I thought it would be easier to get the seals to sing for me. My great-grandmother Mhairi used to sing to them in Stromness—and they called back with plaintive moans that sounded so much like the gales that have darkened long winters on islands like this. But this evening the seals are quiet and it is the waves that call as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean and the Birsay Bridge.
From the sloping tidal island, Thorfinn the Mighty ruled – most feared among Norse raiders – cutting his way across the north with a brutality that earned him the name Raven-Feeder (after the birds that fed on the corpses of his enemies). St Magnus Way is not inspired by such bloodlust. Rather, it is dedicated to Raven-Feeder’s decidedly less violent grandson, Earl Magnus Erlendsson, who agreed to be murdered so that the people of Orkney could have peace.
This 58-mile pilgrimage route runs north to south across Orkney’s green heart, roughly following the path taken by Magnus’s body after his death. He had shared the earldom of Orkney with his cousin Haakon, a fierce man seized by one desire – to rule alone. When the pair sailed to Egilsay in 1117 to end the fighting and negotiate peace, Magnus was double-crossed – they had agreed to bring only two boats, but Haakon sailed in with eight, all filled with warriors. Magnus saw his fate and sailed on unarmed. He bowed his head beneath the ax of Haakon’s tearful butcher as he prayed for the executioner’s soul – seeing this as the only way to prevent total war from destroying the lives of the Orkneys.
Magnus’ body was buried in Birsay for around 20 years. Pilgrims came to pray and reported miracles. Then his remains were transported to the city of Kirkjuvágr (that would be Kirkwall), where his relics remain in St. Magnus Cathedral to this day.
After the day’s 12.5 mile walk over dramatic cliffs from Evie to Birsay, walkers can stay at the Barony Hotel which has double rooms from £90 B&B or the Birsay Outdoor Center has dormitories and tent pitches from around £20. Birsay Bay Tearoom serves soups and sandwiches made with local produce. There’s also excellent lemon sprinkle cake and more in the daffodil-coloured JP Orkney Honest Box across the road from the ruins of the Earl’s Palace.
In the morning, if your rucksack is not too heavy, detour to Birsay Books for a second-hand copy of The Orkneyinga Saga and in particular George Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus, which connects the violence and sanctity of the Norse world with today. George was my great uncle, and I especially love how in that book he revealed the human being in the saint.
Heading inland, over quiet back roads to Dounby, you can see gannets turn into starlings and whale humped hills lead the way. You might see the odd cyclist as you walk (it’s a St Magnus Way cycle route), but going slowly has its benefits. Between barbed wire fences spotted with wool, you’ll see countless hares and rabbits racing across the fields, and – if you’re lucky – short-eared owls.
Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to spend time in the beautiful northern parts of the world. For some it is experiencing silence. For others, understanding the past is better. My great-uncle hoped to save the treasure of the centuries before it disappeared. “It is as if the past is a great ship that has gone ashore,” he wrote, “and a writer must collect as much of the rich wasted cargo as they can.” I seek out these places as a chance to see fast-moving skies and lose my inhibitions. I think I’ll have the chance to discover my inner “ancient, mischief-loving troll who dances along cliff edges and writes pagan poetry”. That’s how George described a Stromness neighbor who wore an almost “ridiculously strict mask” in everyday life – but was still wild inside, outside the city limits.
On this part of the journey you may want to make a short detour to the Kirbuster Farm Museum: it is Northern Europe’s last unrestored example of a traditional ‘firehouse’, with a central peat bog; it’s home to North Ronaldsay sheep (a breed known for its diet of seaweed) and the finest milk pails and heather brooms I’ve seen.
Warming yourself by that fireplace, you might slip into romantic dreams of sleeping in that stone bed by the fire, feeling the magic of being surrounded by oil lamps and watching the stars pierce the night sky from the skylight above. With any luck, manager Neil Leask will come in, point to that ‘skylight’ – actually a hole to let peat smoke escape – and say: “Oh yes, sometimes the people woke up in the morning to find a foot of snow had drifted in at their feet!”
On you go, into the village of Dounby, where you’ll find the first lighted shop with regular hours since you started walking. Top up at the Co-op, then head to the Smithfield Hotel (doubles from around £110 B&B) across the road to eat and sleep.
As you walk along quiet roads and track towards Finstown the next day, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the view of Hoy – the slopes catch the light like a luminous green iceberg. It’s hard not to want to run west to Maeshowe – a 5,000-year-old chamber cairn where Vikings took shelter from a blizzard over 800 years ago. By bunkering in, they made carvings that collapse the distance between the people of the past and the present: “Ottarfila carved these runes.” “Ingigerth is the most beautiful.” Their graffiti is little different from what my friends and I used to daub on our school bags in Aberdeenshire. For some reason it feels moving.
Around the village of Harray you can start to notice the signs for the Creative Orkney Trail (if you end up heading into Harray Potter, or the local woodturning studio in search of Neolithic-inspired bowls, you won’t be the first). Then it’s on to Binscarth Woods – it’s always special to walk into a windswept tangle of beech and sycamore on an almost treeless island – before a night in the long and pretty village of Finstown.
In the morning, walk between fields turned gold and green with the seasons over centuries to Orphir Round Kirk, Scotland’s only surviving circular medieval church. It was here that Earl Haakon had his trembling cook, Lifolf, kill the peace-seeking Magnus with a headbutt from an axe, after which he ruled Orkney alone. He had everything he wanted, but according to the Orkney saga, his conscience was troubled. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and repented. Inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he had this small church built.
I like to imagine Haakon here in Orphir in the years after the murder: a complex man, deeply human (the people behind Saint Magnus Way have themed this leg of the journey around forgiveness).
On the final leg of the St Magnus Way, Scapa Flow – a vast and historic natural harbor – opens up like a great blue eye as you head towards Kirkwall and the towering St Magnus Cathedral. Britain’s most northerly cathedral, built in the 12th century, saw pilgrims sail in via ancient sea routes from Norway, Scotland and Ireland for years. But the Reformation put an end to the public worship of saints and miracles, and relics that Magnus was hidden away for safekeeping (Magnus’s bones – thought to be gone forever – were accidentally discovered in 1919, inside a cathedral pillar).
The church’s magnificent sandstone columns stretch towards the vaulted ceiling and I feel as if I am walking into a petrified grove of gold. I have never seen anything like the medieval tombstones along the walls, carved with crossbones and skulls— memento mori after memento mori. Last time I visited, I tried to sketch one: it depicted a woman next to an hourglass and a skull. As I sketched the crescent carved next to the skull’s right eye socket, a caretaker stood up and asked if I knew what it was doing there. I shook my head. He whispered, “They used to carve them out so that the souls of the dead could escape.”
The Norse people also believed in souls. They believed that living within each of us was the spirit of one of our wise female ancestors. ONE follow was a guardian who guided our steps and watched over us. It is a beautiful thought. It is also beautiful to think of a woman who sang to seals. Beautiful too, heading into the last glimmers of evening light as Kirkwall’s young people head beyond the twisting vines of an old town. “Each step brings peace closer. Every breath is a newfound song.” That is the motto of St Magnus Way.
The free St Magnus Way app contains GPX, maps and stories. To for a longer journey, there is an option to start further north on the island of Egilsay, reached by ferry from Tingwall near Evie.
Get there NorthLink ferries run between Aberdeen and Kirkwall, and between Scrabster and Stromness. Pentland Ferries run from Gills Bay (near John o’Groats) to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay