For centuries, pilgrimage has been the life-force of Christianity, strengthening the Church and bringing ordinary worshipers closer to God. The beating hearts of Rome, Constantinople, Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury and so many others are connected through the arteries of pilgrimage; along those well-worn roads have flowed the devout, the guilty and the curious, continually breathing life into the Christian faith.
But what is it actually like to undertake a pilgrimage? Together with my good friend Terry Lee, we will be trekking from St Andrews, the mediaeval hub of Scottish pilgrimage, to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of northeast England, the backdrop to one of the most dramatic pilgrimages of the mediaeval era. Along the way, we’ll discover the pains of such a monumental journey, take in the benefits and rewards of our experience, and uncover some rather unexpected twists that neither of us could have predicted.
This episode follows the start of our journey, as we make our way from St Andrews to the small town of South Queensferry, on the banks of the River Forth. This is The Journey of Project Pilgrimage, Episode One.
My own journey began rather rudely at half past 5 in the morning – as I awoke to the late August morning, my spirits sank as I looked out to a dark sky which had not yet welcomed the blue herald of dawn. Anxiety mixed with adrenaline had kept me up most of the night, resulting in a mere 4 hours of sleep. Groggily checking over my preparations from the night before, I headed out of the door and trudged through last night’s rainwater to the spot I had agreed to meet Terry, the one friend who had not backed out on me at the last minute. True, the other two had had valid reasons, but I could not help wondering how many pilgrims throughout the centuries had been forced to confront last-minute changes of plan like I had. I sat at the rendezvous point, on the road leading out of St Andrews southwest towards Leven, cross-country, and waited in the twilight for my companion, with only the chirping of birds for company.
Terry was late. Once he’d arrived 40 minutes later, we were finally underway.
The road out of St Andrews was steep, wet and utterly boring. Surrounded by brown and muddy fields strewn with high reedy grass, there was little alternative but for us to follow the main road on foot. As we trudged onwards and upwards along the verge, Terry felt the need to brighten the mood with smalltalk. As much as I appreciated his company and the effort to make this stretch of road more enjoyable, he didn’t exactly pick the most enthralling of topics.
As the landscape and Terry continued to prove equally as thrilling, my mind turned back to the task ahead of us. The plan for today was to follow our current path cross-country until we reached the Firth of Forth, at which point we would join the renowned Fife coastal path on to Kirkcaldy and South Queensferry, where we would be staying the night in the local church. It was to be a long and arduous day; but for right now my spirits lifted as I set my mind to walking, allowing my feet to carry me away.
Fighting our way through wet grass and under dense woodland canopies, the weather became increasingly humid as the sun’s rays burst through the greenery around 10 o’clock, evaporating the fallen rainwater on the ground and in the trees into dense vapour. By 10:30 we were both dripping with perspiration as our shoes and our backpacks began to grow heavier and chafe harder. We soon realised that, in our efforts to maintain hydration in a constant battle against the heat and sweat, we were already starting to run out of drinking water. A torturous game of patience ensued, as every blind corner or hill implied the promise of the next town or village, where hopefully we could replenish our supplies and take a breather. As it was though, on reaching the crest of yet another hill, we were greeted with a sight far more rewarding: the Firth of Forth.
As it turned out what we could see below us in the distance was Largo, so we were still agonisingly far from our final destination. Stumbling downhill to the small town, we blindly found our way onto the coastal path which would take us to Leven. We were greeted by a view like it had been lifted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, soft sandy dunes and green grassy dunes leading down to the most picturesque ocean basking in the sunlight. If you can I’d really like to encourage you at this juncture to look through some of Terry’s photographs of the area because I’m not sure I can verbally do it justice.
Yet this paradise in which we found ourselves soon turned into a nightmare, as the loose sandy of the beaches made it impossible to find firm footing. Agonisingly, we could see Leven three miles away along the dead-straight beach, but that three miles was one of the most difficult of the entire journey. By the time we emerged the other side in Leven, the sand had given us both enormous blisters and, in an attempt to try and hold my footing, I had unknowingly sprained my ankle rather severely. Not noticing at the time, we continued on into Leven, with the hope of finding something to eat. Some rather manky sandwiches and a quick nap later and we were back on our feet, much more subdued than before. Our rest had given our feet time to swell properly, and the lack of adrenaline we had experienced during our break had revealed the piercing pain in my left ankle and Terry’s right foot. Now limping rather considerably as the noonday sun beat down on us, we continued on our way out of Leven towards Kirkcaldy.
The walk from Kirkcaldy to Leven was one of the most arduous and mentally difficult experiences of my entire life – it was even worse than listening to Terry tell me about Dungeons and Dragons for hours on end. Not wanting to repeat our mistake with the sand of the Coastal Path, we followed what seemed to be the only available signs directing us to Kirkcaldy via an inland route. Knowing roughly the distance we still had to go and bearing in mind how long it had taken us to cover a similar distance of 10 miles that morning, I was expecting to be in Kirkcaldy around 5pm at the latest. This stretch of our journey too us not 5 hours, however, but 9.
