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.
“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/
In the summer of 2016, I invited myself and some other Canadians along on an Icelandic pilgrimage that has recently been instituted. It was an adventure! Here is a short introduction to the pilgrimage – with thanks to our Icelandic hosts!
Day two of our pilgrimage through Iceland: We’re sitting, eight Canadians and ten Icelanders, at one long table. Our host, Hulda Gudmundsdottír, who has put us in her renovated barn (barn being a word that hardly describes the luxury of the place) comes around as we finish our meal of lake trout, potato salad and greens. Did you like the fish? She asked. I went out and caught it with my son in nets, three days ago.
The fish is only one of the wonders of this place. Elínborg Sturludottr led us along the prestergatta today, the priests’ path from the small church where we had our matins (morning devotions) to the even tinier church where we had our vespers (evening devotions). Our other priest guide, Floki Kristinsson tells us that the morning church was built on the site where Rudolf, the English monk who had accompanied St Olaf up to his death in 1030, came that same year to Iceland and started the first monastery. The Icelanders are a fun group, their humour in contrast to the starkness of this land. For the first time today, we came across what we Canadians call real trees. The Icelanders told us: what do you do if you’re lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up. At which they laughed uproariously. We climbed up and out of the fjord this morning, 1000 feet, and came down the valley to this beautiful lake setting. In passing we were offered an unexpected afternoon coffee and some sort of sweet flatbread, by an Icelander who is interested in our pilgrimage. This place, including the people, is truly a place of wonders.
An extra treat on this blogpost: fellow pilgrim, Ata Camilla Gylfsdottir, reads a short Icelandic folktale titled: The church builder at Reyn. Click on this link for her lovely diction and accent!