December 2018 – a rail journey from Edinburgh to Tweedbank and a short but stunning walk to Melrose in Roxburghshire, where you will find the ruins of a magnificent Medieval Abbey.
I took the train to Tweedbank in the Borders – it’s the end of the line. It takes 1 hr and the service runs every half hour. It costs £9.30 with an Over 50s Railcard ( I booked the ticket and renewed the rail card last night online through Scotrail for £15 for the year and it took about 5 minutes). Then it’s a 40 minutes walk each way into the town of Melrose, although that doesn’t allow for what I call ‘astonishment time’ ie time for stopping at intervals because, Oh my, look at that, oh I must take a photo, I just can’t believe it, it’s so gorgeous!
If you like you can stop reading this now and open YouTube or Spotify and find Fording the Tweed By Savourna Stevenson, so that you have something magical to listen to as you continue reading and imagining you are taking this journey with me.
Choose a day where it won’t go above 2 degrees celsius so that it stays white and hard underfoot. Wear thermals under your normal clothes, plus a coat, woolly hat and cosy gloves.
You know what they say, it’s not the weather that’s the problem in Scotland it’s having the right clothes! Not being able to bend your elbows because you have a thick jumper on under your not-quite-big-enough jacket is a small price to pay for all this beauty.
You will travel on the Waverley Route, so called as it refers to Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels. Start by facing in the direction you are coming from and sitting on the left. This way you will have wonderful views of Edinburgh – Arthur’s Seat. Ignore the rest unless you enjoy the industrial outskirts of cities.
When you hear the nice lady announce Gorebridge, change seats so that you are looking the way you are going and you can either plump for right or left (the views are equally attractive) or, like me you can leap from side to side because, well because the views are equally enticing.
People seem to have it in for Galashiels, so I will blog separately about that. Suffice to say that it is impossible for a whole town to be boring and I know some lovely people who live there and they like it a lot. It has an excellent brass band for a start.
You will not need a map nor must you look up the way in advance or use your phone. Believe me, if it’s possible to get lost I would have and it’s not. I promise. Sit back and relax. Feast your eyes on the hills, rivers, pretty houses, and majestic trees. Over on one side you will spy the traffic – be pleased that you are not driving, have a nice cup of tea and a comfy seat – you can just gawp.
Tweedbank station is new and modern with a massive car park. There is one line, two platforms and everything is properly signposted. There is a bus if you prefer.
Otherwise, walk along the only way you can and straight ahead you will see the cycle path.
Today I was enchanted by the way the hoar highlighted the seed heads, fence posts, and each individual blade of grass.
You won’t get lost – there are multiple signs: Melrose Link on the left; National Cycle Network on the right.
There will be aluminium buildings to your left. When the SPPA (Scottish Public Pensions Agency) is ahead, admire their gardens and peer at the poor folk inside working on such a wonderful day. Smile. Then walk to the right of them, following those signs.
You will see that you are joining the Southern Upland Way.
Very soon there is a road to cross and opposite, through a little wooden gate at waist height, is a path with steps going down and there is the Tweed River, burbling on your left.
On the right you may be lucky enough to see two Highland cattle, and if it is cold enough it will look as if they are vaping with condensed air coming sideways simultaneously from both nostrils in opposite directions.
I scraped the ice from the tourist board telling about the fantastically named Skirmish Hill where King James V’s men fought those of the Duke of Buccleuch and won. The 14 year old monarch is said to have watched from a safe place.
At the kissing gate go to the left of the houses and you will see signs. Almost immediately continue through the woods to left. The way goes uphill with a wooden handrail, green with lichen.
The ferns were all flattened by frost as I came into a clearing, going gently downhill. Here I spied more information, this time about fishing: grayling and salmon who make the courageous journey from sea upstream to fresh waters to spawn, often against all odds.
There is a choice coming up:
You can either go past the hedge which is too high to see over (I stood on one of the handy benches to get a shot), ignore the sign and keep on going for a while to see the Chain Bridge, but then turn back and take Town Centre sign. This will take you between the rugby club (left) and the green park (right)
Or keep walking past the church to the Chain Bridge and around behind the town centre coming in by the road directly to the Abbey.
