ON THE SEA ROADS: The St Magnus Pilgrim Journey

 
ON THE SEA ROADS: The St Magnus Pilgrim Journey


Orkney and Shetland are very different. They are often put together because they are  island groupings north of mainland Scotland, and both wedged between the North Sea and the Atlantic. They have been part of the Norse world as well as the Scottish for centuries, and they share the same patron saint, St Magnus. However the geology, geography and ecology differ widely. Shetland is above all a place of the sea- a kind of extended harbour- while Orkney, albeit surrounded by sea, is focussed on its rich well tilled land. Shetland is predominantly rocky though with fertile carefully tended crofts where exposure and climate allow. Orkney, like Caithness, is made of sandstone , which gives its buildings their monumental feel, but most of the ground is gently rolling, and only Hoy and Rousay are predominantly hilly or rocky.
Consequently we will treat Orkney and Shetland differently, journeying through different landscapes and experiences. Nonetheless both island groupings offer three powerful persuasions to pilgrimage- centuries of evolving religious heritage, a vivid sense of the natural elements, and compact journeys. In addition they have both inspired great art- music, literature, painting and film. Their story begins long before St Magnus, though from the moment of his death on Egilsay his influence has been all pervasive. 
The life of Magnus also reminds us that Orkney and Shetland are integral to wider northern seaways. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland are all in the flow. These also became the searoads for Christianity. One of first Norse rulers to adopt Christianity was Queen Aud, the ‘deep-minded’, who set sail from Caithness and then Orkney after her son Thorstein’s death in Scotland. Aud finally settled in Iceland at Hvamm, building a church at Krossholar, ‘for she had been baptised and held stongly to the Christian faith’. When it eventully came, the marriage between Norse culture and the new faith was a fruitful and creative one, as Orkney and Shetland show. 
 
MORNING
 
Be a smooth way before me,
Be a guiding star above me,
Be a keen eye behind me,
This day, this night, for ever.
 
I am weary and forlorn,
Lead me to the land of the angels,
Since it is time I went for a space,
To the court of Christ, the peace of heaven.
 
Blessing
 
Be, O God, at peace with me,
Be my support, my helm, my star,
From my lying down
To my rising anew to voyage.
 
 
 
STAGE 1: Orkney Rings
 
Resist the temptation to begin with St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, as it belongs to a sequence and a story. Instead take the first ring west along the coast to Orphir. The apse survives here of a famous round church based on the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, recalling Earl Rognvald’s pilgrimage after the building of his cathedral. Continue on the coast road to Stromness, Orkney’s second port, which is celebrated as Hamnavoe in the stories and poems of its best known literary son, George Mackay Brown, whose bench sits on Brinkie Brae above the harbour, still watching all of life go by. Continue north from Stromness on the east side of Loch of Stenness, turning round the head of the loch to view a Neolithic sacred landscape writ large.
 
It is only in recent years, with the excavation on Ness of Brodgar of an enormous Neolithic temple enclosure that people have realised that this whole area has a unity of design. On this side of the Ness are the Stones of Stenness, and on the other the Ring of Brodgar, and the Ring of Bookan a little to the northwest, as well as Maes Howe chambered cairn down whose passage the midwinter sunset gleams. The openness of the landscape to sea and sky makes the perfect setting for such cosmic theatre. Awesome for once may be the correct adjective.
 
Returning back over the Ness, we continue north to Skaill Bay where the Neolithic village of Skara Brae is still battling the encroaching sea. Here is the domestic counterpart of the cosmic grandeur. Proceeding north we come to Brough of Birsay which plays an important part in the Magnus story. Here on the tidal island there was a Celtic monastery later succeeded by a medieval church and Norse settlement. At the mainland village the church was for a while the bishop’s own kirk and it was here that Magnus’s remains were brought to be buried, and here that the first miraculous happenings started the Magnus cult against the wishes of both Earl and Bishop.
 
Follow this story round the north end and down the east side where Rousay dominates the outlook. In the narrows is Eynhallow- the Holy Isle- where there was a medieval monastery. This island often disappears and magically reappears in Orkney folklore. Next appears the island of Wyre, nurse of two famous poets, Bishop Bjarni in the days of the Norse Earls and in the twentieth century Edwin Muir, one of the outstanding spiritual voices of his time. Northeast of Wyre is Egilsay with the Church of St Magnus on its soutrhern tip. This is where Magnus was murdered on the shoreline. The ferry from Tingwall plies to Rousay, Wye and Egilsay.
 
