An Orkney pilgrimage on St Magnus Way
On the 16th of April 2017, to the day 900 years after the martyrdom of St Magnus, the pilgrimage route opened, which traces the route of his relics. It is a 55 mile walk through a stunning coastal landscape, which has been laid out with markers and named the St Magnus Way. Over this summer, Chris and I are hoping, with our children, to be able to walk as much as we can of this beautiful pilgrimage route. This blog post describes its beginning.
The St Magnus Way begins where the followers and family of Earl Magnus Erlendsson would have brought his body ashore, after that fateful day in the Easter week of 1117, when his cousin and rival, Earl Hakon Palsson, had broken his promise of peaceful negotiation and ordered his unwilling cook to murder Magnus with an axe blow to the head.
We came there on a sweltering hot day in May, and excitedly started to follow the signs of a cross above a wave which mark the route. But before long, we found ourselves playing on the beach and enjoying the sparkling clean water instead. So we didn’t get very far on this first leg. However, short as it was, we still saw many interesting things along the way.
Old home of boats
Along the bay at Aikerness, we saw the remains of “nousts”. These are boat-shaped hollows, dug out of the bank so that people in the past had a safe place to pull up their boats while not in use. One of the nousts even had a metal winch still in place.
A thick, glutinous meteor!
Further along the bay, we came to the medieval remains of the St Nicholas Church. Nothing but a green mound is left of the church itself, but the graveyard has been in use until the 20th century. In the churchyard wall, Chris spotted a charming detail: a horse shoe was built into the wall, to form a hoop where visitors to the church could tie their horse!
In the late 1600s, the Rev James Wallace recorded a peculiar story about St Nicholas’s church:
“In the Parish of Evie near the Sea are some small hillocks, which frequently in the night time appear all in a Fire, and the Church of Evie called St. Nicholas, is oft seen full of Light, as if Torches or Candles were burning in it all night. This amazes the people greatly, but possibly it’s nothing else but some thick glutinous Meteor, that receives that Light in the night time.”
The lights in the hillocks are easy to explain. They come from a Scandinavian folk story where mounds may be inhabited by a supernatural guardian, and the lights above the mound indicate that the mound is still “alive” and intact with its guardian, guarding a treasure.
The “thick, glutinous meteor”, however, puzzles me!
The last little delight on this short trip was an unexpected piece of art, which turned up hidden in the wall of a fisherman’s hut. The artist Dawn Mayes had left this treasure of intricate geometrical pattern on a beach stone, semi-hidden as a little surprise. We concluded that the Neolithic artists from the Ness of Brodgar would have approved!