Words on the St Magnus Way

Project poet Yvonne Gray with response box, Egilsay.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and co-ordinator of Words on the Way: A Literary Pilgrimage, outlines the collaborative project between Orkney College and the St Magnus Way.

The project, which was funded by the Scottish Book Trust, ran from July until November 2020 as part of Book Week Scotland. It was conceived as a socially distanced way of creating community engagement with Orkney literature.

Twenty texts, by 13 Orkney writers, were put up along the 55-mile-long pilgrimage route from Egilsay and across the West Mainland of Orkney via Evie, Birsay, Harray, Firth, Orphir, St Ola and ending in Kirkwall.

The texts were chosen to relate to a specific place or to the landscape, or the themes of the different legs of the pilgrimage: peace, loss, change, growth, forgiveness, and hospitality. 

Response box on the gate of Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney.

Along the way were also six postboxes, where members of the public could leave their own responses to the texts and the experience of walking the pilgrimage route.

At the end of the project, for Book Week in November, the boxes were collected, and poet Yvonne Gray crafted a new special St Magnus Way poem building on the responses and her own experience as a pilgrim.

We began in July, speaking with landowners and authors. All were very positive and happy to be included in this project. It has been met with enthusiasm all along.

Stewart Little, from St Magnus Way, and I sat down one day and decided on which texts we wanted to include and where they should go. What the texts all have in common is that they are deeply rooted in Orkney, either linked to a specific place, a part of its history, or the way of life here.

The writers were mostly contemporary authors who are active today, but some historical authors were also included.

Furthest back in time lies Rognvald Kali Kolsson, 12th century earl of Orkney, nephew of St Magnus and also himself a saint. Rognvald brought about what has been called Orkney’s 12th century literary renaissance, where he and other poets he employed drew on the rich traditions of Viking Age oral literature and updated it with European continental influences in a poetic fusion cuisine.

On the pilgrimage route, Rognvald was represented with a poem in the sometimes muddy Binscarth Woods. Beginning “Five weeks we’ve waded through wetness and filth”, this humorous poem was written in Rognvald’s youth on a trip through Grimsby, but perhaps captures the mood as you near the end of leg four of St Magnus Way on a wet autumn day.

Other historical authors, from the 20th century, were George Mackay Brown, Robert Rendall, Eric Linklater and Christina Costie, all much loved by the Orkney community.

Their heirs all very generously let us display their texts.

Eric Linklater lived in what is now Merkister Hotel, so this was a nice place to hang two excerpts from his novels The Wind on the Moon and The Dark of Summer. It is a lovely place for pilgrims to stop for tea and cakes. Sadly, his daughter Kristin Linklater, who has been a driving force in Orkney’s cultural scene this last decade, passed away shortly before the Words on the Way project began. Kristin was the original inspiration for the main character in The Wind on the Moon: the inventive and resourceful Dorinda, who rescues her dad from captivity during a war.

Robert Rendall’s Cragsman’s Widow, placed by steep cliffs in his beloved Birsay.

Robert Rendall and Christina Costie were friends and neighbours in Kirkwall in the mid-20th Century. They both wrote poetry that was deeply rooted in Orkney’s traditional way of life, and used Orkney dialect as their medium.

Though they both had a great sense of humour, they also wrote on deeper philosophical topics. Robert Rendall particularly loved Birsay, and was represented with three poems about specific places he knew well. Christina Costie was also represented with three poems.

One of them, Speir Thoo the Wast Wind, reflects on where the souls of drowned men go. Orkney, being an island community, has lost many to the waves, and the poem wonders if they are now free among the wind, the sea, the northern lights and the grey geese that fly across the sky.

This poem was put at Moan in Harray, where many grey geese could be seen on their autumn flight and grazing in the fields.

On the theme of loss, Christina Costie’s poem Speir Thoo the Wast Wind reflects on where drowned souls go. Shown at Moan, Harray.

The best known author in this project is George Mackay Brown, from Stromness. He was deeply moved by the story of St Magnus and as an adult converted to Roman Catholicism.

In his poem The Killers, he imagines Earl Hakon’s men during the moments and hours following the killing of St Magnus, and how what should have been a celebration of victory with food, drink and merriment feels hollow and subdued.

The Killers, by George Mackay Brown, displayed in Egilsay at the place where St Magnus is believed to have died.
A pilgrim, Christopher Gee, reflecting on George Mackay Brown’s poem. Memorial cairn, Egilsay.

A contemporary poet who has had a central role in this project is Pamela Beasant. She contributed three poems, one at, and about, the Norse settlement in Birsay, and two at Naversdale in Orphir: Out of Time and Land/Mind.

Pamela has been a very active Orkney poet for many years, and was one of the writers who, in the 1990s, did a project on poetry in place, installing concrete texts specifically made for their location, including the Earl’s Garden. This poetry-in-place project was among the inspirations for Words on the Way. Pamela’s partner Iain Ashman designed the poster for Words on the Way.

