St Magnus Way – the last two days

The last day on Orkney (Kirkwall)

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 29th May 2018. At the bottom of this post you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.

On this, my last day on the island, I woke up in a bed instead of a tent, which was novel! It’s amazing how quickly you get used to something new. My hosts were most hospitable. It was a house full of books, toys, antiques, bric-a-brac, smiles and shyness.

The St Magnus story tapestry, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

After giving Shiatsu, I made my way into the city to revisit the St Magnus Cathedral and other sights. I was given my prize shell but could not discover how many other backpackers from outside Orkney had managed the whole walk as there are no records.

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There is a gorgeous stained glass window by Crear McCartney from 1987 (unfortunately the photos didn’t come out well). It depicts St Magnus’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and includes a crucifix from Trondheim, Norway. I also found the sheela-na-gig in the chapel at the far end (a squatting female figure), the green man and the Marwicks’s Hole where women who were accused of witchcraft were sometimes held.

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It was another wonderful beach afternoon with sand of luxurious softness and a diamante sea. Scapa Bay, Orkney.

An artist survives on the beauty that surrounds her.

Winifred Milius Lubell, political graphic artist and book illustrator.

My afternoon treat was to go on the very first Viking Hiking trip with Ragnhild and Mark. We gathered at the Tourist iCentre (ie information bureau) next to the bus station and wound our way through the city, stopping to view and learn about some of its highlights.

Then we meandered towards Scapa Bay (the largest natural harbour in the Northern Hemisphere) from whence I had come the previous afternoon. Back past the hospital, once again around the roundabout, and along the Cantit Trail. I retraced my footsteps across the strand westwards. This time I had a fully charged phone and could take as many photos as I wanted.

Mark holds out a Viking horn for the Orkney beer.

It was the first time I had sampled Viking food around a live fire, and I enjoyed being regaled with stories inspired by the Orkneyinga saga, amongst other sources. Ragnhild, being Norwegian as well as a scholar and qualified tour guide, was most entertaining and knowledgeable, able to answer any questions we cared to throw at her.

Ragnhild in her Viking costume, with other members of the group. We mixed, formed and cooked bannocks from peas, barley meal, honey, salt and of course sand to suit all tastes!

We churned the butter to spread, and ate our broth with horn spoons. It being the first one, I was in the company of a hotelier, various newspaper and on-line reporters, adults and children. We were all very impressed and the others vowed to display leaflets and publish articles etc. It was live streamed on Facebook!

There was singing and dancing around the fire under the cliffs.

After another delicious meal at their home, Christopher took me through the balmy evening to Stromness, where I was able to pick up my phone charger from The Ferry Inn where the kind woman I met on day 1 had left it for me.

The Peedie Sea (Kirkwall, Orkney) had ethereal steam lifting off it.

After that we drove through heavy fog before arriving into Stromness under a bright sky 25 minutes (14 miles / 22.5 kms) away. The weather is always a good topic of conversation with the British and those on Orkney were no exception, but it really depended on personality: when the fog was down someone would tell me, ‘it’ll be bound to lift soon’, another, ‘it won’t lift today’, and a third, ‘it might lift though’. Overall, I had the most sun anyone could ever expect on these islands for my pilgrimage, and felt duly lucky.

Stromness Harbour, Orkney. I remembered seeing a seal’s head in the limpid sea here the first time I came.

A gin and tonic later, I boarded the Northlink ferry where I found my two-person birth empty – which I was pleased to say it remained. There was a salon with all manner of snacks and drinks, books and magazines to entertain the 12 of us, and then I happily took to my bed for some note writing and reflection.

Ferry cabin, Stromness Harbour.
Happy and quite tanned after my lovely walk, despite the latitude.

The overnight ticket includes an all-you-can-eat breakfast which carried me right through to Edinburgh, eight hours later!

Travelling home

Arriving in Scotland / on the mainland – at Scrabster Ferry terminal.

We docked at Scrabster and I jumped on the bus to Thurso, just five minutes along the road.

I wasn’t sure how to get to the station and so made an enquiry of someone passing. Like several others, he offered me a lift, telling me, while we drove, how he had moved from the east end of London some years ago to take a small holding, and now dealed in 4 by 4 cars.

Through the rectangular window – trees again!
Hilltops in the cloud.
Not nearly as bleak as the Orkney moorland.

Although I arrived hours early because of taking the overnight ferry, I decided to chance it and leaped onto the first arrival. All went smoothly, no-one looked at my ticket and told me I was on the wrong train. The scenery was stunning of course, and as the sun still shone, I could snap away to my heart’s content.

Such blue!
Contrasting with the yellow gorse.
Murals at Invergordon Station – very original.
The elegant arches of Dingwall Station where you can take refreshments at Tina’s Tearoom.
Dingwall and Strathpeffer Free Church, The Mallard Bar, and perhaps a mosque with the crescent on top of the building on the left.

