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Pilgrim’s tales from Orkney

27 January 2017

Visitors will flock to Orkney this year, as it marks the 900th anniversary of its patron saint. Susan Gray advises on a DIY church pilgrimage — to the Orkney Isles or elsewhere


Kirkwall harbour

Kirkwall harbour

“NEXT time will be different,” I mutter to myself, between sips of vending-machine hot chocolate, as the early-morning ferry reels across the sea between the isles of Rousay and Egilsay.

It is high summer, and the height of Orkney’s no-room-at-any-comfy-inn tourist season (the 70 islands of Orkney have a population of fewer than 22,000, but act as host to 143,000 tourists annually). Sleep-deprived and hungry, from staying in a crowded hostel, this is not what I had planned for my first encounter with the site of St Magnus’s martyrdom.

Relieved to have reached dry land, even if my brain is still at sea, I totter up the Egilsay harbour jetty, together with my two PCC partners, on our pilgrimage recce. Suddenly, careering towards us is a blur of black-and-white fur. And, just visible, at the end of a long lead attached to the blur, is a woman, smiling.

As the treasurer of the Egilsay Community Association, Christina Cox, welcomes us to the island, her collie does his trick of circling us with his lead, until we are rounded up like sheep. Once released, we head up the main road, the pewter-grey ruins of St Magnus’s kirk growing larger against the sky. Banks of purple ragged robin and butter-yellow irises line the road, scents of honeysuckle and clover fill the air.

Built in the late 12th century to mark the martyrdom of St Magnus (some time between 1114 and 1117), the kirk now has no roof, but a tower nearly 50 feet tall still stands. In preparation for the planned pilgrimage of our church (St Magnus the Martyr, in east London), we pace out the gravel-floored empty space, mentally furnishing it with an altar and candles. Then we try out the tower’s acoustics. “Salve Regina, mater mi-se-ricordi-ae: Vi-ta dulce-do, et spes nostra, salve” echoes around its cylindrical stones, and floats skywards on the ever-present Orcadian winds.

Fast-forward ten months, and the wind blows harder than ever in the remains of this church, guttering candles and billowing Father’s red chasuble as we celebrate mass to mark our patron’s coming 900th anniversary. Seventeen pilgrims kneel on the gravel, in physical and spiritual connection to the ground where St Magnus spent his last hours on earth. Egilsay’s islanders may be curious as to why we have made so little use of the chairs they kindly provided; one observes “I’m not religious, but that is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.”

Indeed, it is thanks to the islanders that our pilgrimage reaches the island at all. When the Saturday-morning Mainland-to-Egilsay ferry service was cancelled, the centrepiece of our three-day pilgrimage seemed doomed. Luckily, the Community Association’s boat-hire contacts saved the day.

Travelling in two fishing boats amid the great tides of the Atlantic and the North Sea, our pilgrim group made landfall in Egilsay up a vertical metal ladder, from boats lungeing up and down with the tide. Safely ashore, the congregation’s disembarkation was likened to Lord Macaulay’s poem “Horatius at the Bridge”: “But those behind cried ‘Forward!’ And those before cried ‘Back!’”

From Egilsay, St Magnus’s body was brought for burial to Birsay, on the north-west coast of Mainland, Orkney, most likely in Christchurch (near or on the site of the present St Magnus Church). This site has been in use as a place of worship for more than 900 years. The church incorporates elements ranging from a 13th-century part window, to a 17th-century belfry, and took on its current white-walled rectangular shape through 1760 and 1867 rebuilds.

We visit, too, and, while there, a revelation to me is a tombstone with a coat of arms, possibly belonging to distant ancestors: “Grays are known to have been connected with Birsay from at least as early as 1574.” But it is the church’s most recent alteration that touches us most deeply. The vestibule stained-glass window by Shona McInnes, made in 2013, inscribed “Bright St Magnus Pray For Me”, captures the heart of our church community’s journey here.

Mentioning Birsay without highlighting the Birsay Bay Tearoom, however, is unconscionable. Sitting together as one group, lunching on sausage sandwiches and butternut-squash soup, while looking over the sea to the Brough of Birsay tidal island, is voted everyone’s “non-spiritual” highlight of the trip.


DIY pilgrimage tips

* For those interested in following in our footsteps, our itinerary included: evensong at St Magnus’s Cathedral, Kirkwall, with Orkney clergy and religious leaders, followed by a reception. The next day, we drove to Skara Brae neolithic village on Mainland, Orkney, then visited the historic manor Skaill House. This was followed by a trip to Birsay, north-west Mainland, where our patron was first given a Christian burial. On our second day, we visited the island of Egilsay. On returning to Mainland we drove to Stromness, in the south-west, to visit the Pier Arts Centre gallery and museum.

On our last day, we headed back to St Magnus’s Cathedral for a farewell pilgrimage service, located by the relics of our patron. Everywhere was completely accessible; the beautiful silver-sanded Manse beach on Egilsay is the only place that needs a degree of fitness to reach. Alternatively, the prisoner-of-war-constructed Italian chapel near Kirkwall is popular to visit, and the northern isle of Westray is the site of the medieval St Tredwell (also known as St Triduana) chapel, built over an Iron Age fort. Papa Stronsay is home to Golgotha Monastery, of the RC Transalpine Redemptorists, and offers retreats for men.