Swing south to Finstown at the head of Firth Bay, and then we are set fair for our pilgrimage to the great shrine of Magnus at Kirkwall. Here the saint was enshrined after the move from Birsay instigated by Earl Rognvald and his father Kol who may have been the visionary behind the whole project. Remarkably for Scotland the axe- cloven skull of Magnus remains in position inside the massive righthand pillar beside the choir, while Rognvald’s skull is in the lefthand pillar, indicating his later status as a second saint. This extraordinary survival receives only a modest mention on a small plaque, since as Murdoch Mackenzie observed (approvingly) of Orkney in the eigthteenth century, ‘the Religion is Presbyterian, as Established in Scotland, without Bigotry, Enthusiasm, or Zeal’.
 
A second ring goes east from Kirkwall to the Brough of Deerness. This was the site of a substantial early Celtic monastery with chapel and cells, though access is now difficult because of erosion of the land bridge. Come back southeast to St Mary’s and then Lamb Holm where the lovely Italian Chapel was built, and later lovingly restored, by prisoners of war who never forgot their hospitable treatment at the hands of the local people. Going on into Burray and South Ronaldsay, by the Churchhill Barriers built belatedly to protect the Scapa Flow anchorage from submarine attack, we must imagine a network of Norse chapels succeeding and extending the Celtic pattern across the landholdings. Only some of these survived to become later chapels and churches, but they demonstate the ready welcome that Christianity received in  Orkney. At the southern end of South Ronaldsay St Mary’s Church is one such site, while at nearby Isbister is the intriguing ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, a prehistoric burial cairn with its own special symbolism.
 
If time allows, each of the northern islands has its own sites and attractions, not least Westray and Papa Westray, where there is a very old pilgrimage tradition associated with St Boniface and St Triduana (Treadwell Loch) the healer, which probably predates the Magnus developments.  
 
 
ON THE WAY
 
AN EASTER SACRIFICE
 
The meeting to seal the peace and goodwill between the two earls was to take place on Egilsay, in spring, during Holy Week. Earl Magnus had two ships with the agreed number of men, and set off for Egilsay. But Earl Hakon gathered a large force of fighting men, and as many ships as if he were going to war. Magnus only prayed devoutly at the chapel, and had a mass said for himself. In the morning Hakon and his men hurried ashore.
 
The illustrious Earl Magnus was as cheerful as if he had been invited to a feast. He spoke neither words of anger or resentment, but knelt down to pray, covering his face with his hands. Hakon told his standard bearer Ofeig to do the killing, but he angrily refused. So he ordered his cook Lifolf to kill Mgnus, but the cook burst into tears.
 
‘There is nothing to weep over,’ said Magnus, ‘an act like tgis can only bring fame to the man who carries it through. Show yourself a man of spirit and you will have my clothes, according to the old customs. Don’t be afraid, you’re doing this against your will and he who gives the order carries greater blame than you.’
 
The Earl Magnus took off his tunic and gave it to Lifolf. Then he stretched himself on the ground, committing his soul to God, and offering himself as a sacrifice. He prayed for himself and his friends, and for his enemies and murderers. He confessed his sins and asked that his soul might be washed clean by the spilling of his own blood. He asked that he might be greeted by God’s angels and carried by them into the peace of Paradise. As this friend of God was led to his execution, he said to Lifolf, ‘Stand in front of me and strike me hard on the head. It’s not fitting for a nobleman to be beheaded like a thief. Take heart, poor man, I’ve prayed that God grant you his mercy’.
 
With that Earl Magnus crossed himself, and bowed to receive the blow. So his soul passed away to Heaven.
( The Orkneyinga Saga )
 
Blessing
 
Comfort the sorrowful,
strengthen the weak, gently upholding,
deliver the vulnerable and frail from death
so that we may not be exiles
from the kingdom of the living.
( Aberdeen Breviary, Adapted )
 
 
STAGE 2: Shetland Slipways
Everywhere in Shetland seems a stone’s throw from the sea, shaped by the bays or voes and the smaller and more frequent geos- sheltered landing places. The Norse character seems even more pronounced than in Orkney, in the scenery, the seamanship, and the language with its unique admixture of Scots and Norn. There are more cliffs and more colour, or at least all of these things are more tightly packed than in Orkney. Early Celtic Christianity is surely less significant here? But that is a misunderstanding. Shetland fits perfectly the desirable destination at the ends of the earth. Moreover its rocky cliffs, peninsulas and offshore islands are a wilderness or ‘desert’ in the Celtic sense of the term- isolated places of retreat and spiritual contemplation. Early Norse chronicles recorded that Shetland was occupied by Picts and Papils ie by a Celtic culture similar tothe northern Scottish mainland and the Celtic monks. Many of their early settlements have been literally consumed by the elements, yet archaeologists keep finding more.
 
