Reflecting is a vital part of taking a walk. It helps to embed or integrate the walking experiences – where I have been, and what I have learned – in the hope that any changes wrought will last.
Most of all, though, I failed to comprehend that the best things in life aren’t things that are visibly sexy on the surface. They don’t scream for attention, and they rarely invite adrenaline. Rather they come from quiet commitment, respectful engagement, and a love of something greater than yourself.
Before a sitting meditation I start by acknowledging or noting any issues which are bothering me, either to clear my mind, to problem-solve, or create focus. Then I try to simply sit. I have been doing that for years. As a result I sometimes come up with creative ideas, solutions and greater understanding, or at the very least a recognition of patterns of behaviour.
Walking is a kind of meditation and the more I walk, the more I realise it’s the pilgrimage itself which presents the learning – simply by starting, trekking, and getting to the end of it.
I have habits that I try to pretend aren’t there, aren’t really so bad, or that I can’t help. These come to the fore when walking a pilgrimage. It is in the planning and facing of the realities of the land and the practicalities of accommodation and food which bring me face to face with myself.
Is walking pilgrimage synonymous with being religious?
I do not follow a recognised religion. I was christened into the Church of England by my parents and had to learn tracts of the bible overnight for reciting in primary school the next day. Joining in assembly every morning at secondary school was obligatory, and I sang and read lessons during services; went on a Sunday School holiday; and spent years in the Girl Guides where Christianity was important.
I was steeped in it – the tenets of it seem to be in my soul (or my cells). Religion provided me with a moral and ethical language at the time when I was learning to speak, and I have discovered that it is hard to shrug off.
I might be on a mission to get rid of the destructive part of what I was taught in those early years: I was encouraged to feel guilty; it was assumed that I had Original Sin; and I was told that I was bad in my core, like every other human being. Perhaps I take ecumenical walks to give myself the time to recognise the impact of this and to let go of such negatives.
Nowadays I visit churches sometimes, and I certainly respect believers, but I do not take communion. I have read widely, listened and discussed with friends, but I cannot follow a Faith which seems to exclude or criticise people for being the way they are or believing what they do.
So, I do understand why people keep asking me why I walk pilgrimage. After all, historically it was a religious practice.
Thereafter, his (Bruce Chatwin’s) religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.
This question is asked of Guy Stagg who wrote The Crossway. Personally, he knew why he had set out – it was primarily for his mental health – but he repeatedly asked himself, ‘Why pilgrimage, why not just a nice trek?’ The astonished monks asked him too, as he battled through the alps in the middle of winter. Not having been satisfied with going from London to Canterbury he decided to go on to Jerusalem no less.
Tim Moore in Spanish Steps, Travels with my Donkey asks himself, why he is doing the barmy thing of finding, caring for and walking with a donkey along the camino in Spain when he is not religious.
For me, it is a walk but with added zizz! There is an in-built beginning, middle and end; it’s a project all in itself, and it is so much more than a wander round my local park.
it is essential as a reunion with oneself and with others. It’s almost a phenomenon of resistance: walking does not mean saving time, but rather losing it, making a détour to catch one’s breath!
In Chinese Medicine I was delighted to learn that there are a number of different ways to describe the spirit or soul. In Icelandic there are more words for snow than we have in English; in the Orient the parts of ourselves which relate to spirituality, to nature or to our innate relationship with other people are as important as our physical and mental aspects. Although the spirit is amorphous, hard to define, it is something I have a tangible sense of, particularly when I walk in nature. Although sometimes I am content to ‘be’, at other times I become curious and try to understand this puzzle.
When I sit and meditate in my Shiatsu room in Edinburgh I can simultaneously be in Tibet or Japan or China. I don’t know why that is or how it happens and I ponder on these things as I walk. I privately think (well, not so privately now!) that at least one explanation is that I was a nun and a monk in former lives. It is the best explanation I have come across so far. The feeling I had, for example, when I crossed the sands, barefoot, to Mont Saint Michel was real – I ‘knew’ I had walked there before.
What is ‘knowing’?
We have discovered in the last 100 years or so that our physical cells destruct and reconstruct, so the ones I have now shouldn’t be the same ones I had when I was a baby, never mind the ones my mother or grandmother had. And yet we know that we share genetic material.
There is a theory that there is a collective knowledge which accumulates from the generations which came before. It could be this wisdom which tells me where to go to find what I seek, and what has got me here in the first place. However, current scientific methodology and outcomes deny me entry into this collective unconscious. It insists that I enter through the portal of logic and I am not sure that logic is the right way into that sort of understanding.
I have an intrinsic sense of the English phrase, ‘I know it in my bones’. My bones are made up of cells and therein lies my genetic material, yet in every text I read about pilgrimage something inside me recognises it. I seem to share the centuries of that collective knowledge, it is familiar.
* . . . live inside the bone and have long branches which allow them to contact each other …
There is my DNA and my body. There are my mind and my thoughts. There is my self, my soul, my spirit. In my work and my walking I am enquiring into the connections and (re)discovering dissociations between these.
It’s all about love
The more I listen to myself as I traipse, and to my clients in the Shiatsu room, the more I think that what we all seek is the connection to LOVE. It sounds like a familiar new-age thing to say, it is straight out of the ‘all you need is ….’ 1960s, but I keep coming back to it.
I have a hunger for that ‘something for which we search’. And I know it isn’t just me, because when I tell folk what I do, they say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that’ or, ‘I have wanted to do that for ages’. Or maybe they too have already started!
I seem to be part of a contemporary pilgrimage movement in which it is possible that we are seeking ways to integrate, comprehend and connect our-selves, personally and in community.
Pilgrims walking the Via de la Plata, Spain; Tourists flocking to the Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.
