Reflecting is a vital part of taking a walk. It helps to embed or integrate the walking experiences – where I have been, and what I have learned – in the hope that any changes wrought will last.
Most of all, though, I failed to comprehend that the best things in life aren’t things that are visibly sexy on the surface. They don’t scream for attention, and they rarely invite adrenaline. Rather they come from quiet commitment, respectful engagement, and a love of something greater than yourself.
Before a sitting meditation I start by acknowledging or noting any issues which are bothering me, either to clear my mind, to problem-solve, or create focus. Then I try to simply sit. I have been doing that for years. As a result I sometimes come up with creative ideas, solutions and greater understanding, or at the very least a recognition of patterns of behaviour.
Walking is a kind of meditation and the more I walk, the more I realise it’s the pilgrimage itself which presents the learning – simply by starting, trekking, and getting to the end of it.
I have habits that I try to pretend aren’t there, aren’t really so bad, or that I can’t help. These come to the fore when walking a pilgrimage. It is in the planning and facing of the realities of the land and the practicalities of accommodation and food which bring me face to face with myself.
A cross by the roadside in Spain (Via de la Plata) with an inscription by Pablo Neruda. May 2017
Is walking pilgrimage synonymous with being religious?
I do not follow a recognised religion. I was christened into the Church of England by my parents and had to learn tracts of the bible overnight for reciting in primary school the next day. Joining in assembly every morning at secondary school was obligatory, and I sang and read lessons during services; went on a Sunday School holiday; and spent years in the Girl Guides where Christianity was important.
I was steeped in it – the tenets of it seem to be in my soul (or my cells). Religion provided me with a moral and ethical language at the time when I was learning to speak, and I have discovered that it is hard to shrug off.
I might be on a mission to get rid of the destructive part of what I was taught in those early years: I was encouraged to feel guilty; it was assumed that I had Original Sin; and I was told that I was bad in my core, like every other human being. Perhaps I take ecumenical walks to give myself the time to recognise the impact of this and to let go of such negatives.
Nowadays I visit churches sometimes, and I certainly respect believers, but I do not take communion. I have read widely, listened and discussed with friends, but I cannot follow a Faith which seems to exclude or criticise people for being the way they are or believing what they do.
So, I do understand why people keep asking me why I walk pilgrimage. After all, historically it was a religious practice.
Thereafter, his (Bruce Chatwin’s) religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.
This question is asked of Guy Stagg who wrote The Crossway. Personally, he knew why he had set out – it was primarily for his mental health – but he repeatedly asked himself, ‘Why pilgrimage, why not just a nice trek?’ The astonished monks asked him too, as he battled through the alps in the middle of winter. Not having been satisfied with going from London to Canterbury he decided to go on to Jerusalem no less.
Tim Moore in Spanish Steps, Travels with my Donkey asks himself, why he is doing the barmy thing of finding, caring for and walking with a donkey along the camino in Spain when he is not religious.
For me, it is a walk but with added zizz! There is an in-built beginning, middle and end; it’s a project all in itself, and it is so much more than a wander round my local park.
it is essential as a reunion with oneself and with others. It’s almost a phenomenon of resistance: walking does not mean saving time, but rather losing it, making a détour to catch one’s breath!
In Chinese Medicine I was delighted to learn that there are a number of different ways to describe the spirit or soul. In Icelandic there are more words for snow than we have in English; in the Orient the parts of ourselves which relate to spirituality, to nature or to our innate relationship with other people are as important as our physical and mental aspects. Although the spirit is amorphous, hard to define, it is something I have a tangible sense of, particularly when I walk in nature. Although sometimes I am content to ‘be’, at other times I become curious and try to understand this puzzle.
When I sit and meditate in my Shiatsu room in Edinburgh I can simultaneously be in Tibet or Japan or China. I don’t know why that is or how it happens and I ponder on these things as I walk. I privately think (well, not so privately now!) that at least one explanation is that I was a nun and a monk in former lives. It is the best explanation I have come across so far. The feeling I had, for example, when I crossed the sands, barefoot, to Mont Saint Michel was real – I ‘knew’ I had walked there before.
What is ‘knowing’?
We have discovered in the last 100 years or so that our physical cells destruct and reconstruct, so the ones I have now shouldn’t be the same ones I had when I was a baby, never mind the ones my mother or grandmother had. And yet we know that we share genetic material.
There is a theory that there is a collective knowledge which accumulates from the generations which came before. It could be this wisdom which tells me where to go to find what I seek, and what has got me here in the first place. However, current scientific methodology and outcomes deny me entry into this collective unconscious. It insists that I enter through the portal of logic and I am not sure that logic is the right way into that sort of understanding.
I have an intrinsic sense of the English phrase, ‘I know it in my bones’. My bones are made up of cells and therein lies my genetic material, yet in every text I read about pilgrimage something inside me recognises it. I seem to share the centuries of that collective knowledge, it is familiar.
