Walking Orkney’s St Magnus Trail with Norsemen

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I thought it would be easier to get the seals to sing to me. My great-grandmother Mhairi sang to them in Stromness, and they called back with mournful groans, much like the storms that make long winters on islands like this one. This evening, however, the seals are quiet and the waves sound as the sun sets over the Atlantic and the Birsay River.


On this sloping tidal island, the Mighty Thorfinn, most feared of the northern raiders, ruled and paved his way to the north with a ferocity that earned him the name Raven-Feeder (after the birds that preyed on the corpses of his enemies). The Way of St Magnus is not inspired by such bloodlust. Rather, it is dedicated to Earl Magnus Erlendsson, the decidedly less violent grandson of Raven-Feeder, who agreed to be killed so that the people of Orkney could have peace.

This 58-mile pilgrimage route runs north to south through the green heart of the Orkney mainland, roughly following the path Magnus was taken after his death. Having shared the earldom of Orkney with his cousin Haakon, he had only one desire – to rule alone. When the two set sail for Egilsay in 1117 to end their quarrel and negotiate peace, Magnus was two-faced – they had agreed to bring only two boats, but Haakon sailed with eight boats, all filled with warriors. Magnus saw his destiny and sailed unarmed. He lowered his head under the ax of Haakon’s tearful butcher as he prayed for his executioner’s soul – seeing this as the only way to prevent all-out war from ruining the lives of the people of Orkney.

Magnus’ body was buried in Birsay for nearly 20 years. Pilgrims came to pray and reported miracles. Later, his remains were moved to the town of Kirkjuvágr (this would become Kirkwall), where his remains remain in St Magnus Cathedral to this day.

After the first day of a 12.5-mile day on the impressive sea cliffs from Evie to Birsay, hikers can enjoy the bed and breakfast at the Barony Hotel, which doubles from £90, or Birsay with dorm beds and tent pitches from around £20. They can stay at the Outdoor Center. Birsay Bay Teahouse makes soups and sandwiches with local products. There’s also the perfect lemon drizzle and more at the daffodil-hued JP Orkney Honest Box, opposite the ruins of Earl’s Palace.

In the morning, if your backpack isn’t too heavy, drop by Birsay Books for a second-hand copy of The Orkneyinga Saga and specifically George Mackay Brown’s Magnus novel, which combines the violence and sanctity of the Scandinavian world with the present. George was my great-uncle, and I especially love how he brings out the human inside the saint in that book.

As you head inland along the quiet back roads to Dounby, witness gannets turn into starlings and whales lead the way from the humped hills. Maybe you’ll see a strange cyclist on your way (there’s a St Magnus Road cycle route), but going slow also has its benefits. Between the barbed wire fences flecked with wool, you’ll see countless bunnies and bunnies racing across the fields, and – if you’re lucky – short-eared owls.

I am looking for these places to watch the fast moving sky and lose my shyness.

Everyone who wants to spend time in the beautiful northern parts of the world has their own reasons. For some, to experience silence. For others, it’s a better understanding of the past. My great-uncle hoped to recover the treasure of centuries ago before it was lost. “The past is like a great ship that has landed,” he wrote, “and a writer must collect as much of his wasted rich cargo as he can.” I am looking for these places to watch the fast moving sky and lose my shyness. I guess I want a chance to discover the “primitive, mischievous troll who dances on the edge of the cliffs and writes pagan poetry” in me. That’s how George described a Stromness neighbor who wears an almost “ridiculously harsh mask” in everyday life – yet wild inside, beyond the confines of town.

During this part of the trip, you might want to take a shortcut to the Kirbuster Farm Museum: this is northern Europe’s last unrestored traditional example of ‘fire hockey’ with a central peat quarry; It’s home to northern Ronaldsay sheep (a breed known for its seaweed diet) and some of the best milking buckets and heather brooms I’ve ever seen.