I took the second option because it was signed Abbey Walk.
Everyone is very friendly as are their dogs. A collie politely laid her pink ball at my toes, her nose flat along the ground, eyes expectant. The second time she came back she showed me the tricks she could do with it, presumably as encouragement and to distract from my muddy fingers. The third time, the gap between me and her owner having widened considerably, I informed her this would be the last, before hurling it behind me.
Here you can halt to admire the horses on the left, or perhaps the motorbikes on the right. (You can pick up a copy of their free magazine too.)
You will continue onto a small road here. Turn left if you wish to visit Newstead.
Hang a right at the main road where the signs mysteriously disappear (sorry I guess what I wrote above was wrong at this juncture).
Walk past the Abbey Woollen Mill shop, or visit if you like. Carry on past the houses and careful because it’s a busy road, but not for long.
Don’t take the next right (St Marys Road) unless visiting the Harmony Garden. The nearby Georgian Manor House is available for holiday lets.
Instead go straight on see to see Melrose Abbey on the left, behind the wall. David I foundede the first Cistercian Abbey in 1136. The heart of Robert the Bruce is believed to be buried in the chapter house there. Opening hours and link to the Historic Scotland page are at the end of this blog. The bus stop is to the right of the monument.
The town centre is in the middle of a triangle with a unicorn on an extremely high pillar in its middle. Originally this would have been the Mercat Cross where all goods for sale, proclamations were made and criminals punished. The heraldic unicorn is the supporter for the Royal Arms. Here you will find a pharmacy, and library plus The Roman Centre. There are lots of hotels, cafés and nice independent shops. There are lots of bookshops, partly because the people who live there like to read, and there is also a Book Festival. Explore!
After your browsing and sightseeing, you can return the other way if you did what I did: to get back to the station, walk out of town along the A6091 road with the Co-operative store (food) on your right, and head towards the Melrose Rugby Club. Anyone will be able to point you in that direction as rugby is THE sport in the Borders.
If it’s still light, enjoy the grand trees, admire the mole hills, and tune into the water as you wander.
A gentleman and I passed the time of day as we recognised each other from the morning when we were both going in the opposite direction.
Remember that things look different when retracing one’s steps! You must cross two roads and keep both the SPPA and the aluminium buildings on on your right. Keep following the white Scottish thistles and yellow arrow. The final cycle path part is fully lit when it’s darkling (3.30pm at this time of year).
Birds twitched: robin, chaffinch, blackbird, pidgeon, crow, mallard and a heron unusually crouched by the riverbank. Luckily there are still plenty of berries available.
There is a little shop at the station selling hot drinks, snacks and G’n’T. I was reliably informed that passengers usually buy it on the way up in the morning!
Don’t believe all the moaning complaints you might find on the inter-you-know-what. The trains are great. Well, we were only delayed 10 minutes homeward bound. I know I am not a commuter but.. take a leaf out of our school girl days (I took a daily return to school for 7 years) and if the train is cancelled don’t go to work, go for a walk instead. Look around you and inhale.
I went there to see friends and give Shiatsu. I might go back so if you live there and would like a session let me know. Many thanks to the lovely Chris (designer of my lovely website) and Penny for lunch and chat.
Melrose Abbey is open all year round. April to September 9.30 – 17.30; October to March 10 – 16.00.
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.
Day 5 – 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
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 young ones, called crias), 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 too thin to be able to see, 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. Ow! ‘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 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.
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. I had another debate about the way but decided to keep going on straight. The cuckoo called and I suddenly had a 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 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.
I was back 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 I recommend you keep to the right. The soft, flat turf of the coastal path around Scapa is even more beautiful there 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, windy 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 opened 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 crows picking in fields of alabaster daisies; the now-familiar voices of mew and maow and peep; 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.
It is customary for me, while travelling, to offer Shiatsu in return for a bed. When I was planning my first trip to Spain, I announced the idea to my Facebook ‘friends’ and was put in touch with Gill, a Shiatsu networker there. She was invaluable, and introduced me to prospective hosts. One contact led to another and I had a ball – travelling all over the country and meeting and exchanging with local practitioners. It will come as no surprise that I have since done the same thing in different countries.
