The Northern Pilgrims’ Way is the latest name on the list of modern pilgrimage routes in Scotland but the route itself dates back to the 11th century and the life of St Duthac of Tain (d.1065), famed as a preacher and healer in both Scotland and Ireland.
When the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney was built, its largest side-chapel was dedicated to Duthac and an ancient chapel site on the Orkney mainland was also dedicated to him, suggesting an active veneration of the saint in the area. As St Magnus Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage, people would travel between St Duthac’s Chapel, Tain and St Magnus’ Cathedral, Orkney along a route marked by ancient chapels, holy wells and overnight hostels.
In modern times, pilgrimages have once again become popular as people feel the need to re-connect with nature, their ancestors and a sense of the spiritual. So a small group, the Northern Pilgrims’ Way Group SCIO, have worked to re-establish this medieval route and make it accessible to today’s pilgrim. In order to include the main religious sites in the area and to accommodate walkers with different levels of ability or interests, the route has three braids.
Braid One (120 miles): start at St Duthac’s Church, Tain and follow the John O Groat’s Trail (see https://www.jogt.org.uk/) to Helmsdale, turn inland along the Strath of Kildonan, through the RSPB Forsinard Flows Reserve to Forsinain and from there to Altnabreac, LochMore, Spittal and on to the ferry terminal at Gills Bay. Take the ferry to St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney. From there it is 15 miles to Kirkwall. As the road included three causeways without pedestrian walkways, we recommend taking the bus from the ferry terminal into the town. For those who want to walk the whole way, one option is to take the Scrabster ferry to Stromness and walk from there, joining the St Magnus Way for the second part of the journey.
Braid Two (113 miles): from Helmsdale, continue on the JOGT to Dunbeath and turn inland to Braemore, Dalnawillan and Loch More to join Braid One. This is the most historically accurate route (although some concessions have been made to modern conditions) but is through a sporting estate which has locked gates at either end with 16 miles between them. So this option is for the serious walker!
Braid Three (115 miles): simply follow the JOGT to the end and follow the coast for four miles to Gills Bay. This route includes some rough walking, with steep gorges, paths along cliff edges and lots of bracken!
Before taking the ferry to Orkney, or on the way South, it is worth spending some time in Caithness and exploring its ancient sites dedicated to the early Celtic saints. An even smaller group than the NPW one has researched these and devised six circular routes linking thirty-two sites, each with a name attached. The Northern Saints Trails were designed with car drivers in mind but would also make ideal cycling routes. Routes 1 to 4 are based in Thurso and Routes 5 and 6 are based in Wick.
For all of our routes, please consult our website for advice on walking through the Highlands – it has world-beating scenery but also some natural hazards such as midges and ticks that need to be guarded against.