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!
See this stuffed prairie dog? Apparently, it has a name: “Matthew”. I just received photos of this mascot all along the route of the Humboldt-Fort Carleton Trail Walk in 2019. Each of them with cute little captions. In 2015, Hugh Henry and I began this tradition by trekking the 350-km Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail (NWMPT) in Treaty 4 Territory, SW Sask. It was likely the first time the trail had been walked in over a century.
In 2017 we walked the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, another 350 km; near Battleford there were lots of issues with access and trespassing (see above). In 2018 we walked the Frenchman’s Trail, from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. I was surprised that there was a Welsh couple serving Fish’n’Chips in Mortlach (see photo below).
This year, Hugh and the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society (SHFS) planned a journey from Humboldt to Fort Carleton. I’m still in England; this was the first year I just couldn’t make it. No country bars and pool-tables for me this August. But apparently I was there in spirit.
If you’d like to read more about the walk they took – without me – you can read a great day-by-day description (I did) on Ken Wilson’s blog at https://readingandwalking.wordpress.com/.
The photo I found the funniest is just above. I had quite a bit of foot trouble on the way to Battleford in 2017, culminating in a full-on leg infection. I was using duct-tape for my blisters, in the vain hope it can fix EVERY problem! Live and learn! Mostly, I’m thankful for good friends and for being remembered on a pilgrimage I couldn’t walk. They knew I was thinking about them. And how wonderful, to be thought of in return.
At the church in the ruins of Whithorn Abbey, no one was there to greet us. But the doors were open. Inside was Ninian, the fifth century saint, in stained glass, and a desk of pilgrim stuff. “Welcome to all pilgrims” said a little sign. “Please accept our certificate.” I wasn’t going to take one. We walked nine miles today, and overall already quite a distance. However I didn’t come as a pilgrim, but as a researcher and walker. Christine and Ken, despite being not as officially religious as me, picked up a copy, filled it out, and got me to sign on with them. That made it feel somehow like a group recognition. Was the certificate the sign of our “arrival” at the end of the pilgrimage? Not really: tomorrow we go to St Ninian’s Cave, where stone fragments of fifth and sixth century altar pieces have been found. Maybe it’s there. From the cave we walk our final 11 miles around the coast to the Isle of Whithorn. The destination there is really the Steam Packet Inn, a pub overlooking the harbour. Not especially religious, but tasty.
We did find someone at the Whithorn Centre, on main street in Whithorn, where pedestrians have to watch not only for cars, but also for tractors pulling hay-wagons to the huge feedlots bordering town. There we had tea and coffee-cake and met Julia Muir Watt, author of “Walk the Whithorn Way,” a guidebook complete with maps we probably could have used en route here. They had a display about Ninian and also of the history – Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Scottish – of this area. But was the gift shop our destination? No. We trekked back to the small museum, where we met a warm and informative guide who walked me around the space, showing me the many early stones that have been recovered from Ninian’s Cave, chapel and the Abbey. The endless looping stonework knots are reminiscent of Ireland and of Lindisfarne, brought to Whithorn in part by Norse Christians out of Ireland. From the back of the museum I walked into the crypt where a line of Bishops were buried, and finally into the grotto that once held St Ninian’s bones. I admit: this felt like more of a destination than anywhere else. It felt like a holy place. The fact that whatever bones were there were lost during the Reformation doesn’t bother me much. 21st century western pilgrims aren’t fixated on a saint’s body, but more on their own. And mine, especially my ankles, have felt the distance.
We stumbled across other holy stones on our way here. The OS map indicated “standing stones” just off the path and we found the Drumtroddan Standing Stones, only one of which is still standing, which may date back anywhere from 2-5,000 years, long before even St Ninian. On the subject of Ninian: I’ve long had a semi-teasing argument going with Sara Terreault, who teaches pilgrimage and Insular (Celtic) Christianity, that St Ninian never even existed, but was a made-up figure. Not that I held that firmly, but I knew it was a good way to tease her. I will have to come up with something else. The presence of the Latinus Stone, with a name in both Latin and the local Celtic language indicates Christianity at Whithorn by about 450 CE. Although there may be little hard evidence of Ninian, there is so much circumstantial reference, in addition to Bede’s account, that one has to accept that a late Roman-age Briton helped introduce official Christianity to what is now Scotland. Even the cab driver who brought us home tonight knew the whole story and could provide the arguments, in addition to other interesting tidbits. As his BMW sped by within inches of stone walls he pointed to them and told us that French Prisoners of War from Napoleon were forced to build them for the Scots. When we first arrived, this dog, who lives at our B&B, couldn’t wait to find out who the visitors were.