I had visited Orkney only once to work with Meg Webster, a fellow practitioner and teacher. That time I also grabbed the opportunity to visit the famous standing stones of Stenness, an important archeological and spiritual site. It was a gloriously sunny and snowy day, and the quiet and peacefulness of the area with the view of the loch made a strong impression on me. Over the winter, when I was planning this trip, I discovered that the St Magnus Way doesn’t go through there, and thus I was pleased I had had that experience beforehand.
Planning my trip
I began my search for accommodation by emailing Meg, and she was most generous in telling her meditation students about me and my offer. As a result the news spread somewhat and some people knew in advance that I was coming, which eased my passage later on. Kiersty T-G was one of the group and she kindly extended me an invitation for bed and board in return for a session.
I also did some research on the internet and found a blog which mentioned the St Magnus Way. I contacted the writer to introduce myself and make my offer: Ragnhild was most generous in considering this alliance before she even knew me. Below are some photos of her special Viking Hiking tours, and you will be able to read more on ‘The Last Day’.
I looked for artists and other creative bods who might be open to such a suggestion and received a great response from Jeanne at Artworks of the Earth in Stromness (say ‘stroom’ and then ‘ness’ softly, as if your voice is fading away into the distance). She was keen and also had a friend who she wanted to introduce me to. For various reasons, neither possibilities came to fruition, but it was lovely to discover her work and know that people were so open, something I was to find all over the island. It was Jeanne who reminded me that my visit would coincide with the famous Orkney Folk Festival. Lots of visitors come to the islands at this time and I had a happy meeting with two of them on the ferry to Egilsay. I also attended a brilliant concert, quite by chance, when in Finstown.
The camping question:
Before I started walking, I therefore knew I had some hospitality to look forward to, but I also wanted to follow the way stage by stage and so was faced with some places where there were no affordable options. Accommodation in Spain, at least on the Caminos, is very cheap (5 – 12 euros a night for a bunk in a dormitory), but in France and Austria, for example, even the hostels are expensive, never mind the hotels or bed and breakfasts (traditional or air). I had been thinking for some time that I might try carrying a tent but was not at all sure I could manage the load. Plus, wild camping is not allowed in some countries, and I am mindful of my safety because I travel alone.
The Scottish ‘Right to Roam’
I am glad to say that one of the many delights of Scotland is that everyone is allowed to camp and walk almost anywhere (excepting private ground or fields where crops are growing. Please note that it is polite to ask the land owner before pitching, if possible.) Taking all that into account, and this being a short trip, I therefore chose to take a tent in my rucksack for the first time. See below for a link to more information on this.
In short, this was my accommodation:
Night 1, Stromness: Point of Ness Campsite, Stromness. Run by Orkney Council, this has an easy on-line booking system.
Night 2, Evie: with Kiersty
Night 3, Evie: with Meg
Night 4, Birsay: Outdoor Caravan and Camping Site. Also run by Orkney Council, thishas the same on-line booking system as night one, meaning I did not have to re-register
Night 5, Dounby: I camped beside the Milestone Community church
Night 6, Finstown: I camped by the beach, at the back of the public toilets
Night 7, Orphir: I camped in the Milennium Garden beside the Orphir Kirk
Night 8, Kirkwall: with Ragnhild, Christopher and family
Night 9, Stromness: On board the Hamnavoe ferry in the Stromness docks
The Point of Ness campsite at Stromness has excellent facilities: I received a friendly welcome; there were warm showers and a clean bathroom; I could boil water for tea (there were no implements so I was glad I had my cup and tea bags in my backpack); the deliciously warm sitting area has ample leaflets (I discovered later that some important ones were out of date) and a local information board.
I got chatting to a cheerful camping couple from Blairgowrie. When they heard that I was a Shiatsu practitioner, the man told me he had a ‘bad neck’ and asked me what I suggested, so I showed him the BL makko-ho and semi-supine exercises. They recommended I take one of the blankets from the sitting room for the night and perhaps consider sleeping on the sofa if it was too chilly. They were right, I did need the blanket, but I was too determined to spend my first night undercanvas so I didn’t de-camp inside. There was a woman parked beside me with her equally tiny tent and sports car (an intriguing combination).
