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 picks up our progress after a gruelling first day, as we visit the historic pilgrimage stop of Inchcolm Abbey, before attempting to find accommodation in Edinburgh. This is The Journey of Project Pilgrimage, Episode Two.
After one of the coldest and least comfortable night’s sleep of my life, it was almost a relief to be able to get up and back underway. First we made sure that everything was as we had left it and locked up the church, before we left to explore the quaint beach town of South Queensferry. Today was much more overcast and gloomy than yesterday, which came as a blessing for my now crustacean-tone face. We had tentatively diagnosed Terry’s knee as a torn ligament and my ankle as a sprain. Having used up a good chunk of our medical supplies, including most of our bandages and all of our Compeed, we set off in search of some breakfast. Sitting by the pier with the best bowl of porridge I have ever tasted, we were both struck by the relative tranquillity of our surroundings.
Soon however it was time to get moving again, and so we picked up our backpacks and shuffled off towards the ferry terminal. Our journey today would take us via ferry to an island in the middle of the broad Firth of Forth, where an abbey housed monks and pilgrims travelling between St Andrews and Edinburgh for centuries. From there we would take the ferry back to South Queensferry and continue on to Edinburgh, where we hoped to find shelter for the night in a church or hostel.
The ferry ride to Inchcolm Island was cold and breezy, with a strong wind being channelled onto us from the opening of the North Sea. The exposure to the again blaring sunlight was something so obvious that I had not thought of it until I started to wonder why I felt like I was cooking again. I spent the rest of the turbulent trip below decks to cover my skin, to the detriment of my stomach. After an hour or so we finally stepped onto the mercifully solid ground of Inchcolm Island. As we made our way around the picturesque little island, I came to understand why this spot had been chosen as the location of a monastery.
The tranquillity of Inchcolm made for a greatly relieving contrast to the day before, and it was mentally refreshing to not feel any sense of urgency or particular purpose as we quietly meandered around deserted old cloisters and idyllic gardens. The views from the island were also fabulous, providing wonderful views of Kirkcaldy and Leven on one bank of the Forth, and the faintly visible raised mound of Edinburgh castle on the other, looming over the capital below. While I was looking forward to the relative civilisation of a big city again – where we desperately needed to buy medical supplies – to take a moment surrounded by our fellow tourists and nothing else except seals, ocean, the sky and seabirds was a great comfort.
All too soon, it was time for us to depart the calm between Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. Getting back onto the boat, we were treated to a tour of the new Forth bridges and a vocal history of the area of the Forth, before slowly being taken back to South Queensferry.
Once we had docked at the jetty, