Daily Pilgrimage on Orkney in the time of Lockdown

By Helen Woodsford-Dean

Although pilgrimage tends to be thought of as an instrumental and linear practice, it doesn’t necessarily need to be. The current restrictions associated with COVID-19 accidentally led me to explore the initiatory potential of pilgrimage when applied in a cyclical manner to a distinct area of land.

I live near to Wasdale Loch (Orkney) which has a small crannog on it with some stone ruins. A crannog is an artificial island, usually attached by a raised stone path forming a sort of causeway across the water. The earliest crannogs date from the Bronze Age (about 4000 years ago) but those dates are being pushed back as dating techniques are refined. The stone ruins at Wasdale have not been accurately dated, they could be the remains of an Iron Age broch tower (about 2000 years ago), although local tradition states that they are all that remains of an early medieval chapel. The path around the loch is incorporated into the St Magnus Way, so this is already identified as holy and sacred land.

Pre-COVID I didn’t get much of an opportunity to visit Wasdale very often. My summers are typically a hectic whirlwind of non-stop tourist guiding interspersed with performing weddings, whilst Orkney’s wet winters are not wholly conducive to walking along unmade up paths in the dark. Lockdown changed all of this: I was suddenly no longer busy in summer and desperately needed to get out of the house in winter.

At the beginning, when the COVID restrictions were tighest, one walk was permitted per day, so long as it was no more than 500 metres from home. I started a practice of visiting the crannog most days. This rapidly became a daily priority around which the rest of my day revolved, although this was unintentional. It wasn’t so much that I was ‘called’ to do this, it was more that circumstances conspired so that I would comply. And on those days when the weather was ‘inclement’, it became necessary to apply discipline to the task. These are all qualities associated with the pilgrim.

Wasdale Loch – Spring Equinox 2020 (late March)

In walking the same route over and over again, I gradually built a relationship with the path and the place, the plants, the animals and birds, all the non-human people. I picked up litter and I left offerings (usually home-baked goods). I noticed how the wildflowers changed with the seasons, the order in which they bloomed: yellow, white, then purple. I watched the hares boxing and counted their leverets. I was observed by a pair of ravens who raised four fledglings – the family still ‘buzz’ me when I visit – they have become accustomed to anticipating and then ‘tidying up’ the offerings.

Wasdale Loch – Beltane 2020 (beginning of May)

I played ‘Pooh Sticks’ with my husband when we crossed over the burn that carries the loch waters out through Binscarth Woods and down to the Bay of Firth. I saw trout jumping for flies and once I saw an eel wriggle. Every day in summer, on leaving, a cormorant passed overhead – as if it has been cued to do so like a natural screen-saver. I have come to think of these fellow inhabitants as brother-fish and sister-bird and mentally I greet them as such.

Wasdale Loch – Dawn, Summer Solstice (late June)

I mourned at the carcasses sometimes found, the little flurries of feathers that screamed of a sudden ending … thus I experienced the ‘good’ (butterflies) and the ‘bad’ (horse-flies) and recognised them all as part of the whole.

Wasdale Loch – Lammas 2020 (beginning of August)

Being an archaeologist married to an archaeologist, I searched with my husband for parish boundaries on old maps and then, as the barley ripened, saw them appear as crop marks in the fields. We looked for and found four of the Harray-Firth parish boundary stones (one of which is the Harray-Firth-Stenness stone). And we investigated the old workings for the weir – now broken, so only rainfall determines the level of the loch waters – and snooped around some WWII foundations, which led in turn to a fresh appreciation of the topography and an understanding of how the valley would once have been perfect for positioning an anti-aircraft gun.

Wasdale Loch – Autumn Equinox 2020 (late September)

As the year turned to winter, walking became less of a treat and more of a chore, it is so much easier to give in to the comfort of a wood-fire and a dram of whisky. But I needed to get out into fresh air and there was a realisation that what was entertainment for me, was an issue of survival for ‘my’ corvid brethren. When it snowed, I was able to identify hare tracks and realised just how active they still were, even though I was only seeing them rarely. The quiet of the dead month of January was shattered by the plaintive calls of Whooper swans and the anguished ‘pleeps’ of oyster catchers. Occasionally my presence will inadvertently alarm a pheasant or send a flock of greylag geese panicking into the air; at such times I apologise for disturbing them. Everything seems so much stiller in winter, as if all is sleeping, but it is so obviously just waiting. There’s a nagging of potentiality in the air, a keenness to awaken.

As stated, this activity became a form of accidental pilgrimage, albeit a chronological act of devotion rather than a linear one. Gradually every part of the journey became imbued with sacredness as I opened to the possibilities of encountering the spiritual via an increasingly animistic perspective.

Travelling to an island by crossing over water always seems so intense. There is a traditional theme that crossing water represents a point of transformation. Whether it is the myths associated with the ferryman of the dead, the belief that witches cannot pass flowing water, or the creation of henge ditches and medieval moats, water has long been used to divide space. Thus, I treat the causeway as an initiatory ‘challenge’ by which I entered into sacred space: I ‘name’ particular stones as threshold or holding stones, I leave the concerns of the world, and wade into sanctuary.

Perceiving the crannog itself as a symbolic microcosm of Orkney’s macrocosm, I perform repetitive ritual acts here, including prayer. This repeated dedicatory process seems reciprocated by an increasing awareness of the sanctity of the land itself. The land is a sentient and sacred entity – whether referred to as genius loci, land-spirits, land-wights – which smoulders under, over, and around us. I am now pledged to serve it in a form of non-proprietorial guardianship.