* . . . live inside the bone and have long branches which allow them to contact each other …
There is my DNA and my body. There are my mind and my thoughts. There is my self, my soul, my spirit. In my work and my walking I am enquiring into the connections and (re)discovering dissociations between these.
It’s all about love
The more I listen to myself as I traipse, and to my clients in the Shiatsu room, the more I think that what we all seek is the connection to LOVE. It sounds like a familiar new-age thing to say, it is straight out of the ‘all you need is ….’ 1960s, but I keep coming back to it.
I have a hunger for that ‘something for which we search’. And I know it isn’t just me, because when I tell folk what I do, they say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that’ or, ‘I have wanted to do that for ages’. Or maybe they too have already started!
I seem to be part of a contemporary pilgrimage movement in which it is possible that we are seeking ways to integrate, comprehend and connect our-selves, personally and in community.
Pilgrims walking the Via de la Plata, Spain; Tourists flocking to the Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.
In addition to all this, I notice a compunction to move on, to save my soul, to find, to seek. The ‘thing’ I am looking for is at the same time inside me right now and just ahead of me. It is that towards which I reach or walk. It isn’t new. Everything I have done in my life so far is part of this instinctive movement towards being purer, ironing out the creases. That’s what I believe we are all doing wherever we are.
I know that inside me lies this knowledge just as tangibly as I know my organs are there. I recognise that I am part of a continuum, a humanity of seekers. What is necessary is the time and space to better hear what is happening, and that is hard to find when I am at home looking after people and my surroundings, doing what most of us do in our adult Western lives.
The answer, it seems, lies in introspection. Without trying to be precious, I go quietly back inside myself when I walk to hear the still, small voice.
But it takes intentional steps to change our pace and encounter one another as pilgrims on a journey along with Way. In our time of frenetic political intensity, within a culture addicted to speed, we need to hear and heed the call of this step by step pilgrimage.. Wes Granberg-Michaelson https://sojo.net/articles/all-are-pilgrims
And so it appears I am descended from the ascetics and hermits of my history. I’m reborn into the liberated 21st century. I am, at one and the same time, part of a shared community -walkers and pilgrims, fellow monks and nuns, a group with shared values – and I am alone for to ponder.
Some things are proving intractable and I expect that’s why I have to keep on doing it!
Clean Language practitioner and author of Words That Touch, Nick Pole
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.
I was in Stromness for less than 24 hours. The places I have visited there are:
Tingwall – Betty’s Reading Room (always open, tea and biscuits, books, comfy place to sit and charge your phone). Kiersty who put me up in Evie, showed me this wonderful place which is very close to the ferry terminal. It was erected in memory of a member of the local community and is a peaceful place to sit and read – tea and biscuits are available. Occasional readings or other events happen there. The main thing is that the door is open – you can just step inside and make yourself comfortable.
(In other words, there was no need for me to walk all the way to the Fernvalley Wildlife Centre and find that it was shut, and then walk all the way back and into Evie along the busy road, only to find that the Eviedale Cafe was also shut – all in order to charge my phone and find the address where I was staying that night!)
there are no shops nor anywhere to stay on the island
Mistra is a perfect wee post office cum shop (10am to 5pm)
Eviedale Bistro (Weds – Sun 11am – 3.30pm). It wasn’t open when I was there
The Palace Stores where you can buy drinks (opens at 10am (12noon on Sundays) and shuts at 5pm)
Tearoom (10.30-5pm. Shut Tues / Weds)
Barony Hotel (about 20 minutes walk from campsite. Good food, but book in advance as it has erratic opening times)
a good co-op which sold a disposable thing I not seen before to plug into your phone to charge it. Cost £2.50 (did not work well on my phone because it was not working properly)
I walked the St Magnus Way on Orkney between 21st and 30th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the other blogs in this series (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) long and I trekked it over 5 days which included a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially buried.
Each time I leave for a walk, I make a rather last, last-minute trip for necessaries, and this time was no exception. I purchased a blow-up-itself mattress (an orange one, I am very fond of it), a one-person tent (although I do not know how a large man could possibly fit in), an Ordnance Survey map of Orkney (also orange), a solid fuel stove and blocks to put in it.
This is what I took with me:
Walking boots (the Austrian ones are still going strong (thanks to S) and walking sandals (thanks to Alice) with plasters
Rucksack, bum bag (also known as a fanny bag), hard wearing John Lewis carrier bag, my coquille Saint Jaques shell to show I had walked the Spanish Camino
Baton or walking stick to steady myself when tottering on the edge of cliffs or falling down holes!
