The bleary pilgrim

Bundled into the Corsa. Beltless, unshaven and woozy. Despite its lack of a working radio I still love this car. The defunct Blaupunkt reads “SAFE” in all-caps instead of channel, or frequency. It couldn’t display track number; in this respect, alongside its winddown windows, it’s still very much in the analogue age with its cassette drawer only playing tapes – although I’m told they’re making a comeback too.

A drumstick air freshener swings erratically in vain from the useless volume knob, suspended by its elasticated cord. It attempts to mask a seemingly inerasable aroma; a legacy from the previous owner. It is within the cradle of this benevolent metal cage that my pilgrimage begins.

Now I’m sitting at the back of the kirk, pretty pleased with myself – I’m not even that hungover. Hours ago, I was spinning, loving life at a charity gig. I methodically determine the total sum of the previous evening’s consumption, then repeat it like a mantra in my head, thanking my luck that I wasn’t in a worse state. Mum arrives and I’m promptly told that I stink of drink. Not to worry tough, I’ve still got that chewing gum I purchased last night. As I slip the piece onto my tongue I curse myself for not reading the label properly at the till; not normally an impulse buyer, I am forced to endure its adolescent “bubblemint” flavour. Still, better than nothing, and should stave off the fumes.

The talk begins, and it’s a talk, not a service, with an update from the minister about the pilgrimage route’s official recognition from the local authority, and incidentally lack thereof, and the state of the interactive companion app’s development. I feel a bit of an imposter here on this soggy Saturday morning. The St Magnus way is a project part of commemorating 900 years since the patron of Orkney’s death at the hands of his cousin’s men. This eight-mile stretch I was about to embark upon was dedicated to that very same treacherous relative, Earl Haakon, who ruled the isles jointly with the aforementioned saint. It seemed appropriate that this excursion’s theme was forgiveness, as I felt a particularly heightened sense of the need for self-reconciliation as the walk progressed and my perception of reality became all the more acute.

Haakon is often cast as the villain of the piece when the story of St Magnus is related in a hastily constructed, morally black and white fashion to schoolchildren and adults alike. In place of the mythic archetype, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, Norse history expert, presented us with a Haakon who was a great deal more complex than the legend would have us believe. She pointed to how the original source, the Orkneyinga saga of Icelandic provenance, glosses over the decade or so of peaceful rule the cousins presided over before their fateful confrontation on Egilsay. Haakon himself did not wish Magnus to die; it was the verdict of the people that only one could live and it ended up being a cook who swung the axe that killed him. Magnus’s murder is the deed that has defined Haakon in the popular consciousness. However, he went on to live for many more years after event, during which time there is evidence of his pilgrimage. Haakon’s further rule is described as being a prosperous time for Orkney in the saga. While Haakon did not pay for what he had done in his lifetime, during the joint rule of his son, Paul and Harald, Paul was inexplicably imprisoned and maimed; possibly as retribution for his father’s actions.

The next part of the talk concerned Rognvald – the guy who commissioned the building of the cathedral. Unlike pious, quite Magnus, Rognvald was a man of action who was aware of his talents; something which survives in the Old Norse poetry he left behind. One poem in particular drew laughter for its description of Jerusalem, during his visit on crusade (something as a Viking he would have doubtless enjoyed), as an overcrowded tourist attraction.

Friday night had been a wash out. Roads were closed and diversions advised. The resultant new burns and streams that had sprung up overnight out of the saturated heath seeped into walking boots and through socks, making for a squelchy plod across the hills.

My thoughts turned to the lost language of Norn – a kind of Norse/Scots crossover that was spoken up until the 18th century in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness. The Scandinavian countries have distinct languages – Danish, Swedish and Norwegian and yet they are mutually intelligible, to the extent that a Dane and a Swede could understand each other without having to change the language they spoke in much. I consider the possibility of a parallel universe which saw Norn’s continued evolution instead of extinction and mull over Scotland’s rejection of its own independence. What if this linguistic kinship had been maintained? Would we then have welcomed the chance to join into the Nordic family of nations?

These liminal spaces hold great interest for me; particularly the transition between pagan beliefs and Christianity taking place in the middle ages, to which I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to devote study last semester in my late medieval Europe elective course. This topic manifested itself at the most interesting point of the day when we stopped off at Naversdale, Dr Gibbon’s house, and the site of a remarkable discovery. Whilst deconstructing a drystone dyke, her dad found a piece of stone with what looked like a runic inscription on it. These runes were then translated. It turned out that this was part of the Lord’s prayer in Latin, which had been phonetically transcribed into Old Norse; an astonishing example of popular religion in the 12th century.

As we reach the crest of the final summit we are greeted by a field of alpacas in what is quite a surreal scene. Sheep bleat inanely whilst a wind turbine’s blades chop through the air in an oscillating drone overhead. It’s all downhill from here.

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About alasdairflett

Edinburgh student from Orkney based in Hamburg. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, literature and politics.
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