Staying with Kiersty and Meg in Evie was wonderful. They gave me delicious food, a cosy bed, and famous conversation. I am ever so grateful for their kindness.
After my first day’s hike, I stayed at the Birsay Outdoor (Caravan and) Camping Centre which was also very good and had the same degree of service as above. Thankfully, the ground was not waterlogged as it was in Stromness. There is a hostel there too with a large dining room, book exchange, and sockets for phone charging.
In Orphir I pitched in the Milennium Garden in the early evening, thinking my site was private. Later, however, I overheard the owner of the Noust Bar and Restaurant advising an enquiring French camper van owner to park in a space right beside me. I was tucked away behind the bushes so I don’t think he knew I was there until the morning, but I could hear him snoring. It was just like the Spanish albergues!
I thoroughly enjoyed staying the night on that ferry at the end of my trip while it sat in Stromness harbour waiting to leave at 6.30am the next day. (The downside of the ferries is that they leave their engines running all night and this causes extensive pollution. On my first night there I could hear their engines droning as I slept in my tent half an hours’ walk away). I booked a shared cabin but had it all to myself.
Here is a link to the excellent St Magnus Way website.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series: 21st 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.
I like travelling. Moving through places. The train hurries. I sit, read, write, think. I watch the world through the window.
Scottish mainland to Orkney:
Here is a brief account of my journey to Egilsay where I started the St Magnus Way pilgrimage. The detail is below.
Edinburgh – Thurso by train; Thurso – Scrabster by ferry with a free taxi ride and a bus inbetween. To return I did the same in reverse.
Scrabster – Stromness, ferry
Stromness – Kirkwall by Stagecoach bus (free because the ticket machine was broken)
Kirkwall to Tingwall by local bus (£1.80)
Tingwall – Egilsay ferry (£8.50 return, takes 1 hour). Tip: the office opens at 8.30am
I headed out of my home city of Edinburgh by train, rushing beside the Fife Coastal Path and taking mere minutes to reach the place it took me 4 days to get to on foot! The sun shone; the sea was on my right and the links on the other side where they were setting up the circus. I was reading Spanish Steps by Tim Moore, laughing out loud about, yes, you guessed it, the Camino. Subtitled My Walk with a Donkey, he writes, ”Let the Camino commence! Make way for the assmeister.” (p. 55)
It was a busy train: the ginger-haired Americans patiently waited half an hour for the guard to move the man with the headphones who was sitting in their seat. Perhaps they didn’t insist themselves because they do, after all, come from the Land of Guns. There was a skinny, swearing, drunk man wearing four ties and a T-shirt with his can of G&T and a glass. It was 10am. He had one of those voices that carries, you know, when you can hear every word however far down the carriage you are sitting? Most unfortunately he happened to have chosen to sit opposite a couple of nattily dressed Perthshire ladies who I suspect Scotrail may have heard from afterwards.
There I was, chuckling away at donkey antics and remembering my first Camino days in the Autumn of 2016, whilst we trundled through a sloped landscape covered in trees, when the third thing was sent to challenge us. It was a sort of white noise, like a very loud radio being tuned, beside the virgin patches of snow outside the windows. The loud man shouted ‘Aviemore – hooray for they (sic) witches! (see Macbeth)’. He was on his second can by this time. We never found out what the disturbance was, but I must say the guard was very, very tolerant and managed all these situations admirably.
Detail: My Edinburgh to Thurso, return, cost £64 with my over 50s railcard and was a smooth journey. I was able to book seats for most sections.
The Cairngorms National Park was spectacular: covered in snow and cloud; no plants except dour heather; the young birches not yet silver, their trembling leaves all shiny in the new season. Stopping randomly for 10s of minutes, as only British trains seem to do, there was no working wifi so I was using up my whole month’s allowance. Through forests and under quaint stone bridges; by Kingussie where the roads were wet; fair hurtling we were, northwards to Inverness with a reassuring da da dah, da da dah – loud because the windows were open. It was a long time since I had been in a train where the windows opened.
I had not been to all these places in years: Dingwall, where I and my fellow dance animateurs choregraphed for the Festival; Tain, the long-ago Royal Wedding; Dornoch, where I lay with my hips propped up to turn the breech baby (successfully) on a family holiday. Happy memories!