Tent (I didn’t take a mallet and was OK with stones and my hands to push in the tent pins), sleeping bag, ground mat, said orange mat which luckily had a repair kit, saucepan (see photo below), 2 water bottles, stove frame and blocks
Matches (see below), spork, camping knife, cup (plastic ones are light but be careful if you have it tied to the outside of the rucksack and then repeatedly thrown that rucksack over barbed wire fences as it will break. It can, however, be replaced by a lovely new red one at Baikies Stores in Finstown), blow-up neck cushion
Passport (I took it just in case. In fact I didn’t need it – but who knows for how long?), bank card, money
Travel towel (a quick-dry one) and by a stroke of luck also a travel flannel which I popped in at the last minute not knowing why. It transpired that it was invaluable for drying the tent (wet from dew or rain) before packing it up
Knickers x 2, bra x 2, quick-dry trousers that can be made into shorts x 1, quick-dry walking T-shirt, vest top, blouse (a long sleeved cotton top to protect from the sun made of light material for the evenings and to be used for layers of warmth), one pair of light trousers with elasticated waist and butterflies on them (bought in Seville with J – I love them, but my daughter says they look like pyjamas), leggings x 1,socks x 2 pairs plus 1 single double-layered one (the other one disappeared from the drying rack in Salamanca).
I needed it: When I dropped one of my pair of walking socks down the loo on day 4 in Orkney, I realised why I had packed that one double-layered sock. It seemed such a silly thing to take, but that was because I couldn’t see into the future. Or did I in fact know? Was this in fact, as the Quantum physicists are discovering, an example of time being in layers rather than linear?
Hoodie (fleece), 3 hats (1 for sleeping, 1 for warm weather and another for the sun), scarf (for warming, as a pillow, to sit on etc), gloves
I used my phone torch and of course, being May, it was very bright until late at night
Needle and thread for blisters and mending, pegs for hanging wet things on guylines
Soap for washing clothes and self, deodorant, shampoo/conditioner, disposable razor, foot cream, suntan lotion (also doubles as moisturiser), panty liners (they keep knickers cleaner if you cannot find a way to dry them after washing, but aren’t good for the environment)
Rain trousers and jacket, rain cover for the rucksack
Specs and sunglasses with cleaning cloth (and carrying case), phone, charger, wrist watch (which I did need because my phone kept running out of battery, but which I sadly lost on Egilsay), notebook and pens, reading material (not the Kindle this time due to the short length of the walk and being sure I would find a replacement to the book I took with me en route and finished part way through. In fact there aren’t any bookshops outside Stromness or Kirkwall as far as I could tell, though see Betty’s Reading Room)
Ordnance survey map 463 (doesn’t include Kirkwall). See the Finding Your Way section
What was lent to me while I was there – thank you Kiersty:
Thermal vest and long-sleeved top (M&S underwear)
One of those bright, neon-yellow jerkins for being seen in the dark. I used it once. I needed it in Spain in April when the weather was dreadful and I was walking beside the road in the weak daylight and during thunderstorms – which could happen on Orkney of course too, but thankfully didn’t
Bought on the island:
Antiseptic cream (the accident happened on the first day of walking), mini vaseline (Orkney is windy and my lips got dry with that and the sun), newspaper (inspiring to read, useful for sitting on and soaking up the wetness if it rains), food and water, more plasters
What I wished I had taken in retrospect (always a glorious thing):
There were two particularly important things: a warmer sleeping bag (it gets really cold at night, even when the day-time temperature is very warm); and I definitely should have printed off the route descriptions and maps for each day before I left home instead of relying on my phone which once again let me down – do not depend on technology!
a winter jacket; a light cardigan
a lighter instead of matches because they got wet and so I could not have my morning tea that day; a head torch (which I could not find before I left, but did immediately on my return – isn’t it always like that?
hot water bottle (there are kettles at the campsites), thermal underwear
maybe a silk sheet to go inside the sleeping bag – I have never used one, but I imagine it would make it much warmer
a pair of earings, although in fact I found the 2 which I picked up in a hostel in Spain in April which were still in my bag! Not, of course absolutely necessary, just a nod to some sort of self-decoration
A compass. I got a new one for my birthday so that will be in my luggage from now on, whichever direction I go in!
Washing and drying:
It was not warm enough to dry things outside most of the time and because the route is not long I admit that I didn’t wash my clothes. You will be glad to hear, however, that I did go to some trouble to clean myself in washrooms and public toilet facilities all around the island. This meant that I frequently entered a cafe in walking gear with my carrier bag, ordered a cup of tea, sought out their (toilet), and emerged 10 minutes later dressed differently! I expect there are launderettes in some places, but in order to wash in a machine you either need to take more clothes with you, or you have to wash and immediately dry one set at a time which is not practical, or go naked while they wash and dry….
What I didn’t need:
The washing line. I did use it to tie up various things, but it was too long
The extra mobile phone because it had a Spanish SIM card in it!
Passport (see above)
The extra water bottle (It is not necessary to have two if you are careful to fill up whenever possible)
Credential: All the Spanish Caminos provide a credential. This is a card which is stamped at every stop. By the end you have a record of where you have been and proof that you have been there (which in the case of Spain means you can get a compostella (certificate) in Santiago). It would be nice to have a similar thing in Orkney.
