The St Magnus Way is a 55-mile walking route in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. A pilgrimage can help you connect with nature and yourself in a safe, structured way. Explore this diverse landscape and interesting history alongside Kirstin Bews as she shares her five-part journey.
The Orkney Islands
Orkney is an archipelago of around 70 islands in the Northern Isles of Scotland, albeit their rich history has them identify as a hybrid of Norwegian and Scottish culture.
Orkney is perfect for female solo travellers as the sleepy pace creates a romantic, and safe, setting.
The city of Kirkwall is full of local boutiques and restaurants, while the surrounding parishes are steeped in the history of archaeological sites.
And the ocean is never far away.
I was born and brought up on the Orkney Islands, so I know the islands and their stories very well. I have lived in Toronto for four years now, so I know the hectic city lifestyle.
So I can assure you, there’s no better place for self-reflection than stepping back into a place where time stands still in history.
Twenty of these islands have been inhabited for at least 8,500 years. They were originally occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes, followed by the Picts, who were later colonised and then annexed by Norway in 875.
St Magnus Erlendsson was Earl of Orkney from 1106 to about 1115, and he shared his earldom with his cousin Haakon Paulsson. But jealousy and greed culminated in Magnus being killed by Haakon on the island of Egilsay.
Magnus’s mother begged for her son’s body to be returned to her on the mainland (Note: The mainland is the largest island, not the current-day Scottish mainland.) What followed turned into a 55-mile pilgrimage back from Egilsay to Kirkwall, where the St Magnus Cathedral would stand.
Looking for travel inspiration? Wanderful is a global community for travel-loving women. Connect with us:
The St Magnus Way
The St Magnus Way covers a 55-mile long route through the mainland of Orkney, inspired by the life and death of St Magnus.
Although the route goes through the Orkney Mainland, pilgrims are encouraged to start their journey on the island of Eglisay, the site of St Magnus’s martyrdom in the year 1117. The ferry leaves Egilsay and brings you to Tingwall.
From there, you can start your walk at the Broch of Gurness, the starting point of the St Magnus Way.
The journey incorporates coastal walking, inland tracks and road walking, hill climbing and a (very short!) forest walk.
Get answers to all your destination questions and find travel buddies in the Wanderful membership community
Split into five sections, the St Magnus Way can be walked in four good days, five gentler days, or even in three intensive days.
You could alternatively cut each route into shorter walks to do over a longer period of time. Living in Orkney, I decided to take a full week, alternating walking days and taking a day off.
If you’re walking this pilgrimage as part of your holiday, there are plenty of places to stay along the route! Walking each section in full will leave you in a different town each night: Evie, Birsay, Dounby, Finstown, Orphir, and Kirkwall.
Each town has its own character, with places to stay, pubs, shops, and plenty to explore.
There’s a fantastic app for the pilgrimage that you can download to get information when you reach points of interest. You can ‘check into’ the historical sites if you’re looking to mark your progress.
The app also shows you the map, so turn on your location to make the most of this feature. You can also watch out for the (very) small St Magnus route makers along the way – you’ll usually find them stuck onto fence posts.
Start with Egilsay
This is a short and easy walk that links together the historical sites on the island of Egilsay. Unusually for Orkney, Egilsay may have a partly Gaelic name. At first sight, it appears to be Egil’s island, “Egil” being a Norse personal name. But the Gaelic “eaglais,” meaning “church,” could be a part of the root, as the island is dominated by a church of pre-Norse foundation.
Norse or Gaelic by name, we know for definite that this was the site of the martyring of St Magnus.
The theme for this part of the walk is Peace.
We think about the sacrifices Magnus made for peace in Orkney. And we can connect that same search for peace in our present.
As an island of almost entirely farmland, under open skies and with a beach perimeter, a sense of peace is easily acquired here.
This route is the shortest, and arguably the easiest, of all the sections. The length of the walk is 3.5 miles (1 of these miles being off-road) and a total ascent of 62 meters.
