Evie to Birsay, 22Km
St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and pilgrims have been walking the St Magnus pilgrimage since 2017. It’s very handy to have a pilgrimage at the end of my walk through Scotland and a great opportunity to spend a week on these Orkney islands. There are about 70 islands, mostly uninhabited, and most people live on the island they call The Mainland. The capital is Kirkwall but I’ve based myself in a village called Dounby which is convenient for the pilgrimage. Dounby also has a Co-op right opposite my hotel which is perfect because I can pop over the road to buy the cheese and ham sandwich to which I’ve become addicted on these walks. It’s also the home of Jimmy who is the taxi driver. He is my support vehicle to get me to the start of each day’s stage and safely back at the end.
So, a very brief account of the life of St Magnus. He was born in 1080 and shared the earldom of Orkney with his brother. He preferred to sing psalms to pillaging but a brotherly tension emerged which ended in martyrdom and miracles. He was martyred on the little island of Egilsay and his remains were taken to Kirkwall along the very route that the pilgrimage now follows.
Skip forward to 2017 and a group of volunteers have waymarked the trail and produced the marketing material and a handy app which includes the maps, description of each stage, what to think as you walk along and, crucially, the electronic credentials which are automatically stamped as you pass each significant place.
I woke without a plan but the hotel gave me Jimmy’s card and soon after breakfast he turned up to take me to Evie. I explained the week’s itinerary and Jimmy proposed a total cost of £35. After a little negotiation we settled on £50 and off we went. I imagined the lovely Evie at the end of the road with her beautiful golden sandy beaches, the Sands of Evie. Just over the water was Rousay and the uninhabited island of Eynhallow. The sun broke through the clouds and the landscape lit up in high definition.
Before I started, I entered Evie’s treasure, the Broch of Gurness. It’s Scotland’s best Broch, a 2000 year old village of 14 houses and a substantial Broch for the chief. It’s nicely restored and you can wander around just like our ancestors did.
The trail itself was surprisingly hard. It follows the journey of St Magnus’s body from Evie to the church in Birsay. The day’s theme was Loss and my iPhone played appropriate Orkney music and poetry at key moments. I had to walk along the beach, clambering over slippery boulders, climb steep hills and navigate more cliff top paths, but this time with the ferocious Atlantic smashing against the cliffs. At Northside near Birsay, I had to edge past a huge cliff fall which happened only last week. The cliffs are unstable here. But it was a great walk with millions of sea birds in the air and seals in the ocean. The sun is still shining.