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.
In this episode, we walk the Roman route from Edinburgh into the Scottish lowlands, travelling to a halfway house used by mediaeval pilgrims, and on to the village of Oxton. This is The Journey of Project Pilgrimage, Episode Three.
Day three started groggily with an early morning. Not only were we desperate to get out of our “hotel” before our kidneys went missing, but we also planned on catching an early bus to get us out of Edinburgh’s suburbs. We had a long walk ahead of us, and neither one of us fancied going missing amongst all the lanes and semi-detached houses that stood between us and the open road.
The plan today was to follow the old Roman Road known as Dere Street, which had transported pilgrims for centuries between Edinburgh and Jedburgh Abbey, as far as the village of Oxton, where we would once again seek accommodation make camp for the night. After a five minute bus ride we were back underway, feeling all the better for our lighter day of walking the day before. The road which we found ourselves on was quaint, with tall hedges obscuring our view to our left and behind us, and open fields falling away with the hills to our right. The air was much cooler today, the sky bright but grey. Most encouraging of all, however, was the very thing we were standing on: a path. Our bandaged feet practically bounced along that path as we really began to enjoy our walking for the first time since what felt like a week previously, when we had first set out from St Andrews. The sure footing and separation was one thing, but the most rewarding aspect of that path was simply that it encouraged us to believe that we were surrounded by other human beings. Sure enough, as the road climbed slowly uphill and the chirping of the birds was joined by our fatigued panting, we were able to climb the summit and see a cute little hamlet stretching out before us.
This part of the journey was one of my favourites: ruddy brown stone farmhouses and fields covered with hay-bales filled me with joy, reminding me very much of my home in Herefordshire. We even discovered a few fields of sheep. However… I discovered at this juncture that Terry is not exactly an expert on the anatomy of, well, pretty much anything.
As Attenborough and I forged onward the road became much more sheltered, covered with overhanging dense trees, which provided quite a bit of shelter from the heat of the day. We were also able to be much more liberal with our water supplies, as every few miles we kept coming across small villages or farmhouses, the inhabitants of which which were more than happy to help us. Though the climate was similar to that of the first day and despite the fact that we were sweating just as much, that we could keep ourselves hydrated and refreshed kept us talkative, telling jokes and stories of our childhoods. Once again, Terry’s friendship proved a great comfort to me.
Continuing to follow the Roman road as best we could proved troublesome, as a large portion of the old route today passes through land controlled by the army. Not wanting our pilgrimage to end quite so explosively, we consulted a map and decided that following the modern road we were currently on would take us almost directly parallel to the route we had intended, whilst avoiding Her Majesties large guns. The choice to follow the road may have been a functional and ultimately necessary one, but the landscape became all the bleaker for it. As we followed the road south the lovely little villages which had brought us such comfort came to an end, replaced instead by field after field of open farmland. While certainly no less attractive, the by now blistering midday sun combined with whatever crop was growing in the fields to wreak havoc with our allergies – we both had head colds by this point as reward for our hard work on day one, and so to have hay fever piled on top of that was unpleasant to say the least. The one saving grace was the continued existence of the roadside path, our own little space of safety. Even when motorists continued the trend of cursing at us for no reason at all, we were far less perturbed than we had been on day one, thanks simply to the reassurance of solid footing and knowing that someone had walked here before us.
The road continued all the way until we turned off the main path, to take a sudden detour. A Half-mile struggle ensued up a steep and miserable hill; without the path to help our footing we were quickly reminded just how much trouble our feet were in. Chafing slowly set in again as we forced our way upwards.
Clambering to the top of this road, exposed on both sides to the sudden frigid breeze, we came across what we had been searching for: Soutra Aisle, the ruined pilgrim shelter constructed by David I of Scotland to house pilgrims travelling on Dere Street between Edinburgh and Jedburgh.
Soutra Aisle was a ruin. It felt eerie that a place which had welcomed so many onto its hearth in the past and which had been such a comforting spectacle for hundreds of years was now this run down and broken old shack, out in the middle of nowhere with one small sign to mark its persistent clinging to existence. Disturbed and slightly disheartened, we turned around, and practically jogged our way back down the hill to the main road.
By now it was the mid-afternoon, and for once we were hoping to make it to our overnight stop before darkness fell. The road was continuing much as it had before, almost perfectly straight but bending and curving over the low hills in front of us. The only problem was that once again we had run out of path, forcing us to walk on the grassy verge of the main road, which had broadened out into yet another dual carriageway. As lorries and trucks hurtled past us, we were forced further and further away from the well-cut grass close to the road and into the wilder ditch to the side. Though it was a similar experience to Standing Stane road from day one, the ground underfoot was surprisingly even, and there was no junk tossed into the grass like there had been before, making for much easier and more consistent progress.
Finally, after what felt like days of the same endless drag, with absolutely no change in scenery nor signs to tell us where we were, we happened upon a small sign for the village of Oxton at around 6:30 that evening. Staggering our way half a mile up a tiny lane, we did the sensible thing which any right-minded pilgrim would do, and headed for the pub.
The pub was warm, served passable food, and decent beer – by which I mean it served beer. Though there were not too many folks in there that night, we both got the impression that if you weren’t a recognised local, there was no point in chatter. We were left to our own devices, and didn’t see the point in attempting to coax reluctant conversation from those around us. Though this was a far cry from the friendliness of the regulars in the pub at Kirkcaldy, Terry and I didn’t much mind. Sitting in a corner by ourselves, we once again told stories from our pasts, discussed where we hoped and worried our lives might take us, and played cards. Keeping the beers coming so as not to annoy the staff who had politely but firmly informed us that they had no rooms, we stayed in the warmth for as long as we could, until the call for last orders came and we knew our time was up. Wandering through the dark of Oxton, we found some sheltered park benches out of the way of prying eyes, agreed who should take first watch, and promptly both fell asleep, warmed by our blankets and beers.