The Northern Pilgrims’ Way – 127-131 miles, 2 weeks.
Tain to Kirkwall (or vice versa).
This Highlands route was re-discovered recently by a local group in Thurso, on the far north-east coast of Scotland. It re-establishes a medieval route traced by pilgrims from Orkney walking south to visit the shrine of St Duthac, Tain (Ross-shire), and those walking north to visit the shrine of St Magnus in Kirkwall on Orkney. After discovering six local saints, the group then kept finding more – eventually thirty-three – and from there discovered that medieval pilgrims had walked various routes between Tain and Kirkwall. We even have the record of the places they tended to stay the night.
This route has 12th and 13th century pilgrimage sites at either end and several ancient chapels and holy wells along the way. There is evidence of those earlier travellers in buildings, place names, folk lore and written history – if you know where to look for it. There are also traces of an earlier civilisation in the chambered cairns, brochs and standing stones. In addition to the rich heritage the route offers the nature lover everything, from sandy beaches with seals observing from the rocks, dramatic cliffs providing nesting sites for sea birds, moorland stretching to the horizon, even a ferry crossing over the Pentland Firth with the possibility of sightings of dolphins and killer whales, and views of mountains in the distance.
While there are various pilgrimage routes in Scotland, the Northern Pilgrims’ Way is unusual in having a recognised medieval pilgrimage destination at both ends of the route. Veneration of St Duthac of Tain started in the 11th Century and we know that he had many devotees in Kirkwall, as the new cathedral there (founded 1137) dedicated its largest side-chapel to St Duthac. Similarly, we know that devotees of Magnus travelled through Caithness to Kirkwall as there are various chapel sites dedicated to Magnus along the route.
The inland sections are on roads and tracks but parts of the John O’ Groats Trail are through rough ground, some of it quite challenging (details on their website below).
Given all this historic evidence for various paths, the group eventually opted for a triple-braided route –which gives the benefits of accommodating a greater variety of ability levels in the walkers, alternative choices, and the authenticity of reflecting the choices made by the original pilgrims.
Braid One is 131.6 miles long. Starting at St Duthac’s Church, Tain, this braid follows the existing long-distance walk, the John O’Groat’s Trail, to the coastal town of Helmsdale. Here it branches inland towards the Flow Country and the RSPB nature reserve at Forsinard before turning north-east along forestry tracks and narrow estate roads to Loch More. From here it goes to the ferry terminal at Gills Bay via the important site of St Magnus’ Chapel, Spittal.
Braid Two is 121.5 miles long. This braid follows Braid One to Helmsdale but then continues on the John O’ Groats Trail to Dunbeath, branching inland through Braemore and Dalnawillan before joining back up with Braid One at Loch More. This route includes a sixteen-mile stretch between locked gates, so is for experienced walkers only. (The gates also allow passage for bicycles and horses). For walking information, try The Scottish Rights of Way Society. If you go to their Heritage Paths Project – Heritage Paths – The Paths – Old Road to Thurso, you will find that you are on the inland section of our Braid 2. They describe it going from north to south.
Braid Three is 127 miles long. This is the simplest and most coastal of the braids, as it follows the John O’ Groats Trail along the coast from Tain to John O’Groats, after which it is four miles to Gills Bay, from where you catch the ferry to Kirkwall, your destination.
These distances do not include the ferry crossing between Gills Bay and St Margaret’s Hope, which takes approx one hour. They do include the 15 miles on Orkney, which has to be travelled by bus as there are causeways without pedestrian walkways.
There are too many archaeological sites to list on the map and most are not on the braids. Perhaps the most important is the Camster Cairns (older than the pyramids) – go to Highland Historic Environment Record and search for site reference MHG 1809. Another useful website is Canmore – try searching for St Magnus Chapel, Spittal. For brochs, try Caithness Broch Project – but there are far too many to include on the map.