I walked this route in 2022 and it is a varied one – urban and rural, located both inland and along the coast. I did so as part of a bigger project, Separation and Unity, in which I walked the landscapes of Scotland and Catalonia finding similarity and difference in their volcanic history and oak woods. I am interested in the human need for both togetherness and sharing, and, at the same time, recognition of individuality.
** Please do walk the first day of the St Margaret’s Way with us on 20th August 2022, from Palmerston Place to South Queensferry (or some of the way as you like). We will be starting at 10am – please tell us you are coming Facebook event.
The only Scottish pilgrimage named after a woman, the St Margaret’s Way, is representative of so many women’s stories – there are no waymarkers on the ground and apparently no detailed information online about it.
[These women were] “strong, creative, independent-minded
women who achieved a visibility in their society that led to recognition of sanctity.
And yet Margaret (c1045-1093) was a Queen. More, she was a highly influential, practical, intelligent and determined woman, who was later sainted, and is almost always described as pious. Someone who was dedicated to serving others, and mother to a queen and three kings (she birthed eight children in total), she was also a Hungarian refugee who must have understood what it was like to arrive on foreign shores after a long boat journey. Devoutly religious (Catholic), she was a pilgrim who launched a ferry service to take walkers across the Firth of Forth, before there were bridges, so they could continue to St Andrews.
She was not in charge of her life, you might say [because she was a queen and because of the age in which she lived]…. but she rose above that to become her own woman who would establish monasteries, infrastructure and so on. She would journey from being a potential pawn in power games to becoming a power in her own right, a power for good, a power for the poor…..
Reading the backstories of female saints, you will find a common theme; how they were wanted by men and often had to go to great lengths to make it clear that they had other feelings and plans for themselves. Margaret was no exception (we are told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles): “Then King Malcolm began to desire Edgar’s sister Margaret for his wife, but he and his men all argued against it for a long time, and she herself also refused, and said that she would not have him or anyone, if the divine mercy would grant that she should please the mighty Lord in virginity, with a bodily heart in pure continence in this brief life. The king urged her brother pressingly until he said yes – and indeed he dared not do otherwise, because they had come into the king’s power….though it was against her will” (translation A Clerk of Oxford blogspot ) [It goes on to say that God wanted it this way as she was to go on to “lay aside the sinful customs which that nation previously followed” including influencing the king himself, so it is clear that this was not an altogether unbiased account.]
I am not a religious person, so my interest in Margaret is in her standing as a woman in Medieval society; the kindness she is said to have shown to everyone, including prisoners of war; what is recorded about her relationship with her husband (we are told that he was illiterate and that she read to him); and the role she plays in the history of walking pilgrimage.
a pathway of meditation and devotion
Margaret was exceptionally well read and raised in an environment of enlightened devotion and charity…throughout her life she balanced her charitable and family work with a desire for seclusion and contemplation. Margaret strongly supported devotion to the Celtic saints while also connecting Scotland with the Europe wide development of monasticism.
The version of the St Margaret’s Way which I walked is 100kms / 62 miles in length. Here are the stages:
Centre of Edinburgh to South Queensferry between 17km/10.5m-22/13.5 6 hrs
South Queensferry across the old road bridge to Burntisland 20km/12.5-22/13.5 7hrs
Burntisland to East Wemyss
East Wemyss to Earlsferry
Earlsferry to Cameron Reservoir
Cameron Reservoir to St Andrews
There are a number of maps available and I had difficulty downloading The Way of St Andrews one, so I used the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) which is out of date just now, though soon to be updated.
Before you leave Edinburgh, you may like to visit St Margaret’s Chapel at the Castle, the city’s oldest building (early 12th c), built by her youngest son, David. It is looked after by a Guild, all run by women called Margaret.
Strangely, Follow the Camino describes walking the St Margaret’s Way as being in “the footsteps of Scotland’s patron saint, St. Andrew”, and Fiona Diack, too, in Spotted by Locals, notes that it “dates back to the 10th century as a way to honour St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland”.
Ian Bradley, in Fife’s Pilgrim Way, cites High Lockhart as devising the route in 2011 (p26), and Donald Smith (author, scholar and instigator of the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh) as having devised the St Margaret’s Journey, offering “two routes from North Queensferry to St Andrew’s one using the Fife Coastal Path [the one I took] and the other broadly taking the same course as Cameron Black’s St Andrew’s Way.” (p27/28) which I am unfamiliar with.
Note: The link on this page (Ways and Trails.co.uk) is out of date.
Cameron Black’s St Andrew’s Way moves through Dunfermline where you can visit St Margaret’s cave; the Roman Catholic Memorial church which bears her name and to where a relic of the saint was returned in 1998, 900 years after her death; and the Benedictine Abbey founded by Margaret. Dunfermline Abbey and the ruins around it are all that remain of that Benedictine Abbey founded by her in the eleventh century. The foundations are under the present nave (or `Old Church`). Outside the east gable is where you can see her shrine, itself a place of pilgrimage since medieval times.
‘that âme d’élite’, the ‘exquisite St Margaret’,
Baker, Derek. “‘A Nursery of Saints’: St Margaret of Scotland Reconsidered.” Studies in Church History Subsidia 1 (1978): 119-141. citing Knowles, MO p 242.
St Andrews was a very popular place to visit. From the south the pilgrims would have came via South Queensferry (where I walked), and then got the boat to Fife. From the south east, pilgrims arrived mainly from the continent at North Berwick, where they took the ferry to the opposite coast arriving at Earlsferry (the end of my fourth day). From there they continued northwards, cutting off the East Neuk (the site of the continuation of the Fife Coastal Path) and heading directly to the final city.
They travelled the last 15 miles on foot to St Andrews along a track the width of “a donkey with two panniers
This web page has some fun information about St Margaret. Uncover Travel
More information about St Margaret
Early primary texts about St Margaret: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s account of her marriage. Extracts from the Life of Margaret written for her daughter, by a monk, Turgot, Prior of Durham, between 1100-1107 who knew Margaret and her family well. He wrote that she, “showed herself to be a pearl”, and indeed she is known as The Pearl of Scotland.