In addition to all this, I notice a compunction to move on, to save my soul, to find, to seek. The ‘thing’ I am looking for is at the same time inside me right now and just ahead of me. It is that towards which I reach or walk. It isn’t new. Everything I have done in my life so far is part of this instinctive movement towards being purer, ironing out the creases. That’s what I believe we are all doing wherever we are.
I know that inside me lies this knowledge just as tangibly as I know my organs are there. I recognise that I am part of a continuum, a humanity of seekers. What is necessary is the time and space to better hear what is happening, and that is hard to find when I am at home looking after people and my surroundings, doing what most of us do in our adult Western lives.
The answer, it seems, lies in introspection. Without trying to be precious, I go quietly back inside myself when I walk to hear the still, small voice.
But it takes intentional steps to change our pace and encounter one another as pilgrims on a journey along with Way. In our time of frenetic political intensity, within a culture addicted to speed, we need to hear and heed the call of this step by step pilgrimage.. Wes Granberg-Michaelsonhttps://sojo.net/articles/all-are-pilgrims
And so it appears I am descended from the ascetics and hermits of my history. I’m reborn into the liberated 21st century. I am, at one and the same time, part of a shared community -walkers and pilgrims, fellow monks and nuns, a group with shared values – and I am alone for to ponder.
Some things are proving intractable and I expect that’s why I have to keep on doing it!
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.
I was in Stromness for less than 24 hours. The places I have visited there are:
Tingwall – Betty’s Reading Room (always open, tea and biscuits, books, comfy place to sit and charge your phone). Kiersty who put me up in Evie, showed me this wonderful place which is very close to the ferry terminal. It was erected in memory of a member of the local community and is a peaceful place to sit and read – tea and biscuits are available. Occasional readings or other events happen there. The main thing is that the door is open – you can just step inside and make yourself comfortable.
(In other words, there was no need for me to walk all the way to the Fernvalley Wildlife Centre and find that it was shut, and then walk all the way back and into Evie along the busy road, only to find that the Eviedale Cafe was also shut – all in order to charge my phone and find the address where I was staying that night!)
there are no shops nor anywhere to stay on the island
Mistra is a perfect wee post office cum shop (10am to 5pm)
Eviedale Bistro (Weds – Sun 11am – 3.30pm). It wasn’t open when I was there
The Palace Stores where you can buy drinks (opens at 10am (12noon on Sundays) and shuts at 5pm)
Tearoom (10.30-5pm. Shut Tues / Weds)
Barony Hotel (about 20 minutes walk from campsite. Good food, but book in advance as it has erratic opening times)
a good co-op which sold a disposable thing I not seen before to plug into your phone to charge it. Cost £2.50 (did not work well on my phone because it was not working properly)
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 24th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Day 2 – on shame, fear, and foolhardiness
Scenery: simply stunning
Burns crossed: too many to count
Whales seen: Nil. Dolphins? Also nil. (Another northern Scottish trip without a single sighting. Sigh)
People encountered between start and finish: 3 (at the end)
20 kms / 12.5 miles
Time: 8.5 hours
Falls to death: thankfully zero, but it was a close thing once or twice. Sound extreme? It was
Moral of the story: follow the signs
Theme established by the St Magnus Way group, to be found on their website: Loss
‘All pilgrimages share certain characteristics, features which define them as holy walks. A vow or promise at the journey’s beginning; and at the end a ritual prayer for enlightenment, forgiveness or miracle.’ p. 104, Spanish Steps, by Tim Moore.
I stayed the night with Meg and Frank and enjoyed their company, conversation and beautiful woodland garden in the evening sunshine (photos above and below).
The next morning I gave a Shiatsu session and then stepped across their threshold for my first full day’s walk. Five geese honked in formation. As I tripped down past their lovely wood, a smell of earth was in my nostrils. A dry stone wall swept around the Sands of Evie in the Eynhallow Sound. Note that the recommended path begins at the Broch of Gurness.
On my right, barbed wire; on my left an expanse of green. Peep peep peep and twitter twitter regaled me. I was off. The haar was clearing. Cock-a-doodle-doo he crowed in celebration.
The St. Magnus Way website suggests using stones for various reasons: focus, something that ‘weighs heavily’, to remind you of something, or as a companion, to keep or to discard. So, I selected three stanes that the beach offered up: one for the fear that I won’t manage the walk – that was lobbed into the sea straight away! One was for worries about the future, and that I laid with all the monumental ones further along the coast. I kept the third until the end of the day. I had discussed the way with locals before leaving. I knew that sections of this first day had been closed due to unsafe conditions, although I did not know any details. My friend said she would not take a détour, and that matched my own spirit. So, I had already established that I would try to stay near the coast rather than being redirected onto the road.
The first marker is attached to a wooden post – a simple, classy image of a black cross standing on a single wave-y line. Here was lush greenery but there was no path. Quite quickly I heard the phrase in my head ‘shame on such a path’. Now that is a phrase straight out of my childhood and the Church of England in the 1960s and 70s – one which I do not expect to have in my vocabulary. There are reasons I have continued to walk long distances, and one is the vital opportunity it offers for me to hear my internal prejudices and judgments. Away from the constant noise of the city and interactions with others, and with the quieter natural environment around me, I was giving myself the chance to choose to change. Well, to try to, at least – to notice. After all, old habits do die hard!
Shame on you. – it is a turn of phrase, right enough, but it carries a world of significance with it. What I meant was, how could ‘they’ let this pathway become so overgrown with nettles? My legs are very short and what with the heavy rucksack weighing me down, I was knee deep in them. Thank goodness I had the bottoms of my walking trousers still attached!
Anyone will tell you, I am a great supporter of self-reflection. Taking the time to review one’s actions, trying to honestly recognise what I say and do is an important part of self-development, and that is necessary at least for being a Shiatsu Practitioner, but also for learning about myself and how I am in relationship. I do not want to instill shame in others or suggest they should feel it, just because I think they should have done something different. It is, anyway, not a useful way to bring about change, if indeed that is needed.
‘It is not intended to be a manicured track, but a route of great variety, stunning scenery, historical significance and space to breathe’ From The Orkney Islander magazine.
This is essentially a Christian pilgrimage I am on, set up by a Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend David McNeish, and a group of people from different churches. McNeish stresses, in the above mentioned article, that the walk is for anyone, an essentially spiritual experience for those who believe in God and also for those who do not.
‘The St Magnus Way is rooted in the Christian faith, as was Magnus, but welcomes all people and faith perspectives‘.
Interestingly the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the pilgrimge’s final destination, ‘is unique in Europe in that it belongs to no particular denomination… since it has been owned by the people of Orkney since 1486’ (taken from The Society of the Friends of St Magnus Cathedral leaflet). It turned out that this walk, for me, was already becoming a golden opportunity to face up to some of my outdated beliefs around religion.
As I made my way eastwards, I clambered over chunks of beach where the course was hard to follow on the headlands but perfect for the sheer and simple joy of being so close to the sea. I waded thigh-high through more nettles, and these were interspersed with periods of striding forth when the way was clear. Then I could stare out, and out there was the glittering ocean while underneath me were the brooding, cracked rocks.
Mostly the going was oh-so-slow, and I had to remind myself not to try and make up for that by moving more quickly when I could. ‘Just don’t be in a hurry’, I told myself. Planting one foot in front of the other, and focusing on each step is a meditation in itself. Engage with it mindfully and it will automatically slow down the pace of your life. These types of long treks, like the contrast between going away for a fortnight’s holiday rather than for only a few days, allow for the gradual slowing of the system, a calming of the autonomic nervous system in fact. Almost all of us need that: mentally, emotionally and physically. So there I was, walking, when…oh, oh, a ghostly sound and I looked in the direction the sound came from, and the land out there on the point seemed to be writhing. On closer inspection, it was a shoal of seals flopping in and out of the sea. I know you do not talk about a shoal, but they really were like glistening fish newly caught in a net, with the water all sparkling around them.
They were jumping off their bellies, backs arched tautly. What cooing and barking noises they made. Even the occasional snort (or old-man-eating sound, one I had not heard before) made its way across to me high up on the cliff. Black and dappled grey, with sleek snouts bobbing up and down in the waves along the coast, they made eerie, windy noises. Slug-like they were, until their ends (tails and heads) curved up making them look like kids’ wobbly toys.
Suddenly my foot slipped on a loose stone. Then they all spotted me, and before I realised it, more of them than I knew were there, so well camouflaged were they, leapt off their rock. What a delightful treat! Being a rebel, and because I was not going to miss the possibility of seeing a cetacean, I soldiered on when the signs signalled to turn left. Here were great slabs of the past, immense layers of time immemorial. Glorious it was.
Words like strata and striated popped into my mind from O’ Level geography as I picked my way between the blocks of rock on the lower parts of the beach to avoid the dodgy path above. I crept up on more seals unawares as they were sunbathing. A second later, they were gone, highly sensitive to extraneous sound. There was not a sight of a human unless you count the aluminium yacht which caught my eye because it was glinting in the rays. A slight movement and again on the water like ever so many periscopes, there were the tops of seal heads checking to see if I had gone.
I was looking at my feet to find safe footing, when, meanwhile, I realised there was another set of wary eyes fixing me: Fresian ones! Cows were to be my almost constant companions throughout the days of this pilgrimage: clattering away down the fields as I approached even when I tiptoed, and then drawn almost immediately back to the fence between us. They were playing grandmother’s footsteps when my back was turned. One minute they were way away, and the next I heard a moo. There they were, right behind me with their penetrating stares!
Most of the path was terrifyingly narrow, a foot’s width perhaps, so that I had to cling to the barbed wire fences as I inched my way around. A lesson (re)learned
If it feels hard, and especially if you are honest and it feels too, too hard, there will always be an easier way. Stop, look up, breathe and reassess.
I reflect that I need to learn this over and over again. It must be a deeply ingrained habit, even a belief system, that makes me keep on going through hardship. Here was another theme that was to re-appear repeatedly.
It is not in my nature to admit defeat.
Alexandra David-Neel, ‘My Journey to Llasa’ p. xiii
I admired the deep cravasses full of rock pools. The weed, seen from above, gleamed wet and slimy, shiny green like new buds. If you were lucky enough to have roamed on the beach when you were younger, like I was at Kingsdown on the south coast of England, you will recognise these types of rock pools. You will be able to guess what might be in their shady corners even though you are too high up to see.
I was enjoying the round Neolithic corner of Eynhallow when a raven started up. A warning sound, it cra cra-ed over and over again, and I heard it. The going was precarious all along that stretch, and the bird looped me, taking off from one fence post, flying out and around my shoulders and then back. Back and round and back it went, for all the world as if it was weaving lines of protection around me, holding me in close to the land and discouraging falling. Perhaps I have read too many North American Indian stories about the traditions of totem animals, but I was duly warned and took extreme care.
There were other birds around: ones with bottoms the exact colour of the black and red stationery invoice books – you know those? Anywhere gannets build their nests is too dangerous for humans, I realised. I should not have been there.