The shell: I was pleasantly surprised to find that, on presentation at the cathedral in Kirkwall, I was given a similar shell with a St Magnus Way sticker on it (warning: look after it carefully so that the sticker doesn’t come off).
The St Magnus Way website: The St M Way team have set up bluetooth sites and launched an app with all sorts of good things on it. Unfortunately neither were available when I was there, but they have since been reinstated. You can download and use many of the resources offline (ie when you don’t have a wifi signal).
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.
Day 6 – on rabbit holes and hospitality
Landscape: moor, road, cliff, beach and bay
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
The confrontation with Self is one of the most radical things a person can do. It is indeed a political act. This can force us into confrontation with our fears and the fears of others. Erica Louise Shugart
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After this it was the Cantit Trail, a round-a-bout route to say the least, though pretty and clearly manageable for feet, wheels and all ages.
Coming into Kirkwall it was all about approach-roads and building projects, hospital and residential housing.
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:
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.
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.Ireland.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 crias which is what the young ones are called), and the ubiquitous wind turbine at Kebro Farm, where like all the places I passed farmers were working even though it was a Sunday. In this area there are many incredibly confusing signs saying to go back up (arrows and ‘To Oback Cottage’ etc). Note: Ignore them and keep on going down. There is eventually a St M Way sign at the junction when you get there!
In the same way as Reading is a town of roundabouts, and Glasgow’s all traffic lights, so Orkney’s made up of a complex network of fences, poles upstanding and barbed wire, deadly taut and ready to snatch enough wool to knit a sheep or catch an unsuspecting elbow in passing.
With four per cent of battery left on my phone I could check the time, but why bother? Instead I watched a butterfly doing what butterflies do, and let a chunk of Orkney fudge melt in my mouth leaving a too sugary, but addictive residue.
There was no need for me to be anywhere by any given time – being close to midsummer and because I was so far north, there was endless daylight. In fact there was almost no night. It has been said that stress levels are particularly high when deadlines of time and distance are combined (ie I have to get across town by 8am), so it is a good sign that I can let that go and relax into the walking. I will get there when I get there, that’s my motto.
I noticed, that like the three guys last night who accompanied the lead singer of ‘The Once‘, the sheep looked identical but had different voices – some bass, some treble and some soprano, or is it counter tenor?
I liked the grey cows – I was not sure I had ever seen grey ones before. (No photos, for the above reasons). I went past birds doing that spectacular balancing thing where they sway on top of stalks so thin that the human eye cannot see them, thinner than one of their own legs. How do they do that!
The farmers forked the deep brown, well-rotted manure onto a trailer; an ideal lane between fields offered springy soil that actually massaged my feet from the underneath; there was only one place where I had to step into an empty blue trough and cling onto the, yes you guessed it, the barbed wire, to avoid the too-marshy path. There were bog grasses there, honed to a calf-tickling tip, but space enough to walk inbetween.
I was heading for the nearly-full moon. Every time I needed a pee I had to take the rucksack off and it required a sort of humpfy-jump to get it back on and arrange all my layers – the tucking in was the worst. I cracked my knee which certainly got the blood flowing again. ‘It’ll pass’, I reminded myself.
I was just as I was about to head off up the hill to the right across the moors towards Orphir after the last sign, when I most unexpectedly spotted a couple coming up. She was pregnant and telling amusing stories to the man with her – great to hear them laugh! My phone was dead by then so how lucky it was that I saw them, because Orphir wasn’t on the right in that direction at all!
Down I went, taking the correct course. There was a bed of irises, a red bridge and the delightful sound of trickling, peaty, crystal-clear Scottish water. I found another bird’s wing, pure snow-coloured with bones attached, and a patch of curly white feathers to mark the spot. Butterflies played above like the very spirit of the bird which had died, like the petals of today’s flowers come to life.
It was hot by this time with a welcome breeze by the burn. There were no signs (although the notes I had made from the route description last night were pretty good from here on), so I trusted my instinct, tripping on downhill now.
For some reason I had put my single double-layered sock into the rucksack before leaving home, and now it had come in useful because I dropped one of yesterday’s pair down the loo when changing in a tight space with an armful of clothes, and after washing it hadn’t dried in time. (I had no idea what happened to the pair. I left them both to dry on a rack in Salamanca and one wasn’t there on my return).
I guessed the repeated but uneven banging up on my right must be people hunting. On the far left I could see a gorgeous beach – Waulkmill Bay I identified from the map – and I would have enjoyed a paddle there and then. Despite another internal debate about the way I decided to keep going on straight. The cuckoo called and I had a sudden memory – did my dad collect butterflies? I must have been very, very young.
Much as I deplore the waste and emissions of plastics, and of course a wooden staff is more traditional for the pilgrim, this baton is better: wood ones chafe the palms after several hours. What a marvellous view I had from up there! It was still a bit misty to be sure, but I could see all the islands, tankers and trawlers, big ships and little boats, as well as what looked like a submarine.