Gerda Stevenson reminds us, however, that it was she who was credited with persuading the king, her husband, to ban the use of Scots in favour of English.
I yearned / for the old tongue my mother learned me on her lap, / words that once rose up from deep inside me; / but they’re lost, the well is dry – it’s like a fatal thirst / that can’t be quenched; and I know now why / my mother called her Margaret the Accursed.
from Quines by Gerda Stevenson (2018:34)
Whether you like to walk for the pleasure of the activity the beauty of the landscape or for religious reasons, please do walk the first day of the St Margaret’s Way with us on 20th August 2022, from Palmerston Place to South Queensferry (or some of the way as you prefer). We will be starting at 10am – please tell us you are coming Facebook event or you can email me on email@example.com
Have you already walked the St Margaret’s Way? Please do leave a comment below if you have; I’d love to hear from you.
In the middle of winter I headed south on a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed along the coast of East Lothian with the sea on my left. It was just after 9am and I could see brown fields, a slate grey sea, even darker land on the other side of the Firth of Forth and the silhouettes of the trees without their leaves. As it lightened there was more detail: cows in coats; four-by-fours speeding between fields; ruined castles; and low, red-roofed farm buildings. The train was quiet.
The fields become green as I travel and on my left is the point of Berwick Law, the only high place in this flat landscape. Combine harvesters are frozen mid field; barrels of wrapped up straw lie waiting; there are borders of louring pines in the distance; and beyond, a complicated sky: wispy dark clouds against a bright blue though pale background and at the same time, little bands of cotton wool balls stretching from east to west.
Found photos of (from top left) Torness Nuclear Power Station, Dunbar Town House, St Abbs Head Lighthouse.
A few golden strips of corn have been left lying in the fields, birds are black shapes in the bright sky, the bare bones of the trees are like hardened and flattened seaweed fans. People were sniffing and blowing their noses all around me.
There were acres of half-built houses as I drew near to Dunbar, birthplace of John Muir, friend to all walkers and nature lovers. A small town with the arrow-head tower of the newly-painted-white, 16th century Town House; Saturday people with pushchairs; glimpsing the sea between buildings.
Then once more rolling by the deep chestnut loam, and a more varied landscape. We were edging further from the sea where the iconic Torness nuclear power station like children’s blocks which have been fitted together wrongly. Sheep grazed in miles of brussel sprouts fields; low, dry stone walls divided; and a solo bird perched, waiting for the morning to come. We skimmed past the St Abbs Lighthouse, where I was planning to walk to today (see below).
I could see the path I was going to be walking at the top of the cliffs as they tumbled down to the rocks and the white waves below. Men in red and blue were playing golf, their trolleys angled beside them, pools of sand dipped in the ocean of green turf.
As always, it was difficult to find the beginning of the walk, so, here are the directions for you: come out of the station, go up the little slope, turn left and then take the first right.
A man with 2 dogs stopped while I was taking a photograph of the Round Bell Tower , not knowing that I was waiting for him to come into shot so that I could include him! He told me that he used to work for the local newspaper and one April Fool’s Day he took a photo of it leaning, said it was toppling over, and published it with the caption, The Leaning Tower of Berwick. Crowds of people came to watch it, he said!
Next to the tower is Lord’s Mount, Henry VIII’s gun tower (completed in 1542). Its massive wall contains six gun positions and a latrine. The artillery included ‘the falconet’ which fired a solid ball 1000 yards (914 m).
Before I even got to the sea I lost my pole, which I went back for and luckily found, and a glove which I didn’t.
The Northumberland people I met were lovely and friendly and gave me directions out of the town and onto the path.
Oyster catchers were wading and ridges of diagonal rocks showed dark against the washed yellow sands. I went down the steps to a tiny cove, and along the well-trodden beach full of footprints and seaweed. There was the sound of trickling water as I made my way up at the other end.
Up above were ranks of holiday caravans where shells had been hung between railings. I could see a red and white lighthouse beacon at the end of the pier in the distance and hear the single, shrill whistle of a bird overhead – just as if he fancied me.
Immediately I came round to the next bay. It was larger this time with delightfully pig-pink cliffs and tufty tops. The wind was trying to blow the pale, beige stalks seaward. Once again it was just me and another man with his dog. Vestiges of yellow flowered gorse gleamed on the bank opposite.
The squawk of the train reminded me that the railway line matches the path to the left, and I was walking between that and the sea.
The links (golf course) was on my left; slippy mud down to a little wooden bridge over a trickle of water; the sweet tweet of a leaf shaped bird overhead, its wings fluttering fast. It was a very narrow, windy and uneven part so I was glad that I had found my pole to steady myself – it is definitely not accessible to wheelchairs or baby buggies.
The path follows the highly eroded coast line in and out; my nose was running, tickling; and my mind returned to other similar trails: Normandy, Brittany, andOrkney.
It is an impressive landscape: thin horizontal layers of pink rock, tiny slices but massive boulders. My eyes were getting a welcome break from the computer as I gazed out to sea and admired the hues and cries of this stimulating view and the birds who live here.
The sky was opening up; I could identify the peeps of oyster catchers and see sparks of black ravens; I was scanning the sea for any sign of whales. My forehead was cold as I walked straight into the northerly wind. How I appreciated not heaving the heavy rucksack for once.
I only stopped for a couple of minutes for a comfort break and to put some chapstick on my lips, but I was already cold afterwards. There were single, brown birds with long curving beaks (curlews, probably), and others in huge crowds sweeping around in the sky above me, sticking together in formation, communicating wordlessly. I was entranced by these murmurations.
For a moment I wondered why I do this, especially in winter when it is so chilly. Then I looked out to the horizon and saw the world – so much bigger than me, and down at the rocks and the majestic sea stack – the land simply missing between it and the cliff; and it was good to be reminded how small I am.
I saw the people in their cars rushing between Edinburgh and Newcastle on the A1, and the high speed train making its way down south to London. Here I was being blown and buffeted by the wind, breathing the fresh air, listening to the natural sounds around, the brushing of my feet as they passed through the grasses, stumbling and toppling over uneven ground which is good for balancing my brain, and looking ahead. Things were coming into perspective.
