St Magnus Way – Finstown to Orphir

Walking Finstown to Orphir

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 27th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.

 – on timelessness, forgiveness, and dialect

  • Criss-crossing the west mainland of Orkney: Having started in Evie in the north east; curved around the cliffs to Birsay in the north west; walked coast-to-coast eastwards to Finstown; today I would drop directly south to Orphir. I didn’t know what I would find
  • Why to Orphir if Magnus’ bones weren’t taken there? The organisers of this route write that today’s trajectory ‘shifts attention to Haakon, Magnus’s cousin who ordered his death and ruled the united Earlship afterwards.’
  • Highlights: A traditional Scottish moorland, some slopes, and the wonderful shoreline between The Breck and the Bu
  • People met : a record 3 (between Finstown and Orphir), then loads after that
  • Theme: forgiveness
  • Favourite and unusual animals encountered: 1 donkey, Shetland ponies, llamas
  • 17.1 kms / 10.65 miles
  • Time: 6.5 hours  Finstown to Orphir village; another 2 minimum to St Nicholas church and back, but I did have a sleep
IMG_20180526_225851 (640x359)
Last night, on the way ‘home’ from the concert, the haar had cleared and there was a beautiful sunset which this photo doesn’t really capture.

A screech of tyres heralded two carloads of revellers needing the toilet at 2am (I was camped beside the public conveniences in Finstown). I got up to retrieve my walking top which I had unwisely washed the evening before (unwise because it was too cold to dry properly), and it was cold on my return so that I stuffed my coccoon with newspaper. As I was awake I texted Heather, my lodger about cat litter, and finally dropped off.

When I woke again the sun was shining on me through the tent and it was warm. I think there may have been dew on the outside of my sleeping bag, but thankfully not on the inside!

I had dreamt my recurring dream of being lost in a big house full of rooms. I am convinced they began when I moved from my small town primary school in Sevenoaks to the much bigger secondary in Tonbridge and could not find the right classrooms. Ah, but this time it was my own house. Now, that’s change for you!

I crawled out and found the calm waters ahead, guarded by the pier on my right with the already warm sun rising behind it, and Snaba or Cuffie Hill to my left. Ahead, I guessed from my map, were the Holm of Grimbister, Scarva Taing, the Skerries of Coubister with perhaps Chapel Knowe broch in the far distance. (A holm is an islet, a skerry is a rocky island, and a broch is a stone tower dating from prehistoric times.)

7am was so quiet. I was delighted to see a sleek headed seal swimming in the bay, watching as it made its way across to the other side and then back again and then climb out onto the jetty. Oh, not a seal, a mermaid, I mean, a woman taking her Sunday morning exercise! She changed in my / the toilets and I couldn’t stop myself going to say ‘hi’. She was as surprised as I was to see someone up at this time, not having noticed my tent.

None of the remaining matches would light my stove, so there was no tea for me, worst luck. (How come I didn’t bring a lighter? It’s not as if I haven’t been camping many times in my life before). Instead I had the Rhubarb Soda I had bought at the post office (made by Bon Accord in Edinburgh £1.50 – delicious).

I was on permanent battery saver now which, because there was no signal anyway, meant I could not book the homewards ferry.

A million drops sat on the blades of grass, shining in the sun, gleaming, a simple collection of diamonds, of miniscule, suspended orbs.

IMG_20180527_070211 (640x359)
The jetty where I saw my mermaid! Bay of Firth, Orkney.

Having charged my phone at the Community Hall the previous evening, I received two air bnb booking texts, making that five in five days – lucky for me August is busy in Edinburgh with the festivals.

IMG_20180527_092755 (640x359)
Half way up the hill I was looking the first St Magnus Way marker of the day and, turning, I saw back towards The Bay of Firth where I had spent the night.

I climbed up and onto the moors, first on a path and then into the wilderness. I met a lovely jolly South African lady with a white bun and skyblue clothes. She didn’t have a rucksack or a dog. Once again a woman had appeared, as if from nowhere, to advise me. She said she had searched and searched and there were no St M Way signs, and predicted that the haar would come in again from the east. ‘I’ve walked all these hills but they don’t cater for walkers here on Orkney’, she said.

IMG_20180527_093248 (640x359)
Getting higher – Finstown in the distance. Orkney.
IMG_20180527_093254 (640x359)
Along the warm grassy track, Cuween area, Orkney.

Of course the higher I got, the more I could see behind me when I stopped to catch my breath: the green lilypad islands in the blue ocean; flashes of silver indicating the main road. It was hard going with the backpack on the uneven ground, though I was glad that I did find the markers when I cast around for them – perhaps I had my eye in after three days.

