St Magnus Way – Orphir to Kirkwall

Walking Orphir to Kirkwall

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 28th 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.

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The man himself.

Day 6 – on rabbit holes and hospitality

  • Theme: hospitality
  • Landscape: moor, road, cliff, beach and bay
  • Full moon
  • Highlights: Scapa Beach, Kirkwall Cathedral
  • Orkney islanders met: the lovely Caroline and John Robertson, the hospitable Ragnhild, Christopher and sons
  • Backpackers encountered, days 1 – 6: none
  • 18.3 kms / 11.4 miles
  • Time: 8 hours
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The Morning Star from the oldest gravestone (13th century) in Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney.

I had a hot night – what a difference 5 days make! Maybe because of the large meal I had indigestion, and as sitting up helps that but you can’t sit up in such a tiny tent, I had to just manage.

At 2am it was all ghostly in the mist by the church, and the French man in the camper van nearby was snoring.

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Look what I unexpectedly got when I arrived at my final destination!

A different sort of Monday morning:

The sun shone on my tent at 5.30am and I was all packed up and away by 8am. The groundsheet and tent were wet even though I did my best to wipe them before stowing in my bag. The kind people at the Noust Bar and Restaurant where I dined the previous evening, had given me a bag of left-overs to take away: some cheese, a roll, butter and more, so I had snacks to look forward to.

The day’s instructions were absent from the website when I looked the night before with the restaurant wifi. I emailed the St Magnus people and got a quick reply just before bed, but I was already out of coverage by then.

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A Viking longboat found on the altar at Kirkwall Cathedral.

So, I savoured the sweet smell of the grass and blooms in the morning dew and decided to trust in the signs. I made my way along the Gyre Road, the A964, and admired the bath with its heavy aluminium taps in someone’s garden. The very fast rush of commuter cars, perhaps for the nearby ferry terminal of Houton to Hoy and Flotta (others of the Orkney isles), were disconcerting. The sun was all but hidden by the cirrus sky and I was pretty sure that there were calves in the field who had been born whilst I slept, all wobbly on their nobbly pins.

The reclining horses were breathing visibly and there was what looked like another ruined round-tower amongst farm buildings. The hairs of the poppies produced silver halos with the light behind them. I saw sheep going down on their front knees to crop and when they got up they were as stiff as I am when I go downstairs in the morning! I saw two hares in as many fields, long ears alert, each the size of lambs. The lambs themselves had their bottoms in the air as they roughly souked. The world was all-a-glisten.

A goose wandered alone, camouflaged except for its orange beak in the greenery, and almost invisible except for the squawk as it took off. After a while I realised that I was walking on the very same land which I had looked down upon yesterday and had wished to visit.

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There are clumps of heather looking like velvet covered toadstools but prickly. That’s Waulkmill Bay in the background, a strand of beige dissecting the green valley from the still blue waters.

At a corner I came across four incongruous bike stands. Perhaps because of The Old School House nearby? Then cows, who initially clattered and lumbered off so scared, but a minute later rushed back up to the fence to gape at me!

In the absence of photos, I tried to describe the empty Old Mill to myself with its picturesque old stone walls, above which a cuckoo called; rivulets and cascades flowed beneath its wheel. It is a rather quaint fact for a city dweller like me, that the bus would stop along here if I flagged it down.

Soon I was on a smaller road (a Scottish Heritage signpost was at the turning if I remember rightly) heading around the bay, just three camper vans and I. At the RSPB owned toilets (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) I had a wash, which surprised the woman next to me who had the luxury of her own facilities but needed somewhere to empty the pan.

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I headed down a path to the water’s edge and only then acknowledged that I must have missed the sign ‘up hill to Highbreck’ and if I hadn’t, would have been in countryside earlier. Perhaps it had been on the left hand side of the road?

It is worth noting once again that you will need an Ordnance Survey map because the St Magnus Way Route Description does not dovetail with google maps: Burgir, Highbreck, Nearhouse, for example, don’t feature on them.