We were trundling into the land where ‘no service’ or ‘emergency calls only’ messages flashed up frequently on mobile phones.
Moreover, I realised it was dolphin and whale territory, and I thought, ‘Maybe this will be the trip where I see one’.
I alighted at Thurso which is a 10 minute car journey away from the Scrabster ferry terminal. A sign said, ‘Bus stop at front of station’ but I could not find it. I asked a woman who was picking up her nephew and his girlfriend. She spoke to her taxi driver friend and he took me there for free, saying that buses sometimes stop but sometimes do not, and that no-one ever knows if it is an on or an off day. He dropped me at the door of the ticket office, sweet man. I found myself thinking that he would surely go to heaven for helping a pilgrim. (I might have been reading too many history-of-the-Camino books!)
As I waited I thought ahead: ‘Do I walk to the campsite when I get there, and try and erect the tent for the first time, even though it may be dark?’ (I didn’t try it before leaving home, which in retrospect might have been a good idea). Or, do I forgo the pre-paid £8.25 and stay at the hostel, whose kind owner had emailed several times that day telling me I could have a bed there for the night? Even in her sitting room, she had added, even if there was a sudden rain-induced, last-minute rush. What kindness!
As the queue built, there was a man with a trolley and the biggest, shiniest awards cup I had ever seen perched on top of his belongings. I surreptitiously snapped a photo (which, later, turned out to be too blurred to reproduce), but the American woman went straight up to him and said, ‘aw, how did you get that?’, in her immediately identifiable drawl. Fly fishing, apparently.
I thought I might try an Orkney ale on board ship – I chose Raven with its ’classic, malt, tangy bitterness’ costing £4.95, and ate something before I went up on deck to view the choppy – rolling – swaying – splashing sea. The variously grey-hued land had an undulating peak-line which exactly matched the heaving waves.
I sighted the vertical cliffs of Hoy which reminded me, first, of a lightly charred steak, and then as if someone (God?) had chiselled down trying to make a straight edge. It was darker in the foreground and mistily pale behind. The tips were lost in cloud as we steadily churned our way towards Rora Head and past The Point of Oxan, Graemsay.
The gap narrowed and the same cliffs became green and orange/brown with their archeological stripes. I spotted the noble totem pole of The Old Man of Hoy (a 449 foot (137m) high seastack of red sandstone). Great blocks and crevices, darkly, vertically-bevelled, looked as if a car vandal had repeatedly run a sharp implement along them port to starboard.
Even closer still it actually looked like a salmon steak with pesto dribbled over it. There was a frothy beer-head of a dividing line between the land and the brine and it was getting to be very cold, even though I was wearing every article of clothing I had with me. Perhaps I should have bought my jacket? Yes, later, I knew I should have. (See the ‘what I took with me’ link below).
I once again contemplated putting up the tent and wished I had read the instructions in the dry, but they were in my rucksack and that was in the hold of the boat. At least I had my waterproof trousers for the pitching, and my warm sleeping bag and new blow-up mat for the sleeping.
An alternative to my route would be to take the Stagecoach bus X99 all the way from Inverness to Scrabster, eliminating the need to find a way from Thurso to Scrabster ferry terminal. When you look at the timetables, make sure you check for suitable connections before booking, as they are not automatically linked up.https://www.stagecoachbus.com/
North Link Ferries (which has a particularly impressive website picture of a pointing Viking) sails from Scrabster (mainland Scotland) to Stromness (Orkney) taking 1.5 hours. For a bed in a shared cabin, it costs £25 (varying prices at different times of the year). You get the bed (and towels, tea, TV, own toilet and shower) plus snacks in the evening, and a full, eat-as-much-as-you-can breakfast. What a bargain! The staff are all helpful and their booking system is super-flexible, allowing you to change the time of your sailing the day before. I recommend phoning or doing it in person if you speak English and are nearby.
we sail past Stroma’s empty fields
the maidens grind the sea-god’s salt
binoculars to scan the scene
the latent power the races hold
divers down among the wrecks
I don’t know what it is I’ve found
a haar drifts in across the rocks
the crab’s blue shell fades in the sun
the Romans came and saw and left
Vikings named themselves in runes
a hoard of shards the dig unearthed
the sacred grove is made of stone
unfurl your banner to the breeze
starlings wheel across the sky
a spotted orchid in the verge
the wind is in the blades and flags
Ken Cockburn from ‘Floating The Woods’
For details of campsites etc, see Accommodation: where I stayed (link below).