IMG_20180527_094259 (359x640)
A frog could very easily sit on these islands (see Beatrix Potter)! Seen from Cuween Hill, Orkney.

I was already hungry, but it was OK because I had a whole lettuce in my John Lewis bag (my children would be able to explain, it’s because I believe I need my greens every day!) And talking of rabbits, they were bounding around, keeping me company as I stumbled.

It is simply not done in hiking circles, to have a carrier bag but there was no room in my rucksack for food. I hung it from my straps where it swung annoyingly when I got into my stride and had to be restrained when clambering over stiles. It lasted the whole 10 days! Maybe I should have got people to take photos of me and tried for sponsorship – missed a trick there.

IMG_20180527_093538 (640x359)
Beautiful view, Finstown, Orkney.

There are clumps of Lady’s Mantle down in the ditches, out of the wind and by the side of the stony track.

IMG_20180527_094201 (640x359)
Man-made stacks in a stunning setting, Cuween, Orkney.

Forgiveness is an end-point: only after a proper process of understanding both points of view, acknowledging the hurt or the sadness, and coming-to-terms with all of that can we forgive and then act on it. I shed terrible tears on watching the part of the film ‘Calvary’ where the main character (played by Brendan Gleeson) goes into prison to see his son and you know he has been forgiven. My reaction was testimony to the power of this in my life. ‘I think forgiveness has been highly underrated’, says Gleeson’s priest.

IMG_20180527_094207 (640x359)
There is a tomb you can visit, but I only read about it afterwards.
IMG_20180527_094212 (640x359)
You can see the clear division between farm fields and wilder moorland.

After a while the track peters out and it was just me surrounded by hillocks of heather and bog cotton – rabbit tails on spindly stalks. Mossy mounds had green spears poking out of them, and there were the sort of birds which hover and flutter just above the ground in constant conversation. In places there were canine and then human footprints.

IMG_20180527_102823 (640x359)
Bog cotton (the white dots) and heather on the moors, Orkney.

Gradually the landscape started to remind me of Highland walks with its peat banks, bogs and pools. Scrambling through the scratchy shrubs was painful on my knees but I avoided squelching underfoot. It had become very, very quiet. There was no bird song.

IMG_20180527_104426 (359x640)
Shelves of peat and a St M sign in the middle of  nowhere.

Forgiveness is offered to those who ‘follow the faith’, on earth by priests, and elsewhere by God, so it is said. To promise it to a child, who early on has no understanding of sin – not of others’ or their own – is to immediately puzzle her. It is a suggestion that there is already something wrong with that child, that she has already transgressed, and if there is no internal cognition of this, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. What else, but that child grows up with an aura of mistake, not able to make an actual connection between the forgiveness and an awareness that forgiveness is necessary.

IMG_20180527_095755 (640x359)
A typical peaty pool on the moors, Orkney.

Yes, in fact there were odd snatches of various sounds – the distant thrum of an engine, for example. And I could see oil tankers far away on my left. Amethyst violets and rose quartz orchids were glinting at my feet, and then I was on a soft downhill track again.

I came across a pregnant donkey and two brown-and-white Shetlands. She came up close, sort of in-breathed at me and flicked her left ear. It was the ponies who got the carrot which was intended for the donk.

IMG_20180527_112246 (640x359)
The namesake of my blog!

And … what’s more, to be an adult who can offer a child forgiveness sets the offerer apart, as is often the aim. Again, the child is reduced to a transgressor, and what’s more, encouraged to understand that the adult is even more powerful than adults already are compared to children, and yet it is most painfully obvious to them that adults are not always good. How to make sense of that? These things I was with as I walked.

A bird mewed, a flap-fast one, its wings tipped with white. There was rather scaredy herd (or flock) of llamas (with crias which is what the young ones are called), and the ubiquitous wind turbine at Kebro Farm, where like all the places I passed farmers were working even though it was a Sunday. In this area there are many incredibly confusing signs saying to go back up (arrows and ‘To Oback Cottage’ etc). Note: Ignore them and keep on going down. There is eventually a St M Way sign at the junction when you get there!

IMG_20180527_114118 (640x359)
A flock of llamas. At the bottom of this road there is a St Magnus Way sign, Kebro, Orkney.

In the same way as Reading is a town of roundabouts, and Glasgow’s all traffic lights, so Orkney’s made up of a complex network of fences, poles upstanding and barbed wire, deadly taut and ready to snatch enough wool to knit a sheep or catch an unsuspecting elbow in passing.

