The Land of Speaking Stones

Mossy Stone Fence

“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, Glenluce barometerand we ended our 15 miles with sodden boots, frozen and shivering from a cold and steady Scottish wind. Ken on the MoorsWe 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.rams in flightIf 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. Peter Ross at Glenluce AbbeyAt 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. Loch with CrannogA 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. Nadav's Hut with Ken and Christine

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. Green Scots forest

Christine in lit forest

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

 

 

Waiting for a Sign

while finding our way

Walking a partially sign-posted pilgrimage trail is a bit like living out Kierkegaard’s leap of faith in miniature, a hundred times a day. While walking the trail, there is a process that you go through between signs, a crisis of faith and doubt. When the arrow or the sign is first spotted, you feel a natural sense of relief. You launch yourself out and away from the waymarker, your feet sturdy and your mind at ease, but only for a moment. Soon enough comes a fence corner, a split in the path, a field empty of indications or a stile that is unmarked, and you must decide: is it that you have missed a marker somewhere, that the marker was never placed where it could have been useful, or was perhaps lost or knocked down (over the years I have found many markers in ditches, knocked down by sheep or cattle, or behind overgrown bushes), or is it that you have somehow unwittingly strayed from the path and should retrace your steps?

This is the moment – or rather, one of the many moments in a pilgrim walker’s day – of decision. Paths are rarely uniformly sign-posted. From the point on the path where you hesitate, it could well be that the anticipated marker is just over the horizon; at the next junction or field corner. Or it could be that somewhere, a hundred or two hundred paces back you have missed a sign or a deviance in the trail that you should have caught. The slowness of walking, which is normally, I would argue, one of its advantages, begins to work against you. Any decision, whether to push forward or to backtrack, is an investment both in time and in precious energy. In a ten-hour walk on a secluded trail, too many bad investments can mean the difference between success and unpleasantness, discomfort and perhaps even in some rare cases, disaster.

Modern technology, and especially the nearly ubiquitous smart phone with its built-in GPS location systems, would seem to have made the pilgrim’s Kierkegaardian dilemma obsolete. Even if a sign-post is missing, the map function of a phone should be able to show the pilgrim where he or she is, at least closely enough to avoid much more than a few fields’ length of detour. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon one’s view of such things) there was no mobile phone coverage in the Rosedale valley. We were on our own with terrain and map.

We passed a farm that we thought might have been Northdale Farm, but was not. Now we knew we were seriously off the trail. We looked at the maps, but they made little sense. We talked, but never argued. Six cooks and still the stew was okay. The trail continued on through a field north of the house and barn and then petered out in the second field, turning into what seemed to be only an animal track. We spread out, all six looking in different directions uphill, and down. In the downhill far corner of the field closest to the wooded gully was a gate. It looked like there may have been a sign there; certainly there seemed to be a trail. We headed downhill.

There was no sign. Then again, there never had been any St Hilda signs per se. On the other side of the valley the earth rose up again to the heights of the moors. Our trail was on that other side. We knew that much at least, and that to get there we’d have to cross the valley. There was no sign, but there was a path. The woods were thick with underbrush, the trail overgrown. The sounds of water came from somewhere down below. We decided to risk it.