St Magnus Way – what I took with me

What I took with me

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.

There is a companion blog post here: What to pack in your rucksack. That is a list for Spain (and elsewhere on mainland Europe).

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The same rucksack I took to Spain in 2016.

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), solid fuel stove and blocks.

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The shadow of me, my baton, my trusty John Lewis carrier bag and boots!

This is what I took with me:

  • Walking boots (the Austrian ones are still going strong (thanks S) and walking sandals (thanks Alice). Plasters
  • Rucksack, bum bag (also known as fanny bag), hard wearing John Lewis carrier bag, my coquille Saint Jaques shell to show I had walked the Camino
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Self-blow-up orange mat – elegant and reduced at Mountain Warehouse on Princes Street, Edinburgh.
  • Baton or walking stick to steady yourself 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
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Solid Fuel Stove from Go Outdoors. £3.99. Tablets £2.50 for 4. It packs up for carrying but gets really messy so you need a bag or keep the box. I have never used one of these before and it took some getting used to. The blocks were hard to light in the Orkney wind. Once alight it took 2#two blocks to not-quite-boil the pasta. When inside the toilet building, on the other hand, it was all as easy as it said on the packet.
  • 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
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My new tent – it was fab.
  • 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
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Travel Towel bag. Handy because it is light and dries quickly. On the other hand the zip broke almost as soon as I got it which is a nuisance.
  • 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 (ie long sleeved cotton top to protect from sun, made of light material, for the evenings, used for layers), one pair of light trousers with elasticated waist and butterflies on them (bought in Seville with Jésus – I love them but my daughter says they look like pyjamas), leggings, socks x 2 pairs plus 1 single double-layered one (the other one disappeared off 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 layered 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
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My hoodie / fleece before I took the price tag off, and rucksack beside me in preparation.
  • 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 immediately 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 (published 3.8.18)

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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
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My trusty pan – good for cooking and heating water, and it also stores food for carrying. It is not completely leak proof though!

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
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A very basic, old ground mat I brought before the first ever camping trip with the kids, when? 16 years ago maybe, still going strong.

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, but 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!
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Thanks to Sarah for my mini blow-up pillow. Handy for the bus and train as well as for camping.

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 differently dressed! 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 for the time it takes to wash and dry….
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Sleeping Bag – warm enough for hostels but not for camping on Orkney in May (even though it was warm during the day).

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
  • The extra water bottle (It is not necessary to have two if you are careful to fill up whenever possible)

Other:

Credential: All the Spanish Caminos provide a credential. Thisis 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).

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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 wifi / signal).

Links:

Introduction

Transport – how I got there

Accommodation – where I stayed

Day 2 – Evie to Birsay

Day 3 – Birsay to Dounby

Day 4 – Dounby to Finstown

Day 5 – Finstown to Orphir

Day 6 – Orphir to Kirkwall

Resources – what I took with me

Finding your way

The Last Day

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Reflection

St Magnus Way – Orphir to Kirkwall

Walking Orphir to Kirkwall

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 28th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.

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The man himself.

Day 6 – on rabbit holes and hospitality

  • Theme: hospitality
  • Landscape: moor, road, cliff, beach and bay
  • Full moon
  • Highlights: Scapa Beach, Kirkwall Cathedral
  • Orkney islanders met: the lovely Caroline and John Robertson, the hospitable Ragnhild, Christopher and sons
  • Backpackers encountered, days 1 – 6: none
  • 18.3 kms / 11.4 miles
  • Time: 8 hours

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

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The Morning Star from the oldest gravestone (13th century) in Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney.

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

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

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

A different sort of Monday morning:

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

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

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A Viking longboat found on the altar at Kirkwall Cathedral.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Scottish thistle.

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

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

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Won’t you just look at that colour!

The moorland section:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The low point:

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert Christiansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wind turbines – for and against:

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

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

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

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

Scapa Bay and Kirkwall

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

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Isn’t it stunning? Scapa Bay, Orkney.