IMG_20180527_121021 (640x359)
It was lambing time on Orkney in late May. Just look at their little faces!

With four per cent of battery left on my phone I could check the time, but why bother? Instead I watched a butterfly doing what butterflies do, and let a chunk of Orkney fudge melt in my mouth leaving a too sugary, but addictive residue.

There was no need for me to be anywhere by any given time – being close to midsummer and because I was so far north, there was endless daylight. In fact there was almost no night. It has been said that stress levels are particularly high when deadlines of time and distance are combined (ie I have to get across town by 8am), so it is a good sign that I can let that go and relax into the walking. I will get there when I get there, that’s my motto.

IMG_20180527_104924_BURST001_COVER (640x359)
Baked earth – not something you expect to see in Scotland.

I noticed, that like the three guys last night who accompanied the lead singer of ‘The Once‘, the sheep looked identical but had different voices – some bass, some treble and some soprano, or is it counter tenor?

I liked the grey cows – I was not sure I had ever seen grey ones before. (No photos, for the above reasons). I went past birds doing that spectacular balancing thing where they sway on top of stalks so thin that the human eye cannot see them, thinner than one of their own legs. How do they do that!

The farmers forked the deep brown, well-rotted manure onto a trailer; an ideal lane between fields offered springy soil that actually massaged my feet from the underneath; there was only one place where I had to step into an empty blue trough and cling onto the, yes you guessed it, the barbed wire, to avoid the too-marshy path. There were bog grasses there, honed to a calf-tickling tip, but space enough to walk inbetween.

IMG_20180527_114310 (359x640)

I was heading for the nearly-full moon. Every time I needed a pee I had to take the rucksack off and it required a sort of humpfy-jump to get it back on and arrange all my layers – the tucking in was the worst. I cracked my knee which certainly got the blood flowing again. ‘It’ll pass’, I reminded myself.

I was just as I was about to head off up the hill to the right across the moors towards Orphir after the last sign, when I most unexpectedly spotted a couple coming up. She was pregnant and telling amusing stories to the man with her – great to hear them laugh! My phone was dead by then so how lucky it was that I saw them, because Orphir wasn’t on the right in that direction at all!

Down I went, taking the correct course. There was a bed of irises, a red bridge and the delightful sound of trickling, peaty, crystal-clear Scottish water. I found another bird’s wing, pure snow-coloured with bones attached, and a patch of curly white feathers to mark the spot. Butterflies played above like the very spirit of the bird which had died, like the petals of today’s flowers come to life.

Barnacle is a beautiful poem by Roseanne Watt about finding a goose wing on the salt marshes of Shetland.

It was hot by this time with a welcome breeze by the burn. There were no signs (although the notes I had made from the route description last night were pretty good from here on), so I trusted my instinct, tripping on downhill now.

For some reason I had put my single double-layered sock into the rucksack before leaving home, and now it had come in useful because I dropped one of yesterday’s pair down the loo when changing in a tight space with an armful of clothes, and after washing it hadn’t dried in time. (I had no idea what happened to the pair. I left them both to dry on a rack in Salamanca and one wasn’t there on my return).

IMG_20180527_122903 (640x359)

I guessed the repeated but uneven banging up on my right must be people hunting. On the far left I could see a gorgeous beach – Waulkmill Bay I identified from the map – and I would have enjoyed a paddle there and then. Despite another internal debate about the way I decided to keep going on straight. The cuckoo called and I had a sudden memory – did my dad collect butterflies? I must have been very, very young.

Much as I deplore the waste and emissions of plastics, and of course a wooden staff is more traditional for the pilgrim, this baton is better: wood ones chafe the palms after several hours. What a marvellous view I had from up there! It was still a bit misty to be sure, but I could see all the islands, tankers and trawlers, big ships and little boats, as well as what looked like a submarine.

I always talk to the animals I meet, especially the farm ones. I expect they have a relationship with humans already, and probably my mum used to do that and I learned it from her. Perhaps she still does!  I was so glad to have my map because I couldn’t connect the Route Direction info with the reality on the ground and got confused.

The two wooden men either end of a bench wi flooer pots atap thar heids cheered me up. In the same way I think in French or Spanish when walking in those countries, I seemed to be rocking some variation of the Orkney tongue in my head.

Then I came across a field of delightful weeny Shetland ponies, foals and their families – somehow I felt a bond! I was gutted that I couldn’t take any photos.

‘Bin fer a dander?’ (Have you been for a walk?), a gentleman asked me as I turned onto the road. There was a further man hanging out washing in his boxers at the next house – he scuttled inside sharpish when he saw me! At the brow of the hill, the wooden fella was half way up a ladder. And as I walked into Orphir there were full-sized horses who looked gigantic in relationship to the mini ones from 15 minutes back.

