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!
#1. Scottish breakfasts
#2 if you speak English, they speak the same language. Sort of.
#3 place names – like the Waters of Luce – that sound like they come from The Princess Bride
#4 ‘tatties and ‘neeps
#5 miles and miles of coastal paths
#6 no need to fight for space on the trail or in albergues
#7 haggis is less disgusting than pulpo
#8 a saint who may have known the real King Arthur and St Patrick
#9 currags, castles, cairns, and caves (and neolithic standing stones)
#10 real Scottish ales
And lots more: kissing-gates on the edges of cliffs, Norse-Scots stone crosses, a destination where on a clear day you can see Ireland, England, and the Isle of Man, Arts & Crafts art and architecture, scones with jam, the moors, you’re more likely to be soaked in cold rain than baked by unending heat,
Robbie Burns, and…I didn’t even mention A.D. Rattray’s Whiskey Experience in Kirkoswald!
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/)