back to set up camp first. Thank goodness I did – it was miles more by road and path so I was glad not to have the pack on my back.
Note: Allow at least two hours to go to The Breck, St Nicholas Church, Earls Bu, the Bu of Orphir and back, and take a picnic with you!
Orphir is a collection of grey houses with wooden garden sculptures and people mowing their lawns. At its centre is a church with a milennium garden where I pitched my tent, hidden from view by the shrubs which dripped dew the next morning. There are no shops and one hotel with a bar/restaurant – in other words there was nowhere to charge my phone until the place opened later. A woman on foot passed the time of day with me, a cyclist did too.
I enquired about food and asked what the time was – 3.30pm – gutted – it was two hours before I could eat, and not one cup of tea had I drunk all day. I had my shorts on and there was a slight wind. Oh, but what absolutely idyllic countryside and what a gentle perambulation it was!
I took the sign to Gyre from the Orphir A964 road, and then a left which was signed to Breck. I was confused again just before the sea, but now I know the correct way I would recommend you keep to the right. The soft, flat turf of the coastal path around Scapa is even more beautiful on the cliffs above the rocks and the sea was there too and the birds were wheeching. Wonderful.
I slept a while, perched on the edge between the track and a small fall to the dark stoned beach, prickly with heather underneath but therefore cushioned. Further along is the broken-down bridge (which I crossed anyway) and the churchyard of St Nicholas. The ruin made a big impression on me, and I tried to record it in a sketch.
As you come around, the inside is exquisite – pale, smooth stone with a single arched window. Plain and undecorated, it seemed to encapsulate a holiness I rarely felt in the gold and silver interiors of the many cathedrals I have visited.
Nearby is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which tells the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. It closes at 6pm and I didn’t get that far. When I went on the Viking Hiking tour a couple of days later and the lovely Ragnhild ‘quoted oft’ from this famous text, I wished I had, and when I got home I thought with hindsight that I could have carried the tent and spent the night there, but I didn’t quite understand what I would find at the time. Even the bit I did see was one of the highlights of this trip.
There were 10 times as many walkers on this little stretch then ever I saw during the entirety of the past days. Probably because it was an unusually sunny, Sunday afternoon. The scenic loveliness probably also had something to do with it.
The long, winding return walk was equally enjoyable under trees which met above my head, a flood of bluebells beneath. Hoardes of almost-golden gorse branchlets reached out, so crowded with mouths bursting open I could almost hear them, ‘me first, me first’; while the individual kingcups presented their simple faces imploringly sunwards. The feathered petals of the only-slightly-paler dandelions on their juicy stalks were any moment ready to transform into translucent orbs of parachutes. I didn’t need to look where I was treading, so birdwatching was easy: jet black crows picking in fields of alabaster daisies; the now-familiar voices of mew and maow and peep (birds); and the gull-gliding, goose-flapping and sparrow-fluttering were all present and accounted for.
Walking when hungry at the end of the day can lead to morosity, but after a while it’s only walking – finding ways to release hip pains, just one foot in front of another.
And then I got to order my food at The Noust Bar and Restaurant – what a shame British restaurants don’t bring bread while you wait these days! – but I did enjoy the beer (the second from the Orkney brewery) which unsurprisingly went straight to my head. The service was good. The food would have been delicious whether or not it was, if you see what I mean. The monster, beer-battered fish, well-cooked chips and frozen peas hit the spot, as did the blackcurrant crumble and ice cream (£20 with a cup of tea to round it all off). At last I could charge my phone somewhat and as I had wifi access I took care to write notes ahead of the next day’s hike.
St Magnus Way official website.
Viking Hiking on the Visit Orkney tourist site
Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc
Finding your way