The road we found ourselves on turned out to be Standing Stane road, a 5 mile stretch of utter hell between the two towns. As we started off the road was paved with a simple path and curb, alongside which ran a busy dual carriageway. Though crude, this firm footing was far better than the sands of earlier that day. By the time we left Leven completely, exiting the two miles of industrial estate filled with ominously blank factories we had traversed, the path suddenly stopped. In a fit of dehydration-filled anguish and frustration I insisted we head on, feeling that we did not have time to turn back and look for an alternative route. Pressing on, the dual carriageway continued without the pathway, providing instead a raised grass verge covered with impenetrable knee-high weeds, wet grass and rubbish. The road stretched out before us, surrounded by no trees or woodland to provide any sort of cover from the afternoon heat. Rising gradually to a blind hazy summit on the horizon, Standing Stane road seemed like it would go on forever. Hobbling and stumbling our way through the dense mess in front of us, we struggled for hours as cars passing us expressed their apparent anger or amusement at us. We were soon both nervous wrecks: the horizon seemed to be getting no nearer as the road continued uphill, straight as an arrow, our water had long since run out and every insult hurled by a car-driver provoked in me a minor nervous breakdown.
Suddenly, I decided that I’d had enough. Turning off the main road, I dragged Terry towards some woodland in search of some shade. A rough pathway revealed itself to us, which we decided to follow it as best we could through the woods, finally leading us to an isolated, run-down cottage. Fearing old childhood stories of creepy cottages in the woodland, we did the sensible thing and ran away. Finding ourselves in a field, we decided that the best thing we could do was to give up, and try to return to the main road which, though torturous, we were pretty sure was at least heading in the right direction. However, we soon came up with a problem. The only way to exit this field conventionally was to backtrack to the creepy cottage, a prospect which seemed unwise. In another frankly stupid moment of thinking “screw it”, we decided to bust our way through a hedge and onto a tributary road leading back to the dual carriageway. Terry insisted on going first; however, having forced his way half-way through the hedge, he discovered a concealed fence of barbed wire. Wrapping his coat over the spikes, I watched Terry do his best impression of a World War infantryman, crawling over his coat and through the hedge onto the road behind. As I attempted to do the same, I found myself straddling my spike-infested coat in the middle of a hedge when I suddenly heard voices. Asking Terry who it was and fearing the angry farmer of this field, Terry only responded that I should hide. I sat down inside the road-side of the hedge and waited. Finally I could make out that the voices belonged to around 7 teens. Groaning, I pushed my way out of the hedge and prepared for what I hoped would be only a few questioning looks. Unfortunately what happened was much worse. A full-on confrontation ensued, in which the half-drunk and completely stoned teens accused us of engaging in funny business in the hedge. Fearing violence and being painfully aware that the essentially crippled Terry and I would have no hope in hell of outrunning 7 teens, I did the only thing I could and attempted to calm the situation down. After what seemed like an eternity we were finally allowed to depart, limping quicker than I ever have in my life back to the main road.
The final 3 miles to Kirkcaldy were more subdued than I could ever have believed possible. Neither one of us spoke for the entire three hours; we trudged on, devoid of all hope. The main road was just the same as it had been, gradually climbing to an invisible horizon. Around 6pm I realised that I had been heavily sunburned, and my entire face and left arm felt as if the skin was made of thin paper. The unevenness of the grass verge had had a catastrophic effect on my ankle as well – the tall weeds had obscured all manner of holes and junk for me to trip over and stumble into, exacerbating my sprain. Terry, on the other hand, was in an even worse state. The blisters on his right foot had gotten so agonising that, in an effort to apply less pressure to them he had twisted his left knee slightly out of place. By the time we finally reached the town sign of Kirkcaldy, neither of us could move at more than a shuffle. We gradually headed downhill, supporting each other as best we could, into Kirkcaldy, making our way through yet another industrial estate, and fell into the first pub we came across with contented sighs.
At this point, we made a group decision. Neither one of us could walk more than a few yards at a time. We had badly underestimated the difficulty of the terrain on this day of the journey, and our eagerness in the first day had led to us pushing ourselves far more than we should have done. Our injuries were simply too severe to continue at the rate we had been going. We decided to pay for a train which would take us from Kirkcaldy to South Queensferry, where the church awaited us.
Having finally made it to our overnight stop at 11pm, the emotions that had been fighting to get out started to get the better of me, as I reflected on what had been an extremely difficult day.
I settled down to a restless sleep on some chairs, simply grateful that the day was over.