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

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

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

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

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Kirkwall:

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.

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

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

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

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

The St Magnus Cathedral:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hospitality:

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

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

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

St Magnus Way official website.

St Magnus Cathedral – more information

Links:

Introduction

Transport – how I got there

Accommodation – where I stayed

Day 2 – Evie to Birsay

Day 3 – Birsay to Dounby

Day 4 – Dounby to Finstown

Day 5 – Finstown to Orphir

Day 6 – Orphir to Kirkwall

Resources – what I took with me

The Last Day

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way

Reflection

St Magnus Way – Evie to Birsay

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.

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Orkney.

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.

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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.

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Evie, Orkney.

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.

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My three stones, on the Sands of Evie beach. Orkney.

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.

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Call that a path! Orkney.

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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!

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Orkney.

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.

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The Evie to Birsay coast, Orkney.

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.

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Orkney.

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.

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Orkney.

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.

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Towards the Broch of Birsay and its lighthouse. The water all made of diamonds. Orkney.

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.

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You can see the glorious colours, but probably not the seals at the very end of those rocks. The zoomed shot I took was too blurry to reproduce here. Orkney.

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.

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Orkney.

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.

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Orkney.

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!

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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.

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Not so much a path as a sheer drop! Orkney.

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.

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Crazy paving beach, Orkney.

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.

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Eynhallow island in the distance with its distinctive cliff corner. Orkney.
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The raven – can you see it? Orkney.

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.

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That’s what the white dots are: gannets. See how precipitous it is. Orkney.

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.

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It was here I sustained the injury.: a gash from the barbed wire as I fell, deep, very bloody, but luckily not life threatening. Orkney.

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.

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Barbed wire fences, a stile that is almost impossible to get to – they have tried to stop us walking here that’s for sure. The Hesta Geo beyond. Orkney.

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.

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Showing a geo, a long, narrow, steep-sided cleft formed by erosion in coastal cliffs. Orkney.

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.

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Costa Hill in the distance. Doesn’t look tricky but it was – augur of what was to come later in the trail. Orkney.

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.

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Orkney.

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.

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Wooden bridge over the Swannay Burn. Orkney.

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).

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Loch of Swannay inland. Orkney.

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.

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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).

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After encountering danger on and off all day, I discovered this poster at the campsite in the evening!

‘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)

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You can see it is starting to get misty. Orkney.

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.

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Orkney.
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Orkney.
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Orkney.
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Orkney.
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Orkney.

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.

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Birsay village in the distance with the Earl’s Palace. Orkney.

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.

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The nousts (scalloped earth for storing small fishing boats) at Skibbigeo, Orkney.

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!

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The Earl’s Palace in contrast to the local houses behind. Birsay, Orkney.

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.


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Eventually I arrived in Birsay, Orkney.

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.

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Information poster, The Brough of Birsay, Orkney.

I would have liked to take a look at the Yellow Bird Gallery Chocolate Cottage, Birsay, Orkney KW17 2LT
1 http://www.orkney.com/whats-new/quality-of-life
2 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/exhausted-izzard-completes-43-marathon-challenge-1787491.html
3 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

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The Brough of Birsay at sunset. Orkney.

Links:

Introduction

Transport – how I got there

Accommodation – where I stayed

Day 2 – Evie to Birsay

Day 3 – Birsay to Dounby

Day 4 – Dounby to Finstown

Day 5 – Finstown to Orphir

Day 6 – Orphir to Kirkwall

Resources – what I took with me

The Last Day

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way

Reflection

St Magnus Way, Orkney: Birsay to Dounby

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 25th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.

 Day 3 – on mortification, growth, and guilt.

