Plans afoot for new St Columba pil­grim way

The Oban Times - - Births, Marriages & Deaths -

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.

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