Then I was in civilisation: coachloads, a duet on a tandem, ‘sites available for eco-new builds’ the sign said, and another wooden bench – this time there was a bear at one end and a fish at the other and the top of the back of it was the fishing line connecting them both. Whoever makes these garden ornaments is very inventive.

Orphir (say ‘offer’ like the Queen does, or ‘Or’ followed by the ‘fa’ from ‘titfer’)

I went straight on through the village initially, towards the round tower of Earl’s Bu in the hot sun. But then I changed my mind and went back to set up camp first. Thank goodness I did – it was miles more by road and path so I was glad not to have the pack on my back.

Note: Allow at least two hours to go to The Breck, St Nicholas Church, Earls Bu, the Bu of Orphir and back, and take a picnic with you!

Orphir is a collection of grey houses with wooden garden sculptures and people mowing their lawns. At its centre is a church with a milennium garden where I pitched my tent, hidden from view by the shrubs which dripped dew the next morning. There are no shops and one hotel with a bar/restaurant – in other words there was nowhere to charge my phone until the place opened later. A woman on foot passed the time of day with me, a cyclist did too.

I enquired about food and asked what the time was – 3.30pm – gutted – it was two hours before I could eat, and not one cup of tea had I drunk all day. I had my shorts on and there was a slight wind. Oh, but what absolutely idyllic countryside and what a gentle perambulation it was!

I took the sign to Gyre from the Orphir A964 road, and then a left which was signed to Breck. I was confused again just before the sea, but now I know the correct way I would  recommend you keep to the right. The soft, flat turf of the coastal path around Scapa is even more beautiful on the cliffs above the rocks and the sea was there too and the birds were wheeching. Wonderful.

I slept a while, perched on the edge between the track and a small fall to the dark stoned beach, prickly with heather underneath but therefore cushioned. Further along is the broken-down bridge (which I crossed anyway) and the churchyard of St Nicholas. The ruin made a big impression on me, and I tried to record it in a sketch.

IMG_20180704_103453 (359x640)
Only half of the tower remains, facing you as you arrive through the gap in the wall with its grassy hair and rugged exterior.

As you come around, the inside is exquisite – pale, smooth stone with a single arched window. Plain and undecorated, it seemed to encapsulate a holiness I rarely felt in the gold and silver interiors of the many cathedrals I have visited.

Nearby is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which tells the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. It closes at 6pm and I didn’t get that far. When I went on the Viking Hiking tour a couple of days later and the lovely Ragnhild ‘quoted oft’ from this famous text, I wished I had, and when I got home I thought with hindsight that I could have carried the tent and spent the night there, but I didn’t quite understand what I would find at the time. Even the bit I did see was one of the highlights of this trip.

There were 10 times as many walkers on this little stretch then ever I saw during the entirety of the past days. Probably because it was an unusually sunny, Sunday afternoon. The scenic loveliness probably also had something to do with it.

The long, winding return walk was equally enjoyable under trees which met above my head, a flood of bluebells beneath. Hoardes of almost-golden gorse branchlets reached out, so crowded with mouths bursting open I could almost hear them, ‘me first, me first’; while the individual kingcups presented their simple faces imploringly sunwards. The feathered petals of the only-slightly-paler dandelions on their juicy stalks were any moment ready to transform into translucent orbs of parachutes. I didn’t need to look where I was treading, so birdwatching was easy: jet black crows picking in fields of alabaster daisies; the now-familiar voices of mew and maow and peep (birds); and the gull-gliding, goose-flapping and sparrow-fluttering were all present and accounted for.

Walking when hungry at the end of the day can lead to morosity, but after a while it’s only walking – finding ways to release hip pains, just one foot in front of another.

And then I got to order my food at The Noust Bar and Restaurant – what a shame British restaurants don’t bring bread while you wait these days! – but I did enjoy the beer (the second from the Orkney brewery) which unsurprisingly went straight to my head.  The service was good. The food would have been delicious whether or not it was, if you see what I mean. The monster, beer-battered fish, well-cooked chips and frozen peas hit the spot, as did the blackcurrant crumble and ice cream (£20 with a cup of tea to round it all off). At last I could charge my phone somewhat and as I had wifi access I took care to write notes ahead of the next day’s hike.

IMG_20180527_212013 (640x359)
Finally I went off to my sleeping bag between the leaves of the garden, and halleluja! I was hot. I got up once in the night, and it was all mist and ghostliness. I even had some battery power to take this photo.