  • Scenery: gentle, open
  • Lochs passed/seen: Boardhouse, Hundland, Harray, Banks, Sabiston
  • Today’s only real danger: cars, and starvation!
  • People encountered between start and finish: none
  • Theme: growth
  • 16.6 kms / 10.2 miles of which 10kms on the road
  • Time: 5 hours
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This is the Man’s Well which never runs dry. Note the St Magnus Way mug hanging for the pilgrims to refresh themselves.

Last night I camped in the site just outside Birsay. I walked past the Man’s Well which was part of today’s route quite by chance on my way to have supper at the Barony Hotel. The water of the well was said to wash the body of St Magnus before he was canonised. Nowadays it is used for brewing ale and mixing with whisky at New Year! Mons (Norwegian) and Mansie (Orkadian) are both variations of the name Magnus, whereas it is thought that the Man of the Well’s title is the Norse version.

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So I started my walk here at the Barony Mill but the photo was taken the night before as it was darkling.

Barony is a working mill famous for its Beremeal, and I had bere bannocks in the cafe in Kirkwall on my final day. Bannocks (this link will take you to a recipe) are a sort of flattish quick bread with the consistency of scones and they were made with flour from here.

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Under the aqueduct by the mill wheel runs the lovely Boardhouse Burn (small river) which drives it, lined with shining marsh marigolds. I negotiated more of Orkney’s famously person-proof gate locks, crossed over the almost hidden boardwalk (not ‘under the boardwalk’!) and sloshed around in the soggy ground. I was making my way, through another tight kissing gate, back into Birsay village where the only public toilets of the day’s hike are to be found.

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The boardwalk.
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Would you call this a suitable loop with which to secure a gate? More like headgear for ‘sinners’.

As I waded once again through stinging nettles, I recalled the idea of a nettle shirt. It was called a celice (1) back in the days, and is a way to cause oneself suffering as ‘a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh .. often .. worn during Lent.’ Sported by Abbess Teresa of Avila, (‘a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order’ (2)), this is another example of my many Christian references, things which spontaneously come to my mind when I am on pilgrimage. What with the barbed ring above and this notion, it seems that I am again concerned with the idea of choosing hardship as a way of … well, what?

A number of answers come to mind: being good, becoming a better person, proving one’s worth, deserving a prize….

In his book, Metamorphosis (3), David Gallagher discusses the fairy tale in which a sister picks and tramples nettles (thereby stinging her bare hands and feet) to sew shirts for her brothers to change them back from swans to men after they were cursed. In the version I read and reread as a child, the girl cannot speak whilst sewing. The villagers therefore become suspicious and start to burn her as a witch. As a result of being singed to death, she doesn’t completely finish and so the youngest brother retains a swan’s wing instead of his left arm. Gallagher theorises that, “..the partial transformation is a coded religious message that women should continuously courageously strive and be virtuous in society and support their male counterparts.”

So not only does it seem that my early reading habits allowed me to confuse religious advice and folklore, but the Brothers Grimm and the like (who wrote the stories) might have either been purposefully threading morals through their work or doing it unwittingly.

When I was about to leave for the Via Sacra (Austria) I asked the customary question: what is my focus for this Way? What came to mind was the phrase ‘to atone for my sins’ which surprised me because I am not a Christian now (although I was raised in that tradition and went to a Church of England (CoE) primary school), and I reject the idea of Original Sin.

My known reasons for making a pilgrimage are many: spiritual development, yes; time away from my busy life; a place for contemplation and meditation; and more. I can only notice, on account of the topics which arise as I trek, that the concepts and ways of thinking which come from the bible and church teachings are insidious. Instilled at an early age, and reinforced as they are constantly in the world around me, they are still ‘live’, and consequently they need to be reassessed, to be addressed.

Why? (I ask myself again). Because if there are powerful belief structures which underpin my way of thinking then I need to know what they are. If this way of thinking is the cornerstone of my attitude to work, the foundation of my choice-making; if it is this which supports my interaction with others but I am unaware of it, then I will be basing my life on, and sending out powerful messages about, something which I might more mindfully choose not to.