It was all made much worse by the continuous barbed wire fences: on and off came my rucksack. I felt real fear. Clearly other fools had gone before me because there were places where the wire was stretched. My advice: Absolutely do not do it. I have got myself into some scrapes before, but this was properly dangerous. It was entirely my own decision and every time I looked down into the next sheer gully, I expected to spot a skeleton. By this time I knew I wanted to go an easier way, but it was equally difficult to go back.
After the next de-rucksacking amidst spears of irises with cabbage whites darting in and out, I headed finally inland for the road. I was close to the church ruin and I spotted Orkney vole holes in the dry grass. But, would you believe it, I was on the road for less than five minutes when the official signs directed me back to the coast. I will confess that I was feeling a trifle wabbit (exhausted) by this time.
An uncharacteristic stumble necessitated yet another stop. I have to be very careful not to let this happen with the backpack on because I can topple very easily if its weight tips over. This time I snacked to give me some energy: chocolate, cheese and lettuce.
I had confidently said I would manage 20 kilometres by early afternoon, but it was 1pm and I was nowhere near the end. Below my feet was a carpet of primroses, bluebells and king cups with teeny violets. There was often a sewage scent assailing my nostrils (ugh!) though with the odd whiff of warm grass. Now the nettles were up to my armpits so stings were sustained and still there were many fences to cross. I was becoming covered in scratches too. The tussocks were soft and uneven making the going even slower, my feet sinking unexpectedly deeper however carefully I placed them.
I startled a pheasant and it startled me. What was he up to at the edge of the West Mainland? He must have been admiring the view, he must have been. I also saw a rabbit – first I had ever seen on a beach. And a cat, easily managing the foot’s width of path that was available between fence and fall.
I was impersonating St Magnus now, wearing my beanie hat with feathers stuck in either side instead of horns and my baton instead of a staff which he would surely have used on his own pilgrimage.
I was once again very happily traipsing; fair bowling along I was after those revitalising calories. I even noticed my thoughts turning to old friends from my daughters’ primary school days. They used to go to Orkney with their children at every possible chance and now I understood why. Orkney, I was told by the woman from Elgin who I got to know on the return train, has the best quality of life of any rural area in the UK (1).
Day one was certainly a ‘baptism by fire’, I thought. And there was another biblical phrase – how easily such words trip off my tongue! In the modern understanding of the phrase, I was being initiated to the pilgrimage with hardship and difficulty. Interestingly, that phrase is more likely to have been meant as ‘the conferring of the Holy Spirit’, which of course would relate well to a Christian pilgrimage. I understood that some of the adults around me when I was growing up still subscribed to the Victorian idea that hardship was a good thing for children. I suspect that many of my ideas come from novels which made an impression on me at an impressionable age – church-run orphanages which housed Oliver or Jane Eyre.
There were times when there was no point in complaining that something was hard because it was accepted as right and normal – in fact a cause for celebration. It was all in the hope that I would be strengthened by it, and not expect a life of Riley, a bed of roses. Well here I was, not on the sofa but spending my time on a challenging hike. Many of us do this sort of thing these days – conquering unconquerable mountains, running 43 marathons in 51 days (2) – mostly thought of as laudable and great achievements, particularly when done for charity. Hardship is popular. “Suffering is optional” (3).
‘Suffering is something you have to learn to figure out in your life; it’s nothing to be afraid of,’ Jennifer Fox, documentary writer in the Guardian Newspaper 23.5.18
Rebecca Nicholson interviewed Sheila Hancock in the Guardian newspaper about a new film role in Edie where she had to climb a mountain:
“‘I was so frightened,’ she gasps, but still she did it, ‘Honest to God, I don’t know how.’… ‘I would love to enjoy leisure, but I find it very difficult to sit down and do nothing,’ ..” (25.5.18)
So, in the 21st century we have an issue with personal choice and with hardship versus that life of Riley. And a pilgrimage, like mountain climbing or other dangerous pursuits (as opposed to a sedentary lifestyle with few thrills) will hep you understand your own approach to life and raise the very things you struggle with on a daily basis. As 3.30pm approached I could see the haar (misty fog) rolling in again and I could not see from whence I came. Up hill and down dale I went, still happy. I admit I kept thinking about beer. I mean all pilgrims drink ale don’t they? At 4.10pm I took the series of photos below. This is inspiration. This is one of the main reasons I do these walks. When I am back home giving Shiatsu, I call up these sorts of images in the hope that the energy of these places comes through my touch.
I thought: ‘You having a laugh?’ as I went along a line of flattened grass that didn’t resemble a path. The problem with being tired is that you focus on the end and when you then come over the next knoll it can be disappointing to see the way still stretching far ahead. I reminded myself of a lesson learned on my first Camino: one-step at a time – poco a poco as they say in Spain.
There are, in fact, midges on Orkney, contrary to what I read on the internet when I was wondering whether to take ointment or not! I didn’t see the Whalebone on this trip, but I did when I went back in 2021 (see bottom of post for a photgraph).
Luckily I got some help towards the very end when I was lost. First a woman in her garden came across and advised me over the garden fence to go between the two towers. But before I could do that, a most kind couple suggested I take the small road and they gave me a banana and a flapjack together with my filled water bottle. They even offered me a lift but see above – I was determined!
Seagulls were tucked into nooks and crannies, perhaps bedding down for the night when I arrived at 6pm at the Brough (say bruff) of Birsay car park. I went into the village where the Earls Palace looked amazing in the late sun. I deposited my last stone hurriedly at the Kirk (the end of the day’s route) – dedicated to the beautiful world. And then I took a bus. ‘Just take a seat’ said the driver when I asked him how much, and he let me off a few minutes later at the end of the campsite road.