Up a short wooden ladder, over a stone wall and I discovered I was in a caravan park called Marshall Meadows. Much to my disappointment it was not the pastures I had imagined!
Back onto concrete I immediately felt my sore feet and realised I hadn’t been aware of them since the pavements in Berwick.
By this time I was looking for a place to shelter and sit for a cup of tea and a banana to keep my sugar levels up. I didn’t want to lose my sense of proportion, which has happened in the past.
The Cuddy Trail is here. Cuddy is Scots for a donkey and the ‘beasts of burden’ were used to transport coal and fish from the shore to Lamberton and the Great North Road.
I had to climb over the gate as the farmer, in his wisdom, had padlocked it shut despite this being a public right of way and well-known footpath.
Then I curved back towards the wild cliff corner and the sound of the crashing water. The wind was causing shadows on the ocean. It had that look about it as if it was rising up to the horizon and down to the beach. It was heaving. The surface colour looked flat and even, until I really paid attention to it. Then I saw the variations of the olive, seaweed and sage green, with slate, business suit, and pewter grays, all edged with white lace and set against a peach sky.
There were lots of helpful signs indicating that badgers, yellow meadow ants and peregrine falcons can be seen here, but not by me. I did get glimpses of the fulmars on the ‘cliffes’, nesting in their flint and white plumage, so far away that all the photos were too blurred to be reproduced.
Twenty minutes earlier I had passed two men getting out of a car and preparing to surf, clad in black wetsuits with their white boards. I bet they had a good time in those rollers!
It was then that things started to go wrong.
But I did. I thought, ‘really?’ but I couldn’t see anywhere else to walk as the railway came so close to the edge, so I went anyway.
I skirted the steep slope first of all, grabbing handfuls of grass to stop myself slipping and edging my feet into the side, until it became too hard going. Then I dropped down onto the rocks. They didn’t look too bad from a distance, but they were – it was really hard scrambling over them. I could see a way out on the other side and I still assumed that was the right way. I pushed and tore through the brambly undergrowth, I fell down and got myself back up. I persevered. My pole kept collapsing itself and up at the top was a sheep’s face peering over at me. I could see hoof marks where they obviously managed fine, but I sure was struggling. Was there a way? What could I do?
Go back, that’s what! It was impossible. I was very hot and bothered and there was nothing for it but to retrace my steps, which was easier said than done and something I don’t enjoy. I traversed the rocks closer to the sea which were slippery as well as treacherously uneven.
I had completely lost my cool until I came across such a beautiful sight that I just had to stop and breathe.
It took a lot of time (perhaps three quarters of an hour) and I used up a great deal of my available energy. And it took quite a bit of serious tramping to get over the anger and frustration of the experience. On the back of the BCP map it says: It may seem unnecessary to provide directions other than saying – walk north or south keeping the sea on your right or left!’ Am I the only person to have missed the most straightforward path?
Slowly I realised I had to relax and get back onto the right path. I had to let it go or I couldn’t enjoy the remainder of the walk, so I focused on anything but my feelings and picked up pace.
In my recording I said that I chose not to walk where two others were, around a field when I could clearly see a short-cut straight across the top of it. I saw the trampled down barbed wire and said to myself, I’m not falling into that trap again!
Next was a straight and concrete side road to Homestead, and I spotted a brightly coloured lifeboat chugging along. When I turned round, there was a deer lolloping in the undergrowth very close by with its beacon of a white tail. It seemed to be rather a special sight. The Medicine Cards say that when deer appears, ‘apply gentleness to your situation.
At 1.50pm, my phone battery was already down to 32% and I quickly came across another conundrum. I took a second wrong turn. This time I crossed a field to the left because it looked as if the alternative went over the edge. It was not clear, so I stood and debated and as the gate was open I chose to go through.
Right to the end of that green field I went, past all the sheep who may well have been watching wisely for all I knew! And then I didn’t know where to go but back – it was a dead end. Never again will I walk without an ordnance survey map, I declare to the sheep!
So I went through the other field (not in a straight line), climbed over a stile, and doubled back (presumably the path avoids the farm land).
There was the village of Burnmouth below me at last, tucked under the heights. I zigzagged steeply down in the opposite direction from the yellow arrows, behind the gardens and at last found a BCP sign. Amazing how this often happens at a time when there is absolutely no other possible way anyway! For some reason the walk is not as enjoyable if I am not going in the right direction.
Apparently Burnmouth was ‘once a hotbed of smuggling’ (tea, brandy, silks etc) engendering lively stories from 1780. A pretty but secluded village, it is divided into two halves with a harbour inbetween. Candy coloured cottages seemed to be for visitors. The tide was out leaving streaks of low rocks, as if someone had painted on a glassy surface and the paint had separated unevenly.
A man stopped to do up the zip of the woman he was with and my black mood meant I could barely manage to say a friendly hello. My knees hurt going down and my insteps going up. The sign pointed in the direction of two roads, one to the right and the other uphill. I took the path which ran to the right of a dour chapel, curving through woods, over a planked boardwalk, then up a steep hillside with a horrible groaning noise going on – something to do with the fishing in the harbour.
There was a handy bench ‘Dedicated to William Telford, born Burnmouth 1925’ for resting my weary feet and admiring the vista but I was very stiff when I got up. I hadn’t been walking for a month of so and it was showing. I thought I wouldn’t need the chocolate I bought yesterday and wished I hadn’t left it at home.
Blue tits played in the briars, zipping in front of me; silvery green lichen covered the branches. Humbled and cut down, I did not recover quickly. I was reduced to little more than zero miles an hour.
Once up high again and back into the windy onslaught, I needed a hat and two hoods – it was a mere two weeks after the winter solstice.
Then, halleluja! the sun started to show its lovely self. 3.15pm. What a wonderful light.
I had to ask for directions from a group of teenagers heading out for some fun, giggling. I wound my way along the jetty and around the end remembering that I was here for my birthday with Lesley in 2016. The wandering geese took no notice. I was aiming for the co-op store at the centre (ye cannae miss the co-op, it’s the biggest building in the toun I was told) and the most helpful girl who checked the bus times on her phone for me – my fingers were too cold to work mine and it was threatening to run out of battery.