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The very plain St Magnus Kirk, Birsay, Orkney.

Am enormous black cow (which looked like a bull to me) sat in the corner by the kissing gate. S/he took absolutely no notice of me, its belly spreading out comfortably on the grass. Men worked on the right, their overalls at their waists; a little girl was shooting hoops against the house wall; I visited the St Magnus’ Kirk and read The Ballad of St Magnus pinned on its post (which I did not like), and admired the view of sea and sand from whence I had come, as directed by the St Magnus Way website.

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View from the churchyard. There were swans in the bay who looked delightful.

It was a blowy stretch across the dunes, reminiscent of parts of my Normandy grande randonee. Oh dear, I was hungry already and had almost no supplies with me. I hoped Twatt (a ribald name if ever I heard one) had a shop. It wasn’t very easy to find the markers here but I knew the basic direction I was going in and the route description helped.

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The Brough of Birsay that I was leaving behind me, and the edge of Birsay Bay.
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Birsay Bay, Orkney.

Then up a small hill I went and onto the first road of the day, but hey, after yesterday, road was okay for a bit. It was gentle: the cows looked at me and me at them. The views were vast.

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The square forehead of the Brough of Birsay again and the bright sands around Birsay Bay as I looked back. Orkney.

From high up I could see a tractor going backwards. It was surrounded by what looked like midges from a distance,but was in fact a swarm of gulls.

When technology teaches you a lesson

Every time I took a photo with my phone, I saw incoming emails and was fielding them accordingly. I was getting annoyed. Looking back at my notes, I wonder why I just didn’t ignore them until later. Guilt – that’s the answer! Comments from others about the amount of time I am away from home trigger my natural guilty thoughts along the lines of, ‘I ought to be responsive, responsible, working’. I have an open ‘ought’ channel!

Despite becoming aware of this years ago, ‘ought’ still plays a large part in my life – like a leaping, prancing devil, it taunts and prods me. Getting away into these quiet environments with my feet on the ground, allows me to identify the interface between ‘ought’ and ‘want’, to look that fiend in the eye. (A devil is traditionally a ‘bad’ thing, but in this case it is something waking me up and alerting me to a necessary change.)

 

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The Wheebin Stone.

In Shiatsu we believe everything ultimately shares the same source (we call it Ki, a Japanese word for an Eastern concept), and that’s my explanation for being able to hear someone else’s thoughts (you know when you phone and the person on the end says, I was just thinking about you). Yesterday I had fancied I could hear the sheep chatting with each other. Is that even possible? If yes, then perhaps my phone was listening in to me!

Lucien Levy-Bruhl, a French philosopher, calls this ‘participation mystique’ (mystical participation) and it occurs beyond our logical, rational thought processes. It is like a ‘sense’ that we have but seldom use now , but it can be increased by usage, like a muscle, if we choose to exercise it. (4)

Anyway, bit by bit my phone just stopped charging, leaving me without the means to take photographs (having forgotten that on my last walk a similar thing happened for a different reason and I resolved to bring my camera the next time!) Day by day it caused more problems and I spent valuable time trying to right them. It was not until my train journey home when I sat next to a woman who insisted she use her own charger, that I started to identify the root of the problem and by the time I was home the phone was back to full speed! Coincidence?

‘I came greatly to value that solitude and self-reliance and was at peace in a landscape that was neither empty nor quiet. All around me I felt the ghosts of an immense past, I heard their whispers and I smiled when they walked by my side…’ (5)

It was possibly the deadness of the phone which made me let go of that guilt and, instead, focus on the walk. It did warn me. I took no heed. It warned me again. Still I continued to allow myself to be distracted, until it only gave me an hour or so of charge at a time and meant I could not communicate with anyone (see the Orphir to Kirkwall walk) or record my delightful surroundings as much as I wanted to.

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Loch of Hundland, Orkney.

I observed my environs as I tramped on: a random cliff lay beside the road with nesting gulls; here were the first horses, but as yet no donkey except in the book I was still enjoying before falling asleep.