I always talk to the animals I meet, especially the farm ones. I expect they have a relationship with humans already, and probably my mum used to do that and I learned it from her. Perhaps she still does! I was so glad to have my map because I couldn’t connect the Route Direction info with the reality on the ground and got confused.
The two wooden men either end of a bench wi flooer pots atap thar heids cheered me up. In the same way I think in French or Spanish when walking in those countries, I seemed to be rocking some variation of the Orkney tongue in my head.
Then I came across a field of delightful weeny Shetland ponies, foals and their families – somehow I felt a bond! I was gutted that I couldn’t take any photos.
‘Bin fer a dander?’ (Have you been for a walk?), a gentleman asked me as I turned onto the road. There was a further man hanging out washing in his boxers at the next house – he scuttled inside sharpish when he saw me! At the brow of the hill, the wooden fella was half way up a ladder. And as I walked into Orphir there were full-sized horses who looked gigantic in relationship to the mini ones from 15 minutes back.
Then I was in civilisation: coachloads, a duet on a tandem, ‘sites available for eco-new builds’ the sign said, and another wooden bench – this time there was a bear at one end and a fish at the other and the top of the back of it was the fishing line connecting them both. Whoever makes these garden ornaments is very inventive.
Orphir (say ‘offer’ like the Queen does, or ‘Or’ followed by the ‘fa’ from ‘titfer’)
I went straight on through the village initially, towards the round tower of Earl’s Bu in the hot sun. But then I changed my mind and went back to set up camp first. Thank goodness I did – it was miles more by road and path so I was glad not to have the pack on my back.
Note: Allow at least two hours to go to The Breck, St Nicholas Church, Earls Bu, the Bu of Orphir and back, and take a picnic with you!
Orphir is a collection of grey houses with wooden garden sculptures and people mowing their lawns. At its centre is a church with a milennium garden where I pitched my tent, hidden from view by the shrubs which dripped dew the next morning. There are no shops and one hotel with a bar/restaurant – in other words there was nowhere to charge my phone until the place opened later. A woman on foot passed the time of day with me, a cyclist did too.
I enquired about food and asked what the time was – 3.30pm – gutted – it was two hours before I could eat, and not one cup of tea had I drunk all day. I had my shorts on and there was a slight wind. Oh, but what absolutely idyllic countryside and what a gentle perambulation it was!
I took the sign to Gyre from the Orphir A964 road, and then a left which was signed to Breck. I was confused again just before the sea, but now I know the correct way I would recommend you keep to the right. The soft, flat turf of the coastal path around Scapa is even more beautiful on the cliffs above the rocks and the sea was there too and the birds were wheeching. Wonderful.
I slept a while, perched on the edge between the track and a small fall to the dark stoned beach, prickly with heather underneath but therefore cushioned. Further along is the broken-down bridge (which I crossed anyway) and the churchyard of St Nicholas. The ruin made a big impression on me, and I tried to record it in a sketch.
As you come around, the inside is exquisite – pale, smooth stone with a single arched window. Plain and undecorated, it seemed to encapsulate a holiness I rarely felt in the gold and silver interiors of the many cathedrals I have visited.
Nearby is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which tells the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. It closes at 6pm and I didn’t get that far. When I went on the Viking Hiking tour a couple of days later and the lovely Ragnhild ‘quoted oft’ from this famous text, I wished I had, and when I got home I thought with hindsight that I could have carried the tent and spent the night there, but I didn’t quite understand what I would find at the time. Even the bit I did see was one of the highlights of this trip.
There were 10 times as many walkers on this little stretch then ever I saw during the entirety of the past days. Probably because it was an unusually sunny, Sunday afternoon. The scenic loveliness probably also had something to do with it.
The long, winding return walk was equally enjoyable under trees which met above my head, a flood of bluebells beneath. Hoardes of almost-golden gorse branchlets reached out, so crowded with mouths bursting open I could almost hear them, ‘me first, me first’; while the individual kingcups presented their simple faces imploringly sunwards. The feathered petals of the only-slightly-paler dandelions on their juicy stalks were any moment ready to transform into translucent orbs of parachutes. I didn’t need to look where I was treading, so birdwatching was easy: jet black crows picking in fields of alabaster daisies; the now-familiar voices of mew and maow and peep (birds); and the gull-gliding, goose-flapping and sparrow-fluttering were all present and accounted for.
Walking when hungry at the end of the day can lead to morosity, but after a while it’s only walking – finding ways to release hip pains, just one foot in front of another.