Walking from the pier, you’ll go through the major historical sites of the Magnus memorial, which marks the place of his death, and the St Magnus Kirk.
You can carry on to start Route One or you can take the boat to the island of Rousay first to explore a whole host of neolithic and mesolithic cairns.
Don’t feel rushed though! If you enjoy basking in peaceful Egilsay, you can spend the rest of the day by the shore. However, it’s important to note that Egilsay is entirely remote in character, so you’ll need to bring your own food and supplies.
Route One, Evie to Birsay
This route begins in the quaint parish of Evie at the historic site of Broch of Gurness. It follows a tough shore and clifftop walk offering views over the islands of Rousay, Eynhallow, and Westray, to its final stop by the Earl’s Palace in Birsay.
From my experience, this section was definitely the hardest physically, but it was also the most beautiful part of the St Magnus Way. You’ll love it, too, if dramatic coastlines and steep cliff views are your thing!
This is the longest walk at 12.5 miles, and the walking is mostly rough. It’s recommended that this walk takes between 7 and 9 hours; don’t underestimate that as you’ll want to stop and take in the scenery along the way!
With any pilgrimage, your mentality is tested, so you don’t want time to cause an extra strain.
This said, Orkney summer nights don’t draw in, so you’ll still have perfect daylight at 11 pm in July.
The theme of this section is Loss.
You’re following the journey of Magnus’s body as it was carried from Gurness to Christ Kirk in Birsay.
The original procession most likely followed where the main road is now, over to Swannay Loch, up and over Costa Hill, to come down around the cliffs of Crustan and Northside, leading to the Kirk.
Check the tide times and be careful on the country roads as cars speed past. This is a tasking journey.
The path takes advantage of the coastal scenery, and some sections are hard going (particularly Costa Hill — who wants to walk up a hill after 4 miles of coastal cliff top walking?!) This certainly reinforces the experience of loss.
The scenery also narrates this experience as coastal erosion shows jagged loss of stone, leaving brighter yet vulnerable looking patches in the shoreline.
Route Two, Birsay to Dounby
This section follows the journey of Magnus’s bones, around 20 years after his martyring. This move took Magnus out of the Christ Kirk in Birsay, along the journey that would end in Kirkwall, where the Cathedral that bears his name was in the final stages of completion.
This is a shorter walk at 10.2 miles, with gentle road walking and minimal inclines.
The theme of this stage is Growth.
We spend time reflecting on the growing cult of St Magnus followers after his death and the shifting of power from the West to the East of the Orkney Mainland.
Along this road, you’ll find out about the tradition of ‘Mansie Stanes’, with one still visible at Strathyre. These stones are thought to signal resting points where Magnus’s casket was rested en route.
This is a beautiful journey that takes you on a short beach walk, around the Loch of Boardhouse, and down Greeny Hill to Dounby. Other points along the way include Mans Well, Kirbursiter farm (and chapel), and the Milestone Kirk.
At some points, you’ll feel a little intrusive as you cross a section of farmland that takes you essentially through back gardens and in-between en-closed cattle fields.
Don’t worry, Orcadians are usually pretty friendly folk, so if you see someone, take a moment to talk to them! The cattle, not so much; take some space from them to ensure that neither party gets distressed.
Route Three, Dounby to Finstown
A continuation of the Mansie Stane traditions, this walk sees you leave Dounby village toward the Harray Loch. Then you head up towards St Michael’s Kirk, along Winksetter, down on to Wasdale Loch, and end with a short walk through Binscarf woods.
The theme for this section is apt: Change.
You walk through the changing landscape of village, lochside, rolling hills, and finally woods.
Another shorter section at 10.3 miles, this was my least favourite. Although the scenery is stunning, in a very understated way, there’s very little challenge to this section. That makes this route more monotonous than the previous walks.
This did make the journey mentally tougher, though, as there’s less dramatic scenery to distract you.