The official wasn’t there yet, but a group of Italians were. I showed them how to book on-line and we took our places and pitched camp. Like the one at Stromness, the site was well equipped, clean and had a good energy about it. When she did come along at the allotted time, the woman in charge was wonderful and I took her suggestion and walked (yes, more walking but this time in sandals which made all the difference) to the Barony Hotel and enjoyed that ale and some well won victuals.
On my final car journey, when Christopher was giving me a lift to Stromness for the ferry, we discussed this Evie to Birsay day, and he told me a guide had stepped back from his group on another part of the island and fallen to his death. I would not have missed my walk ‘for the world’, but it was stupid of me to ignore the signs and I would not recommend anyone else did the same. Thank you everyone who helped me along the way today. Thank you.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 29th May 2018. At the bottom of this post you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
On this, my last day on the island, I woke up in a bed instead of a tent, which was novel! It’s amazing how quickly you get used to something new. My hosts were most hospitable. It was a house full of books, toys, antiques, bric-a-brac, smiles and shyness.
After giving Shiatsu, I made my way into the city to revisit the St Magnus Cathedral and other sights. I was given my prize shell but could not discover how many other backpackers from outside Orkney had managed the whole walk as there are no records.
There is a gorgeous stained glass window by Crear McCartney from 1987 (unfortunately the photos didn’t come out well). It depicts St Magnus’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and includes a crucifix from Trondheim, Norway. I also found the sheela-na-gig in the chapel at the far end (a squatting female figure), the green man and the Marwicks’s Hole where women who were accused of witchcraft were sometimes held.
An artist survives on the beauty that surrounds her.
Winifred Milius Lubell, political graphic artist and book illustrator.
My afternoon treat was to go on the very first Viking Hiking trip with Ragnhild and Mark. We gathered at the Tourist iCentre (ie information bureau) next to the bus station and wound our way through the city, stopping to view and learn about some of its highlights.
Then we meandered towards Scapa Bay (the largest natural harbour in the Northern Hemisphere) from whence I had come the previous afternoon. Back past the hospital, once again around the roundabout, and along the Cantit Trail. I retraced my footsteps across the strand westwards. This time I had a fully charged phone and could take as many photos as I wanted.
It was the first time I had sampled Viking food around a live fire, and I enjoyed being regaled with stories inspired by the Orkneyinga saga, amongst other sources. Ragnhild, being Norwegian as well as a scholar and qualified tour guide, was most entertaining and knowledgeable, able to answer any questions we cared to throw at her.
We churned the butter to spread, and ate our broth with horn spoons. It being the first one, I was in the company of a hotelier, various newspaper and on-line reporters, adults and children. We were all very impressed and the others vowed to display leaflets and publish articles etc. It was live streamed on Facebook!
After another delicious meal at their home, Christopher took me through the balmy evening to Stromness, where I was able to pick up my phone charger from The Ferry Inn where the kind woman I met on day 1 had left it for me.
After that we drove through heavy fog before arriving into Stromness under a bright sky 25 minutes (14 miles / 22.5 kms) away. The weather is always a good topic of conversation with the British and those on Orkney were no exception, but it really depended on personality: when the fog was down someone would tell me, ‘it’ll be bound to lift soon’, another, ‘it won’t lift today’, and a third, ‘it might lift though’. Overall, I had the most sun anyone could ever expect on these islands for my pilgrimage, and felt duly lucky.
A gin and tonic later, I boarded the Northlink ferry where I found my two-person birth empty – which I was pleased to say it remained. There was a salon with all manner of snacks and drinks, books and magazines to entertain the 12 of us, and then I happily took to my bed for some note writing and reflection.
The overnight ticket includes an all-you-can-eat breakfast which carried me right through to Edinburgh, eight hours later!
We docked at Scrabster and I jumped on the bus to Thurso, just five minutes along the road.
I wasn’t sure how to get to the station and so made an enquiry of someone passing. Like several others, he offered me a lift, telling me, while we drove, how he had moved from the east end of London some years ago to take a small holding, and now dealed in 4 by 4 cars.
Although I arrived hours early because of taking the overnight ferry, I decided to chance it and leaped onto the first arrival. All went smoothly, no-one looked at my ticket and told me I was on the wrong train. The scenery was stunning of course, and as the sun still shone, I could snap away to my heart’s content.
As we waited beside the platform in Dingwall, the guard explained that there must be another, more important train on the line which had priority over us, ‘like a nuclear warhead or The Flying Scotsman’, he said. None of us were sure what to make of this.
Meanwhile, the man across the aisle kept calling the woman beside him, ‘pet’, even though they didn’t know each other; someone ripped their velcro; another rummaged in her bag; and the woman in the cerise T-shirt cleaned the tables at Tina’s. As the power surged on and off, my screen failed so I could see green bubbles alternating with the picture of my daughters; we disagreed about the new Murder On The Orient Express film; we waited.
Then the energy of the other train hit us and we gave a great shudder. Yes, it was The Flying Scotsman with its smart burgundy livery and glimpses of crisp white table linen at high speed. Too fast to snap it.
Actually after that we were delayed some more before the perfect spire against the baby blue sky shifted sideways, and it was all white hawthorn and green hills once more.
I changed trains at Inverness and the run through the Cairngorms was, if possible, even more impressive. My newly met companion from Elgin, on hearing my tale of woe, insisted on trying her charger with my phone, and it worked: she was right, it was the charger that was the problem, not the phone. Whew – that was one extra dreaded visit to the Three shop on Princes Street I could avoid!
As the afternoon wore on, it became very hot and crowded and I started to write, but the thoughts came too fast for my typing. I became feared that I would never manage to write it all up the way I wanted to, in the book I had so easily envisaged while I was walking. How strange to be sitting all day and hurtling through the landscape so fast. I slept.
