St Magnus Way – finding your way etc.

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.

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Spanish camino yellow arrows and other signposts.

 

Signposts

If, like me, you are used to finding the yellow Spanish Camino Santiago de Compostella arrows, then you will:

a. be at an advantage – you know that it is important to slow down at junctions or if you get that funny feeling you might have gone the wrong way, and really scout around for the sign. You know to look in unusual places, and that they will not always be at the same height as you, or immediately obvious.

b. On the other hand you will be at a disadvantage – yellow shows up better than the more environmentally friendly St Magnus Way black and white signs on wooden posts. You will expect lots of guidance (eg through a wood where the path twists and turns and there are tributaries (as it were)) and that is not the case here – on the whole one must follow what seems to be the main way. (This is certainly my experience with many other pilgrimages, not just this one. The Via Sacra signs were really hard to find, whereas the Fife Coastal Path is great).

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The signs are sometimes before a junction, sometimes at it, and sometimes afterwards.

I believe they were positioned by people taller than me, so for example if the next one is over a hill, a taller person may be able to stand with her back at the previous one and see the following, but not always.

In fact, now I am on this subject, the stepping stones which have been helpfully laid over burns and bogs are also very far away from each other – perhaps at the correct distance for the average male stride – but not mine, not with a rucksack anyway. In these cases I took a deep breath and leapt!

Bluetooth

There is a system of Bluetooth waymarks provided by the Pilgrimage organisers, with information so that when you walk you use your phone to connect and can listen as you go. I would have loved to try it but the system was down when I was there. Of course you would need a smart phone with that capacity to use this facility. I don’t know how long the recordings are, but don’t forget that you would also want headphones.

Many people love music or podcasts as they walk. Personally, I like the sounds around me and in addition there’s always plenty going on in my head! I have tried but I always give up quickly as I feel cut off from my surroundings.

Route descriptions

There is no guide book as yet, although the organisers of the Pilgrimage are in the process of producing one which will be great I am sure.

They do already provide Route Descriptions on their website and these were updated and published on 30 May 2018 after I returned home. They are generally of a very high standard. I suggest you print them out and laminate them before you leave in case of emergencies. I know this sounds a bit geeky but you never know what might happen, especially with technology.

There are also documents, audio recordings, videos, photos and all manner of amazingly useful and interesting resources on the St Magnus Way website.

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Compass / maps

A compass comes highly recommended (make sure you know how to use it!) because north, south-east etc are used in the St M Way directions. I planned to use the one on my phone, not imagining that the phone would be virtually unusuable.

You can download Route Maps from the St M Way website.

I would also suggest bringing an Ordnance Survey (OS) map so that you can see where the St M Way Route Description landmarks are. The mast on Keelylang for example, is listed on the Route Description for Finstown to Orphir as a way of orientating yourself. It is on Googlemaps but not the St M Route Map. Kebro is on the St M Route Map but not on Googlemaps. Both are on the OS map 463 which has most of the West Mainland on it, but not Kirkwall, so for the hard part of the final day’s walk you will need to carry a second map. You can buy maps at Rae’s Paper Shop in Stromness and in Kirkwall.

Finstown to Orphir Route Description

Whichever map you use, you need to know the direction you are physically pointing towards (see compass above) otherwise it’s almost no use knowing where the place you are searching for is on the map anyway!

Please note that if you have the facilities, know how and space on your phone, there are gpx connections on the official site. I suspect, from looking at other websites and talking to some (mostly male, it has to be said) hikers, that using technology is the thing to do, but I am a trifle old fashioned in this respect so you would be better looking elsewhere for that information (though there is a helpful quote below). I think you have to spend more on your mobile phone than I do to be able to use it all. There is of course the argument that a pilgrimage is a place of silence and self-reflection and we all know that technology isn’t always helpful with that; then again, getting lost is a bummer.

In any discussion of routes, navigation or GPS devices, you have probably seen people mentioning ‘GPX files’. GPX is shorthand for GPS eXchange Format and is a type of file that’s really helpful to anyone who loves the outdoors, and is the most popular way of saving and exchanging routes. Ordnance Survey Blog

Tetanus

Be sensible and check if your tetanus jab is up-to-date before you go hiking! I was so careful, doing everything slowly, but my foot slipped down a hole I couldn’t see and the barb from the wire was too close. I had tea tree essential oil with me which is a serious antiseptic and so I wapped that on immediately, repeating several times a day for the next few days and I was fine. Check the symptoms of tetanus.