And then I got to order my food at The Noust Bar and Restaurant – what a shame British restaurants don’t bring bread while you wait these days! – but I did enjoy the beer (the second from the Orkney brewery) which unsurprisingly went straight to my head. The service was good. The food would have been delicious whether or not it was, if you see what I mean. The monster, beer-battered fish, well-cooked chips and frozen peas hit the spot, as did the blackcurrant crumble and ice cream (£20 with a cup of tea to round it all off). At last I could charge my phone somewhat and as I had wifi access I took care to write notes ahead of the next day’s hike.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 24th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Day 2 – on shame, fear, and foolhardiness
Scenery: simply stunning
Burns crossed: too many to count
Whales seen: Nil. Dolphins? Also nil. (Another northern Scottish trip without a single sighting. Sigh)
People encountered between start and finish: 3 (at the end)
20 kms / 12.5 miles
Time: 8.5 hours
Falls to death: thankfully zero, but it was a close thing once or twice. Sound extreme? It was
Moral of the story: follow the signs
Theme established by the St Magnus Way group, to be found on their website: Loss
‘All pilgrimages share certain characteristics, features which define them as holy walks. A vow or promise at the journey’s beginning; and at the end a ritual prayer for enlightenment, forgiveness or miracle.’ p. 104, Spanish Steps, by Tim Moore.
I stayed the night with Meg and Frank and enjoyed their company, conversation and beautiful woodland garden in the evening sunshine (photos above and below).
The next morning I gave a Shiatsu session and then stepped across their threshold for my first full day’s walk. Five geese honked in formation. As I tripped down past their lovely wood, a smell of earth was in my nostrils. A dry stone wall swept around the Sands of Evie in the Eynhallow Sound. Note that the recommended path begins at the Broch of Gurness.
On my right, barbed wire; on my left an expanse of green. Peep peep peep and twitter twitter regaled me. I was off. The haar was clearing. Cock-a-doodle-doo he crowed in celebration.
The St. Magnus Way website suggests using stones for various reasons: focus, something that ‘weighs heavily’, to remind you of something, or as a companion, to keep or to discard. So, I selected three stanes that the beach offered up: one for the fear that I won’t manage the walk – that was lobbed into the sea straight away! One was for worries about the future, and that I laid with all the monumental ones further along the coast. I kept the third until the end of the day. I had discussed the way with locals before leaving. I knew that sections of this first day had been closed due to unsafe conditions, although I did not know any details. My friend said she would not take a détour, and that matched my own spirit. So, I had already established that I would try to stay near the coast rather than being redirected onto the road.
The first marker is attached to a wooden post – a simple, classy image of a black cross standing on a single wave-y line. Here was lush greenery but there was no path. Quite quickly I heard the phrase in my head ‘shame on such a path’. Now that is a phrase straight out of my childhood and the Church of England in the 1960s and 70s – one which I do not expect to have in my vocabulary. There are reasons I have continued to walk long distances, and one is the vital opportunity it offers for me to hear my internal prejudices and judgments. Away from the constant noise of the city and interactions with others, and with the quieter natural environment around me, I was giving myself the chance to choose to change. Well, to try to, at least – to notice. After all, old habits do die hard!
Shame on you. – it is a turn of phrase, right enough, but it carries a world of significance with it. What I meant was, how could ‘they’ let this pathway become so overgrown with nettles? My legs are very short and what with the heavy rucksack weighing me down, I was knee deep in them. Thank goodness I had the bottoms of my walking trousers still attached!
Anyone will tell you, I am a great supporter of self-reflection. Taking the time to review one’s actions, trying to honestly recognise what I say and do is an important part of self-development, and that is necessary at least for being a Shiatsu Practitioner, but also for learning about myself and how I am in relationship. I do not want to instill shame in others or suggest they should feel it, just because I think they should have done something different. It is, anyway, not a useful way to bring about change, if indeed that is needed.
‘It is not intended to be a manicured track, but a route of great variety, stunning scenery, historical significance and space to breathe’ From The Orkney Islander magazine.
This is essentially a Christian pilgrimage I am on, set up by a Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend David McNeish, and a group of people from different churches. McNeish stresses, in the above mentioned article, that the walk is for anyone, an essentially spiritual experience for those who believe in God and also for those who do not.
‘The St Magnus Way is rooted in the Christian faith, as was Magnus, but welcomes all people and faith perspectives‘.
Interestingly the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the pilgrimge’s final destination, ‘is unique in Europe in that it belongs to no particular denomination… since it has been owned by the people of Orkney since 1486’ (taken from The Society of the Friends of St Magnus Cathedral leaflet). It turned out that this walk, for me, was already becoming a golden opportunity to face up to some of my outdated beliefs around religion.
As I made my way eastwards, I clambered over chunks of beach where the course was hard to follow on the headlands but perfect for the sheer and simple joy of being so close to the sea. I waded thigh-high through more nettles, and these were interspersed with periods of striding forth when the way was clear. Then I could stare out, and out there was the glittering ocean while underneath me were the brooding, cracked rocks.
Mostly the going was oh-so-slow, and I had to remind myself not to try and make up for that by moving more quickly when I could. ‘Just don’t be in a hurry’, I told myself. Planting one foot in front of the other, and focusing on each step is a meditation in itself. Engage with it mindfully and it will automatically slow down the pace of your life. These types of long treks, like the contrast between going away for a fortnight’s holiday rather than for only a few days, allow for the gradual slowing of the system, a calming of the autonomic nervous system in fact. Almost all of us need that: mentally, emotionally and physically. So there I was, walking, when…oh, oh, a ghostly sound and I looked in the direction the sound came from, and the land out there on the point seemed to be writhing. On closer inspection, it was a shoal of seals flopping in and out of the sea. I know you do not talk about a shoal, but they really were like glistening fish newly caught in a net, with the water all sparkling around them.
