St Andrew’s Day, November 30th, seems a good opportunity to reflect on having reached Scotland in September this year. Being based in south Wales, I feel this is quite an achievement.
Previous pilgrimages had taken me to the city of Carlisle in the far north of England, tantalisingly close to Scotland. However, this year I managed to walk from Carlisle to the well-known border town of Gretna and then on to the ancient Christian site of Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway. From there I continued to the great city of Glasgow, passing through towns such as Ayr and Troon.
But as a pilgrim, apart from a considerable sense of achievement, what have I learned from having made it to Scotland?
Firstly, I would have to say that I began to realise just how different the history of Scotland is to that of Wales and England; I certainly need to do plenty of homework to try to redress my lack of knowledge. Just knowing a little about Mary, Queen of Scots, watching Braveheart and having studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school simply isn’t good enough for anyone from south of the border who wants to make the most of a visit to this fascinating country. It was with excellent reason that, having finally arrived in Glasgow, I bought a book of Scottish history in the gift shop at the cathedral. I began to do my homework on the train on the way home.
However, as regards the early history of Scotland, it was very interesting to see something of the story of the early Celtic saints; to be in the places associated with St Ninian, St Mirin and St Mungo at Whithorn, Paisley and Glasgow respectively. How wonderful to learn just a little of these long-gone missionary monks and church-planters from the Age of the Saints. This is a story with its parallels across the British Isles and, in this respect, I felt on less shaky ground.
I was also intrigued to find out about Scotland in the later Middle Ages, with the building of great religious houses such as the Cistercian abbey at Glenluce and the Benedictine monastery at Kilwinning, both of which I saw on my pilgrimage. Through places such as these, Scotland was integrated into the flowering of monasticism across Europe.
Walking through Dumfries, an information board for visitors and tourists also reminded me that one of Scotland’s greatest sons, Duns Scotus, the renowned medieval theologian and philosopher, was a local boy. Having first received the habit at the Friary in Dumfries and then associated with the early universities at Oxford and Paris, he was one of the great thinkers of his age.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing in Scotland. I found coming across the memorials to the seventeenth century Covenanter martyrs, as at Wigtown and Barrhill, very challenging as was learning of the Disruption of 1843 which led to the founding of the Free Church of Scotland. Episodes such as these can seem very daunting to anyone who wants to make sense of and learn from church history.
However, although some things that I observed seemed rather depressing, I was encouraged to see evidence of thriving, new ‘community churches’ and even a recently-founded Orthodox place of worship in the Dalbeattie area. When things seemed a little bleak, I would recall the words from the book of Revelation, Behold I make all things new and find myself giving thanks and praying for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the restoration of all that is good and just and true.
Above all, the memory that I would most want to stay with me of my pilgrimage into Scotland, is that of the warm welcome I received as I walked. Although most churches were closed because of the Covid-19 situation, it was wonderful to find a few open. At one, St Meddan’s Parish Church in Troon, I walked past at exactly the right time to join the midweek congregation for a socially-distanced service. As always, being able to worship in a local church is a highlight of any of my pilgrimages, but here I was kindly received for a thoughtful time of reflective prayer with beautiful accompanying piano music. I have stayed in touch with St Meddan’s on social media, appreciating daily words of encouragement from their acting minister.
As for St Andrew, according to tradition some of his relics were brought to Scotland perhaps in the fourth century. By the eighth century, a shrine to him seems to have been in existence at the monastery founded by the Pictish king, Oengus. This evolved into the cathedral of St Andrews which became the most important centre of pilgrimage in Scotland in the Middle Ages, with the saint set on his path to becoming the country’s patron.
This itself is a reminder of how much more there is to see in this surprisingly large and varied country. On the east coast, St Andrews is now beckoning me, and the great Christian centre of Iona on the west coast is calling too!
Yes, I am thrilled to have made it to Scotland.