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I saw a stonechat (a tiny bird) which was extremely exciting.

Also, willow warblers which weren’t warbling – ah, yes, then I heard them – wonderful! It is rocky around the bay, reflecting golden at the edges, rising to chocolate hills interspersed with grass-green: green and blacks! There was the constant droney hum of the huge, red-based ship in the bay, and I saw the first St M signpost since I had left Orphir.

There was a woody smell as I walked slightly uphill and saw my first big, black slug. So far I had only caught sight of tiny ones under my groundsheet in the mornings or in my shoes – urgh!

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The Scottish thistle.

At the end of the road there’s a wee settlement (Roo Point?) and I passed a man with his cap on backwards carrying a tripod, a woman and binoculars traipsing behind him. As everywhere, the rhubarb hd gone to seed and produced its triffid-like flowers.

I started to feel the familiar aches and pains and found myself getting sad – ah, food was required! A square of fudge and an oatcake at 9am, and then a proper roll with butter cheese and lettuce (yep, still have the lettuce!) on a peat bank half an hour later. I admired the glorious, sparkling sea before setting off again, my walking companions were hover- and butterflies, and birds happily chirruped all around me. No-one was to be seen as far as the eye could.

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Won’t you just look at that colour!

The moorland section:

And then it got hard going – very, very hard. Even without a rucksack this would be a real struggle of a hike: it was the uneven terrain, the scratchy heather, the unseen mini moats around the mossy hillocks which the foot slips into before it’s possible to pull back and save yourself – those were what caused the difficulty.

So, I made my way very slowly, stopping at each post and scanning around for the next one, way away in the distance. There was a small boardwalk, then two stiles (hard to climb over with a heavy load) and two or three St M signs, but then nothing.

At least, there were many posts, just not the right ones. For example, at a sort of summit I got excited thinking I was back on track but, no they were the round-metal-with-yellow-marks-on-them variety; and at another place there were some with whizzy things on the top; by no means were all of them the ones I wanted which made for many détours. Often I was knee deep and was glad I didn’t have my shorts on!

There is nothing resembling a path in this area, and because of the danger of being close to the coastline on day one, I assumed that the waymarkers would keep hikers away from it – after all there is no barrier, boundary or anything. I was wrong.

After the grassy mound and a fence, I realised I was completely lost. The land around me looked the same as I rotated 360 degrees. I only knew that the sea was over there and the road behind me.

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The last photo I took until Kirkwall. Baked earth, dry grass, bogland.

On the first leg of this pilgrimage, five days before, I was fresh. Hard though it was, my equanimity was not shattered. This time I was close to breaking: imagine, if you will, a long cinema shot of moorland with a tiny, lone figure stumbling aimlessly. I was Jane Eyre, lost and abandoned after she had left Rochester and before she was picked up by the man with the unpronounceable name. Oh, and it was hot, boiling hot.

With apparently no phone signal and eight percent of battery, I shot off a text to my eldest daughter asking her to help with directions and trusting it would be sent when I happened to be in earshot (as it were). Bless her she did reply quickly, but in the meantime I had retrieved a downloaded map and identified a possible way, and that used up what juice I had. So then that was that. Just me to save me.

The low point:

Suddenly the solid ground under my right foot gave way and I cried out. Down I fell, only stopping when there was no more leg length, leaving me right up to the groin on my right side, and in some considerable pain.

There is a point on every pilgrimage, as far as my experience goes, when everything looks bleak and there’s nothing for it but to weep. I thought, probably I will stay here forever and they will eventually find my skeleton….

But. Sigh. I am actually made of sterner stuff and, remarkably, nothing was broken, so once I had briefly given into self pity (and effectively had a rest, choosing to stay put and lather on a protective layer of suncream for face and arms and vaseline for dry lips), I hauled myself up and miraculously found a marker and the semblance of a path. Isn’t that often the way? You get to the ‘bottom’ and there’s nowhere else left but ‘up’.

