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!
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/)
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/