They were jumping off their bellies, backs arched tautly. What cooing and barking noises they made. Even the occasional snort (or old-man-eating sound, one I had not heard before) made its way across to me high up on the cliff. Black and dappled grey, with sleek snouts bobbing up and down in the waves along the coast, they made eerie, windy noises. Slug-like they were, until their ends (tails and heads) curved up making them look like kids’ wobbly toys.
Suddenly my foot slipped on a loose stone. Then they all spotted me, and before I realised it, more of them than I knew were there, so well camouflaged were they, leapt off their rock. What a delightful treat! Being a rebel, and because I was not going to miss the possibility of seeing a cetacean, I soldiered on when the signs signalled to turn left. Here were great slabs of the past, immense layers of time immemorial. Glorious it was.
Words like strata and striated popped into my mind from O’ Level geography as I picked my way between the blocks of rock on the lower parts of the beach to avoid the dodgy path above. I crept up on more seals unawares as they were sunbathing. A second later, they were gone, highly sensitive to extraneous sound. There was not a sight of a human unless you count the aluminium yacht which caught my eye because it was glinting in the rays. A slight movement and again on the water like ever so many periscopes, there were the tops of seal heads checking to see if I had gone.
I was looking at my feet to find safe footing, when, meanwhile, I realised there was another set of wary eyes fixing me: Fresian ones! Cows were to be my almost constant companions throughout the days of this pilgrimage: clattering away down the fields as I approached even when I tiptoed, and then drawn almost immediately back to the fence between us. They were playing grandmother’s footsteps when my back was turned. One minute they were way away, and the next I heard a moo. There they were, right behind me with their penetrating stares!
Most of the path was terrifyingly narrow, a foot’s width perhaps, so that I had to cling to the barbed wire fences as I inched my way around. A lesson (re)learned
If it feels hard, and especially if you are honest and it feels too, too hard, there will always be an easier way. Stop, look up, breathe and reassess.
I reflect that I need to learn this over and over again. It must be a deeply ingrained habit, even a belief system, that makes me keep on going through hardship. Here was another theme that was to re-appear repeatedly.
It is not in my nature to admit defeat.
Alexandra David-Neel, ‘My Journey to Llasa’ p. xiii
I admired the deep cravasses full of rock pools. The weed, seen from above, gleamed wet and slimy, shiny green like new buds. If you were lucky enough to have roamed on the beach when you were younger, like I was at Kingsdown on the south coast of England, you will recognise these types of rock pools. You will be able to guess what might be in their shady corners even though you are too high up to see.
I was enjoying the round Neolithic corner of Eynhallow when a raven started up. A warning sound, it cra cra-ed over and over again, and I heard it. The going was precarious all along that stretch, and the bird looped me, taking off from one fence post, flying out and around my shoulders and then back. Back and round and back it went, for all the world as if it was weaving lines of protection around me, holding me in close to the land and discouraging falling. Perhaps I have read too many North American Indian stories about the traditions of totem animals, but I was duly warned and took extreme care.
There were other birds around: ones with bottoms the exact colour of the black and red stationery invoice books – you know those? Anywhere gannets build their nests is too dangerous for humans, I realised. I should not have been there.
It was all made much worse by the continuous barbed wire fences: on and off came my rucksack. I felt real fear. Clearly other fools had gone before me because there were places where the wire was stretched. My advice: Absolutely do not do it. I have got myself into some scrapes before, but this was properly dangerous. It was entirely my own decision and every time I looked down into the next sheer gully, I expected to spot a skeleton. By this time I knew I wanted to go an easier way, but it was equally difficult to go back.
After the next de-rucksacking amidst spears of irises with cabbage whites darting in and out, I headed finally inland for the road. I was close to the church ruin and I spotted Orkney vole holes in the dry grass. But, would you believe it, I was on the road for less than five minutes when the official signs directed me back to the coast. I will confess that I was feeling a trifle wabbit (exhausted) by this time.
An uncharacteristic stumble necessitated yet another stop. I have to be very careful not to let this happen with the backpack on because I can topple very easily if its weight tips over. This time I snacked to give me some energy: chocolate, cheese and lettuce.
I had confidently said I would manage 20 kilometres by early afternoon, but it was 1pm and I was nowhere near the end. Below my feet was a carpet of primroses, bluebells and king cups with teeny violets. There was often a sewage scent assailing my nostrils (ugh!) though with the odd whiff of warm grass. Now the nettles were up to my armpits so stings were sustained and still there were many fences to cross. I was becoming covered in scratches too. The tussocks were soft and uneven making the going even slower, my feet sinking unexpectedly deeper however carefully I placed them.