Although there’s definite beauty in the relaxed, and calming, inland views of the West Mainland.
Route Four, Finstown to Orphir
Now you’ve wandered through the valleys of the rolling hills, it’s time to get up over the hills to Earl Haakon’s Round Kirk in Orphir.
At Finstown, you’ll notice that the Mansie Stone tradition stops. Most probably, this is because they travelled with Magnus’s bones by boat from Finstown, around Damsay, and into Kirkwall. This would have saved them traversing the bog or hiking up over the hill.
Our attention is therefore switched to Haakon.
And so the theme of this journey is Forgiveness.
We reflect on whether or not Haakon was sorry for the murder of his cousin Magnus.
Following the ideas of forgiveness, this 10.65-mile walk is hard at the start, with steep inclines on off-road tracks. But as the terrain around you starts to get gentler, you’ll feel a sense of relief as you start walking downhill on flatter roads.
You’ll climb up over Cuween Hill, where there’s a Chambered Cairn dated 3,000 BCE. It’s thought that Neolithic farmers built this cairn for burial purposes. You can crawl right into it, so be prepared to use your phone torch!
Outside of the Cuween cairn, you have panoramic views over Finstown and the Firth. Surrounded by small summit cairns, you’ll go up over the Lyradale Hill, and then you’ll be walking down the hills through to Orphir village. You’ll walk around to Earl’s Bu and the Round Kirk, before ending up at the Orphir Kirk.
Haakon ruled the Earlship after killing Magnus. He even made his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where it was likely the journey and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inspired the construction of his Round Kirk in Orphir.
Route Five, Orphir to Kirkwall
From Orphir, you’ve reached the final stage of the pilgrimage!
Like Route One, this route follows the coastline as much as possible, so there’s some tricky moorland to manoeuvre.
Another similarity to the Evie-Birsay journey is the length at 11.34 miles, making the pilgrimage end on the second-longest walking journey.
Unlike the Northern side of the Mainland, the Southern waters of Scapa flow are generally much gentler.
The final theme is Hospitality.
We reflect on the place of feasting in the medieval world, and our own mealtime traditions. We consider the welcome that Magnus received from Kirkwall — one that you will undoubtedly receive as well!
It’s the perfect time to contemplate your trip: the hard parts, the easy parts, the parts that surprised you, and the parts that will stay with you.
Passing through the Hobbister RSPB Reserve, keep your eyes peeled for rare birdlife as you head towards the sandy beach of Scapa Flow, before taking the well-loved Crantit trail path.
There’s no worry about getting lost on this part of the route: the St Magnus Cathedral lights up as a guiding beacon that can be seen for miles.
Although, instead of walking straight to the Cathedral, you’ll first visit the harbour, as the Cathedral used to stand on the waterfront.
You’ll pass the site of St Olaf’s Kirk, where Magnus was first taken, and then you’ll approach the Cathedral from the north.
If you time it right, you’ll be celebrated by the church bells that chime every hour.
Reflections of the Time Spent on this Pilgrimage
The highlights of this pilgrimage are definitely the remote locations, particularly with the first walking route on the remote island of Egilsay, off the Mainland.
The vastness of the plains, the open skies, and the crashing waves, it all mixes together with an ‘exciting’ and unpredictable blend of weathers.
As a native to The Orkney Islands, I will always recommend you give yourself an extra couple of planning days as a safety net, just in case the weather is too dangerous for walking. Otherwise, bring your boots and rain jackets!
With any pilgrimage, you’re looking for some fruitful introversion. The themes of each route will most definitely encourage you to look into yourself to uncover something, be it about yourself or the history you’re surrounded by.
Join the Wanderful community to meet like-minded women who love to travel
Resources for the St Magnus Way:
- Walk the St Magnus Way
- Official St Magnus Way website
- St Magnus Way on Facebook
- Follow the St Magnus Way
- Scottish Outdoor Access Code
Have you taken a solo pilgrimage before? Tell us about it in the comments!