The Church is taking a fresh look at Pilgrimage

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.

Rev David McNeish
Rev David McNeish on the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route. Photos by Fionn McArthur.

The Camino de Santiago, Europe’s most popular pilgrimage route, attracts 250,000 pilgrims annually, up from just a few thousand during the 1970s.

Now the tradition is seeing a massive resurgence in Scotland with six major pilgrimage routes under development and enthusiasm for spiritual journeying rising every year.

Last month the National Lottery announced new funding of £399,000 to develop the Fife Pilgrims way, a 70-mile route that will travel 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 will be launched in Orkney.

View from the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route. Photo by Fionn McArthur.
View from the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route. Photo by Fionn McArthur.

Pilgrimage as a form of worship

Rev Dr Richard Frazer, Convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council believes pilgrimages offer a genuine and meaningful spiritual pathway for modern-day Christians.

“Worship comes in many forms and pilgrimage is one of them,” Dr Frazer says.

“The habits of Sunday morning services, as noble and as good as they are, do not necessarily reach people who have a profound spiritual hunger but have never developed those habits.

“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.

Waymarker along the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route

Robert the Bruce

During the Middle Ages when pilgrimage was practised throughout Europe these places became important sites for worshippers. The streets of St Andrews were specially designed to accommodate the crowds of pilgrims who travelled there.

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 for a time. Yet the idea never went away. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, viewed pilgrimage as a metaphor for the challenges we face on our pathway through life.

“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 what those who frowned on pilgrimage missed is that 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.”

Jesus spent his entire ministry on the move, Dr Frazer notes, sometimes going off alone to remote places to pray and prepare for the trials he would face.

And after Christ’s resurrection it was on the Road to Emmaus that he revealed himself to disciples.

“They offered hospitality to a stranger and then realised they had been in the presence of the risen Christ. And it’s quite common to encounter Christ through welcoming people you have never met before. The sharing of hospitality is a sacred thing; it’s very sacramental.

Marker for the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route. Photo by Fionn McArthur.
Marker for the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route. Photo by Fionn McArthur.

St Magnus Way

Rev 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.”

From just an idea in Autumn 2015, the St Magnus Way pilgrimage route quickly took on a life of its own. A range of groups have already granted funding to the project, including the European LEADER fund, the Society of the Friends of St Magnus Cathedral, the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, the local community council, Tesco and the Church of Scotland.

Historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands are helping to define the most accurate route and to write 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 and provide background on places to stay or to find refreshment. Pilgrims will also find spiritual reflections for their journey.

Pilgrimage routes in Scotland
Pilgrimage routes in Scotland courtesy of the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum

Timeless appeal

Mr McNeish says spiritual journeying has a timeless appeal.

“The idea of walking and reflecting and engaging with God in the landscape and in the stories of the early Christians feels very relevant to people today.

“We talk a lot about the drop in attendance at Sunday services and about other ways to worship. Pilgrimage is a way for a lot of people to reconnect with their spirituality and with the Church.

“Rather than asking people to come inside the church, we are coming outside to encourage faith in new ways.”

“As a pilgrim you get a chance to encounter God as you walk in the great cathedral of nature.”

Nick Cooke, secretary of the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum, said the new Fife route will bring tourism to rural communities that need a boost.

“Fife was a huge pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages and by bringing walkers and cyclists to the middle of Fife this route will help revive some vulnerable rural communities."

Find out more about the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum

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