Orkney – a little bit of the St Magnus Way

I have been keeping an eye on the St Magnus Way website – https://www.stmagnusway.com/ -a 55 mile route across Orkney from the Broch of Gurness to Kirkwall, via Birsay and Orphir. 31 miles of it is on road, so I had wondered how much Julie and I could do together (she uses a powerchair). In the end we did very little. We had a lovely walk together on Sunday 26 June along the shoreline from the Broch of Gurness, and I did a bit more the following day, but I found it was harder walking than I had expected, it didn’t really work knowing Julie was waiting for me, and then – apart from a wonderful day on Egilsay – that was about as far as we got. If you are a walker, this could be ideal for you. If you just like some rather nice photos of the gorgeous Orkney countryside – enjoy.

The first lap of the route is on the island of Egilsay, where Magnus was martyred, but on the mainland it starts at the Broch of Gurness. There is a suggestion that this is where is body could have been brought ashore on its journey to be buried at Birsay, but it also makesmthe practical point that there is a car park here – HY 380267. (I do wonder why you would bring Magnus’s body ashore, why not sail all the way to Birsay – so much easier). Was the Broch, or the area around it, still inhabited when Magnus was martyred on 16 April 1115 – no doubt there were small communities dotted along the coast.

The first part is to walk along the Sands of Evie, but you can’t when the tide is in. We walked and rolled down the road we had driven up, then followed the track which runs to the car park and loo at HY 371264. The app gave us resources for the start of a pilgrimage and asked us to think about “loss” as we journeyed this first stage – we both agreed that we have had more than enough loss in our lives, after all Gareth remains part of every Orkney holiday because we enjoyed several together with him. That loss, and the loss of Theo who never made it to Orkney, never goes away – Theo may have died 12 years ago, but at times that loss is still so very fresh (and always will be). We could also meditate on the loss of mobility – it is many years since Julie could have walked this, so Morgan (the powerchair) gives us freedom, but with limitations. As we walked beside the fields of buttercups and listened to the skylarks, it took me back to my childhood walking through Cambridgeshire fields and listening to the larks – there is an environmental loss. It was a beautiful walk.

The man from the Orkney Islands Council was cleaning the loos – how lovely to be in a part of the country where we still have decent, clean, public loos. Julie parked herself down by the beach with a book and I walked back to get the car. The tide was going out so I could walk most of the way along the beach – larks and the sound of the waves. Most people making a pilgrimage can keep going along the route, I had to double back on myself – so my task is to defeat the frustrations of not being able to move forward by the joy of doing it again.

Having collected Julie I pulled in by the entrance to the cemetery that is on the site of Evie Old Church. It was dedicated to St Nicholas and was part of the organisation of Orkney parishes in the Twelfth Century when episcopal power shifted from Birsay to Kirkwall – a small chapel may have existed on this site before. It has been suggested that Earl Hakon introduced Nicholas dedications to Orkney after his penitential journey to Jerusalem, and the Round Kirk at Orphir is similarly dedicated. Apparently remains of the chapel are occasionally found when a grave is being dug. There is a newer parish church in the village itself, and it is now up for sale. The church is in a modern, modular building just down the road. I bet it is warmer than the heritage building.

In December 2022 I added “A small parcel arrived just after Christmas and I was chuffed to find a copy of “St Magnus Way” by David Mazza. It is a guide to the walk, produced by Rucksack Readers – https://www.rucsacs.com/book/st-magnus-way/. They have used three of my photos – and used them very well – and the whole book is a delight. It’s not published until March 2023, but is highly recommended for anyone going to Orkney.”

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