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What a noble beast – straight out of the old Norse tales!

One singularly unimpressive and rather diminutive stone stands in a field on the left at this point – the Strathyre Mans Stone.

‘Jutting skywards from Orkney’s gentle landscape are a number of ancient standing stones, each a stark reminder of our prehistoric heritage. First cut from Orkney flagstone and erected before the Egyptians had begun constructing their pyramids, Orkney’s stone sentinels have withstood rain, wind and sun for thousands of years. ….To our modern minds, the society of Neolithic man is difficult to comprehend – a society where everyday life, religion and ritual were inextricably linked.’ (6)

A bus slowed and the driver gestured, the face communicating, did I want on? Noooo!

I was amused by a flock of black cows with brown and white offspring (well after using swarm for birds, a flock of cows was no surprise!). Two birds I fancied I hadn’t seen before flew by – one tiny with an ill-matching loudness which started with an emphatic tongue-behind-the-teeth sound; the other with wings where the black ends are much wider than the narrower part that is nearer its body – it squeaked and swooped at top speed.

After a while on the tarmac, I had a good idea and made a most successful boot to shoe change. Hiking boots are not made for road walking so my feet appreciated that and it was just about warm enough.

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Thanks Alice for giving me these.
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I passed a sign – manure and Kirk for sale! Who wants to live in this magnificent edifice?

Growth was the set-theme of the day (again from the St Magnus Way website). I wondered, does growing always mean getting older and becoming more adult, or is it spiritual growth which in my case may be to become more childlike?

There were more standing stones on the edge of a loch – they looked as if they were at home in their natural environment, probably a result of longevity; There was inevitably a cold wind down by the water. Yes, they all warned me: everyone I had spoken to had mentioned the wind – everybody!

Snippets of dreams where I was dancing with another younger woman swayed in and out of my mind. We were tied together by a thread – the image intrigued me.

I carried on along an eternal, straight road (this is real life btw, not my dream). It was not quite the Spanish meseta and maybe not even Roman. For perhaps the first time I sang out loud: The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles. I once walked with someone who sang to me – those were happy days.

Thank the Lord for chocolate. And for the people who gave me a flapjack (cake) yesterday. I loved them. Still the king cups shone by the side of me, providing the missing sunshine.

Did you know that the inside of lamb’s ears is pig-pink and that they chop off their lovely wiggly tails? Shame on them. (Oops there I go again. I expect there is a very good reason).

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There is both unexpected and inescapable growth in self-care when taking a pilgrimage – indeed you cannot progress without it. I must look after my feet and fill my belly. When I sit and write, I forget those things – it’s hard to extricate myself from the laptop – but when I walk I have no choice.

Off road again, I wondered whether to go back to boots. I was at the head of the Loch, me and the caterpillars which had possibly followed me from Egilsay.

Growth (see how the theme has lodged and reappears, how I thought, then walked, then thought, then…). Growth: learning to hold the unnecessary or unwanted away without resentment. Which is harking back to the guilt of course.

I took a small break (without lunch, worst luck) and mini-meditated instead. I took lovely deep fragrant breaths, but a Shiatsu School Edinburgh idea interjected. I sat with my knees out to the sides, soles together, to ring the changes with the hip position, to be different from all that forward moving activity.

Oh, I think excitedly, I could write a St Magnus Way book. I could spend the 5 weeks between the French teaching weekends penning it in the Autumn. Another ‘good’ idea! I got very excited.

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Then I was on a typical St M path again. Could I see the way? No. Could I see the bog? Yes! The boots won the day. It was altogether too wet, bumpy, harsh-heathery and possibly sporey-caterpillary to risk sandals.

Cows had obviously been lying in the mud given that their tummies were caked brown. It was really hard going and I recommend you wear long trousers if you want to try it. There was petrolly, peaty water in the channels made by the farm machinery. Birds insistently squeaked and tweeted, and then I heard the one with the wings described above and it woolf-whistled at me!