In the end I was able to return in record time, and in all, four hours earlier than planned. As this was my fifth trip, knew to expect a period of adjustment after the intensity of being away. I knew I would be grateful to see my daughter, and sleep in my own bed with the cat purring on top; and also that this writing would give me a focus to bridge the gap to what I still call, ‘normal life’.
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 am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 25th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Last night I camped in the site just outside Birsay. I walked past the Man’s Well which was part of today’s route quite by chance on my way to have supper at the Barony Hotel. The water of the well was said to wash the body of St Magnus before he was canonised. Nowadays it is used for brewing ale and mixing with whisky at New Year! Mons (Norwegian) and Mansie (Orkadian) are both variations of the name Magnus, whereas it is thought that the Man of the Well’s title is the Norse version.
Barony is a working mill famous for its Beremeal, and I had bere bannocks in the cafe in Kirkwall on my final day. Bannocks (this link will take you to a recipe) are a sort of flattish quick bread with the consistency of scones and they were made with flour from here.
Under the aqueduct by the mill wheel runs the lovely Boardhouse Burn (small river) which drives it, lined with shining marsh marigolds. I negotiated more of Orkney’s famously person-proof gate locks, crossed over the almost hidden boardwalk (not ‘under the boardwalk’!) and sloshed around in the soggy ground. I was making my way, through another tight kissing gate, back into Birsay village where the only public toilets of the day’s hike are to be found.
As I waded once again through stinging nettles, I recalled the idea of a nettle shirt. It was called a celice (1) back in the days, and is a way to cause oneself suffering as ‘a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh .. often .. worn during Lent.’ Sported by Abbess Teresa of Avila, (‘a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order’ (2)), this is another example of my many Christian references, things which spontaneously come to my mind when I am on pilgrimage. What with the barbed ring above and this notion, it seems that I am again concerned with the idea of choosing hardship as a way of … well, what?
A number of answers come to mind: being good, becoming a better person, proving one’s worth, deserving a prize….
In his book, Metamorphosis (3), David Gallagher discusses the fairy tale in which a sister picks and tramples nettles (thereby stinging her bare hands and feet) to sew shirts for her brothers to change them back from swans to men after they were cursed. In the version I read and reread as a child, the girl cannot speak whilst sewing. The villagers therefore become suspicious and start to burn her as a witch. As a result of being singed to death, she doesn’t completely finish and so the youngest brother retains a swan’s wing instead of his left arm. Gallagher theorises that, “..the partial transformation is a coded religious message that women should continuously courageously strive and be virtuous in society and support their male counterparts.”
So not only does it seem that my early reading habits allowed me to confuse religious advice and folklore, but the Brothers Grimm and the like (who wrote the stories) might have either been purposefully threading morals through their work or doing it unwittingly.
When I was about to leave for theVia Sacra (Austria) I asked the customary question: what is my focus for this Way? What came to mind was the phrase ‘to atone for my sins’ which surprised me because I am not a Christian now (although I was raised in that tradition and went to a Church of England (CoE) primary school), and I reject the idea of Original Sin.
My known reasons for making a pilgrimage are many: spiritual development, yes; time away from my busy life; a place for contemplation and meditation; and more. I can only notice, on account of the topics which arise as I trek, that the concepts and ways of thinking which come from the bible and church teachings are insidious. Instilled at an early age, and reinforced as they are constantly in the world around me, they are still ‘live’, and consequently they need to be reassessed, to be addressed.
Why? (I ask myself again). Because if there are powerful belief structures which underpin my way of thinking then I need to know what they are. If this way of thinking is the cornerstone of my attitude to work, the foundation of my choice-making; if it is this which supports my interaction with others but I am unaware of it, then I will be basing my life on, and sending out powerful messages about, something which I might more mindfully choose not to.
An enormous black cow (which looked like a bull to me) sat in the corner by the kissing gate. S/he took absolutely no notice of me, its belly spreading out comfortably on the grass. Men worked on the right, their overalls at their waists; a little girl was shooting hoops against the house wall; I visited the St Magnus’ Kirk and read The Ballad of St Magnus pinned on its post (which I did not like), and admired the view of sea and sand from whence I had come, as directed by the St Magnus Way website.
It was a blowy stretch across the dunes, reminiscent of parts of my Normandy grande randonee. Oh dear, I was hungry already and had almost no supplies with me. I hoped Twatt (a ribald name if ever I heard one) had a shop. It wasn’t very easy to find the markers here but I knew the basic direction I was going in and the route description helped.
Then up a small hill I went and onto the first road of the day, but hey, after yesterday, road was okay for a bit. It was gentle: the cows looked at me and me at them. The views were vast.
From high up I could see a tractor going backwards. It was surrounded by what looked like midges from a distance,but was in fact a swarm of gulls.
When technology teaches you a lesson
Every time I took a photo with my phone, I saw incoming emails and was fielding them accordingly. I was getting annoyed. Looking back at my notes, I wonder why I just didn’t ignore them until later. Guilt – that’s the answer! Comments from others about the amount of time I am away from home trigger my natural guilty thoughts along the lines of, ‘I ought to be responsive, responsible, working’. I have an open ‘ought’ channel!
Despite becoming aware of this years ago, ‘ought’ still plays a large part in my life – like a leaping, prancing devil, it taunts and prods me. Getting away into these quiet environments with my feet on the ground, allows me to identify the interface between ‘ought’ and ‘want’, to look that fiend in the eye. (A devil is traditionally a ‘bad’ thing, but in this case it is something waking me up and alerting me to a necessary change.)
In Shiatsu we believe everything ultimately shares the same source (we call it Ki, a Japanese word for an Eastern concept), and that’s my explanation for being able to hear someone else’s thoughts (you know when you phone and the person on the end says, I was just thinking about you). Yesterday I had fancied I could hear the sheep chatting with each other. Is that even possible? If yes, then perhaps my phone was listening in to me!
