On the recommendation of Ken Wilson, I’m reading Something of his Art, a 100-page book by English-Welsh author and broadcaster Horatio Clare about a walk from Arnstadt to Lübeck, Germany. In October 1705, at the age of 20, a rebellious young Johann Sebastian Bach headed north on foot to pay a surprise visit to the elder organist and Baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude. Clare and two others from the BBC recreated that walk, also setting out in the fall. The record of their trip – you can listen to a BBC podcast series about it – contains Clare’s reflections on everything from Bach’s temperament (students of the day carried rapiers to defend themselves) to ways that the autumn countryside – and our world – have changed because of climate degradation.
Ken loved the book; he told me I would too. He was right.
Clare walked 230 miles, roughly the distance we’ve covered in our treks on Treaty Four and Treaty Six territories. I’ve had the pleasure of singing works by both Bach and Buxtehude in various choirs over the years. And I’m a Lutheran, affected by years of hearing Bach, and by some of the same theological worldviews that inspired the composer.
But you don’t have to be musical or a Lutheran (or even a walker) to love this book: Horatio Clare is a rare treasure of an author. His rich descriptions will have you hearing the sound of their feet “through thick cushions of beech leaves, gold and bronze and red,” and seeing Lower Saxony “intricate and melancholy in the rain.” You’ll learn about Bach. More than that, you’ll find yourself walking along Thuringian trails greeting local farmers, or entering old-town Erfurt in the golden twilight. Anyone who has ventured on long treks will feel a thrill of recognition in Clare’s words: “Coming into town as night falls is a wonderful feeling after a day’s walk. You move through the streets, your eyes sharpened by the length of the day’s views, your feet tired and your muscles worked, alert and fatigued at once.”
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.
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:
“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 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!
(the following is the impact statement that I wrote for the SK History and Folklore Society, who requested it to forward to their funding agencies. Those of you who have followed the walk in some way may find it worthwhile)
The Swift Current – Battlefords Trail walk certainly affected me personally. In addition I was witness to a number of ways in which it had an impact on communities and individuals we encountered. Firstly, although the historical connection between the Métis community and the Trail is well known, I believe that the linking of our first day’s walk with the Métis celebration in Swift Current solidified that connection. I was touched by the accompanying Red River cart and the members of the Métis community who walked the first steps of the Trail with us. Another community – or set of communities – that now have a greater knowledge of the Trail are the Hutterite colonies that we passed through. Our very positive interactions, especially with the Swift Current Colony meant that the members of the Colony learned something of the history of the Trail that passes through their land. We got the fresh cinnamon buns – they got a history lesson, and some local human geography! Thanks to our Trek organizer and guide Hugh Henry for laying the groundwork here, as he did in every other way.
When we met individual farmers as we walked, the reaction, almost without fail, was the same: interest in what we were doing, and most often, some positive but nostalgic comment about the Trail, almost as if it was a thing that had belonged to a past (perhaps their parents or grandparents’ generation) that they were surprised might still be considered important, but very quickly agreed should be important. In other cases, farmers who hosted us joined the walk briefly, for a day or part of a day, and told us of their own family histories and how they intersected with the histories of the Trail. In most cases their recollections were of the important early settlement history. In a very natural way, those of us who were walkers were able to include the First Nations and Métis aspects of the Trail’s history without in any way belittling the important personal and family histories they were recounting, bringing (I hope) the first steps toward some kind of integration of those histories. In a few cases local farmers joined us in the daily smudges led by one of our Métis walkers, Richard Kotowich.
An important result of such a marathon effort as this trek – and one of my reasons for walking personally – is to reinforce in the public mind, quietly and with respect for landowners, the idea that there do exist, on private land, trails of public importance, which need to be preserved and to which the public should have some limited rights of access. There is no fear, in Saskatchewan, of hordes of trekkers taking to the Battleford Trail! At the same time, the Trail is part of the commonwealth of history, and importantly, for three very different communities: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Settler. I have great respect for the occasional farmer or rancher who decides not to break some of the land that still bears the marks of the carts, for the public good. Our walk was, in a very small way, a call to such civic-mindedness.
