The heartstone pilgrimage


Pilgrimage seems to be the thing at the moment.  Not only the phenomenal popularity of all the various branches of the Camino to Compostela, but also near home, revivals of old pilgrimages such as to Whithorn and St Andrews and the creation of new ones such as the St Cuthbert’s and the St Oswald’s Ways, both of which I have enjoyed walking.  The present piece, however, is about making a walk I do several times a week into something meaningful enough to be called a pilgrimage, and, I hope, may encourage others to do similarly with their favourite walks.

Shortly before my younger son died on 21st November 2000, we had acquired a puppy, Dora.  Even in the depths of grief in the aftermath of Hugh’s death, Dora had to be taken out twice a day, which was a blessing when all we wanted to do was hunker down.  We live just behind the Promenade at the western edge of Portobello, where the Figgate Burn enters the Firth of Forth and so there were few days we didn’t go on to the beach, extending about a mile in either direction from our house.  It became a place of healing.

Turning right (south-east) we can walk to the Joppa end and from there it’s about a quarter of a mile inland to Portobello Cemetery where Hugh is buried.  It’s a lovely cemetery and being able to walk to Hugh’s grave has been a comfort, but it’s not easy to walk unimpeded along the beach in that direction, except at the lowest of tides because of groynes., which protect the shore from erosion.  So one usually has to keep coming out of autopilot to calculate whether to clamber over them (while lifting Dora), or to risk getting one’s feet wet round their seaward ends or to walk up towards the Prom and get through the gaps at the landward ends.  It’s also the more popular bit of the beach and there is more chance of meeting someone, which given my fragile state of mind wasn’t always what I wanted in the early days.

So more often I would turn left (north-west) from the house and walk on what is the less frequented bit of the beach.  It feels wilder with more seabirds and waders and the sand unbroken apart from a few scatterings of boulders, so that one can walk deep in thought, without much fear of walking into something, and stretches at low tide as far as the seawall protecting Seafield Sewage Works (one of the reasons this is a less popular destination).

Sometimes I would walk that far, but, at high tide, I would walk on the Prom instead and would look down, about three quarters of the way along, at a little indentation (‘cove’ seems too grand a word) with a patch of shingle and a few boulders, which only got submerged at the highest spring tides.  It looked interesting and eventually I made my way to this little beach at low tide to poke about the flotsam and jetsam.  One of the boulders, slightly detached from the rest, was perfect for sitting on and it became my habit to pause there on the walks to have a few moments contemplating the sea or remembering Hugh, while Dora would sniff around for disgusting things to eat.

After a few visits, I noticed that this stone was heart-shaped and so christened it the ‘Heartstone’, and the beach, the ‘Heart Beach’.  Then I spotted a vertical line running across the stone and so thought of it as a broken heart, giving it a significance relevant to my bereaved state.  Finally I discerned a barely visible horizontal line and so it became, inevitably for me as a Catholic, the Sacred Heart.

On some occasions I visited, there would be stones and shells left on it by the receding tides or dropped by seabirds.  They looked to me like offerings and I began at first to place either a stone or a shell in memory of Hugh, and then gradually added more – typically for my wife Margaret, our older son, Thomas, our two dogs, Dora and her daughter Bella, and the cat, Fluffy (Hugh’s last birthday present).  Sometimes I would place others for people in my thoughts and prayers at that time.  I don’t necessarily do this every time as I don’t want it to become an ossified ritual, but nevertheless, even now both dogs have died, I still walk there frequently.

I don’t know whether one could do similarly with any walk one does regularly but I am very grateful to have experienced the gradual unfolding of this as a meaningful destination on my doorstep, investing what could have been a pleasant but routine walk with the significance of a pilgrimage.  The only drawback has been that I came to feel it would be irreverent to sit on the Sacred Heart and none of the other boulders has proved as accommodating.


Ian Campbell has recently retired as Professor of Architectural History and Theory at Edinburgh College of Art.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.