Who said a pilgrimage should be easy? Surely, I thought, the point is how I cope with adversity. Growth, you see.

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My poor elbow – the result of yesterday’s falling into a hidden hole was sore.

Then there was a thundering and a mooing, and all the adult bovines in the paddock I was walking past closed ranks with the calves in their midst to protect them.

At Hilldyke the farmer had the WD40 out and the cattle were still lowing in my wake. A group of calves were up close by the fence of the field as I made my way downhill with a misty view. I was being bombarded by small, black insects on account of the lack of wind, but somehow the turbines were happily spinning away anyway. It was sort of too dark with sunglasses but too squinty without.

On the whole The St Magnus Way is well signposted with its very small black and white logos. They are not Spanish-Camino-yellow but pretty efficient, so that with your eyes peeled you can find them, although the Route Description (pdf download) is needed to supplement.

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Blue, white and pink bells.

Away from the, it must be said, unusually pretty corner, I decided to walk on and the setting was once again utilitarian: barns and houses – more low-lying grey abodes presumably built like that to avoid the worst of the gales. 

breezes loosely captured can connect us with the very edge of the infinite

Charles Moore in his foreward to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows

Later: trees (there aren’t normally so many here due to the wind), and flowers, and a VW in a field.

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Did someone run out of petrol? Or have a few too many drinks and need to leave it and walk home?!

There’s a sense I often have that nature has its own colour scheme. Here the floral show is immaculate: the juxtaposition of colours, the relative heights, and the arrangement rival any church display

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I liked that sign!

I was getting a little weary, maybe because of being hungry, and I found myself wondering why my pal Magnus went all round the houses. After all, there’s no hill and it doesn’t look like a bog. Surely he would have gone as the crow flies. Ah well. More road walking.

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The sheep are all different colours according to the farm. The cerise-rinse sheep reminds me of that book….

My hands were a tad sore from holding and prodding the baton yesterday. Ditto my shoulders, but luckily not the right hip which had been a problem from my old dancing days. I could feel it first thing this morning, but not now thank goodness.

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This is more like it: it was very pretty with a grassy track and gorse sunshining up the hill behind.

I walked through Beaquoy, a collection of houses, pronounced, so Kiersty kindly told me, beck-woy.

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In the distance the hills were still topped by mist. Yep I reckon that must be Dounby over there, I thought, and these are definitely midges (yuk), although I have found a new use for the scarf with the annoying tassles that get caught in the rucksack when I try to do it up: I can use it like a horse tail!

Not long after this I arrived at my destination and the first building I noticed was somewhere to eat. Twatt hadn’t yielded any shops or cafes, just dwellings, and I was famished. I had heard the sound of kids playing before I got there – a nice welcome.

According to the conversations I had had with locals, Dounby seemed to be best known for its co-op. I spotted home-grown potatoes showing their heads under the string in a garden, the memory-laden smell of cut grass an actual pavement under my feet  Hooray! I had got here without serious injury before the tea shop shut… oh no, no, the tea shop was closed. Never let it be said that a closed sign stopped me when I was starving after a long day’s hike!

Dounby – host of the annual West Mainland Agricultural Show and home of the Church of Scotland minister whose idea it was to start this pilgrimage in the first place:

I had that same sense of embarrassment coming into a civilised area with unshaven legs, and into the cafe with my massive pack and muddy boots that I had had before, but the staff were kind and helpful. They let me in and fed me but I think it was because they heard my tummy rumble.

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Here’s where I had my tea, at the Smithfield Hotel cafe – it’s not very attractive from the back but there is a sort of conservatory under glass at the front which was very warm.

I had a nice plate of fresh crab sandwiches with crisps and grapes whilst listening to ‘I tell you what you want, what you really, really want’ on the radio. (There were plenty of gluten free options).