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Cold at night

It’s hard to imagine it can be so cold at night in a tent in May when the day-time temperatures are so moderate, but it can, so you have been warned! See Resources – what I took with me (link below). Weather, Kirkwall

Links:

Introduction

Day 1 – Egilsay

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

The Last Two Days

Accommodation – where I stayed

Transport – how I got there

Resources – what I took with me

Resources – shops, cafes, pubs etc

Finding your way

Reflection

St Magnus Way – introduction

I don’t know why everyone is infected with this wanderlust, even sensible Mr Knightly. 1

Between 21 – 30 May 2018 I walked the St Magnus Way pilgrimage on Orkney (55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days), and made a visit to the Isle of Egilsay where St Magnus is supposed to have been murdered and initially buried.

I have written about each day’s visit or trek – the route highlights and difficulties; there are pages on the practicalities of getting there and back, accommodation and what I took with me (or wished I had or had not taken!), and there’s a section on how to find the path, and my final reflections on making pilgrimage. In a few days I will add the links to the list below.

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The route which the St Magnus Way pilgrimage takes on Orkney, Scotland.

The St Magnus Way is a pilgrimage that was opened in 2017. It is not known how many backpackers have walked it since then, but it has been extremely popular with Orcadians, and attracted a great deal of press attention.

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The St Magnus Way sign, found along the route to indicate the path.

The path respects the traditions of Orkney’s medieval pilgrims and particularly of the Earl Magnus (c. 1080 – 1118), whose bones were supposed to have been taken around the mainland after he died. I visited the places associated with his history, death, and with Haakon who ordered his murder and got an incredible sense of the history and storytelling associated with these islands.

St Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine, intelligent look about him. He was a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money, sound with advice and altogether the most popular of men.            

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My one-woman tent weighing 1.6 kilos, which I carried in my backpack.

I am a 54 year old woman and made the trip alone, travelling 294 miles (473 kms) from my home in Edinburgh. I like to offer Shiatsu in return for board and lodging, both as a way to get to know local people and to recognise their kindness. For 3 out of the 9 nights on the island I make this exchange, and the rest of the time I camped.

Starting with a trip to the tiny island of Egilsay, my journey encompassed the communities of Evie, Birsay, Dounby, Finstown, Orphir and Kirkwall, moving along stunning coasts and through isolated moorland.  I had adventures and learned some fantastic lessons along the way.

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RSPB beach, Egilsay, Orkney, Scotland.

Like the other pilgrimages and long-distance walks I have completed, I took the opportunity to think and reflect. Pilgrimage, by its very nature, raises some ‘big questions’ and allows me time to think about them.

‘To choose silence is to be quiet with intent.’ 3

Many of the resources on the St Magnus Way website were really useful. A book will be published soon, and I am sure it will be a valuable resource. I particularly enjoyed the focus topic for each day, and the initial selection and distribution of stones.

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The peaceful, wide open moorland spaces of The St Magnus Way, Orkney, Scotland.
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The harbour at Stromness, Scotland. I took the return ferry between Scrabster and here.

I would like to thank the following people for bed, board and friendship: Meg and Frank (Evie), Kiersty (Evie), and Ragnild, Christopher and the boys (Kirkwall). It was a pleasure to spend time with you all and I am most grateful for your hospitality.

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The spot where the young Magnus was slain.

The St Olav’s Way in Norway is also connected with Viking tales. It is much longer, but would be a good follow-up to this if you are interested in Norse tradition. St Olav’s Way blog

1 Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

 The Orkneyinga Saga, Chapter 45.

Choose Silence blog

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

Walking without a dog: Forth Bridges, Aberdour, Edinburgh

Today’s walks – Aberdour: Silver Sands, tiny part of the Fife Coastal Path; Edinburgh: Lothian Road to Granton

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The journey from Edinburgh to Aberdour takes 31 minutes and it cost me £5.35 return (I have a Scotrail Over 50s card). What a bargain!

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Aberdour station has won many ‘best kept station’ awards. It is all co-ordinated in blue and white.

There was the new Forth Road bridge in all its glory! A yellow crane stood beside each of the uprights, and it was teeming with vehicles, and people in high-vis jackets!

It’s a bonny sight, and takes the number of crossings to three: the red rail bridge, buxom and with a reputation for needing a new coat every year; the old road bridge, swanky but showing signs of age; and now the elegant, silver-white virgin, as yet untouched. They all, more or less, connect South Queensferry to North Queensferry, and the views are impressive.

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Part of the red rail bridge in the lower corner
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That’s North Queensferry on the right

There used to be a train which trundled along where Lower Granton Road is now, taking passengers and goods to Fife, Dundee and beyond. It rolled onto a large piece of wood with rails, floating in Granton Harbour, and was sailed across to Fife, before it drove off and up north without anyone having to get out. How clever is that?!