I was focused now on getting warm and fed as I always am after a long day’s hike. I had to spend a great deal of time in a Wetherspoons in Berwick until my return train to Edinburgh, but I warmed up and rested my weary limbs.
I didn’t make it to St Abbs so I will have to start next time at Eyemouth and cover that stretch on day 2.
Train: Edinburgh to Berwick upon Tweed (Scotrail £14.60)
I am not exactly following the Fife Coastal Path (FCP) official map, partly because the daylight is too short to get to the starting place and walk the distance before it gets dark, and partly because of accommodation and transport difficulties. Judging by the website, the FCP people are guessing that folk will be doing it by car, although how they get back to their vehicles I don’t know unless someone picks them up at the end of each stage. I know one long-suffering wife who, together with friends, has been supporting her husband to walk around the whole coast of Scotland by ferrying him from Edinburgh, so perhaps this is more common than I thought! Be warned that although there are good places to stay if you look carefully, it requires quite some research and flexibility to do this.
I recently came across a woman who pitched her tent approximately half way along the path and went back and forth with her car, so that’s another way of doing it, but it will still require the taking of buses and taxis of course. Here is her blog.
I retraced my steps by taking the early Sunday morning bus from Anstruther leaving the hostel at 8.30am in the dark and waving goodbye to my dormitory companion who was making shorter stages. I watched her setting off with her head torch along the section I had taken the previous day.
Half an hour later I was set down close to the Cambo Estate entrance (the cafe opens at 10am), a place I would like to visit some time, and regained the Fife Coastal Path from the main road which took 20 minutes, passing the darkened kitchen window where the kind woman had directed me 15 hours before. From there I completed the final part of the previous day: Cambo Sands to the Kingsbarns car park (where there are facilities: picnic benches and toilets). There were people asleep in their camper vans and lots of dog walkers, even though it was not yet 9am on a Sunday morning). There were signs to The Cheesy Shack, but I could not see it!
Kingsbarns to Boarhills (around 1.5 hours)
I knew from the instructions that today ‘may be the roughest part of the whole route’, and that it ‘should only be walked at low tide’, so I was against the clock which caused some stress, day light being at a minimum in February and the high tide being around 1pm.
It was definitely colder than the day before, maybe because it was earlier or maybe because there was a slight breeze coming towards me. I could see my breath. It was brighter than Saturday with lots of cloud, but also an area of pale blue showing inbetween.
The first thing I passed was a warning of remote bumpy landscape beside a field with a very strong smell of brassicas which overwhelmed the sea scent.
Another golf course and stretches of golden sands stretched as far as the eye could see. So far it was low tide, thank goodness, which was what I was going to need to manage the next part. There were little pillar-box-red poles all the way along, perhaps showing where you can get down to the beach.
It was hard going as they warned it would be, especially on the sand, beautiful though it was in colour and smooth surface. People and dogs had been there ahead of me. Then back on the scrubby grassland beside the shore, the path was very uneven. The water in my bottle was almost too icy for me to drink which showed how cold it was. Just to think that when most of us are in our cosy houses in cities and villages, the birds and cattle are here all through the night wheeping away, floating on the waves and managing the elements, whatever the weather!
There was a detour inland to Boarhills where I crossed the Kenly Water – a well-kept path beside mossy boulders where water bumbled over stones. It was well signposted across a metal bridge, and then there was a tarmac farm road followed by an equally long, straight grassy way heading back to the shore.
Boarhills to St Andrews
Next was a further geological treat: Buddo Rock, a stack of pink sandstone with a muted rainbow of organic colours and weathered into fascinating shapes and spaces.
Though time was galloping along, I had to stay a while and explore the nooks and crannies, gasp at the intricate patterns which had developed over centuries.
It is gentle land, unassuming and quiet, seeing to itself. Nature and birds are simply doing their thing – a situation which allowed me to think about what I wanted and do what I wanted because it didn’t care.
Gorse and lichen, a matching yellow, were situated amongst twisted shrubs which were sharp and almost bare of leaves. I padded along soft paths at the sides of which the sun lit up swathes of bright beige grasses with lavender coloured seedheads. Drystone walls cut into the shoreline at right angles and the sea turned alternate shades of baby blue and slate grey depending on the cloud movement.
A jogger ran past. A man was doing a pee, very embarrassed as he spied me.
There were more walkers than I had seen before on any of the FCP – there’s nothing like the Real Tough Part for attracting lots of folk! Both enthusiastic and uninformed walkers were there, I would have said, given what they were wearing on their feet. It sure was tricky in places: steep like a roller coaster, and a real scramble up jaggedy rocks at others. The water came very close, even before the tide turned, but I didn’t get my feet wet!
In one place there was a thin plank, the width of one foot, over a narrow chasm and a couple were in front of me. The man went first with the dog and held it as it growled at me. As I passed I heard him murmuring, ‘mummy’s coming, mummy’s coming’ as the woman with beautiful makeup stood still and wondered if she wanted to cross. She took her time – there was no other way.
Further along was the Rock and Spindle – an eye-catching, rather thrusting geological feature standing separate from the crowd just off the main shore.
High up on Kinkell Ness I stopped to ask directions from a very tall gentleman in an orange top with a beard with a petite woman and labrador beside him. Yes! 15 minutes over the high ground, he assured me, and I would be in St Andrews – I had done it, with a real sense of elation. I even laughed as the rain came down!
I heard children and looked down the steep cliffs to the beach, but no, it was a trick of sound over water – about 8 of them were in a boat out in the bay.
The astonishing thing is that you do actually get there, however exhausted your muscles are, Mine were all tense and brittle from yesterday’s exertion. On the East Sand, people wore trainers and sauntered with coffees, barking dogs and there were four white sails in the harbour.
Reads, ‘to pry apart a sunbeam and find yellow like imperfect gilding, violet and purplish black laquer of a lobster claw, bottle-green depths and dandelion interiors, the frilly white of shoreline and seashell, and all light’s silverwork laid bare in a solution of common salt on the common sand.’
What did I find surrounded by a small crowd but the Cheesy Shack which I had seen advertised back at Kingsbarns Car Park!