I took the chance to have a look through local leaflets and found info on some of the places I will be going to. It was a pity I missed the Kirbuster Museum – it has a putting green; I liked the creative combination of Judy’s Fabric and Jokeshop; the Hill of Heddle is home to the motor cycle scrambling on Sundays – I hoped I wouldn’t have to walk there then; and there is an Orkney Men’s Shed which I am sorry not to be the right sex for as it sounds fun. I could not find a St Magnus Way leaflet at the campsite in Stromness, nor here. I did, however, spy a recipe for Rhubarb and Lentil Curry in The Orkney Advertiser which I might well try when I am back home.

At the first sight of the Milestone Church the sun came out.

I had popped into the pharmacy to find out about tetanus. Having had no recent jab, I wanted to know the symptoms, just in case my elbow (see above) was infected. Of course they wanted me to go to the medical centre, but I had been bathing it in tea tree oil from the very start and keeping it clean. There was no sign of anything being wrong and I had no internal fever or heat.

I wanted to meet the man who had started all this and the girl in the shop told me where the manse was, so before pitching camp, I set off on what turned out to be the next day’s walk: back to Quilco, then right to North Bigging (needing to ask for directions along the way).

This little critter came running and snarling at me and I am sorry but I laughed at him.
A man came into the garden rounding up his hound but there was no friendliness, nothing even approaching a friendly buen camino.

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This wee guy was quite a good guard dogThe mist was starting to descend as I climbed, as you can see by the whitish patina of this photo.

There was an option to go up a hill, but I am afraid I didn’t do that. Afraid of what? Growth? I said hi to a Shetland pony, happy with my tummy full. I realised that what I feared was another long stretch of the long and winding road before I could knock on the Curate’s door. I must have been tireder than I thought. It was sunny and a bit of a climb.

When I walk and start to feel my back straining, I remember to hold those there pelvic floor muscles up and pull my naval to my spine, focusing on the core, especially when I am pooped and I can feel my innards heavy inside me (given that I am at the age when these things start to happen).

It was a bit of a disaster: I found the house – grand it was – but it was deserted. I left a phone message and waited in the garden, had a little sleep in fact and it was hot. Then I walked back a bit until I found yet another person to ask and it turned out I had been at the wrong place, probably Hollardyke House. On I went until I found a house with a sign saying ‘Manse’ with kids playing in the garden. How silly of me! So, I did meet David McNeish and he was most welcoming and picked me up at the main road 10 minutes later and dropped me at the church, given I had done that part of the walk for tomorrow already. He said it was no problem to sleep beside the church.

The public toilets were next door to the hotel (above) and because the church was closed I had to use them for my ablutions – except in the middle of the night. The next day I realised that there might have been security cameras spotting me while I dropped my drawers – Oh dear, I really hope not!

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The view across to the Harray Loch.

The St Magnus Way website has excellent resources although one needs time and forethought as well as a working phone to download and listen. I expect some folk would be better organised than me and love to do this as they walked.

1 https://vocationnetwork.org/en/blog/questions_catholics_ask/2015/03/whats_an_abbess_and_what_power_does_she_wield

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cilice

3 David Gallagher, ‘Metamorphosis, Transformations of the Body and the Influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Germanic Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries’ p 238.

4 https://tadhgtalks.me/2018/06/19/an-encounter-with-vulpes-vulpes-in-london-nature-in-an-urban-environment/

5 The Hidden Ways, Scotland’s Forgotten Roads by Alistair Moffat p. 17

6 http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/standingstones/index.html

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The Boardhouse Burn just outside Birsay, Orkney.

Links:

Introduction

Transport – how I got there

Accommodation – where I stayed

Day 2 – Evie to Birsay

Day 3 – Birsay to Dounby

Day 4 – Dounby to Finstown

Day 5 – Finstown to Orphir

Day 6 – Orphir to Kirkwall

Resources – what I took with me

The Last Day

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way

Reflection