I remembered being at dance college, how we all just carried on dancing despite injuries and upset. That’s just what dancers did, part of the myth of the ballerina.

Ballet dancers are the bloody infantry of the performing arts. Margot Fonteyn once said that, if people knew the physical agony ballet caused its dancers, only those who enjoyed bullfights could bear to watch it.

Rupert Christiansen

The route description, now I look at it from my writing table in Edinburgh, does in fact say, ‘the route here is rough walking and it is easy to turn [to] an ankle in the many rabbit holes’. I see, that’s what they were, rabbit holes!

Alice shrank again after fanning herself with the White Rabbit’s fan, and found herself – and several birds and animals – swimming in the pool of tears she had cried when she was big. When they finally reached the shore, the Dodo suggested a Caucus-race to help them get dry. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Down to Salt Pan Bay went I, the coastguard chugging a parallel wake beside me, and at least three planes overhead (which I hadn’t seen before). Now there was black seaweed and stones, a rubble of wood, flowers, plastic débris and rope. A welly and a buoy reminded me of the sad account of the Hoy lifeboat men lost in 1969.

There were tiny brown land-birds, and the sea was lapping reassurance. More: lobster pots, primroses, ferns and sea-thrift on the precipitous way down, and a grand jeté from the too-big-for-a-woman step which had been placed to get over the burn.

A clump of kingcups and a marker directed me back uphill – challenging, steep, more heather, climbing with no path – all extremely demanding. Eventually I came to a bumpy but grassy track and a gate to the right which wouldn’t open. Thus, o,ver I had to go, and there was a prize: a very, very slight, welcome cool breeze.

I do know that the heat is not a problem which many would have to contend with on Orkney so I did not complain, not even quietly in my head. Of course I didn’t know that a most timely encounter was about to take place as I felt my feet on tarmac once again.

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I was dripping blood from having scratched the day-one-wound when I fell, and there was only a drop of water left in my bottle, so when I saw people outside their house taking the sun, I stopped and asked over the garden fence if they might fill me up. Being the hospitable Orkney folk they were, they asked me what I was up to, and did I want a tissue, and how about a beer? So, well, I had a wee seat and a blether, and they were understanding and sympathetic which was mighty fine given the circumstances.

Wind turbines – for and against:

I had been having many discussions about the wind turbines as I went about the island, and this opportunity to speak to local people was no exception. I listened and was really interested, if not a little distressed if I am honest. I am a great supporter of renewable energy (a long term member of the Green Party), and I realised on reflection, that I wanted it to be the answer to our collective energy troubles. However, nothing is ever so simple. After being told that these colossal structures often need to be laid down because the wind is too strong; that they have the capacity to cause jealousy between neighbours as one rents out his land and another earns a considerable sum from contributing to the national grid, well, as I say, nothing is so simple.

The worst is that there is now so much electricity being generated that new lines are needed to carry it, and despite some sort of public consultation (which I was told was not quite as honest as the locals originally thought), pylons are going to be erected across this beautiful land. Placing them underground, they have been recently informed, is too expensive. I can hardly bear to think about another area of outstanding natural beauty being encroached upon in this way.

Anyway, the cows are used to the turbines, I thought to myself as I carried on my way with renewed vigour, admiring them relaxedly chewing away at the base.

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From the beach I looked back from whence I had come.

Scapa Bay and Kirkwall

From here on it was very warm but straightforward. Up and down I went with the landscape, looking down on the blue and diamante ocean calmly lapping in kelp-covered, rocky inlets. More pink thrift grew against grassy slopes, and the cliffs were misty on the other side of the water. I could see the urbanisation which was Kirkwall getting closer. Apricot-hued foreheads and jutting pink noses of sandstone, eroded by sea and ages, housed dots of white gulls, and the sands of famous Scapa Bay lay ahead.