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On the other side of the blue water, the white things all in a line, are the yachts in the harbour.

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Aberdour is an historic village in Fife – pretty, well-off, and you can see my flat from its sands. After work, I walked down to the beach and wandered east amongst the seaweed and rock pools (approx. 5 mins) smiling at dog walkers as I went; and then west to where the boats are moored, across the wonderfully named ‘Dour Burn’ (‘dour’ means ‘relentlessly severe, stern, or gloomy in manner or appearance’, and a ‘burn’ is a small river or stream) on the wee brown bridge. From there I joined the Fife Coastal Path onto the headland and around to the next bay. I am definitely coming back to walk that Path when I have time.

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The wee brown bridge..
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..across the ‘Dour Burn’.

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You will need proper boots as it is a steep, slippery climb.

There’s a municipal tourist board to help you identify the islands and hills you can see across the water, including Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, the islands of Inchcolm (the one with the Abbey), Cramond (the one you can get stranded on if the sea covers the crossing before you get back), and Inchmickery. Apparently it is the latter which was said to resemble a battleship to scare off invaders during the war, although I thought it was Inchkieth (the one I can see from my yoga class and front room).

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This is the first walk I have had outside Edinburgh city since I returned from Yalding (Kent) where I spent New Year. First I got the scent of the sea, the sea plants, and the sand in my sinuses, and they cleared (fantastic after my cold); then, as I walked slightly inland, the whiff of the newly disturbed earth and the wet bracken. My respiratory system sighed with joyful relief!

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This morning’s hard frost had given way to a warmer 7 degrees by early afternoon.

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Everyone was very friendly. There were helpful directions, and a Scottish version of ‘Buen Camino’. ‘Enjoy your walk, she said, smiling. I have a fear of going the wrong way. I think it is because I never have enough time and so do not want to waste what I do have. As it was I ended up at the ‘Silver Sands’ car park twice.

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I spotted a bird of prey I could not identify. I kept seeing an unusually long body part as it turned around on the air current (neck? legs?) and hovvered in the sky above. I asked a man with binoculars and he kindly told me the difference between a sparrow hawk (red tummy), buzzard (‘very large’), and kestrel (pointed wings). I am still not sure what I saw, but it was the size of a large gull. He drew out his camera and sifted through several 100 photos before showing me a gorgeous picture of a robin silhouetted against a dramatic sky whilst perching on his hand (which, he explained, was poking outside the car window) .

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2.30pm. It is February after all!

I enjoyed a green tea and scone at the McTaggarts Cafe (was that where I lost my keys?). Good service, delicious cakes, WiFi – recommended.

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Here’s another shot or two of the station. Only I can wax lyrical about a station, but it is so pretty. And it’s got a blue and white pot on a barrel (almost like a museum-exhibit, it could have come from friend Lesley’s kitchen), a most interesting clock, and a greenhouse. I have never seen a station with a greenhouse before. The man in red (can you spot him?) was potting up the containers while I waited for the 3.15.

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There is more to Aberdour than I that. There is a castle, at least one church, an obelisk, and a shinty club, so I recommend you stay there for a couple of nights.
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I gave a very enjoyable Shiatsu to a client after my return (or did the keys drop out of my pocket on the train?), and then I had my second walk of the day.

It was raining heavily all through the 50 minutes it takes to get home, indeed my shoes and coat are steaming on the radiator as I write. My toes got wet as I traipsed the first few streets, and the pools of water in my trainers had spread to my insteps by Stockbridge. Eventually my heels were soaking too – that was when I was passing the Botanics – but inexplicably they were still warm. And what a lovely walk it was. I had loads of creative ideas (eg I decided what my book is going to be about, and I came up with an alternative topic for the Eastwood House residential), and even if I do not get my keys back I will manage somehow.

There are no photos of this walk as it was dark, but I will take the opportunity to moan about the lack of street lighting, especially on Doune Terrace and Gloucester Street. And I will leave you with the last, lovely photo of the beautiful, blue, Firth of Forth. Sweet dreams!

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The Fife Coastal Path http://www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk/

McTaggarts Cafe https://www.facebook.com/McTaggarts/

Aberdour, Visit Scotland (I like my photos better!) https://www.visitscotland.com/info/towns-villages/aberdour-p239011

Granton history http://www.grantonhistory.org/harbour/harbour.htm

granton:hub, Madelvic House (where I learned about the harbour’s history) https://grantonhub.org/