Lucien Levy-Bruhl, a French philosopher, calls this ‘participation mystique’ (mystical participation) and it occurs beyond our logical, rational thought processes. It is like a ‘sense’ that we have but seldom use now , but it can be increased by usage, like a muscle, if we choose to exercise it. (4)
Anyway, bit by bit my phone just stopped charging, leaving me without the means to take photographs (having forgotten that on my last walk a similar thing happened for a different reason and I resolved to bring my camera the next time!) Day by day it caused more problems and I spent valuable time trying to right them. It was not until my train journey home when I sat next to a woman who insisted she use her own charger, that I started to identify the root of the problem and by the time I was home the phone was back to full speed! Coincidence?
‘I came greatly to value that solitude and self-reliance and was at peace in a landscape that was neither empty nor quiet. All around me I felt the ghosts of an immense past, I heard their whispers and I smiled when they walked by my side…’ (5)
It was possibly the deadness of the phone which made me let go of that guilt and, instead, focus on the walk. It did warn me. I took no heed. It warned me again. Still I continued to allow myself to be distracted, until it only gave me an hour or so of charge at a time and meant I could not communicate with anyone (see the Orphir to Kirkwall walk) or record my delightful surroundings as much as I wanted to.
I observed my environs as I tramped on: a random cliff lay beside the road with nesting gulls; here were the first horses, but as yet no donkey except in the book I was still enjoying before falling asleep.
One singularly unimpressive and rather diminutive stone stands in a field on the left at this point – the Strathyre Mans Stone.
‘Jutting skywards from Orkney’s gentle landscape are a number of ancient standing stones, each a stark reminder of our prehistoric heritage. First cut from Orkney flagstone and erected before the Egyptians had begun constructing their pyramids, Orkney’s stone sentinels have withstood rain, wind and sun for thousands of years. ….To our modern minds, the society of Neolithic man is difficult to comprehend – a society where everyday life, religion and ritual were inextricably linked.’ (6)
A bus slowed and the driver gestured, the face communicating, did I want on? Noooo!
I was amused by a flock of black cows with brown and white offspring (well after using swarm for birds, a flock of cows was no surprise!). Two birds I fancied I hadn’t seen before flew by – one tiny with an ill-matching loudness which started with an emphatic tongue-behind-the-teeth sound; the other with wings where the black ends are much wider than the narrower part that is nearer its body – it squeaked and swooped at top speed.
After a while on the tarmac, I had a good idea and made a most successful boot to shoe change. Hiking boots are not made for road walking so my feet appreciated that and it was just about warm enough.
Growth was the set-theme of the day (again from the St Magnus Way website). I wondered, does growing always mean getting older and becoming more adult, or is it spiritual growth which in my case may be to become more childlike?
There were more standing stones on the edge of a loch – they looked as if they were at home in their natural environment, probably a result of longevity; There was inevitably a cold wind down by the water. Yes, they all warned me: everyone I had spoken to had mentioned the wind – everybody!
Snippets of dreams where I was dancing with another younger woman swayed in and out of my mind. We were tied together by a thread – the image intrigued me.
I carried on along an eternal, straight road (this is real life btw, not my dream). It was not quite the Spanish meseta and maybe not even Roman. For perhaps the first time I sang out loud: The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles. I once walked with someone who sang to me – those were happy days.
Thank the Lord for chocolate. And for the people who gave me a flapjack (cake) yesterday. I loved them. Still the king cups shone by the side of me, providing the missing sunshine.
Did you know that the inside of lamb’s ears is pig-pink and that they chop off their lovely wiggly tails? Shame on them. (Oops there I go again. I expect there is a very good reason).
There is both unexpected and inescapable growth in self-care when taking a pilgrimage – indeed you cannot progress without it. I must look after my feet and fill my belly. When I sit and write, I forget those things – it’s hard to extricate myself from the laptop – but when I walk I have no choice.
Off road again, I wondered whether to go back to boots. I was at the head of the Loch, me and the caterpillars which had possibly followed me from Egilsay.
Growth (see how the theme has lodged and reappears, how I thought, then walked, then thought, then…). Growth: learning to hold the unnecessary or unwanted away without resentment. Which is harking back to the guilt of course.
I took a small break (without lunch, worst luck) and mini-meditated instead. I took lovely deep fragrant breaths, but a Shiatsu School Edinburgh idea interjected. I sat with my knees out to the sides, soles together, to ring the changes with the hip position, to be different from all that forward moving activity.
Oh, I think excitedly, I could write a St Magnus Way book. I could spend the 5 weeks between the French teaching weekends penning it in the Autumn. Another ‘good’ idea! I got very excited.
Then I was on a typical St M path again. Could I see the way? No. Could I see the bog? Yes! The boots won the day. It was altogether too wet, bumpy, harsh-heathery and possibly sporey-caterpillary to risk sandals.
Cows had obviously been lying in the mud given that their tummies were caked brown. It was really hard going and I recommend you wear long trousers if you want to try it. There was petrolly, peaty water in the channels made by the farm machinery. Birds insistently squeaked and tweeted, and then I heard the one with the wings described above and it woolf-whistled at me!
Who said a pilgrimage should be easy? Surely, I thought, the point is how I cope with adversity. Growth, you see.
Then there was a thundering and a mooing, and all the adult bovines in the paddock I was walking past closed ranks with the calves in their midst to protect them.
At Hilldyke the farmer had the WD40 out and the cattle were still lowing in my wake. A group of calves were up close by the fence of the field as I made my way downhill with a misty view. I was being bombarded by small, black insects on account of the lack of wind, but somehow the turbines were happily spinning away anyway. It was sort of too dark with sunglasses but too squinty without.
