Plans afoot for new St Columba pilgrim way
THIS year the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be asked to reverse centuries of hostility to the ancient practice of pilgrimage and to affirm its place within the life of the church.
The Camino de Santiago, Europe’s most popular pilgrimage route, attracts 250,000 pilgrims annually. Now the tradition is seeing a massive resurgence in Scotland, with six major pilgrimage routes under development, including one from St Andrews to Iona.
Last month the National Lottery announced new funding of £ 399,000 to develop the Fife Pilgrims way, a 70-mile route travelling from Culross and South Queensferry to St Andrews. And on Easter Sunday – the 900th anniversary of St Magnus’ death – a new pilgrimage route in his honour was launched in Orkney.
The Rev Dr Richard Frazer, convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council, said: ‘Worship comes in many forms and pilgrimage is one of them. ‘People who walk the Camino may not be conventionally religious, but very few who reach Santiago de Compostella would deny the journey there was a spiritual experience. In a time when the church is looking for new ways to touch the hearts of all people, pilgrimage is a very powerful tool.’
In the first centuries AD, Jerusalem and other biblical sites quickly became a destination for early Christians. Known as the People of the Way, those first Christians were instructed to journey so that they might spread the good news. They obeyed and over centuries the missionary saints became legends.
Saints and their exploits became associated with special places: St Columba and Iona; St Ninian and Whithorn; St Cuthbert and Lindisfarne; St Magnus and Orkney; St Mungo and Glasgow; St Andrew and St Andrews.
During the Middle Ages, when pilgrimage was practised throughout Europe, these places became important sites for worshippers. But during the Reformation people rebelled against abuses such as selling pardons for sins and making money from supposedly sacred objects like pieces of saints’ clothing, locks of hair or bones. Reformers viewed pilgrimages as superstitious and discouraged them, and they fell out of favour across Europe.
‘I think pilgrimages were viewed as superstition because people believed that you could be healed by the water from a special well or by the bones of a saint,’ Dr Frazer says. ‘That is why Robert the Bruce, who is said to have suffered from leprosy, travelled twice to Whithorn, a site made sacred by St Ninian.
‘But the most important part of pilgrimage is not the destination but the journey. It is on the journey that we meet others and find Christ in the stranger. It’s unfortunate that in reforming some wrongful practices, we may have neglected a way to worship that is meaningful to so many.’
On the St Magnus Way, historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands are helping to define the most accurate route and to writing the story that will unfold along the way. As well as placing waymarkers along the route, the Orkney Pilgrimage group is developing a phone app which will link to Bluetooth beacons that tell the story of St Magnus.
The Rev Dr David McNeish, minister for Birsay, Harray and Sandwick in Orkney, says the St Magnus Way came about after a small group of people from different churches came together to discuss a pilgrimage route on the island. ‘When we started talking about a pilgrim route St Magnus, who is the patron saint of Orkney, was the first person who came to mind. After his martyrdom on the island of Egilsay his body was brought to Birsay on the mainland. Then 20 years later, when the seat of power moved to Kirkwall, his bones were taken there. So there was a journey Magnus himself took after his death, as well as evidence of people making pilgrimage to Orkney in the Middle Ages.’
Dr David McNeish on the St Magnus Way.