Tomorrow, September 16, is the feast day of Saint Ninian. In July, together with Christine Ramsay, Ken Wilson, and Sara Parks, I walked the Whithorn Way in Scotland, the medieval Royal pilgrimage route to St Ninian. To honour Saint Ninian Day here’s a short video of that pilgrimage!
Pilgrimage has two directions. At least, usually it does: Sara Terreault can explain better than me how the ancient Irish (Insular) monks went on peregrinations or wanderings with no intention of returning home. But for the rest of us, to every “there,” there is usually a “back again.” Thank goodness! Whithorn said goodbye with a noisy overnight storm that made me get up to close my window against the sideways rain, then clearing and becoming coyly sunny and warm just as we left. Above is our view from breakfast in the Mansefield Inn. It was once the parsonage to the church converted into a Gulf gas station and garage (below). Fortunately, the conversion of the parsonage was a better job.
The folks here are rightly proud of where they live. In our 45 minute taxi to the closest train, the driver told story after story, some of which I can repeat, then briefly turned off the taxi’s meter to take us a few hundred yards off-route to see Kennedy Castle. Once on the train, Ken, Christine, and I headed north to Glasgow. My son Daniel once told me how strange it felt to see a pilgrimage “undone” by being in a motorized vehicle heading back to the starting point. I liked seeing some of the sights again from our Scottish Railway car, including these children at one junction waving at the train.
There were unmarked grassy places along the coast where courageous Scots were drying out tents, and I wondered if these were examples of the “Right of Responsible Access.”
Glasgow Central Station is one of those beautiful, soaring Victorian train stations. We dropped off Ken and Christine’s things, then they accompanied me to the bus station to catch my bus to the airport. On the way we stopped for tea at a replica tearoom done up in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow’s famous early 20th century architect. Now I’m waiting to board a prop plane back to East Midlands.
Can one really say that they get to know a place in a short week, even while walking? We covered 120 km, more or less. We saw a lot of mud and stones, beached jellyfish and sheep and cattle and dark woods, barley fields and brambles. Walking is different from seeing land from a train. But both, as Ken reminded me, are different from actually spending time, which is how you make an “anywhere” a “somewhere.” It’s partly by telling stories, and remembering, that we create a sense of place. So that’s the next task for me, as a pilgrim returning from the Whithorn Way. I was happy to share Christine and Ken’s company throughout this long walk. PS: It’s interesting that, after a week researching the Right of Responsible Access in Scotland, on my return to Nottingham Google Maps led me right through a new car parking lot that SHOULD also be a footpath. I wound up exercising my right and hopping the barrier to walk through.
Today was a vertiginous day. It’s the perfect word, although I had to look it up. Vertiginous has two meanings, both true today: extremely high and steep, and suffering from vertigo. I don’t know how the Scots do it. We had just passed through a short section – the worst – where the path was within two metres of the edge and a stumble could easily topple you down 200-feet onto the rocks. A couple ambled toward us with a dog tied to the woman’s waist. When we said hi, she cheerily told us “he has to be tied up. He’s a naughty dog and we had to call the coast guard to fetch him a couple weeks ago.” Hmm.
I’m now thoroughly convinced Ninian existed; after all, on finishing the walk all the way from Ninian’s Cave to Ninian’s Chapel on the Isle of Whithorn, about seven miles away, we had tea in his café. More seriously, the ancient stones, including altar stones, found in the cave (which is now partially caved-in) testify to its age. At our end point, the medieval chapel of St Ninian (below) was the place where pilgrims arriving by sea were welcomed and gave thanks for safe arrivals. Unlike us, they weren’t crazy enough for the cliffs; most ancient and medieval pilgrims arrived by sea and only walked a short distance to the shrine.
Having walked some ancient pilgrim routes that don’t seem that tied to religion anymore, I was struck today by the signs that people still take Ninian’s cave and Ninian’s chapel seriously. Some leave stones with names at the chapel, or insert rocks or prayers in the ancient surf-side cave.
Chris and Clare joined our walk today. I met them six years ago on the St Cuthbert’s walk. Clare brought wonderful home-made cake. I’m thankful to see them again after so long.
We’ve run out of Ninian destinations in this part of the peninsula, so I guess that means this pilgrimage is over. We’ll go out for a celebratory pint and dinner this evening, then tomorrow start making our respective ways home. The pilgrimage has been short, but has had many pleasures and a few trials. And will provide me material for a long time to come! I’ve enjoyed walking with Christine and Ken. Next time in Saskatchewan, which is perhaps not quite as vertiginous!
(for more photos and another perspective on today, see Ken’s blog at https://readingandwalking.wordpress.com/2019/07/21/whithorn-way-day-six/)
“From Canada, are ye?” said the nice woman at the coffee shop. “Canada’s beautiful. I’ve been to Ottawa. We’re from here.” She shrugged, smiled: “It’s nice enough.” Seemed like a typically-Scottish understatement to me – this is the view they enjoy just outside the coffee shop. We were exhausted after a day of walking along the Whithorn Way along the ocean, rock-hopping just above the receding tide-line and scrambling over sea-algae. I’m here on a Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association grant to see about the Scottish “Right of Responsible Access.” The key, said our Scottish host John Henderson, is that word: responsible.
It didn’t take long to see that the Scots, like Canadians, have some trouble with the “responsible” part of their relationship with the natural world. The legislation establishing The Right of Access in Scotland is recent – nine years old and part of the devolution of power to Scotland. As would be the case if we were fortunate enough in Canada to adopt similar legislation, the educational curve is still ahead. We saw lots of garbage on our shoreline scramble, even though the views were magnificent otherwise.