St Magnus Way official website.

Undiscovered Scotland on the Earls Bu with photos

Viking Hiking on the Visit Orkney tourist site

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 Two Days

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way

Reflection

St Magnus Way – Dounby to Finstown

Walking Dounby to Finstown

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 26th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.

 Day 4 – on a faulty phone charger, change, and curious cows

  • Scenery: roads and fields – a ‘pasteurised’ day
  • Barbed wire fences negotiated: on-going
  • Animals/birds met along the way: 1 dead, 1 empty shell, 1 left wing; and 100s well and truly alive
  • People encountered between start and finish: one
  • Theme: Change
  • 16.6 kms / 10.3 miles
  • Time: 5 hours
IMG_20180524_132809 (640x359)
A photo between Birsay and Dounby when the sun shone.

It was a dull and chilly start to the day and I left Dounby along the main road as directed. It felt really nice to have my feet on the ground. I passed signs to B&Bs and a hotel, and  took note of this information for any readers who might want to visit Orkney but not camp (see accommodation – where I stayed).

IMG_20180526_105144 (640x359)
This beautiful creature was dead by the roadside.

I was fielding texts when my attention was drawn by a cock’s wakening call. There was also the enthusiastic tweeting you get at this time of the day – far better than the mobile phone kind. So, I focused my mind on the path ahead, and walked on beside dry stone walls, a big grey house, farms and, looking up, spotted a lone horse.

IMG_20180526_110247 (640x359)
Silhoutted on the horizon.

There was a  beautiful loch view as I made my way off the highway in the direction of Howaback.

IMG_20180526_111418 (640x359)
It is often hard to get photos without barbed wire fences. See the water in the distance on this cloudy day.

A westerly wind blew, with the occassional breakthrough of sun. My phone was playing up even more and I knew I must limit my photo taking because of the lack of battery. I was now very disappointed that I had chosen to take my camera out of the pack at the last minute, to lighten it. What’s more I had looked at mobile chargers in the outdoor shop before I left – you know, ones that don’t need an electric wire – and how I wished I had heeded my intuition instead of my purse strings.

The cows had cheery hairstyles, matching quiffs. There was no pavement and most cars which sped by were respectful and pulled out into the middle of the road to give me room when they could. I thanked them all with my Royal Wave.

IMG_20180526_112456 (640x359)
Fetching fringes and hard stares! I startled them initially, but when I initiated a conversation they came up, curious. Huffing hot air, they produced copious yellow pee and sported impressively dangly earrings.
IMG_20180526_112803 (640x359)
The Loch of Harray was getting closer.

I turned along the Old Drover’s Track and past the Merkister Hotel.

A black-headed gull startled the ducks and there was a wader which was, well, wading. He had an elongated beak, upturned at the end, and spindly legs to enable him to negotiate the puddly part at the edge of the water. Then in a flash of black and white, he took off. Looking on the internet when I got home it looks like I saw an avocet.

IMG_20180625_134720 (640x359)
Sketches of the avocets from my notebook.

If I had only bought binoculars… Well, it was hard to make choices of what to carry when most of the knapsack was full of tent, ground sheet and sleeping bag. I was carrying it all  for the first time to see if I could manage the weight. (see Resources – what I took with me).

IMG_20180526_112952 (640x359)
The road goes hard by the Loch of Harray on the St Magnus Way, Orkney. A breeze just rippled the water.

Three men were a boat, pootling, when I got nearer the shoreline. I was starting to see more camper vans as well – the tourists were coming. Here was the old mill mentioned in the Route Description of the St Magnus Way website.

IMG_20180526_113656 (640x359)
Now it is a private residence.
IMG_20180530_065515 (640x520)
I noticed the red poppies in this garden, and what I hoped weren’t gallows. There was a haunting ‘hoar-wiii’ birdsound which added an eerie tone to the scene.

I saw sea swans (can you say that quickly?) at Birsay and here there were more, their impressive, extra-long necks and massive, slowly-flapping wings reminded me of those early films of men trying to fly. The grass curved round where it met the gentle waves.

IMG_20180526_113541 (640x359)
Perfect for migrating birds who need to stop over on their way to and from warmer climes.

Inland, I headed towards Quean (such great place names aren’t they?). On the way I was struck by the delapidated buildings with missing or staved-in rooves, and a triangular field with only a few random crops all of which had been allowed to go to the white and yellow flower stage, betraying the fact that the land used to be farmed. I spotted old, irregularly shaped stones, but they had no wire attached so perhaps they were standing ones rather than practical supports.

The cloud was hanging wispily over the hills, the sun illuminating small settlements far away.