There is the option here to carry on around the cliffs and past St Andrews Castle, or turn inland through the city. I did the latter. It was a bit of a walk as there are only a few places where you can cross the Kinness Burn and take the Pends into the city. I was pretty wet now and needed shelter.
I took a left along South Street to find somewhere to find hot food and somewhere to recharge my phone. The soup was spicy and warm at the North Point Cafe, an unsophisticated wee place where the staff were attentive.
Be very careful when picking up a path leaving a town – it is always one of the most difficult things on a trail like this. There is a massive and most famous golf course on the edge of St Andrews and in many places it is uncrossable, so do not skirt the sea (where the toilets were closed) or you will have a very long walk!
I eventually found my way into the club house and the receptionists were kind and let me use their sumptuous facilities!
If you too stopped here for lunch here is my advice: find the main road A91 out of the city (the continuation of North street), direction: northwards. Alternatively you could ask for the Old Course if you dare (it is assumed you know where it is, as it is so well known!). Keep to the left of it ie do not follow the coast road through the car park (West Sands Road) even though it does say coastal walk, but instead head for the enormous hotel and the facade which is facing away from the sea, inland. You are looking for the tree-lined North Sea Cycle Path which goes to the left of the Tom Morris Building (turf on the roof).
It was a long haul on hard ground after such a challenging day and there is little to entertain you but traffic noise. I changed into my other shoes, but it felt like I was wearing slippers and my feet were sore. You could always take the bus as they are frequent and cheap.
I was very tired and looking for the Guardbridge Hotel when I saw that I could get the X59 bus back to Edinburgh. I stopped and waited on the same side of the road where I had been walking until a local bus stopped and said I was on the wrong side!
Ten minutes later I was hurtling back across Fife, taking the route through Glenrothes towards the Forth Road Bridge and home in the dark. I hadn’t made it to Leuchars, the end of the day’s walk, but then again I had started at Kingsbarns instead of Cambo Sands.
After last weekend’s walk on the Berwickshire Coastal Path I was aware of the short day-light at this time of year, so I set out in the dark with a rucksack that I found upstairs looking like it had never been used, telling myself:
It’s going to be harder than you think it’s going to be
You never know what’s going to happen
Slowly the sky lightened as I trundled through the countryside on the train from Edinburgh to Kirkcaldy, a blue glow over the misty fields. My phone registered one degrees.
The X60 Stagecoach from Bennochy Road (close to Kirkcaldy railway station) dropped me off by the entrance to the Holiday Park with its puffin sign on the outside of St Monans and the memorial to George Hutchison 1945-90.
Time flies, Shadows fall, Love is forever, Over all.
By 10am I had walked through it and down the steps to the mirror clear water of the salt pans, the mini windmill, and onto the beach.
I heard the sea before I saw it as there was no wind. Somebody was ahead of me, somebody behind me.
Like last weekend, white waves rolled over themselves, but there were no cliffs just flat, jagged rocks the colour of sandstone. Closer to the water they were black, etched deeply, at right angles to the land making little coves of apricot sand. A yellow gorse bush was tucked under the eroding edge. A pair of mallards drifted, and the air was very still with the smell of smoked fish.
Big white birds perched on the outcrop and, looking closely, almost hidden, black-on-black, large dark ones as well, one standing up and opening its wide wings: cormorants.
I could see Pittenweem’s orange roofs ahead but it was too early for a stop. I was hoping to find somewhere to buy something to eat later on though, as a picnic with my flask of (not very hot) Jasmine tea.
A bunch of friendly ladies all dressed in pink and purple left strong wafts of perfume as they chattered by, each saying ‘morning’ to me.
I had expected a cold bright sunny day like yesterday, but it was dull instead so I could not see into the distance and it was warmer as a result.
Here the stink of seaweed was palpable and friendly dog walkers were out and about. Pretty cottages, all marled in pale hues – beige, pumpkin, baby blue and the odd lavender – line the harbour. Wood smoke hung in the air and as I passed a bicycle decorated with scallop shells I wondered if it was owned by a fellow camino walker.
In Pittenweem I could have tasted ice cream or supped on fish and chips, drank a dram at the Larachmhor Tavern or admired the arts and antiquities off to the left. Were the toilets open? Yes, and well supplied – warm, light and clean – excellent as public facilities go. What I couldn’t spot was a food shop. Pittenweem is an active harbour, however it being the winter months, the Dory Bistro and Gallery was shut and there were few people around considering it was a Saturday morning.
Coming out of the village, I noticed that there were not many wild flowers – one or two orange marigolds (calendula) and a few with tiny dandelion-like heads to a stalk. The path goes along the back of what look like holiday cottages. Here pink mallow in someone’s garden, there a pinky-purple hebe, otherwise not much colour at this time of year.
I was walking higher up now above the sea and behind a fence. Down below, right by the shoreline were man-made concrete blocks, presumably the remains of WW2 battlements or look-out towers. On my other side were well manured and beautifully ploughed dark brown fields.
The cropped green of the well manicured links (golf course) contrasted with the improvised yellow lichen of the fence posts.
A cormorant’s proud neck and head were at right angles to its body and suddenly it dove down amongst the tumultuous waves.
Then I too was right down by the beach, enjoying the lovely gentle colours of the rocks – threads of khaki and caramel with carmine underneath and black above.
Sparrows trotted along with pointy beaks dabbing amongst the blades. A single cormorant flew past, neck reaching, its body the shape of a black cigar remaining dead parallel to the sea, while both black wings flapped up and down simultaneously.
I passed a big group of hikers, some of them properly dressed to tackle the north face of the Eiger. A castellated tower had a list of names below it; a war memorial.
As I entered Anstruther I spotted a street labelled ‘Formerly Witches Wynd’. I thought wryly, that’ll be before they killed them then!
A nearby sign read: ‘James V travelled incognito through Fife as the ‘Guid Man o’Ballengiech’, coming to the Dreel Burn and fearful of wetting his hose, he was carried across at this point by a stout gaberlunzie (beggar) woman, who was rewarded with the king’s purse.’
Around an extremely sharp and very dangerous bend with no pavement, was more coquille Saint-Jaques decorating a house and the Dreel Halls with a lot to see – the church architecture, its graveyard and various monuments and inscriptions.