On the themes of forgiveness and growth, we had chosen poems by the exciting contemporary writers Luke Sutherland and Rosie Alexander.

Rosie’s poem Bog Cotton was brand new, written for the 2020 Orkney Pride festival. It was put up near Rosie’s home in Orphir, where bog cotton grows thick on the RSPB nature reserve. During a walk here, Rosie noticed how the bog cotton resembled many small flags.

In her poem, the bog cotton bravely dares put its flags up, many of them, all saying, with pride: here we are!

Rosie Alexander’s poem Bog Cotton was written for the first Orkney Pride, 2020.

Meanwhile, Luke Sutherland’s novel Venus as a Boy is perhaps not what you would call traditional Orkney writing. With its depictions of bullying, transgender themes and drug abuse, and mixing of realism with magical or fantastic elements, it has been seen as controversial by some.

However, it also speaks powerfully to the theme of forgiveness: “When you have lived there and come away, you never quite stop pining for the beauty and magic. Regardless of the nastiness and violence and hate and how shittily people have treated you, you can always imagine going back. What can I say? When I was a kid, I kind of took it for granted, but now I see how it’s almost everything I am. Islands everywhere. … A map of Orkney’s a map of my emotions, pretty much. A map of me.”

This healing power of Orkney and its nature are also strong themes in Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun and Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals. These memoirs, both written in poetic prose, came out in close succession in 2016 and 2017, both to accolades and praise from critics.

Victoria Whitworth lived for many years by Aikerness Beach in Evie, where she swam at all times of year. Coldwater swimming for her became a welcome relief from the demands and pressures of life.

In the book, and the excerpt we put at Aikerness, Victoria shares with us the immense depth of layer upon layer of archaeology, history, and folklore all within eyesight of this beach, such as the story of the magical fairy island of Hildaland which was tamed and fixed in place as Eynhallow, in the Rousay Sound.

Amy Liptrot grew up in Orkney, before moving to London as a young adult. The book is a very honest memoir of how returning to Orkney and taking up a job as a “corncrake listener” with the RSPB helped her overcome alcohol addiction. Both books show how the wild can restore life and renew hope.

A passage from Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun was put up at Beaquoy in Harray, one of the districts where Amy worked as a corncrake registration officer.

Andrew Greig and John Aberdein both capture the essence of Orkney in their poems Orkney Movement and Orkney/This Life.

On the theme of hospitality, John Aberdein’s poem, hanging by Scapa whisky distillery, humorously claims that the cows here milk fudge and whisky, while “the ebb slips an oyster down the Atlantic throat”.

Andrew Greig’s poem, Orkney/This Life is absolutely beautiful with a deep and warmly understated love, well suited for example for a wedding anniversary celebration, but also as a general reflection on what togetherness and community means.

“It is the way you lean to me/and the way I lean to you, as if/we are each other’s prevailing;/how we connect along our shores,/the way we are tidal islands/Joined for hours then inaccessible,/I’ll go for that, and smile when I/pick sand off myself in the shower”.

Orkney/This Life by Andrew Greig, here at Hannabreck, Harray, with a view towards Hoy Sound.

Lastly, the project poet herself, Yvonne Gray, contributed the poem Nousts. This is the old word describing a hollow where boats are pulled up for the winter. Just such nousts can be seen at Hestigeo, St Ola, on the final leg of St Magnus Way.

Project poet Yvonne Gray’s poem Nousts was put up at Hestigeo in St Ola, where boats were pulled up for safekeeping on shore.

Yvonne was chosen as the project poet for Words on the Way because of her outstanding poetic skills, her vast knowledge of Orkney literature, and her experience with collaborative forms of poetry.

She is a published poet and retired teacher of English, with an M.Litt degree in Highlands and Islands Literature. For her Master’s dissertation, Yvonne researched Orkney poetry and place, focusing on place-specific poems by Pamela Beasant, Morag MacInnes and Alistair Peebles.

In recent years, she has taken a particular interest in collaborative writing, and led community sessions in the Japanese form Renga, where a poem is written collectively by a group. All of this made Yvonne Gray the perfect candidate as a project poet for Words on the Way.

Yvonne’s commission was to take the notes of response left in the postboxes along the route by members of the public, and turn them into a special St Magnus Way poem for Book Week 2020. In preparation, she took it upon herself to walk the entire 55-mile pilgrimage route, a first for her, in all weathers during October.

Acrostic poem by nine-year-old Rosa Leonard.

Finally, on November 3, the day of the pivotal US presidential election, Yvonne and I travelled together to Egilsay to collect the final response box and complete Yvonne’s journey.