I startled a pheasant and it startled me. What was he up to at the edge of the West Mainland? He must have been admiring the view, he must have been. I also saw a rabbit – first I had ever seen on a beach. And a cat, easily managing the foot’s width of path that was available between fence and fall.
I was impersonating St Magnus now, wearing my beanie hat with feathers stuck in either side instead of horns and my baton instead of a staff which he would surely have used on his own pilgrimage.
I was once again very happily traipsing; fair bowling along I was after those revitalising calories. I even noticed my thoughts turning to old friends from my daughters’ primary school days. They used to go to Orkney with their children at every possible chance and now I understood why. Orkney, I was told by the woman from Elgin who I got to know on the return train, has the best quality of life of any rural area in the UK (1).
Day one was certainly a ‘baptism by fire’, I thought. And there was another biblical phrase – how easily such words trip off my tongue! In the modern understanding of the phrase, I was being initiated to the pilgrimage with hardship and difficulty. Interestingly, that phrase is more likely to have been meant as ‘the conferring of the Holy Spirit’, which of course would relate well to a Christian pilgrimage. I understood that some of the adults around me when I was growing up still subscribed to the Victorian idea that hardship was a good thing for children. I suspect that many of my ideas come from novels which made an impression on me at an impressionable age – church-run orphanages which housed Oliver or Jane Eyre.
There were times when there was no point in complaining that something was hard because it was accepted as right and normal – in fact a cause for celebration. It was all in the hope that I would be strengthened by it, and not expect a life of Riley, a bed of roses. Well here I was, not on the sofa but spending my time on a challenging hike. Many of us do this sort of thing these days – conquering unconquerable mountains, running 43 marathons in 51 days (2) – mostly thought of as laudable and great achievements, particularly when done for charity. Hardship is popular. “Suffering is optional” (3).
‘Suffering is something you have to learn to figure out in your life; it’s nothing to be afraid of,’ Jennifer Fox, documentary writer in the Guardian Newspaper 23.5.18
Rebecca Nicholson interviewed Sheila Hancock in the Guardian newspaper about a new film role in Edie where she had to climb a mountain:
“‘I was so frightened,’ she gasps, but still she did it, ‘Honest to God, I don’t know how.’… ‘I would love to enjoy leisure, but I find it very difficult to sit down and do nothing,’ ..” (25.5.18)
So, in the 21st century we have an issue with personal choice and with hardship versus that life of Riley. And a pilgrimage, like mountain climbing or other dangerous pursuits (as opposed to a sedentary lifestyle with few thrills) will hep you understand your own approach to life and raise the very things you struggle with on a daily basis. As 3.30pm approached I could see the haar (misty fog) rolling in again and I could not see from whence I came. Up hill and down dale I went, still happy. I admit I kept thinking about beer. I mean all pilgrims drink ale don’t they? At 4.10pm I took the series of photos below. This is inspiration. This is one of the main reasons I do these walks. When I am back home giving Shiatsu, I call up these sorts of images in the hope that the energy of these places comes through my touch.
I thought: ‘You having a laugh?’ as I went along a line of flattened grass that didn’t resemble a path. The problem with being tired is that you focus on the end and when you then come over the next knoll it can be disappointing to see the way still stretching far ahead. I reminded myself of a lesson learned on my first Camino: one-step at a time – poco a poco as they say in Spain.
There are, in fact, midges on Orkney, contrary to what I read on the internet when I was wondering whether to take ointment or not! I didn’t see the Whalebone.
Luckily I got some help towards the very end when I was lost. First a woman in her garden came across and advised me over the garden fence to go between the two towers. But before I could do that, a most kind couple suggested I take the small road and they gave me a banana and a flapjack together with my filled water bottle. They even offered me a lift but see above – I was determined!
Seagulls were tucked into nooks and crannies, perhaps bedding down for the night when I arrived at 6pm at the Brough (say bruff) of Birsay car park. I went into the village where the Earls Palace looked amazing in the late sun. I deposited my last stone hurriedly at the Kirk (the end of the day’s route) – dedicated to the beautiful world. And then I took a bus. ‘Just take a seat’ said the driver when I asked him how much, and he let me off a few minutes later at the end of the campsite road.
The official wasn’t there yet, but a group of Italians were. I showed them how to book on-line and we took our places and pitched camp. Like the one at Stromness, the site was well equipped, clean and had a good energy about it. When she did come along at the allotted time, the woman in charge was wonderful and I took her suggestion and walked (yes, more walking but this time in sandals which made all the difference) to the Barony Hotel and enjoyed that ale and some well won victuals.
On my final car journey, when Christopher was giving me a lift to Stromness for the ferry, we discussed this Evie to Birsay day, and he told me a guide had stepped back from his group on another part of the island and fallen to his death. I would not have missed my walk ‘for the world’, but it was stupid of me to ignore the signs and I would not recommend anyone else did the same. Thank you everyone who helped me along the way today. Thank you.
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