Our B&B is the gracious Mansfield House, the former parsonage of this Whithorn Church, out of service since 1925, which has been repurposed in a way that will definitely NOT make it a shrine, except perhaps for kitsch:
I’m thankful I have one last day of walking with Christine and Ken. We’ve covered a lot of miles together, both here and in Saskatchewan. For more on today, and completely different comments and pictures, see Ken’s blog at https://readingandwalking.wordpress.com/2019/07/20/whithorn-way-day-five-arrival/
“During the time of the Enclosures,” Peter Ross told us, “they just ripped up the prehistoric hill tombs to use the stones. So when you see these stone fences you may be looking at ancient history – pieces of a paleolithic grave.” Today started out lovely, but by early afternoon turned into another cold, wet, miserable afternoon. The barometer in Glenluce announced storms, and we ended our 15 miles with sodden boots, frozen and shivering from a cold and steady Scottish wind. We crossed the Galloway Moors in a solid drizzle interrupted only by cattle, horses, sheep, goats and rams. Some of whom were in a hurry to get past us on the narrow tracks.If there was a theme to the day, it was the incredible human history of Galloway, this sparsely-inhabited piece of Scotland responsible for 40% of its cattle, most of its lumber exports, and – according to Peter, who joined us – most of Robert the Bruce’s army. Peter met us at the remains of Glenluce Abbey. He told us he would do his best to speak “standard English,” but couldn’t help flipping into an “Och, aye” when he got excited – as he often did – about the subject of paths and people in this part of the country. At times I’d only figure out what he was saying a few sentences after he’d finished. But it was the most fascinating compendium of history and politics, things like the fact that path rights on the seacoast had to take into account Robert the Bruce’s unusual title to his troops, that they owned the sea “as far as you can throw a spear out into the surf.” The Whithorn Way took us by the Abbey, whose stones were ripped down by locals during the Reformation to build the neighbouring farmhouses and the Lord’s manor. We walked by two different Lochs (lakes) where Peter pointed out islands that were, in the late bronze age, Crannogs. A Crannog is an artificial island built by a stone or bronze-age family which pushed alder trees down into the mud, then filled them in with rocks and stones so they had a home relatively safe from attack in the middle of the lake. Archaeologists can radio-carbon date and ring-date the trees used in building these islands to determine when the ancient Picts built these island homes.
Our safe and secure home last night was Nadav’s Shed, where we had a comfortable sleep, interrupted in the early morning only by neighbourhood roosters, and visited by little rabbits. There was no accommodation on the trail itself, so tonight we were picked up off the moors by the owners of the Craighlaw Arms Hotel. They kindly dried our clothes for us and served some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Haven’t had veggies for days, so the ginger chicken stir fry with Thai yellow curry was extraordinary. Tomorrow is supposed to be a short day. I’m hoping it’s as sunny again as these photos I took when we started out this morning south from New Luce.
for more on this day’s walk, and a different perspective, see Ken’s blog at https://readingandwalking.wordpress.com/2019/07/19/whithorn-way-day-four
For years I dreamt of walking Treaty Four territories, what is now south-west Saskatchewan. Only in 2013-2014 did I find a trail (the Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail), a guide and fellow walker (Hugh Henry, of the SK History and Folklore Society), and feel in my bones a reason (un-settling Settler narratives) to make it finally happen. Ken Wilson is also interested in Settler preparation for reconciliation; he and I walked together from Swift Current to Battleford in 2017 and from Mortlach to Gravelbourg in 2018. Ken recently set his scholarly lens on an article I wrote for a volume in pilgrimage back in 2013, just before that first 350-km journey across the prairies. A serious academic, Ken has highlighted the article’s best parts. In case you’re interested, I’m posting his post, here:
For five days we walked across the prairie. Thirteen miles was our “short day.” We watched for badger holes in the grass, spots where you could drop in to your knee and break a leg. We rolled under and climbed through barbed wire, not always successfully (I have a ‘pic’ in my left palm from grabbing a strand carelessly). Sometimes we walked silently. More often, in spurts, we chatted. During the day we baked in over-thirty temps and at night we shivered in our tents as it dropped to single digits. I was amazed at the wonderfully talented, eclectic group walking south with me. When they found out what I teach, I was challenged: “is this a pilgrimage?” That depends. We ended at a cathedral. We talked a lot about reconciliation, and tried to live it, at least a bit. We sang and laughed and formed a community that blessed each other. It was a holy time. For me, at least, that made it a pilgrimage.
Heritage Saskatchewan sponsored film-maker Kristin Catherwood, who made this short film for the Canada 150 year. It features me and Hugh Henry, talking about the importance of the Swift Current – Battleford Trail, the 350 km trek we finished in August 2017. Thanks Kristin!