Around the glass the inscription reads: There is a stone coffin which has stood exposed to the injuries of the weather in the churchyard. Tradition says it once contained the relics of St Adrian. Time immemorial.
Written on the stone is a poem about God:
‘…He drops into the kirk, and sits as sunlight on a rear pew. It is warm, the sermon’s mighty long. He sucks a mint and dozes…’
Taken from ‘In Anster’, engraved on a stone in the yard, by Andrew Greig, 2013 who grew up in the town.
The path takes walkers into the town but remember to take a right turn at the wee shop, walking between the A & A Stores and The Bank hotel! The path turns quickly to the right down a very narrow wynd back to the sea.
At the harbour there is the ubiquitous fish bar plus a post office, cash point and the Scottish Fisheries Museum (shut but the cafe was open and there were eco toilets that I have never seen before where the water for cleaning your hands fills the cistern after use).
You can learn about the desperate outcome of a collision in 1918 between submarine troops on an exercise who, due to the wartime blackout, collided with minesweepers, leaving 108 dead.
Anstruther is an extensive town made up of 3 or 4 boroughs (depending on which source you consult). It was bustling, and I happily spotted the elegant hostel where I would be spending the night.
Nearby was an artisan bakery where I treated myself to an expensive packet of thick and chunky cheese oatcakes (made, so the board informed, of ‘Anster cheese crafted by Jane Stewart’) which came in very handy for the remainder of the trip (ie I ate them for breakfast, lunch and tea!)
A wee way along was Cellardyke Harbour (known locally as Skinfast Haven created in 1452) with washing lines beside it. I sat down and supped my tea.
Oooh weep, oooh weep – big crowds of curlew with their long thin, curvy beaks. A stretch of uneven grassy path and it was definitely sniffly weather. A couple trundled ahead of me; the sea rolled and crashed close to my right shoulder; and then a kissing gate which I really had to squeeze through because I never want to take the rucksack off when I have got it comfy and settled on my back.
The high point of the day were the rocks. Sandy to the touch and with amazing colours, stripes, indentations, wave patterns and all manner of other shapes that you could make stories up about. I stood underneath them and looked up to the sky and out to the sea. There was something very powerful about the place.
More cormorants seemed mammoths compared to the orange-legged oyster catchers beside them up to their knees at the water’s edge.
A stony beach meant that the withdrawing waves cause the rocks to clatter against each other and tufty puffs of white foam rise high between rocks. What’s left of the water in the pools had the setting sun reflected in them, even though it looks as though it’s way over to the horizon and nowhere near overhead.
It was 1 o’ clock and I was already starting to feel tired and slightly anxious about the evening, a bit cranky as I came into Crail!
I lost the signs and asked a couple who directed me back the way I had come and they recommended the Golf Hotel where I duly stopped for a cup of tea and some ‘rocky road’. Report: very nice waitress, very slow service, not my sort of place.
Once out there was a clear sign downhill to the sea – I must have needed that boost!
Roome Bay was next and caravan site #3: Sauchope Links. There is lots of space for visitors with little huts, white yurts with little chimneys coming out of the side and a swimming pool. One larger dwelling had a hot tub on its balcony, and overall it could not be closer to the sea. Like a spotlessly clean small village, everything is well kept and perhaps because only a few are inhabited at this time of year it seemed soulless.
Out to the ocean, I watched while banks of water gathered, dark on the forward slope, white bubbles teetering on the edge before crashing down and running into the bay. Sometimes when you think you get to the top of a mountain it turns out to be a false summit, and this was the same: that long wave was all over until it turned out that it wasn’t and there was another edge, and another beyond that, and…
My attention was attracted by baah and the sheep’s great thick ruffs of coat bunched up around their necks. When they have their heads down it looks as if you might be able to extend them, opening up those folds like a concertina.
The massive rocks were sometimes triangular but never curved, gravity having squashed down the layers of the land. Even the vertical cuts and breaks were all at right angles.
A little further on there were some demure cottages, more caravans and golf links. It was darkening now. The birds were in clusters and from a distance they looked as jaggedy as the rocks at very corner, battered by the waves, like dinosaurs’ backs across the peach sand to the sea.
The odd quack came from ducks all settled down comfortably on the pungent seaweed interspersed with a squawk of ravens. As the cormorants were standing with their wings open but there was no sun, I could only conclude that they too were having hot sweats and needing to cool down!
Constantine’s Cave is just here. According to tradition, King Constantine I was killed in this place after a battle with Dubhghall (‘dark foreigners or Danes’) in 874.
I was nervous of being stranded by the sea at night, so I took a left before I got to Cambo Ness. Although Kingsbarns village is covered up by a panel of writing on the Coastal Path map for stage 5, I had researched in advance and knew I could get a bus from there. I found my way across the corner of the golf course and up the beginnings of a small road where I spied a lit window where a woman was washing up. She kindly came to the door and advised me it would be quicker to stay by the sea. However, she is familiar with the area and I was not, so I took off up the farm track, through the yard, and narrowly missed the bus by about 3 minutes as it thundered past on the main A917. Then I had to do what she said I would and walk at the side of a very busy road, initially with no pavement, and into Kingsbarns by the church where I waited nearly half an hour for the 95 bus.
Back I went to Anstruther and to the Murray House Hostel which I had seen earlier. The French hospitalier was extremely helpful and let me practice my French. The communal rooms are large, and I was put with the other solo woman Coastal Path walker in a 4-bed (usually more expensive) dorm which was very kind. Cost £14 (not including breakfast). I was told that I had to sample the famous fish and chips at the Anstruther Fish Bar and Restaurant which I dutifully did – I gave it 4 stars! The hostel has a very decent kitchen and a supermarket is not far away so there’s no need to eat out. Do book the hostel in advance during this time of year though, as it will open for 2 or more people but may be shut if you turn up on spec.
I had a very good, long sleep to prepare me for an early start to stage 6 the next day.
December 2018 – a rail journey from Edinburgh to Tweedbank and a short but stunning walk to Melrose in Roxburghshire, where you will find the ruins of a magnificent Medieval Abbey.