The pitching of the tent was in fact straightforward. Perched on the south eastern corner of the West Mainland sticking out into Hoy Sound, it was actually the cold that got to me. I did not feel it from underneath as you might expect, but from above. I had a fitful night. After years of listening to women’s birth stories, what do I always say? If anything does go wrong at all, the thing that happens is not the thing they feared the most; it was something they hadn’t anticipated. Perhaps the same is true of all problems.
The next day I took a very early bus (number 6 from the ferry terminal at Stromness) to Kirkwall, waited half an hour by the sea, and then travelled on a second bus (X1) to nearly-Tingwall (a 15 minute walk to the ferry terminal from the main road).
As the office is shut at that time of the morning and there seemed to be no indoor place to sit, I squatted in the corridor of the toilet block which was warm, and read my funny book. My time on Egilsay is in the next blog.
Other transport details:
Please note that the travel details in this blog are for one foot passenger – it is more expensive with a car / camper van. Try this website for the best route.
There is an ‘Orkney Bus‘ from Inverness to Kirkwall (£19) which is like the channel tunnel service between England and France: taking you there on one ticket. It operates from 1 June to 31 August.
The Tingwall – Egilsay service is operated by Orkney Ferries who, once again, have helpful staff. There are two stops at the ferry terminals of Rousay each way (I would love to go there) and one at Wyre. There is a hot drinks machine on the boat but no refreshments at any of the terminals. You do not have to get the early ferry like I did as Egilsay is small and you will have plenty of time if you get the mid-morning boat and return in the afternoon.http://www.orkneyferries.co.uk
On my return I took the X99 from Scrabster ferry terminal (it departed shortly after disembarking), which dropped me in Thurso town.
You can also get to Orkney by taking the John O’Groats ferry to Burwall on South Ronaldsay (40 minutes) and make your way from that island to the West Mainland; or by ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall (6 hrs or overnight, £63); or Gill’s Bay to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay (which sounds lovely as there are lots of things to see and do there) (1 hr, £32).
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 29th May 2018. 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 (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 this, my last day on the island, I woke up in a bed instead of a tent, which was novel! It’s amazing how quickly you get used to something new. My hosts were most hospitable. It was a house full of books, toys, antiques, bric-a-brac, smiles and shyness.
After giving Shiatsu, I made my way into the city to revisit the St Magnus Cathedral and other sights. I was given my prize shell but could not discover how many other backpackers from outside Orkney had managed the whole walk as there are no records.
There is a gorgeous stained glass window by Crear McCartney from 1987 (unfortunately the photos didn’t come out well). It depicts St Magnus’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and includes a crucifix from Trondheim, Norway. I also found the sheela-na-gig in the chapel at the far end (a squatting female figure), the green man and the Marwicks’s Hole where women who were accused of witchcraft were sometimes held.
An artist survives on the beauty that surrounds her.
Winifred Milius Lubell, political graphic artist and book illustrator.
My afternoon treat was to go on the very first Viking Hiking trip with Ragnhild and Mark. We gathered at the Tourist iCentre (ie information bureau) next to the bus station and wound our way through the city, stopping to view and learn about some of its highlights.
Then we meandered towards Scapa Bay (the largest natural harbour in the Northern Hemisphere) from whence I had come the previous afternoon. Back past the hospital, once again around the roundabout, and along the Cantit Trail. I retraced my footsteps across the strand westwards. This time I had a fully charged phone and could take as many photos as I wanted.
It was the first time I had sampled Viking food around a live fire, and I enjoyed being regaled with stories inspired by the Orkneyinga saga, amongst other sources. Ragnhild, being Norwegian as well as a scholar and qualified tour guide, was most entertaining and knowledgeable, able to answer any questions we cared to throw at her.
