St Magnus Way pilgrimage route to open on Orkney

Facial reconstruction of St Magnus who was martyred 900 years ago this weekend. A new pilgrimage has been set up on Orkney to follow in the footsteps of the saint. PIC: UNS.

Facial reconstruction of St Magnus who was martyred 900 years ago this weekend. A new pilgrimage has been set up on Orkney to follow in the footsteps of the saint. PIC: UNS.

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A new pilgrimage route is to open in Orkney this Easter to mark the 900th anniversary of St Magnus’ death as the Kirk embraces the spiritual power of walking once again.

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will this year be asked to reverse centuries of hostility to the ancient practice of pilgrimage which was cast aside as superstitious during the Reformation.

Rev David McNeish, minister for Birsay, Harray and Sandwick in Orkney, on the St Magnus way pilgrim route. PIC: Contributed.

Rev David McNeish, minister for Birsay, Harray and Sandwick in Orkney, on the St Magnus way pilgrim route. PIC: Contributed.

The Kirk hopes to embrace the popularity of routes such as the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, Europe’s most popular pilgrimage route, which attracts 250,000 pilgrims every year.

The first steps will be taken on the St Magnus Way in Orkney on Easter Sunday, which will cover 55 miles from Evie to Kirkwall when complete.

The walk will be broken into six stages with the first connecting Evie to Birsay to reflect the route of Magnus’ body on its return from Egilsay where he was murdered on the instructions of his cousin, Hakon, on April 16, most likely in 1117.

The walk will end at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, which was built by his nephew St Rognvald around 20 years after his death given several accounts of miracles associated with his uncle. Work on its construction started in 1137.

The logo of the St Magnus Way which will mark the route. PIC: Contributed.

The logo of the St Magnus Way which will mark the route. PIC: Contributed.

Rev David McNeish, minister for Birsay, Harray and Sandwick in Orkney, said: “We talk a lot about the drop in attendance at Sunday services and about other ways to worship. Pilgrimage is a way for a lot of people to reconnect with their spirituality and with the Church.

He said the St Magnus Way came about after a small group of people from different churches came together to discuss a pilgrimage route on the island.

“When we started talking about a pilgrim route St Magnus, who is the patron saint of Orkney, was the first person who came to mind.

“After his martyrdom on the island of Egilsay his body was brought to Birsay on the mainland. Then 20 years later, when the seat of power moved to Kirkwall, his bones were taken there.

“So there was a journey Magnus himself took after his death, as well as evidence of people making pilgrimage to Orkney in the Middle Ages.”

St Magnus Way is one of six major pilgrimage routes under development in Scotland, including Fife Pilgrims way, a 70-mile route that will link Culross and South Queensferry to St Andrews.

In Orkney, historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands are helping to define the most accurate route taken by the former Earl of Orkney.

A St Magnus Way logo will appear on route waymarkers with a phone app to link walkers with Bluetooth beacons that will tell his story.

Dr Richard Frazer, Convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council, said pilgrimages were viewed as superstitious during the Reformation given the belief you could be healed by the water from a special well or by the bones of a saint.

He added: “It’s unfortunate that in reforming some wrongful practices, we may have neglected a way to worship that is meaningful to so many.

“Worship comes in many forms and pilgrimage is one of them.

“The habits of Sunday morning services, as noble and as good as they are, do not necessarily reach people who have a profound spiritual hunger but have never developed those habits.

“People who walk the Camino may not be conventionally religious, but very few who reach Santiago de Compostella would deny the journey there was a spiritual experience.

“In a time when the Church is looking for new ways to touch the hearts of all people, pilgrimage is a very powerful tool.”