I had been basking in the landscape around me, the glorious flowers in ditches by the road, but now my right hip (from poor ballet training as a child), and the left sciatic nerve (from a strain during my first pregnancy) started to attract my attention instead. They were probably triggered by walking on the hard surfaces.

Nevertheless I walked on. That house, I muse, must be inhabited because there’s a jaunty wee wooden fellow pushing a barrow with his flower-pot hat on in the front garden.

I admired the pink and white cuckooflowers and felt as if I had all the time in the world  – something I never catch myself thinking at home. I watched a cat, on the other hand, racing to avoid the wheels of a fast advancing vehicle. Hmm, that’s an apt metaphor!

IMG_20180525_103839 (640x359)

I spent some time trying to work out the ‘wheeeeen’ sound. Perhaps it was the wind in the electric overhead wires? It was like a one-stringed cello being played by the elements.

I passed a pond with six black and white duck-type swimming birds in it. They had turquoise beaks – Orkney is a bird watcher’s paradise!

Crouching down to eat my yogurt I thought, now they’ve raised the bottom of the cartons, doesn’t the end always come sooner than expected?

A silent cyclist passes. Mrs Armitage on Wheels comes to mind, a charming book I read and reread to my children when they were young. With illustrations by Quentin Blake, it is about a determined woman whose nose pointed her where she wanted to go. Later she came past in the other direction. I saw no-one else for a long time after that.

I was carrying an extra load of food because I stocked up at the store the night before, just in case I didn’t find anywhere to sup that evening. It was heavier, but oh so much yummier than usual. Being out in the open air all day every day, I was far hungrier than usual. After eating I noticed that my mind was lively and my body sluggish – busy digesting probably.

IMG_20180526_122248 (640x359)

At one and the same time the sun was warming my left shoulder and the wind was finding the wee crevices between my hat and hoodie. Which was best, midges or wind? It was a bit of a toss up between them, the latter keeping the former at bay.

I tried to put my rubbish in someone’s wheelie bin but it was full to the brim with bottles – you know what they say about Scottish drinking habits.

An empty bird’s eggshell sat at a tilt on the path – a delicate sage green. More poppies drooped their teenage, soft-whiskered heads in mock prayer, scarlet petticoats irreligiously showing under green skirts. Leaves stabbed the sky beside ferns yet to unfurl. Dock and bell, lion and clocks. I’m having more of a wander than a walk, half the time – no wonder it takes me so long to get anywhere! It is more a series of unhurried hiaituses than a hike!

There was a church on the hilltop to my right. ‘School on the hilltop’ was our school song, and as I walked upwards, I not only remembered the tune but also every word. This of course meant that it was then going round and round in my head for a good while afterwards.

IMG_20180526_123219 (359x640)
St Michael’s Church (1836), Orkney, has sobering Commonwealth War graves. Beyond was the Loch of Harray, still dominating the landscape.
IMG_20180530_065304 (640x201)
St Michael’s churchyard (and a little of the church on the right), Orkney. There were urns on tombs and pointed memorials, with stone drapes and unnaturally crimson carnations at their feet.

A roll-call of local families: Flett from the 1890s; Hourston; Harvey; Merriman; Jonston; Kirkness, and Baikie about whom my friend Elaine messaged me when she heard I was coming. (Her ancestors bore this name.) WG 201964 Private Dudgeon who died on the Seaforth Highlander in 1919 aged 36 years; Betsy Walls and her son, both aged 70 were laid to rest in the same patch of consecrated ground; John Anderson from Applehouse, Harray; A Clouston who became a Flett through marriage; and the sad reminder of Emily Mary aged 3 years and 5 months, eldest daughter of the Reverend Masson, ‘Drawn in tears’ in 1834. So very sad.

IMG_20180526_121335 (640x359)
A supporter of Scottish Independence must own this house!

I heard a number of Orcadians refer to the part of Scotland where I live, not as ‘the mainland’, as I think of it, but as ‘Scotland’. These islanders have a history of being independent.

‘More than half of Orkney’s councillors have forced through a motion demanding an investigation into “greater autonomy or self-determination” amid the vote to leave the European Union and a possible second independence referendum.

Many residents have hoped for greater autonomy from the Scottish Government in the past, and were promised more powers in the event of Scottish independence.’ Taken from the telegraph newspaper.

I was born in England and have English parents. Although I have lived in Scotland for more than 30 years, no Scot would describe me as Scottish. When I lived in the Forest of Dean years ago (on the border between Wales and England), I learned that you had to be born in the Forest of Dean hospital to be called a Forester, and therefore the threat of closing it was very serious. I wasn’t one of them either.