We churned the butter to spread, and ate our broth with horn spoons. It being the first one, I was in the company of a hotelier, various newspaper and on-line reporters, adults and children. We were all very impressed and the others vowed to display leaflets and publish articles etc. It was live streamed on Facebook!
After another delicious meal at their home, Christopher took me through the balmy evening to Stromness, where I was able to pick up my phone charger from The Ferry Inn where the kind woman I met on day 1 had left it for me.
After that we drove through heavy fog before arriving into Stromness under a bright sky 25 minutes (14 miles / 22.5 kms) away. The weather is always a good topic of conversation with the British and those on Orkney were no exception, but it really depended on personality: when the fog was down someone would tell me, ‘it’ll be bound to lift soon’, another, ‘it won’t lift today’, and a third, ‘it might lift though’. Overall, I had the most sun anyone could ever expect on these islands for my pilgrimage, and felt duly lucky.
A gin and tonic later, I boarded the Northlink ferry where I found my two-person birth empty – which I was pleased to say it remained. There was a salon with all manner of snacks and drinks, books and magazines to entertain the 12 of us, and then I happily took to my bed for some note writing and reflection.
The overnight ticket includes an all-you-can-eat breakfast which carried me right through to Edinburgh, eight hours later!
We docked at Scrabster and I jumped on the bus to Thurso, just five minutes along the road.
I wasn’t sure how to get to the station and so made an enquiry of someone passing. Like several others, he offered me a lift, telling me, while we drove, how he had moved from the east end of London some years ago to take a small holding, and now dealed in 4 by 4 cars.
Although I arrived hours early because of taking the overnight ferry, I decided to chance it and leaped onto the first arrival. All went smoothly, no-one looked at my ticket and told me I was on the wrong train. The scenery was stunning of course, and as the sun still shone, I could snap away to my heart’s content.
As we waited beside the platform in Dingwall, the guard explained that there must be another, more important train on the line which had priority over us, ‘like a nuclear warhead or The Flying Scotsman’, he said. None of us were sure what to make of this.
Meanwhile, the man across the aisle kept calling the woman beside him, ‘pet’, even though they didn’t know each other; someone ripped their velcro; another rummaged in her bag; and the woman in the cerise T-shirt cleaned the tables at Tina’s. As the power surged on and off, my screen failed so I could see green bubbles alternating with the picture of my daughters; we disagreed about the new Murder On The Orient Express film; we waited.
Then the energy of the other train hit us and we gave a great shudder. Yes, it was The Flying Scotsman with its smart burgundy livery and glimpses of crisp white table linen at high speed. Too fast to snap it.
Actually after that we were delayed some more before the perfect spire against the baby blue sky shifted sideways, and it was all white hawthorn and green hills once more.
I changed trains at Inverness and the run through the Cairngorms was, if possible, even more impressive. My newly met companion from Elgin, on hearing my tale of woe, insisted on trying her charger with my phone, and it worked: she was right, it was the charger that was the problem, not the phone. Whew – that was one extra dreaded visit to the Three shop on Princes Street I could avoid!
As the afternoon wore on, it became very hot and crowded and I started to write, but the thoughts came too fast for my typing. I became feared that I would never manage to write it all up the way I wanted to, in the book I had so easily envisaged while I was walking. How strange to be sitting all day and hurtling through the landscape so fast. I slept.
In the end I was able to return in record time, and in all, four hours earlier than planned. As this was my fifth trip, knew to expect a period of adjustment after the intensity of being away. I knew I would be grateful to see my daughter, and sleep in my own bed with the cat purring on top; and also that this writing would give me a focus to bridge the gap to what I still call, ‘normal life’.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 21 – 30 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.
If, like me, you are used to finding the yellow Spanish Camino Santiago de Compostella arrows, then you will:
a. be at an advantage – you know that it is important to slow down at junctions or if you get that funny feeling you might have gone the wrong way, and really scout around for the sign. You know to look in unusual places, and that they will not always be at the same height as you, or immediately obvious.
b. On the other hand you will be at a disadvantage – yellow shows up better than the more environmentally friendly St Magnus Way black and white signs on wooden posts. You will expect lots of guidance (eg through a wood where the path twists and turns and there are tributaries (as it were)) and that is not the case here – on the whole one must follow what seems to be the main way. (This is certainly my experience with many other pilgrimages, not just this one. The Via Sacra signs were really hard to find, whereas the Fife Coastal Path is great).