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Isn’t it stunning? Scapa Bay, Orkney.

There were two further obstacles to climb over, then Lingro with an easy, if narrow path, past Scapa Distillery but still no shade.

Once on the beach I was reminded of family days out. We kids complained that we had too much to carry. Mum searched for the sunniest, most uncrowded spot as we trailed behind her.

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This is not one of my photos. I can’t find out if this is a sculpture or a piece of equipment, but it is impressive, seen high up above the near end of the beach by Scapa distillery, Orkney.

I took my boots and backpack off and paddled – the ridged sand massaging my tired feet and the oh-so-green weed gladdened my heart. Dogs were being called; teens were celebrating the end of term and life in general, midriffs bare, with a bar-b-q. I collected a shell in memory of my first beach at Evie.

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After this it was the Crantit Trail, a round-a-bout route to say the least, though pretty and clearly manageable for feet, wheels and all ages.

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The Crantit Trail and, in the background, the city of Kirkwall, Orkney.

Coming into Kirkwall it was all about approach-roads and building projects, hospital and residential housing.

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Kirkwall Harbour, Orkney.
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What’s left of St Olaf’s Kirk – the door, Orkney.

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Needless to say I missed the extra trip to the harbour, St Olaf’s Wynd, and the archway of St Olaf’s Church (above) which I visited and photographed the next morning instead.

The St Magnus Cathedral:

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St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. Closes 6pm.

So, I arrived, triumphant (in a solitary sort of a way), at 4pm in 28 to 30 degrees of heat – the same temperature, incidentally, as on my entry into Ourense in Spain in April.

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The warm red of Kirkwall Cathedral at the culmination of my trek. My sunned face matching the stone facade, I felt somewhat emotional.

you feel connected not just to the people around you, but to all the others back across the centuries who have stood where you stand. It’s a dizzying feeling and it changes you.

It was lovely and cool inside. I removed my boots and walked, a barefoot pilgrim, on the stone flags, just as I did in Mont Saint Michel under the magnificent vaulted ceiling. I am making a habit of doing religious things, but I do not have such a faith. Once it is published, please read my section Reflections at the end of this series for an explanation if you are curious.

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The azure marble and terracotta tiled floor of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.
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Norman architecture of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.
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After a cup of tea and charging my phone, I just had time to take this one photo of the evening light shining through the stained glass onto the pillars before closing time.

I found a little private corner of the cathedral to lay my shell and lit candles for Ani and for A’s sister, and said hello to ST M.

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The eerie blue light of the interior. All the other photos of the cathedral, the beach and the town were taken the following day hence the morning / afternoon light.
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St Magnus with his, frankly, oversized sword!

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I spent a deal of time in Judith Glue’s café, short steps from the Cathedral’s front door. They don’t have wifi, but you can pick up someone else’s public signal if you are by the wall. They have good green tea and electric sockets which were, after all, exactly what I desired. The staff were friendly and it was well patronised.

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I had been exceptionally cheeky a few months earlier. I had searched for personal blogs mentioning the St Magnus Way but only found one. I therefore messaged Ragnhild and Christopher and offered them, out of the blue, Shiatsu in return for a bed and they said ‘yes’ – what hospitality!

I made my way there after the cathedral closed, and was once again made to feel ‘at home’. I had the best shower ever and there was great company, wine and victuals. One of the little ones even gave up his bed for me. Many thanks to the whole family.

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Cait, Ragnhild and Christopher. Check out the Viking Hiking tours and Christopher’s artwork and stone sculpture here.

St Magnus Way official website.

St Magnus Cathedral – more information



Transport – how I got there

Accommodation – where I stayed

Day 2 – Evie to Birsay

Day 3 – Birsay to Dounby

Day 4 – Dounby to Finstown

Day 5 – Finstown to Orphir

Day 6 – Orphir to Kirkwall

Resources – what I took with me

The Last Two Days

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way