Walking the pilgrim way

FLORENCE BOYLE explores the significance of making a pilgrimage and highlights new developments in Scotland.

Pilgrimage is one of those words whose meaning changes with context.  At a minimum it is a purposeful journey, to a significant destination.  Scottish Catholics have grown up familiar with the organised parish pilgrimages to favourite places in Europe like Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje. In this context, pilgrimage is a holiday with a holy spin, in a warm place, in the companionship of fellow parishioners and no less valuable for that.  

Pilgrimage can be a personal odyssey a journey to somewhere significant to you.  Those who have researched their family history often travel to the place where it all started.  A few years ago, the Scottish government, in a drive to increase tourism from North America, sponsored a year of ‘Homecoming’.  During that year, while visiting Canna, I met a boatful of Americans who had made a logistically challenging journey just to have a few hours on an island their ancestors had been forced to leave two centuries earlier.  It was moving to witness.  For those travellers it was not just another day trip on their holiday itinerary.  It was more significant and emotional; a journey undertaken in memoriam as an acknowledgement of past sacrifices and in gratitude for their own good fortune, a pilgrimage.

For people of faith, pilgrimage has a parallel to our earthly journey towards heaven.  In most faiths pilgrimage is recognised as something worthwhile and in some it is an obligation.  The Catholic Catechism recognises the value of pilgrimage as a chance for Catholics to work on their faith in a prayerful way.  Jews are instructed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year: in spring for Passover, in summer for Shavuout, and in autumn for Sukkot.  Muslims are obliged to complete the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lifetime.

Walkers will tell you that the benefits from long distance walking extend well beyond the obvious physical ones.  There is a soul-soothing feeling of troubles being unpacked and your head clearing as the immediate priority is no more complicated than putting one foot in front of the other.  Fellow walkers become confessors.  An improved sense of wellbeing is guaranteed.  Pilgrimage adds another ingredient, spiritual wellbeing.

Some of the biggest gatherings of people in history have happened because of pilgrimages.  The numbers are eye watering.  At the last Kumbh Mela in 2019, fifty million Hindus gathered to visit the four sacred riverbanks.  During the 20- day period of the annual pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, Shia towns and cities empty as the faithful take to the road on a pilgrimage which commemorates the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. These mega pilgrimages are about more than just the journey; they are a demonstration of cultural and religious identity.

Scotland has rediscovered the value of walking as a pastime rather than a means of getting around shopping malls.  No Braehead, no shops, no restaurants and little else to do in the way of outdoor recreation, but just like boxsets and books we are all running out of options.  As we work our way out of the current pandemic there is an opportunity for pilgrimage on our own backdoor.  

The Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum, a network of organisations and individuals, has been working for some years to develop pilgrimage routes in Scotland.  Some of the routes are well developed, with good signposting and physical infrastructure: Orkney (St Magnus Way), Fife Pilgrims Way (Culross to St Andrews) and St Cuthbert’s Way (Melrose to Holy Island).  Some have the infrastructure to support travellers, others are only partially signposted.

Faith in Cowal is a website which has been developed to support and provide information on 15 sites with ties to Celtic or Medieval Christianity.  There are maps and suggestions of where to visit, and materials on the saints associated with places along the way.

Inspired by St Ninian, the 143 miles long Whithorn Way which starts in Glasgow follows much of an ancient pilgrimage route which has been travelled along for over 1000 years.  The supporters of the route have developed web resources which break the route into stages (some  more picturesque than others).  For those interested in an urban walk, the first stage, Glasgow to Paisley, looks interesting and a good stretch of the legs at 13.5 miles.

At the end of April, Covid restrictions will be loosened and we will be able to venture beyond our local authority boundary.  It looks like holidays abroad are out of the question for another few months. For those looking for a holiday at home that revives the soul as well as the body, what about Scotland’s pilgrimage routes?


St Cuthbert’s Way https://www.stcuthbertsway.info/

Fife Pilgrim Way https://fifecoastandcountrysidetrust.co.uk/walks/fife-pilgrim-way/

Faith in Cowal https://www.faithincowal.org/

Scottish Pilgrim Routes https://www.sprf.org.uk/index.html

Photo caption: 

Kilmur church.  Photo courtesy of Walk the Camino.

Florence Boyle is a lay Catholic and is treasurer of Open House.


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.