We did not plan it this way, but our walk through the Biggar and Battlefords regions coincided with some breaking news about the trial process in the manslaughter charge connected to the death of Coulton Boushie. Whether it was in our minds, or in the air, it did feel as if the tensions increased, both when we stayed on the Mosquito First Nation, and when we passed by farms in the area, many of which were plastered with “No Trespassing” signs we had not seen further south. Perhaps our stay on the Mosquito FN helped those who were there realize that there are many Settlers who are trying to reach out and to learn from them; I hope so. Perhaps, at the same time, the fact that a group that was primarily of Euro-Canadian background sought to be guests on the Reserve helped some of the non-Indigenous folks we encountered in that area realize that the two solitudes can perhaps be bridged by folks of good-will on both sides. The matter, of course, is more complex than a single group of walkers might influence, but I hope that we were, if nothing else, a living sign of what the very first steps in seeking reconciliation might look like.
Finally, the Trail walk was important to me personally. When I grew up in the Swift Current and Simmie regions of the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, we learned about the “Indians”, as we called them then. If we thought of them at all, it was as important people who no longer lived anywhere close to us. No one – including me – ever seemed to wonder why the First Nations no longer ranged over those areas. I only learned much later, as an adult, that many, including Big Bear’s Plains Cree, sought Treaty lands exactly where I grew up, but were pushed north, often starving and in poor clothing, during the winter, by the policies of the Dominion government and the railroad. Walking this Battleford Trail, generally in comfort with more than enough food and a good tent or occasionally a hotel room, we were walking the Trail that they once walked, starving, not much more than a century and a quarter ago.
Thanks to Hugh Henry, Harold Steppuhn, Ken Wilson and local farmers, the trek taught me the geography of the land where I was raised. I learned about the “Eagle Hills”, the “Bear Hills” and the “Bad Hills”, about NWMP outposts and glacial moraines and ancient inland seas, about soil formations and water drainage, about poplar trees and prairie grasses. Such learnings, added to my first visits to communities like Sanctuary, Greenan and Herschel, and made in the company of other pilgrims who became like family, made it a very rich three weeks. I blogged about the Trail and had hundreds of reads of my blog posts, both in Canada and internationally. Thanks to the Saskatchewan Historical and Folklore Society, and especially to my friend and co-walker Hugh Henry, for making this walk possible.
Yesterday was the last day of the Battleford Trail walk. 350 kilometres in total, Hugh Henry tells us. Along the way we read journal excerpts from one of Colonel Otter’s troops as they marched north along the same path in 1885. The writer was a young, green recruit from central Canada who’d probably never seen either a First Nations person or the plains. He wrote: “We saw our first Indian today. He was within rifle distance.” Richard Kotowich, who is Métis, gave a short and powerful talk as he smudged us. “How do we measure the distance? Do we still measure it like that unnamed soldier? Close enough to harm? Close enough to be defensive? Or have we learned to say: ‘the Indian’ we meet is close enough to greet, to get to know, to invite to eat, to sit together and learn from and with?”
This pilgrimage, for me, has been about things old AND things new. The Trail is as old as the Plains Cree that went south to hunt bison, the burial grounds that go back millennia, the Bear Hills that now seem so empty. But the Trail is also as new as the ‘no trespassing’ signs and the farm dogs we met as we approached Battleford, a town which, as a local citizen told us, has “13 reservations around it.” He didn’t add that it was our own government that put them there, often against their will and miles away from their traditional lands, for the convenience of railway and Settler. This trek has been about remembering that Métis, First Nations and Settler all used this trail. It has been about smudging with farm families who in some cases perhaps have never participated before in such a ceremony, and making them welcome. It has been about including First Nations concerns in our conversations naturally, neither preaching nor apologizing, just quietly and consistently recognizing the facts of the Treaties, the expulsions, and the injustices. It has also been about listening to the older farm folks who talk about the coulees and valleys, the rivers and the land and the wildlife with such love and longing that you know the land has taught them, over years. So how DO we measure the distance between Settler and First Nation? We danced with the First Nations dancers in Fort Battleford, but it was just a beginning. For those of us who are non-Indigenous, even after a 350 km Battleford Trek, we have a ways still to travel.