It’s the most beautiful spot, a pebble beach on the east of the island of Egilsay, one of the Orkney Islands. The deep sea is turbulent as the winds have been fierce overnight, but the low, dawn light, softened by sea spray, speaks of an even deeper serenity.
My mind echoes both the foreground noise and background peace. I had been too busy to sleep well, anxious about the crossing from Orkney mainland, knowing well what a day of running 58 miles into a strong headwind feels like, anticipating a long and unpredictable journey over two pilgrimages on this Holy Week. But, through the weariness and foreboding, I feel a sense of being in the right place, at the start of another path to which my commitment was given freely, and it senses keenly a connection to, even an inheritance from, those who have gone before.
According to an Icelandic saga, Magnus and his men stood on this beach 900 years earlier, and looking out to sea saw his doom approaching. His rival and cousin Haakon was coming to a peace summit with eight warships rather than the agreed retinue of two ships. This treachery, sure enough, would end with an axe blow to his head in a nearby field, marked today with an austere stone monument.
A smooth pebble catches my eye as the sea withdraws, before veiling it again. With the next foamy retreat I stoop to lift it up. It’s almost entirely tan-coloured, but on one side it carries a small gash, coloured at the edge with reddish orange. This wounded stone unsettles me and comforts me, speaking of injury that brings peace. With one more look across to the south end of the beach, where the waves are crashing on the rising black rocks, I put the stone in my pocket and turn towards my patiently-waiting path.
I carried that smooth pebble with me onto the Orkney Mainland and along the St Magnus Way, retracing the route his body took from its first resting place where it fell, to his church in Birsay. Then onwards to the Cathedral named after him where he was finally buried, and where, in the early 20th Century, his bones were discovered in a pillar. Its light weight in my jacket pocket underlined that my stepping out was a ritualised reprise of his heavy undertaking, but as I ran I began to think also of Iraqi refugees who, today, are turning their faces to home, weary, wounded, but hopeful. What burdens do they carry, and what challenges await?
David McNeish, the minister at Dounby Milestone Church on Orkney, has been instrumental in helping me organise this particular ultramarathon along the St Magnus Way. He made it possible for me to get to Egilsay by arranging an early-morning boat ride from Tingwall. And as he prayed me on my way, one line of his Magnus-inspired prayer embedded itself in my mind:
‘The way is set. The resolution? To submit, and never submit.’ *
This line brought to mind the ‘resolution’ of the Passion-week Christ, of Magnus, and of the Iraqis I called to mind, and gave me a new insight into the connection of pilgrimage to transformation.
Orcadian author George Mackay Brown’s fictionalised account of Magnus’ life creates parallels between the saint and 20th Century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, in a similar vein,
‘There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself... Battles are won not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.’**
These humbling thoughts, and the stone I carried, saw me through the long south-eastward stretch from Birsay to Finstown and over the ridge of Lyradale, from where I could look back over most of the course I'd run, to Orphir. The landscape is astonishingly rich in history, some dwellings going back further in time than the pyramids of Egypt. Due to this, and the remarkable warmth of the people I'd met, I had come to love Orkney with surprising intensity. But late in the day, I found myself weary and off the path, no longer running but wading through heather, and seeing my estimated arrival time slip first by half an hour, then by an hour. Frustration became a kind of rage at the heather, at the wind, even at Orkney and Magnus who’d seemingly left me. For a moment I lost it, my remaining energy bursting forth in a kind of tantrum of stomping and muttering under my breath, until I stood still. I reached for the stone but had left it on the support vehicle in Orphir, which underlined my sense of aloneness – Magnus had indeed left me!
I was tired, angry, pitiful, and lost.
Then the world returned, first the wind coming over the cliffs to my right, the sea still churning dark and powerful, a few seals playing near the sharp rocks. Then the lights of Kirkwall in the distance coming on in fading evening light. Then I looked to the next way marker. That patient path was still there for me. ‘The resolution? To submit and never submit.’
Turning onto the road, I met a woman outside her home who’d come out especially to cheer me home. She was the third person who’d recognised me having heard about Running home on Radio Orkney that morning. A little embarrassed at how low I’d just felt, I remembered Egilsay, I remembered others’ real courage and commitment, I remembered my freedom, I gave thanks.
With these deeper reserves unlocked I ran into town, past the harbour, and finally touched the velvety sandstone of St Magnus Cathedral which welcomed me home. I lay on the step, and I wasn’t alone.
Some words of thanks…
Rev. David McNeish pulled out all the stops to give me the most meaningful experience of the St Magnus Way possible.
Rev. Fraser Macnaughton and the congregation at St. Magnus Cathedral kindly invited me to speak at their Palm Sunday service which was an enormous privilege.
Harvey and Helen Johnston and their family gave my family and me the warmest hospitality, and there were echoes of this hospitality in the three people that saw me on route, recognised me as the 'pilgrim runner', and gave me encouragement.
Thanks to BBC Radio Orkney for interviewing me about Running home.
My family deserve thanks too, both when they lose me for days when I'm doing these pilgrimages or, as on Orkney, when they come with me and give me the warmth of home on the road.
As ever, my support driver/guardian angels deserves thanks because they have to put up with me at my most tired and frayed.
And of course, I'm grateful to our Christian partners in Iraq whose courage and faith is helping displaced and refugee Iraqis return home. You are the reason for all of this and a source of real inspiration on the road.
And to all Embrace supporters involved in changing the story in Iraq for the better.
*Credit: David McNeish, ‘Prayer on Egilsay Beach’, https://www.stmagnusway.com/
**Credit: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 'The Church and the Peoples of the World', 'London: 1933-1935', pp. 307-310.
Orkney image credits: Tom O’Brian.