It was an exciting day. We sat down and opened all the boxes one by one. It was like hauling creels: Is there a catch in this one? I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t find anything, but luckily we did.

Some people had written down things that immediately came to mind, on whatever scraps of paper they had in their pockets. One had written on a piece of a TV licensing bill. Others had taken great care and prepared their response at home, before returning to the postbox with their text neatly written and secured in an envelope or sealed plastic bag.

The youngest was Rosa Leonard, nine years old, who had written a beautiful acrostic poem, using the names Finstown and Orphir and describing all the things she saw and experienced on her walk.

This response was scribbled on a torn piece off an old TV licensing bill.
This response calls for the end of greed.
Responses given by St Magnus Way walkers.

Yvonne took in not only what was written on the notes, but also the look of the notes themselves, what paper they were written on and so on, and the location of the box they were in, using it all as inspiration for her poem.

The result was the brand new poem, Words on the St Magnus Way, which was premiered on Radio Orkney on November 18, 2020, during Book Week.

Words on the St Magnus Way

Words from a yellow post-it note …

Sun on seagull

Soaring

Words from A4 paper, folded …

            Islands of green and blue

            silent but never still

            a land scattered with rainbows

Beauty, life.

A wave

A smiling face

            Beauty, life.

            Tears

            A broken heart

Beauty, life.

A cool breeze

on my face

            Beauty, life.

            Green islands, blue skies

            A crashing wave …

Journey to Egilsay, Tuesday 3 November

The ferry forges on for Egilsay –

Church island of the Celts

or to the Norsemen

the island of Egil.

Farm land.

A stronghold.

A Bishop’s estate.

A pilgrim island

with a kirk high on its ridge

seen for miles

across the bays and sounds.

A meeting point.

Neutral ground.

A place of hope

where hope died –

and where hope

grew green again.

The tut of the stonechat

The murmured doubt of the outcome.

The rasp of the corncrake.

Blade drawn.

The axe falls.

We walk from the pier

to the far shore.

Mae Banks

a slope by the meadow

And a wave swells

blue-green glass that holds

two curious seals suspended –

then shatters like crystal.

Footprints on the shore.

Faces you sculpted in the sand.

Children – siblings. At the end

of this day ballots will be counted.

What will they mean for our children,

our parents? Our friends, our cousins?

The sick and the frail

and the disenfranchised?

Cousins. What whisperings drove

Magnus and Hakon

Apart? What clouds swelled

like field mushrooms

against the blue of the sky?

What sails swept in

from the horizon and stole

the warmth from the spring air?

Hope dashed like a bird on stone.

Perhaps it was here Magnus

prayed and considered – saw perhaps

the slow repeated tracks of limpets

on the rocks and wondered why

he should hold fast to this world

if it brought conflict and bloodshed

hardship and loss – or if all he need do was let go …

Ships on the horizon.

The hours of his life played out.

Perhaps – and not for the first time –

he thought I have no quarrel with any man here …

and so shaped minds

gently

by his conceding

of power.

And now in November a rainbow –

and perhaps that April there appeared

in the sky an airy hull –

bright strakes.

By Manse Loch –

the loch of the dwelling or the Loch of Magnus?

We dip our hands in water

and draw bright droplets through the air.

Words from the torn margin of a TV licence form …

A spring cool, clear

and sparking

still flows from that time on Egilsay.

Words on 2 lined pages from a small spiral-bound notebook …

I thought about my late father …

good, honest, kind, caring,

hard working and loving.

He guided me at times

when I didn’t realise

I needed guidance,

good, honest, kind, caring.

He guided me at times

without me knowing.

hard working and loving.

Only looking back

can I now see those moments.

Words from a page torn from a small lined notebook …

In waves of unrest

I am grateful for words

that can be grasped for

in the dark.

Like tiny anchors

digging into the ocean floor.

Orkneyinga

Let me bury my son, Thora said.

At Gurness we watch

before setting out.

Gannets gleam

arrows fletched

that rain on the Sound.

Journey to Birsay

Who comes in that ship

its sail swelling above the sound?

Its thafts are filled with silent men.

Their burden is heavy –

one who is no longer there.

Sail lowered they climb ashore

on a greening headland.

Among litter of rock a wide stone

where for a time they rest their burden –

the man they did not save.

Past empty crofts

a decaying chapel, the fallen brochs

they travel on, the weight of stone

in their hearts, the burden

of past and present, the time still to come.

By the wheelan stane in Swanney

they glance up at Erne Tower.

Vast wings spread and eagle eyes

light on their burden –

the man who gave up power for peace.

There’s talk of change in the divided land.

One tells of an island no ship can reach

that shimmers above the horizon.

Together they raise their burden –

Lighter now – and trudge on to Birsay.

On a margin torn from the bottom of a printed sheet …

… the past and the future …

for the future we need peace and humility –

the end of greed.