Issues of identity are at the forefront of many Scottish people’s consciousness just now as the majority of people who are eligible to vote (which includes me) did not elect to leave the EU. Our society is rich with the variety of cultures represented within it, and I am lucky to be able to move around Europe without difficulty.

I cannot identify as either English or Scottish, and perhaps that partly explains my choice of vote, being European IS something I am (but only until March 2019?). My joy of travel is related to many things, but it must be in part to do with this complex sense of identity.

Scots believe birthplace and parentage count most – living in Scotland for ten years doesn’t make you Scottish

What makes a person Scottish?

IMG_20180526_112855 (640x359)
Ideal for birds and wild flowers, it was very peaceful with only a few parked cars in the distance.

I took my attention back to the ground and carried on walking. I spotted an electric blue acoustic guitar through the window – it had a red rim. It was uphill a bit and there were starlings (electric blue they were!), and free range hens. The farm chemicals assaulted my nose buds. Teasal and horsetail grew where I planted my feet. Tyres were piled on top of haystacks. The sun came out for a moment over the green pastures. Four-legged beasts were grazing and a yellow digger was upended, offering them shade.

I was snapping blind by then because with my phone on energy saving mode I couldn’t see the screen properly. It was a noisy stretch: to my right, racing car noises; to the left the bellowing of calving beasts. I was surprised how my feathered friends had barks bigger than their scrawny black bodies. Perhaps they were trying to make themselves heard!

The theme of the day was ‘change’: the constantly changing landscape; the fact that we are born, we live, we die; the weather which changes the sky from grey to blue; war coming and going, and then coming again – every step I took brought about change in me. If I was mindful I noticed those alterations by the minute, the very second even, a sense of some of my cells regenerating and some dying for the last time.

IMG_20180526_123930 (640x359)
See how the green expanse offsets the shared blue of the sky and sea in the background.

Hub-caps littered the sides of the roads (why don’t manufacturers attach them better?) A line of whites – pants and vests – were neatly arranged for blowing dry. Waterfalls of clematis gushed over the wall. Buds were blushing, ready to open at the first sign of their sun suitor’s touch.  Black crows waddled in daisy fields. Is that rain ahead, I asked myself, there being no-one else to ask, not for miles around. Although the clouds were hiding the summits, I knew they were there, clad in pink heather.

Ooh, for a yellow dauber! There were so many places I would have added an arrow if I had a pot of paint with me. Yellow arrows are the signs which hikers look out for when following the Spanish Caminos. Here, on Orkney, the spaces between sign posts were much greater and I was often moving forward on spec, past side options and through open land, just hoping that I was taking the right route. If I found myself going too far without seeing one then I had to simply double back and try another way.

I had developed ‘tarmac foot ‘, as I called it – plantar fasciitis is the official term. It causes a tenderness of the bottoms and a painful tearing at the heels. One thing I did buy before I left was new in-soles and they did seem to be helping.

There were small piles of oats at regular intervals along the road at this stage, a contrast to the Spanish anthills to be found on tracks between Seville and Salamanca for example. Were they to lure the flock?

I traipsed across a pretty stone bridge and admired the gardens, spotting more of the wooden fellows with their flower pot titfers: one fishing, one climbing a ladder. Someone on the island is obviously doing good business making and selling them.

IMG_20180530_070103 (594x640)

Without my camera I was reduced to sketching. Sweat trickled as I drew. Of course I also had no idea of the time (my phone had died and my watch was left on Egilsay). It didn’t matter. Woolly detritus was strewn all over the grass from the mama sheep – does the hair of all mammals fall out during pregnancy? Once more I hunkered down out of the wind. In the lee of the wall the grass was damp under me and I snacked on a Scottish-sounding apple – a braeburn – probably grown in New Zealand or South Africa.

I had finished my book yesterday and bought a newspaper, tearing out the sports pages to keep my load as light as possible. I admit that I did already feel rather concertinaed, sort of compressed vertically, by my backpack. This is a bit of a problem as I am already diminutive (4 foot 11 and three quarters which is 1.5m) and so can’t afford to lose a single inch.

Wisps of sheep snagged on their barbed boundaries like the white washing I had seen earlier – discarded, uncarded. A concave sow still to give birth, bulged. I passed a woman painting her fence – a human encounter of the kind kind (ugh) – and like ‘the good witch’ in the fairy tales, she bestowed on me good weather for the morrow. A luminous sky was over there where I was not. A warm slab offered me a weary seat – the mind was still willing, but the weight deterred me a while.