I took the train to Tweedbank in the Borders – it’s the end of the line. It takes 1 hr and the service runs every half hour. It costs £9.30 with an Over 50s Railcard ( I booked the ticket and renewed the rail card last night online through Scotrail for £15 for the year and it took about 5 minutes). Then it’s a 40 minutes walk each way into the town of Melrose, although that doesn’t allow for what I call ‘astonishment time’ ie time for stopping at intervals because, Oh my, look at that, oh I must take a photo, I just can’t believe it, it’s so gorgeous!
If you like you can stop reading this now and open YouTube or Spotify and find Fording the Tweed By Savourna Stevenson, so that you have something magical to listen to as you continue reading and imagining you are taking this journey with me.
Choose a day where it won’t go above 2 degrees celsius so that it stays white and hard underfoot. Wear thermals under your normal clothes, plus a coat, woolly hat and cosy gloves.
You know what they say, it’s not the weather that’s the problem in Scotland it’s having the right clothes! Not being able to bend your elbows because you have a thick jumper on under your not-quite-big-enough jacket is a small price to pay for all this beauty.
You will travel on the Waverley Route, so called as it refers to Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels. Start by facing in the direction you are coming from and sitting on the left. This way you will have wonderful views of Edinburgh – Arthur’s Seat. Ignore the rest unless you enjoy the industrial outskirts of cities.
When you hear the nice lady announce Gorebridge, change seats so that you are looking the way you are going and you can either plump for right or left (the views are equally attractive) or, like me you can leap from side to side because, well because the views are both enticing.
People seem to have it in for Galashiels, so I will blog separately about that. Suffice to say that it is impossible for a whole town to be boring and I know some lovely people who live there and they like it a lot. It has an excellent brass band for a start.
You will not need a map nor must you look up the way in advance or use your phone. Believe me, if it’s possible to get lost I would have and it’s not. I promise. Sit back and relax. Feast your eyes on the hills, rivers, pretty houses, and majestic trees. Over on one side you will spy the traffic – be pleased that you are not driving, have a nice cup of tea and a comfy seat – you can just gawp.
Tweedbank station is new and modern with a massive car park. There is one line, two platforms and everything is properly signposted. There is a bus if you prefer.
Otherwise, walk along the only way you can and straight ahead you will see the cycle path.
Today I was enchanted by the way the hoar highlighted the seed heads, fence posts, and each individual blade of grass.
You won’t get lost – there are multiple signs: Melrose Link on the left; National Cycle Network on the right.
There will be aluminium buildings to your left. When the SPPA (Scottish Public Pensions Agency) is ahead, admire their gardens and peer at the poor folk inside working on such a wonderful day. Smile. Then walk to the right of them, following those signs.
You will see that you are joining the Southern Upland Way.
Very soon there is a road to cross and opposite, through a little wooden gate at waist height, is a path with steps going down and there is the Tweed River, burbling on your left.
On the right you may be lucky enough to see two Highland cattle, and if it is cold enough it will look as if they are vaping with condensed air coming sideways simultaneously from both nostrils in opposite directions.
I scraped the ice from the tourist board telling about the fantastically named Skirmish Hill where King James V’s men fought those of the Duke of Buccleuch and won. The 14 year old monarch is said to have watched from a safe place.
At the kissing gate go to the left of the houses and you will see signs. Almost immediately continue through the woods to the left. The way goes uphill with a wooden handrail, green with lichen.
The ferns were all flattened by frost as I came into a clearing, going gently downhill. Here I spied more information, this time about fishing: grayling and salmon who make the courageous journey from sea upstream to fresh waters to spawn, often against all odds.
There is a choice coming up:
You can either go past the hedge which is too high to see over (I stood on one of the handy benches to get a shot), ignore the sign and keep on going for a while to see the Chain Bridge, but then turn back and take the Town Centre sign. This will take you between the rugby club (left) and the green park (right)
Or, keep walking past the church to the Chain Bridge and around behind the town centre coming in by the road directly to the Abbey.
I took the second option because it was signed Abbey Walk.
Everyone is very friendly as are their dogs. A collie politely laid her pink ball at my toes, her nose flat along the ground, eyes expectant. The second time she came back she showed me the tricks she could do with it, presumably as encouragement and to distract from my muddy fingers. The third time, the gap between me and her owner having widened considerably, I informed her this would be the last, before hurling it behind me.
You can halt to admire the horses on the left, or perhaps the motorbikes on the right. (You can pick up a copy of their free magazine too.)
You will continue onto a small road. Turn left if you wish to visit Newstead.
Hang a right at the main road where the signs mysteriously disappear (sorry, I guess what I wrote above was wrong at this juncture).
Walk past the Abbey Woollen Mill shop, or visit if you like. Carry on by the houses and careful because it’s a busy road, but not for long.
Don’t take the next right (St Marys Road) unless visiting the Harmony Garden. The nearby Georgian Manor House is available for holiday lets.
Instead go straight on see to see Melrose Abbey on the left, behind the wall. David I founded the first Cistercian Abbey in 1136. The heart of Robert the Bruce is believed to be buried in the chapter house there. The opening hours and link to the Historic Scotland page are at the end of this blog. The bus stop is to the right of the monument.
The town centre is in the middle of a triangle with a unicorn on an extremely high pillar in its middle. Originally this would have been the Mercat Cross where all typesiof goods wouldhhave been for sale, proclamations were made and criminals punished. The heraldic unicorn is the supporter for the Royal Arms. Here you will find a pharmacy, and library plus The Roman Centre. There are lots of hotels, cafés and nice independent shops, particularly bookshops, partly because the people who live there like to read, and there is also a Book Festival. Explore!
After your browsing and sightseeing, you can return the other way if you did what I did: to get back to the station, walk out of town along the A6091 road with the Co-operative store (food) on your right, and head towards the Melrose Rugby Club. Anyone will be able to point you in that direction as rugby is THE sport in the Borders.
If it’s still light, enjoy the grand trees, admire the mole hills, and tune into the water as you wander.
A gentleman and I passed the time of day as we recognised each other from the morning when we were then also going in the opposite direction.
Remember that things look different when retracing one’s steps! You must cross two roads and keep both the SPPA and the aluminium buildings on on your right. Keep following the white Scottish thistles and yellow arrow. The final cycle path part is fully lit when it’s darkling (3.30pm at this time of year).