* When organising your own DIY pilgrimage, a recce is vital. Part of the purpose of this is to build up some local allies, which are as essential as accommodation and food. It never occurred to us that the ferry service — the lifeblood of island communities — could alter. Local knowledge allowed us to adapt on the spot.

• To take the “grim” out of pilgrimage, book hotels instead of hostels, and visit well-reviewed restaurants rather than offering hands-up-for-Fanta-style meals. In Kirkwall, we stayed at the West End Hotel (phone 01856 872368; www.westendkirkwall.co.uk, from £74); the Orkney Hotel (phone 01856 873477; www.orkneyhotel.co.uk, from £89.50); the Albert Hotel (phone 01856 876000; www.alberthotel.co.uk, from £96); and the Ayre Hotel (phone 01856 873001, from £77). Two pilgrims arranged Airbnb. If the number of hotels seems excessive, small hotels are reluctant to commit all their rooms to privately arranged groups; so it may take a few hotels to secure all the rooms you need. Larger hotels are likely to want to tie you into dinner-plus-bed-and-breakfast deals: these are exactly the sort of restrictions we were trying to avoid.

• Contact hotels initially by phone. Emails with “group booking” in the subject line are often thought to be from hen or stag parties, and elicit a dusty response.

• Be flexible about timings, as high-profile churches have packed diaries (we booked St Magnus’s Cathedral’s last summer weekend slot, sandwiching our service there between a commemoration of the Battle of Jutland and an event for the annual St Magnus Festival).

• Mainland, Orkney is flat, and has good roads; so visiting two or three sites in a day is fine. But shelling out a fortune in taxi fares during our recce made us realise the importance of hiring our own transport. The moment that dates are confirmed, book transport, as it gets snapped up in the holiday season. We hired two self-drive people-carriers, which cost £440 for two days, including fuel.

• Set up a system for collecting deposits and issuing group cheques or money transfers, as each hotel has different booking and payment requirements. Also, have access to an emergency fund and/or high-limit credit card: we had to pay £550 on the spot to hire two fishing boats; and restaurants like to issue one group bill rather than wait while you haggle over who had a pudding.

• It is a good idea to let pilgrims book their own travel, so people can fly or take the ferry as suits, and stay longer if they have the time. Both inter-island and long-distance ferry timetables reduce on a Sunday; so this needs to be taken into account.

• Our itinerary cost £651 per person (flight and hotel costs for three nights were about £480; lunch, dinner, and boat hire added £145; car hire and petrol came to £26 per head).


Travel details
Orkney commemorates the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Magnus with events across the Orkney isles (www.stmagnus.org), from Easter weekend throughout 2017, including the annual St Magnus International Festival (ticket bookings open in May) (www.stmagnusfestival.com/magnus-900). Flights to Orkney are available with Flybe seven days a week via Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, or Inverness (www.flybe.com). Alternatively, NorthLink Ferries (phone 0845 6000 449; www.northlinkferries.co.uk) runs a ferry service from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, on Mainland (and Scrabster to Stromness on Mainland). Pentland Ferries (phone 01856 831 226; www.pentlandferries.co.uk) operates a car ferry from Gills Bay, Caithness, to St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay. From St Margaret’s Hope it is a 20-minute car journey to the Mainland, from where it is possible to catch ferries to the outer islands. John o’ Groats Ferry (phone 01955 611353; www.jogferry.co.uk) operates a passenger-only ferry from May to September, from John o’ Groats to Burwick, and offers a connecting coach transfer from Burwick to Kirkwall, on Mainland, for every arrival and departure. Orkney Ferries (phone 01856 872044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk) operates inter-island ferries from the Mainland to 13 Orkney islands (Eday; Flotta; Hoy and Graemsay; North Ronaldsay; Papa Westray; Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre; Sanday; Shapinsay; Stronsay; Westray).




St Magnus
THE Norwegian Magnus Erlendsson was joint Earl of Orkney from 1105 to 1114 with his cousin Hakon. Then the cousins fell out, and a meeting was arranged on Egilsay to resolve their dispute. Hakon came with eight warships, and ordered his cousin to be slain on 16 April (1115, 1116, 1117, or even 1118, depending on the source).The Orkneyinga Saga states that Hakon’s standard-bearer Ofeig refused to execute Magnus; so the task fell to Lifolf, his cook. The saga records how Magnus repented of his sins and prayed for his executioner and murderer, before his skull was split in two with an axe.

Magnus was buried where he fell on rocky ground, but the saga has it that the area miraculously transformed into a green field. After pleas from Magnus’s mother, Thora, Hakon allowed the body to be buried at Birsay, on Mainland, Orkney. From the day of his burial, a bright, heavenly light was said to have been seen above Magnus’s grave, accompanied by a “heavenly fragrance”.

A cult of Magnus grew, and stories were told of miracles and healing taking place at his resting place. Two decades after the burial, the Bishop of Orkney, William of Old, reportedly had his sight restored by praying at Magnus’s grave, and had him proclaimed a saint, and his remains were enshrined above the high altar at Christchurch. Some years later, it is said that St Magnus appeared in a dream to a trustworthy yeoman, Gunni, on the northern isle of Westray, urging him to tell Bishop William that he wished to be moved from Birsay to Kirkwall, where he remains today.

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