Tim Moore (author of Spanish Steps which I had just finished reading) would love the place names round here: Hobbitsville, Hobister, Tuskerbister and Stymilders. Let your imagination run with those and there will be stories aplenty!

The theme of change was still with me: A leopard never changes her spots; change for changes sake; nothing remains constant except change. Every day the environment changed around me and I would take pictures if I could, to fix the place in my memory. People turn up in my life unexpectedly and then they leave – change inevitably happens.

‘Solvitur ambulando’, a Latin phrase meaning, ‘It is solved by walking.’

from Tadhg Talks blog, ‘An Encounter with Vulpes Vulpes in London’.

Binscarth Woods

I had reached the haven which is Binscarth Woods and my tiredness disapparated. I sketched the scenes of pink blooms under yellow gorse, undulating walls and fence posts which leaned on account of the wind. Unfortunately here in this beautiful place, there were dog-poo bags hanging from a tree like they do in Edinburgh. Why? Never mind, because twisted silver branches, fragrant roses, wild garlic and bluebell woods made up for it. Here were dells such as are inhabited by fairies and blithe sylvan spirits. The evening sun accompanied me out into the grassy field and there I came upon Finstown.

IMG_20180526_124550 (359x640)

Finstown (say Fin-s-toon)

Finstown is named after Phin, an Irish soldier, who established the Tody Hole Inn, in 1821.

What did I see first? The Baikie Stores wherein more kindly women offered me tea (the cafe was of course shut by this time). I left my phone to charge out-the-back, and bought a replacement cup (mine had broken when I threw my rucksack over a fence so I could slip underneath it). I picked up some local news – it seems that although the fog was down over this village, apparently the sun was shining everywhere else! I perused the magazine rack: Orkney Farmer; Farmers Guardian; The Scottish Farmer; Smallholder; and my favourite, Classic Tractor. I could have added a CD to my basket entitled ‘Orkney Rocks’ which included ‘Fields of Gold’ which we sing in my choir back home.

I took a walk, scouting for a place to pitch my tent. On the way down the hill I visited the post office. Outside was the inscription: Come sit on the peedie porch with me, our ice cream is cold and the warm welcome is free. (Peedie means little). It was certainly warm, and I was able to buy a book by local author, Lorraine Bichen – ‘Three Weeks and Counting’. I was warned it was sad one, and sad it was. Later I met the Post Office couple again and they offered me their floor to stay on. I was settled by then but was very grateful for the thought.

I visited the rather old-fashioned Pomona pub I had been told about, where Wilma who had been there for many a long year was as sweet as anything. She couldn’t offer me food, but said I could eat mine in her bar if I bought a drink. The only other person in there, a guy from Skye, laughed his head off when I asked if there was wifi! I eschewed a beverage and continued on down looking for a site. On my way back up later to retrieve my phone, he was waiting for the bus and we had a chat about his work at the timber yard. What a friendly lot they all are!

After that, on a whim, I popped into Creation Cuts and asked the proprietor Gillian how much she would charge for washing my hair – what with not having been able to take a shower for a few days and all. She said yes, and wanted to know if I was alone and what was I up to. In the end she did it for me for free and I loved her for it.

That evening I set up camp on the shore and had such a struggle to boil my pasta, I used half a box of matches and my new solid fuel stove, but the wind was against me. I tried to light one in the tent. The tip broke off suddenly and made a hole in my new orange mat – disaster. Then I decided to give up on the outdoors and squatted down by the wash hand basin of the public toilets next door out of the wind, nervous in case anyone discovered the smoke or I burned the floor. All was well. Soon my tummy was filled at last.

IMG_20180526_225851 (640x359)

While I was taking my walk, Orkney was alive with the Folk Festival. Someone suggested I take the bus back to Stromness to take advantage of it, but happily I didn’t need to because there was a satellite concert playing at the Firth Community Centre. When I arrived the first notes were being played. The tickets were sold out and I was really lucky to get a return. Can you guess who was compèreing? The very same minister who set up the St Magnus Way and who had given me a lift into Dounby the day before! And who should I sit next to in the audience? the couple from the post office. I felt like a real local knowing people like that. Top of the bill was the Quebecois band ‘Le Vent du Nord’ and the evening was wonderful – I fair jiggled about in my seat with enjoyment.

It was very cold in my sleeping bag that night- even with Kiersty’s thermals on – and many drunken revellers interrupted my sleep when they stopped their cars to use the facilities at the back of me. However, I survived to tell another day and this was the view I woke up to. How absolutely beautiful was that.

IMG_20180527_070211 (640x359)

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 Two Days

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way

Reflection