Birds twitched: robin, chaffinch, blackbird, pidgeon, crow, mallard and a heron unusually crouched by the riverbank. Luckily there were still plenty of berries available for them to feast on.
There is a little shop at the station selling hot drinks, snacks and G’n’T. I was reliably informed that passengers usually buy it on the way up in the morning!
Don’t believe all the moaning complaints you might find on the internet. The trains are great. Well, we were only delayed 10 minutes homeward bound. I know I am not a commuter but.. take a leaf out of our school girl days (I took a daily return to school for 7 years) and if the train is cancelled don’t go to work, go for a walk instead. Look around you and inhale.
I went there to see friends and give Shiatsu. I might go back so if you live there and would like a session let me know. Many thanks to the Chris (designer of my lovely website) and Penny for lunch and chat.
Melrose Abbey is open all year round. April to September 9.30 – 17.30; October to March 10 – 16.00.
At 9.30am I left my air bnb with numb feet. Snow was on the ground, there was a pink sky, and almost no-one else about.
I walked briskly between ploughed fields towards the sea, across the main road and through the park. Past the sweet wee red brick cottages (not open on Sundays) I went and met the first lot of dog walkers including a woman in high heels with her breakfast hot chocolate.
By time got to the beach (10.15am) my toes were all but thawed but I was walking slower than usual on account of a dodgy left knee. Joggers went past and dogs were constantly barking and disturbing my peace.
The tide was way out revealing water with a smooth metallic look about it. It was the light catching the shallows sands which was so beautiful. Wind was on my right cheek today, rather than heat, as I made my way eastwards along the coast.
Mountain bikers took the path well trodden. I went across streets which were treacherously icy with puddles deeply frozen, and the only sign of the sun was the pink rim on the eastern horizon.
As I swung forwards I surveyed the changed shoreline with its diagonal black rocks familiar from stage 2. Then straight on I went, past the orange house where a white-haired saunterer in shorts returned from getting the morning paper. Readers of my blog know that I love my shorts but not in this weather!
Lower Largo is a very pretty village with brightly painted doors and model yachts in windows.
Alexander Selkirk, mariner, is the original Robinson Crusoe, who lived in solitude on the island of Juan Fernandez for 4 years and 4 months.
It has to be said that it was all a little bleak this morning with only a weak sun.
Multi-coloured rocks and bright green pebbles with shiny brown seaweed and opaque glass pieces could be found along the shore. Oyster catchers were peeping and others trilling. A couple held hands and battered shells littered the ground.
It was a hard walk in a good stretch of nature. I saw a couple of thrushes and a tall, friendly man with a ruddy face. His long-legged red setter had a neon tennis ball clamped in its jaws as we crossed the Dumbarnie Links Nature Reserve. Here there were raven-esque, empty mussel caskets (I was directly opposite the town of Musselburgh!) and I felt melancholy.
It was what I call wonky walking where one of my feet is on higher ground than the other. The strand stretched out ahead and while gulls swooped, black and white waders dipped orange beaks.
Berwick Law in East Lothian to the south, was snow covered too. Here was only one other human in sight. There seemed to be miles of those lumpy sea creatures’ corpses, all rubbery, and simply trillions of shells on their way to becoming sand creating quite a different crunch underfoot compared with the ice and snow.
To follow this part of the coastal path, just keep walking along the beach before a long line of dark green trees with appear across your view. Then you will see a sign to the left heralding a change of terrain.
Up and over the cliffs runs the way, some roughness and muddyness, steep but not very high. Sadly I missed the part where there is a chain to climb up. Apparently people have died so on second thoughts that was probably a good thing, although being me I would have liked the challenge.
Around 1.30pm I arrived at Elie beach with its yellow brown sand and a headless seal. People were foraging for cockles and a feathered wren hopped by my side.
The next urbanisation, Earlsferry, seemed to be a well-to-do area with mansion turrets and BMWs all over the place.
There is a library and care home but no shops or pubs. The sky was fair lowering (getting dark – looks like rain!) and I was getting hungry, so I took a detour until I spied a golf club and the Pavillon Cafe which was busy. What incredible luck as ever!
Inside I not only found warmth, hot victuals and a distinct lack of wind, but I unexpectedly spotted a familiar face. I ordered my food and said ‘Hi’ to a colleague from long ago. We struck up a conversation and with true kindness he and his partner announced that they lived in St Monan’s (my destination) and asked if I would like to stay the night. I gratefully accepted because I had nowhere booked and transport back to Edinburgh from small Fife villages is hard to find on a Sunday evening. I declined a lift though, and made my way back out into the slightly rainy and dull afternoon (3.15pm) with a cosy tummy and glowing heart.
The last stretch is full of interest : a lighthouse and a palace, two castles (Newark and St Monans), divers ruins and a famous church (but it was too dark for a photo).
With wilder, darkening waves pounding I walked through pinkish bracken and I approached St Monans around the fields, arriving as the day the darkened at 5pm.
What a pretty village! I was really taken with it.
I am told that the East Pier Smokehouse is well worth a visit, however it is shut between October and June. There is famous parish church and a Heritage Collection. The hotel I saw was also shut in the winter months so it’s a good thing there are air bnb’s nowadays and Margaret’s sounded great when I made enquiries. I was lucky and stayed with J and J whom I had fortuitously met earlier and had a lovely evening and comfy bed.
I travelled back by car with J to Kirkcaldy station across the flat lands as dawn revealed another wintry sky. Then we got the train to Waverley Station in Edinburgh. To get back to Edinburgh from St Monans by bus would cost £10 with a change at Leven and it takes ages.
Sometimes when I walk I crunch, sometimes my footsteps thud on the grass or whisper on sand. Occasionally there is a rumble of small stones or snap of stick, splinter of ice, even hollow bump into the peat or squelch because of the wetness. These things I notice as I walk the paths of Fife early in the year.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 with my final reflections on making a secular pilgrimage.
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.
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’s, his cousin, he who ordered his murder. I 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.2
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.
Like the other secular 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 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. I particularly enjoyed the focus topic for each day, and the initial selection and distribution of stones.
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.
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
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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!