While you’re warming up by that hearth, perhaps you’ll have romantic dreams of sleeping by the fire in that stone bed, feeling the magic of being surrounded by oil lamps and watching the stars piercing the night sky from the skylight above.. Luckily, watchman Neil Leask will walk in, point to that “roof window”—actually a hole to let peat fumes escape—and say, “Oh yeah, sometimes people wake up in the morning to see an inch of snow drifting in. Get in at your feet!”

Walk into Dounby village and you will find the first lighted shop with regular opening hours since you started your walk. Stock up on the Co-op, then head across the street to the Smithfield Hotel to eat and sleep (double from around £110 B&B).

It’s hard not to be swept away by the sights of Hoy as you drive along quiet roads and head towards Finstown the next day; its slopes catch the light like a bright green iceberg. It’s hard not to want to rush west to Maeshowe, a 5,000-year-old chambered mound where Vikings took shelter from a snowstorm more than 800 years ago. Entering the Sanctuary, they made carvings that bridged the distance between the people of the past and the present: “Ottarfila carved these runes.” “Ingigerth is the prettiest.” Their graffiti is a little different from the one my friends and I did Tippex on our school bags in Aberdeenshire. For some reason it feels like it’s moving.

Around the village of Harray, you may start to notice signs of the Creative Orkney Trail (finally, if you head to Harray Potter or your local woodturning studio to look for neolithic-inspired bowls, you won’t be the first). Then, before a night out in the long and beautiful village of Finstown, it’s onward to Binscarth Forest – it’s always special to get into a mix of beech and sycamore torn apart by the wind on an almost treeless island.

In the morning, stroll through fields that turn gold and green with the seasons over the centuries to Orphir Round Kirk, Scotland’s only surviving circular medieval church. It was here that Earl Haakon persuaded his trembling cook, Lifolf, to kill the peace-seeking Magnus with an ax to the head, and then ruled Orkney alone. He had everything he wanted, but according to the Orkneyinga saga, his conscience was troubled. He repented and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He built this small church inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Scapa Flow, a large and historic natural harbor, opens like a big blue eye

I like to imagine Haakon here in Orphir in his years after the murder: a complex man, extremely human (the people behind the Path of Saint Magnus have shaped this leg of the journey around forgiveness).

At the last leg of St Magnus Road, Scapa Flow, a massive and historic natural harbor, opens like a big blue eye as you head towards Kirkwall and the lofty St Magnus Cathedral. England’s northernmost cathedral, built in the 12th century, has seen pilgrims sail on ancient sea routes from Norway, Scotland, and Ireland for years. But the Reformation put an end to popular worship of saints and miracles, and relics like Magnus’s were kept for safekeeping (the bones of Magnus – thought to be lost forever – were accidentally discovered inside a cathedral column in 1919).

Construction of St Magnus Cathedral began in 1137.

Construction of St Magnus Cathedral began in 1137. Photo: Vincent Lowe/Alamy

The church’s magnificent sandstone pillars jut up against the vaulted ceiling, and I feel like I’m walking through a petrified gold grove. I’ve never seen anything quite like the medieval tombstones carved with crossbones and skulls lining the walls. memento mori after that memento mori. Last time I visited, I tried to draw one: it depicts a woman next to an hourglass and a skull. While I was drawing the crescent carved near the skull’s right eye socket, a guard came up to me and asked if I knew what he was doing there. I nodded. He whispered: “They were carving these out so that the souls of the dead could escape.”

Scandinavian people also believed in spirits. They believed that each of us was the spirit of one of our wise female ancestors living within. A filgja He was a watchman directing our steps and watching over us. This is a good thought. It’s also nice to think of a woman singing to seals. Kirkwall’s young people are making their way into the last rays of evening light as they make their way through the winding roads of an ancient town. “Every step brings peace closer. Every breath is a newly found song.” That’s the motto of St Magnus Way.

Free St. Magnus Way app GPX includes maps and stories. For for a longer journey, there is the option to start further north on the island of Egilsay, reached by ferry from Tingwall near Evie.

to go there NorthLink ferries operating Between Aberdeen and Kirkwall and between Scrabster and Stromness. Pentland ferries Run from Gills Bay (near John o’Groats) to St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay

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