As we waited beside the platform in Dingwall, the guard explained that there must be another, more important train on the line which had priority over us, ‘like a nuclear warhead or The Flying Scotsman’, he said. None of us were sure what to make of this.

Meanwhile, the man across the aisle kept calling the woman beside him, ‘pet’, even though they didn’t know each other; someone ripped their velcro; another rummaged in her bag; and the woman in the cerise T-shirt cleaned the tables at Tina’s. As the power surged on and off, my screen failed so I could see green bubbles alternating with the picture of my daughters; we disagreed about the new Murder On The Orient Express film; we waited.

Then the energy of the other train hit us and we gave a great shudder. Yes, it was The Flying Scotsman with its smart burgundy livery and glimpses of crisp white table linen at high speed. Too fast to snap it.

Actually after that we were delayed some more before the perfect spire against the baby blue sky shifted sideways, and it was all white hawthorn and green hills once more.

I changed trains at Inverness and the run through the Cairngorms was, if possible, even more impressive. My newly met companion from Elgin, on hearing my tale of woe, insisted on trying her charger with my phone, and it worked: she was right, it was the charger that was the problem, not the phone. Whew – that was one extra dreaded visit to the Three shop on Princes Street I could avoid!

The Coat of Arms at Inverness Station. But why are the men naked except for fig leaves?

As the afternoon wore on, it became very hot and crowded and I started to write, but the thoughts came too fast for my typing. I became feared that I would never manage to write it all up the way I wanted to, in the book I had so easily envisaged while I was walking. How strange to be sitting all day and hurtling through the landscape so fast. I slept.

In the end I was able to return in record time, and in all, four hours earlier than planned. As this was my fifth trip, knew to expect a period of adjustment after the intensity of being away. I knew I would be grateful to see my daughter, and sleep in my own bed with the cat purring on top; and also that this writing would give me a focus to bridge the gap to what I still call, ‘normal life’.

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 – Egilsay

I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 22nd May 2018, my first full day on the islands. At the bottom of this post you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.

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View from the campsite in the morning – look at those colours! The hills on the island of Hoy in the distance, Orkney.

Day 1

It was a fitful and very cold night with the engine of the ferry droning in the distance and the birds whining overhead. The rain drummed on the tent roof and I certainly needed the (borrowed) blanket from the campsite sitting room. I woke early to strike camp for the first time and was mighty glad to have my cup of tea before walking back through a deserted Stromness to the ferry terminal. I only just made the 6.10am Stagecoach ‘by the skin of my teeth’.

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Stromness, Orkney.

It was already light and so I enjoyed the short trip to the outskirts of Kirkwall: flat green fields and the occasional hill flashed past and I ate a cracker, some pecans and lettuce (for my French readers, no, this is not normal British breakfast fare!) The day brightened a little but it was hat-gloves-and-everything-I-had-that-wasn’t-packed weather. When the sun shone for a few seconds it was really warm! A cuckoo called.

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On the way to Kirkwall, from the bus. Orkney. Flat and green.
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Waiting for the bus overlooking Kirkwall Bay, Orkney. I had half an hour for some T’ai Chi with this wonderful view.

The second leg of the journey (by local bus this time) was to Tingwall, and I was deposited at the top of the small road. If it is a safe place, the drivers of Orkney buses will stop anywhere along the route when you flag them down or make a request. It was only 15 minutes walk to the jetty where everything was closed at that early hour.

It was a much smaller ferry to Egilsay, stopping at Wyre and twice at the more popular Rousay where 21 passengers got off. We all watched with admiration as the scarlet mail vans reversed at high speed down the steep and narrow ramp onto the boat. 5 minutes later they zoomed back onto dry land. It was a moment for the bag and news to be exchanged, and this happened at each docking – obviously something they do every day.

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Arriving Egilsay, Orkney.

I chatted to 2 sisters who were on Orkney for the folk festival, and the one who lives in Germany kindly lent me her wireless phone charger which helped a little. Unfortunately I disengaged from it quickly as they arrived at their destination and left my lead attached. I only realised later that evening when I received a text (I had happily given them a card with my details on it because they wanted an air bnb in Edinburgh). How kind they were! They left it at the Ferry Hotel in Stromness for me to collect a week later.

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St Magnus Church from the inside, Egilsay, Orkney.

So, what’s the Magnus saga?

Earl Magnus Erlendsson and his cousin, Earl Hakon Palsson jointly ruled Orkney. After a dispute they agreed to have a peace meeting on the island of Egilsay, but Hakon broke their agreement. He arrived with three times more men than he had said he would and promptly ordered his servant to kill Magnus. When the poor man refused, Hakon demanded that his cook do the deed.  Orkneyjar takes up the story:

‘Magnus made three suggestions that would save Hakon from breaking his oath by killing an unarmed man. The first, that Magnus would go on a pilgrimage and never return to Orkney, was rejected, as was the second, that Magnus be exiled to Scotland and imprisoned.’

Hakon ordered that his cook carry out the crime. He was loathe to do it, and it is said that Magnus forgave him before he did so. It was for this reason that he became a martyr and, consequently, a saint. The murder was supposed to have taken place at the ruined church with its unusual round tower (0. 5 miles from the jetty). His remains originally lay where there is a monument erected on Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) land a little further away. Later, so it is related, his bones were taken on a journey to the West Mainland and it is this route which part of the pilgrimage follows.

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Inscription on the St Magnus cenotaph on RSPB Onziebust land, Egilsay, Orkney. Notice the connection with the Church of St Magnus the Martyr in London.
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The St Magnus Church, Orkeny, with its identifyable round tower, Egilsay.

The tiny island of Egilsay

Egilsay lies north east of the West Mainland. There are a scattering of farms and some valuable RSPB sites. The beaches are spectacular. I alighted from the ferry with a couple of walkers who told me that there might be a community centre which serves teas. Otherwise, there is almost nowhere to shelter, just 6.5km squared of smooth fields with a single main road zipped up down the centre. There are swathes of protective irises planted to attract the corncrakes who nest on the ground, and kingcups (marsh marigolds) galore.

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Swathes of iris for the protection of the corncrake, Egilsay, Orkney.

The ruined church itself sits in the middle of a sloped field not more than 10 minutes clambering over fences away from where the ferry comes in. Perched there with only blue sky surrounding it, one can imagine it hosting any number of dramas down the ages. With a stepped, gabled wall and plain, arched window at one end; and a blunt cone of a tower at the other, there is no shelter except a rather out of place old school desk and battered chair in an arch. Once the others had left, I wedged myself in a corner, leant back and shut my eyes. Still, I imbibed the energy of this ancient place with the sun on my face. I fancied I could hear the cries of children, the fervent sermonising of the ministers and prayers of the blessed from the past.

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I dawdled among the graves, reading names and dates as you do, appreciating the old and the really old stones. No-one disturbed me. There are signs with historical information for tourists, but otherwise just the sound of the sea and of course the birds who are the principal inhabitants of this isle. My rucksack and I went off to explore.

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Oh, it was glorious to be going slow again! I had such a peaceful time wandering around, loitering on sands and by roadsides, watching bird antics and trying to work out what type they were. I met two policemen who I was told, later, were there to check for gun licences – they were having lunch on the beach; I called ‘hello’ to one working farmer, and was given a lift by another who stopped beside me on the road and asked if I was going for the return ferry – that was when I lost my watch! He told me he came from Buckinghamshire in England and has stayed ‘for the space and to get away from the rat race’.

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The island of Rousay from Egilsay, Orkney.

It’s an island of tricky gates (the kissing ones are only just possible to fit through with a rucksack), but there were lapwings squeaking attention, sounding like someone blowing between two blades of grass; my old friends, the hairy caterpillars, like soft porcupines creeping between stones; hovering skylarks constantly thrilling; honking geese straining their necks and leaving greeeny-white cylinder-shaped turds behind them; oyster catchers with their classic Balenciaga black and white stripes; fields of dandelions and daisies and all manner of delightful things which the rare yellow bumble bees clearly adored.

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RSPB Onziebust, east coast beach, Egilsay, Orkney.

On the ferry on the way back I asked if I might stop on Rousay. The sailor worked out that it was a quarter of the distance and so would cost me an extra £2.25. For a reason I cannot now remember I decided not to, even though I knew there was a pub there where I could have a cup of tea and charge my mobile.

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I was calm inside when I stepped foot on the West Mainland again, but it wasn’t to last. I trekked to the Wildlife Centre – shut; I wondered if Kiersty lived further down that road but when I turned on my phone, it died; So I laboured in the other direction, beside the extremely busy thoroughfare to Evie – 3.1 miles (5 kms); I stopped at the school and asked a man collecting his kids  – he kindly gave me a lift to the cafe but it was shut, and then to the post office which wasn’t; I must have looked and sounded slightly strange because it took the post master a while to soften, but slowly soften he did – he kindly took my phone and charged it behind the counter; I was able to find Kiersty’s address – yes, it was where I guessed it might be! I texted her; I started to walk back – and had to stop every 5 minutes to rest I was so exhausted.

And…then… she came to rescue me.

She was so welcoming and friendly even though we had never even spoken. She showed me Betty’s Reading Room, she took me home and cooked for me and gave me a glass of wine and a comfy bed. The next morning she lent me thermal underwear and a high vis jacket. She was great craic – what a gem!

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My haven for the night – thanks to Kiersty and family.

Onziebust Nature Reserve, Egilsay.

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