The Shetland Museum in Lerwick is a good place to start, sampling the rich succession of cultures and the abundant archaeological record. From Lerwick we go southwest to the old island capital at Scalloway which in its turn had replaced Tingwall as the meeting place of the Shetland Althing or parliament. The notorious Earl Patrick Stewart built himself a fine castle here after the Scottish takeover of  Shetland. It is worth crossing here to Hamnavoe on West Burra. There was a Celtic monastery on this southern landfall at Papil and two fine carved stones survive, one still on site. The importance of the monastery which had a round tower is also shown by the Monks’ Stone in the Shetland Museum. It depicts five monks moving towards a High Cross. Four are on foot with their leader on a pony, while each one carries a crook and a book satchel for their Gospel manuscript. No artwork in the Celtic world brings us closer to these early missionaries and travellers. The stone is the side panel of a shrine which clearly contained relics of an important individual whose identity has been lost.
 
From Scalloway we return to the main road south, touching on harbours and brochs. Offshore to the northeast is Bressay which has a church and carved stones, and due east lies Mousa with its outstanding broch, which is a skilfully designed combination of watchtower and prestigious stone dwelling. Back on the west side near Levenwick a narrow isthmus joins the mainland peninsula to St Ninian’s Isle. This was the site of a clifftop Celtic monastery beneath whose chapel the St Ninian’s Isle silver hoard was concealed, perhaps in anticipation of a Viking raid. Fragments of a saint’s shrine were also excavated here and are on display in Lerwick, though the treasure itself is in the National Museum in Edinburgh. At the foot of the peninsula, definitely unmoveable to Edinburgh, is Jarlshof, an astonishing sequence of settlements built one on top of the other. 
 
Our second loop goes northwest from Lerwick out to Walls and Sandness. There is some fertile croftland in this region and many inland lochs in addition to the expected indented coastline. South of the Walls road is the Neolithic settlement and temple of Stanydale. At the end of the road west is Papa Stour, the priests’ island, once a flourishing community and now almost deserted. We must return as we came in order to go north again, traversing mainland segments that feel like islands. Muckle Roe, an actual island, sits solidly to the west.
 
Keeping north we swing west to Hillswick where there is an enterprising wildlife sanctuary and cultural centre. Further west is Esha Ness with its cluster of scenic features including the old burial ground and church site at Crosskirk. Again we must retrace our steps to go further north to North Roe, arriving finally at Isbister. Nearby on the east coast at Kame of Isbister, looking east to Yell, was a major Celtic monastery in the jaws of the ocean. Archaeologists have traced nineteen cells or chapels here with others lost to the waves. It should be stressed that access to this site is difficult, and that in rough weather these wild coastlines are hazardous.  
 
Returning south we then go on the northeastern side to Yell and Unst. These islands have experienced significant depopulation in modern times. There is though plentiful evidence of earlier settlement with chapels at Cullivoe, Kirk of Ness, and at Mid Yell. At Papil Ness further north there is an even remoter chapel site only accessible by foot. There was also a large monastery at Birrier, now completely inaccessible because of the collapse of the land bridge. St Colman’s Episcopal Church at Burravoe in South Yell however shows that not every church is closed or washed into the sea. On Unst there are remains of traditional chapels at Clibberswick by Haroldswick, and to the south at Gletna in Uyea Sound and on Uyea Island. Fetlar east of Yell has always attracted those with an eremitic disposition, and there have been modern monastic ventures connected with both Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. The main Celtic monastery was on the inaccessible rock stack at Outer Brough- ascetic with a capital ‘A’.
 
We return to Lerwick on the east side where the fishing island of Whalsay is visible offshore. Hugh MacDiarmid the twentieth century poet lived here for a time and wrote some gritty poems in praise of the Shetland fishermen and women. The mainland coast is again multiply indented and rocky. Back in Lerwick the Magnus story can be found depicted in stained glass in the handsome town hall and again in the attractive St Magnus Episcopal Church which exhibits all the colour of the nineteenth century liturgical revival. This was a period when Shetland protestants were much influenced by Methodism. The predominant trait is now undoubtedly agnostic or indifferent to institutional religion, but that conceals a keen sense of the natural world, of community values, and of an unspoken sense of wider spiritual context. Human life here calls for solidarity in the face of elemental powers of creation and destruction.  

    
EVENING
 
Broken is the dripping honeycomb
Releasing the sweetness of honey
Dispensing goodness with its fragrant scent.
The holy man is slain
But his miracles arouse wonder
Enlighten the blind, purging anger.
Captives are freed by the martyr’s help
And the shipwrecked loosed from death.
Joy comes to the sorrowful, healing to the sick,
And sound hope in time of danger and distress.
The alabaster jar is broken, but the aroma
Spreads far and wide, fragrant anointing.
( Aberdeen Breviary, Adapted )
 
Blessing
 
O God , who does not let time pass
Without the comfort of the saints,
Grant us we pray this night,
Protection through the gracious intervention
Of your most holy gentle martyr Magnus,
light of the north and star of the sea,
Now and for evermore.
( Aberdeen Breviary, Adapted )