On the whole The St Magnus Way is well signposted with its very small black and white logos. They are not Spanish-Camino-yellow but pretty efficient, so that with your eyes peeled you can find them, although the Route Description (pdf download) is needed to supplement.
Away from the, it must be said, unusually pretty corner, I decided to walk on and the setting was once again utilitarian: barns and houses – more low-lying grey abodes presumably built like that to avoid the worst of the gales.
breezes loosely captured can connect us with the very edge of the infinite
Charles Moore in his foreward to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows
Later: trees (there aren’t normally so many here due to the wind), and flowers, and a VW in a field.
There’s a sense I often have that nature has its own colour scheme. Here the floral show is immaculate: the juxtaposition of colours, the relative heights, and the arrangement rival any church display
I was getting a little weary, maybe because of being hungry, and I found myself wondering why my pal Magnus went all round the houses. After all, there’s no hill and it doesn’t look like a bog. Surely he would have gone as the crow flies. Ah well. More road walking.
The sheep are all different colours according to the farm. The cerise-rinse sheep reminds me of that book….
My hands were a tad sore from holding and prodding the baton yesterday. Ditto my shoulders, but luckily not the right hip which had been a problem from my old dancing days. I could feel it first thing this morning, but not now thank goodness.
I walked through Beaquoy, a collection of houses, pronounced, so Kiersty kindly told me, beck-woy.
In the distance the hills were still topped by mist. Yep I reckon that must be Dounby over there, I thought, and these are definitely midges (yuk), although I have found a new use for the scarf with the annoying tassles that get caught in the rucksack when I try to do it up: I can use it like a horse tail!
Not long after this I arrived at my destination and the first building I noticed was somewhere to eat. Twatt hadn’t yielded any shops or cafes, just dwellings, and I was famished. I had heard the sound of kids playing before I got there – a nice welcome.
According to the conversations I had had with locals, Dounby seemed to be best known for its co-op. I spotted home-grown potatoes showing their heads under the string in a garden, the memory-laden smell of cut grass an actual pavement under my feet Hooray! I had got here without serious injury before the tea shop shut… oh no, no, the tea shop was closed. Never let it be said that a closed sign stopped me when I was starving after a long day’s hike!
Dounby – host of the annual West Mainland Agricultural Show and home of the Church of Scotland minister whose idea it was to start this pilgrimage in the first place:
I had that same sense of embarrassment coming into a civilised area with unshaven legs, and into the cafe with my massive pack and muddy boots that I had had before, but the staff were kind and helpful. They let me in and fed me but I think it was because they heard my tummy rumble.
I had a nice plate of fresh crab sandwiches with crisps and grapes whilst listening to ‘I tell you what you want, what you really, really want’ on the radio. (There were plenty of gluten free options).
I took the chance to have a look through local leaflets and found info on some of the places I will be going to. It was a pity I missed the Kirbuster Museum – it has a putting green; I liked the creative combination of Judy’s Fabric and Jokeshop; the Hill of Heddle is home to the motor cycle scrambling on Sundays – I hoped I wouldn’t have to walk there then; and there is an Orkney Men’s Shed which I am sorry not to be the right sex for as it sounds fun. I could not find a St Magnus Way leaflet at the campsite in Stromness, nor here. I did, however, spy a recipe for Rhubarb and Lentil Curry in The Orkney Advertiser which I might well try when I am back home.
At the first sight of the Milestone Church the sun came out.
I had popped into the pharmacy to find out about tetanus. Having had no recent jab, I wanted to know the symptoms, just in case my elbow (see above) was infected. Of course they wanted me to go to the medical centre, but I had been bathing it in tea tree oil from the very start and keeping it clean. There was no sign of anything being wrong and I had no internal fever or heat.
I wanted to meet the man who had started all this and the girl in the shop told me where the manse was, so before pitching camp, I set off on what turned out to be the next day’s walk: back to Quilco, then right to North Bigging (needing to ask for directions along the way).
This little critter came running and snarling at me and I am sorry but I laughed at him.
A man came into the garden rounding up his hound but there was no friendliness, nothing even approaching a friendly buen camino.
There was an option to go up a hill, but I am afraid I didn’t do that. Afraid of what? Growth? I said hi to a Shetland pony, happy with my tummy full. I realised that what I feared was another long stretch of the long and winding road before I could knock on the Curate’s door. I must have been tireder than I thought. It was sunny and a bit of a climb.
When I walk and start to feel my back straining, I remember to hold those there pelvic floor muscles up and pull my naval to my spine, focusing on the core, especially when I am pooped and I can feel my innards heavy inside me (given that I am at the age when these things start to happen).
It was a bit of a disaster: I found the house – grand it was – but it was deserted. I left a phone message and waited in the garden, had a little sleep in fact and it was hot. Then I walked back a bit until I found yet another person to ask and it turned out I had been at the wrong place, probably Hollardyke House. On I went until I found a house with a sign saying ‘Manse’ with kids playing in the garden. How silly of me! So, I did meet David McNeish and he was most welcoming and picked me up at the main road 10 minutes later and dropped me at the church, given I had done that part of the walk for tomorrow already. He said it was no problem to sleep beside the church.
The public toilets were next door to the hotel (above) and because the church was closed I had to use them for my ablutions – except in the middle of the night. The next day I realised that there might have been security cameras spotting me while I dropped my drawers – Oh dear, I really hope not!
The St Magnus Way website has excellent resources although one needs time and forethought as well as a working phone to download and listen. I expect some folk would be better organised than me and love to do this as they walked.
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!