The signs are sometimes before a junction, sometimes at it, and sometimes afterwards.
I believe they were positioned by people taller than me, so for example if the next one is over a hill, a taller person may be able to stand with her back at the previous one and see the following, but not always.
In fact, now I am on this subject, the stepping stones which have been helpfully laid over burns and bogs are also very far away from each other – perhaps at the correct distance for the average male stride – but not mine, not with a rucksack anyway. In these cases I took a deep breath and leapt!
There is a system of Bluetooth waymarks provided by the Pilgrimage organisers, with information so that when you walk you use your phone to connect and can listen as you go. I would have loved to try it but the system was down when I was there. Of course you would need a smart phone with that capacity to use this facility. I don’t know how long the recordings are, but don’t forget that you would also want headphones.
Many people love music or podcasts as they walk. Personally, I like the sounds around me and in addition there’s always plenty going on in my head! I have tried but I always give up quickly as I feel cut off from my surroundings.
There is no guide book as yet, although the organisers of the Pilgrimage are in the process of producing one which will be great I am sure.
They do already provide Route Descriptions on their website and these were updated and published on 30 May 2018 after I returned home. They are generally of a very high standard. I suggest you print them out and laminate them before you leave in case of emergencies. I know this sounds a bit geeky but you never know what might happen, especially with technology.
There are also documents, audio recordings, videos, photos and all manner of amazingly useful and interesting resources on the St Magnus Way website.
Compass / maps
A compass comes highly recommended (make sure you know how to use it!) because north, south-east etc are used in the St M Way directions. I planned to use the one on my phone, not imagining that the phone would be virtually unusuable.
You can download Route Maps from the St M Way website.
I would also suggest bringing an Ordnance Survey (OS) map so that you can see where the St M Way Route Description landmarks are. The mast on Keelylang for example, is listed on the Route Description for Finstown to Orphir as a way of orientating yourself. It is on Googlemaps but not the St M Route Map. Kebro is on the St M Route Map but not on Googlemaps. Both are on the OS map 463 which has most of the West Mainland on it, but not Kirkwall, so for the hard part of the final day’s walk you will need to carry a second map. You can buy maps at Rae’s Paper Shop in Stromness and in Kirkwall.
Whichever map you use, you need to know the direction you are physically pointing towards (see compass above) otherwise it’s almost no use knowing where the place you are searching for is on the map anyway!
Please note that if you have the facilities, know how and space on your phone, there are gpx connections on the official site. I suspect, from looking at other websites and talking to some (mostly male, it has to be said) hikers, that using technology is the thing to do, but I am a trifle old fashioned in this respect so you would be better looking elsewhere for that information (though there is a helpful quote below). I think you have to spend more on your mobile phone than I do to be able to use it all. There is of course the argument that a pilgrimage is a place of silence and self-reflection and we all know that technology isn’t always helpful with that; then again, getting lost is a bummer.
In any discussion of routes, navigation or GPS devices, you have probably seen people mentioning ‘GPX files’. GPX is shorthand for GPS eXchange Format and is a type of file that’s really helpful to anyone who loves the outdoors, and is the most popular way of saving and exchanging routes. Ordnance Survey Blog
Be sensible and check if your tetanus jab is up-to-date before you go hiking! I was so careful, doing everything slowly, but my foot slipped down a hole I couldn’t see and the barb from the wire was too close. I had tea tree essential oil with me which is a serious antiseptic and so I wapped that on immediately, repeating several times a day for the next few days and I was fine. Check the symptoms of tetanus.
Cold at night
It’s hard to imagine it can be so cold at night in a tent in May when the day-time temperatures are so moderate, but it can, so you have been warned! See Resources – what I took with me (link below). Weather, Kirkwall
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 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, and my final reflections on making pilgrimage. In a few days I will add the links to the list below.
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 who ordered his murder and 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 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 me 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. A book will be published soon, and I am sure it will be a valuable resource. 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!