Maybe Scots, like Canadians, haven’t yet learned how beautiful, fragile, and important the natural world around them is. Finns, for instance, are taught to respect nature from kindergarten. Learning to enjoy berries, mushrooms, and views, and not disturb others, especially landowners, seems to be in Finnish DNA. In Scotland we passed what appeared to be an “Open Access” camp on the beach (see below, in the distance) and while the folks were practicing their rights, their garbage seemed to be a problem.
Still, one can hope. Local organizations had both cleaned up the last part of today’s walk, and had also set up trail markers. We hadn’t seen any markers on the first leg and had had to backtrack several times as a result. This is probably how Responsible Access is best lived-out: by community groups that operate locally to remind citizens to both get out on the land, and to leave no trace except their paths.
for more on the journey, see Ken Wilson’s blog Reading and Walking at https://readingandwalking.wordpress.com/
There are a lot of misconceptions about the Right of Responsible Access, or the “Right to Roam”. A friend of mine in Saskatchewan recently said her farm was broken into a number of times despite the fact they installed cameras. “I don’t think Right to Roam is a good idea,” she wrote me. That’s terrible. But the fact is, “Right to Roam” doesn’t allow people to break into buildings. Unfortunately, putting up more NO TRESPASSING signs won’t stop crooks, either… they already know what they’re doing is illegal. Whether the government of SK adopts responsible access, or (as seems more likely) accepts the association of rural municipalities’ request for tighter trespassing laws, either way, nothing changes when it comes to farmer’s yards and buildings. Breaking in is illegal already. In countries like Scotland, if anything, the laws got tighter when the Right of Access came in. The two problems in Saskatchewan, and elsewhere, are a “they can go to hell” culture, and a lack of enforcement of EXISTING laws.
THE EVIDENCE The idea is to reduce property damage and theft and to live in healthy communities. Everyone agrees. So what’s the evidence? Evidence-based arguments show that, in Finland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Iceland, countries that are quite similar to Canada with northern climates, and small populations spread over big areas – in those countries increasing access, rather than decreasing it, is what decreases rural crime, vandalism and littering. Increasing access actually puts more sympathetic eyes on the land, rather than fewer. It increases public interest and public attention. Criminals don’t work out in the open. They dump their garbage, or deface a wall, or break through a lock, when no one is looking.
CHINOOK PARKWAY I grew up in Swift Current SK. There’s a trail along the Swift Current Creek called the Chinook Parkway. It wasn’t there when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time along that creek looking for garter snakes and later, golf balls. But the area was always dirty and dangerous. There were too many broken beer bottles in the long grass – no one cared. If Swift Current had put up a fence along the creek and increased fines tenfold it wouldn’t have stopped kids from breaking bottles and starting campfires and leaving garbage. Police can’t be everywhere. But creating a public access space in the Chinook Parkway where people walk and jog and cycle has put more people out in the open. It’s made the river’s edge – and the city – healthier, and better, and safer.
GRADUAL CULTURAL CHANGE You don’t make a rule and expect it to change everything, you try to change the culture gradually. What option will create greater, and healthier community for Canadian people? Does the higher the fence mean the better the neighbour, really? In Norway and Sweden and Scotland and Finland and Austria and some other countries, there’s a whole culture where people are trained up, from childhood, to know how to be on the land – how to respect crops, and animals, and fences, and private buildings. They know how to pick berries or mushrooms and respect property at the same time. Sure, it doesn’t happen overnight. But the question to ask ourselves is: what will be the direction that bringing in a new piece of legislation will take us?
LIABILITY: Some landowners will say: well, we could never have the Right of Responsible Access in Canada because some city person would come out here and fall down a badger hole and before you know it I’d be sued. FALSE. In Scotland and in other countries where they’ve brought in such laws, at the same time they passed laws protecting landowners from lawsuits. It wasn’t difficult. In those countries, it’s nearly impossible for someone to sue a landowner for personal injury while exercising responsible access. The only exception would be if the landowner willingly and intentionally set some kind of trap for walkers. Shy of that, they’re protected. For more on this, and on the evidence for crime rates, see “This Land is Our Land” (a terrible title, but a good book), by Ken Ilgunas.
THE QUESTION: So the question is: what kind of future makes for better community? Do you want to live in a land where there’s more fear, more danger, where if you break down on the road you’re afraid to go and ask for help? Or do you want you and your children to grow up in a land where landowners are respected and yet at the same time, everyone feels a connection to, and a responsibility for, the land? Where people can stop by the side of the road and pick chokecherries or saskatoons or raspberries, or have a picnic (making sure to pick up their garbage). Where city dwellers understand some of the problems of farmers and ranchers, because they actually know something about the land and have met the people? The more people feel a connection to the land, the way farmers and ranchers do, the more everyone – even urban people – act as allies. Fences don’t make people safe. Good relations do.
Produced by CBC Radio One producer Amanda Klang, Sara Terreault and my annual trek with students from Old Montreal to Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory finally hit the national airwaves! Here’s the short soundscape that appeared on Tapestry on Oct 15, 2017. See the website for accompanying photos and text:
Here is a three-minute recap of our June 2017 pilgrimage from Old Montreal to Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, a walk of about 36 km. We had a wonderful group of students this year (you’ll see them in the video). Thanks to our students, to Prof Mike Loft, Prof Orenda Boucher-Curotte, and Dr Kenneth Deer for welcoming us so graciously. Thanks also to Bishop Michael Pryse and the Eastern Synod, ELCIC for sponsoring the Concordia students for this walk!
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/220488743″>Old Montreal to Kahnawake pilgrimage June 2017 720p</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user32514305″>Matthew Anderson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>