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 on this trip, but I did when I went back in 2021 (see bottom of post for a photgraph).
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.
I would have liked to take a look at the Yellow Bird Gallery Chocolate Cottage, Birsay, Orkney KW17 2LT
3 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc
Finding your way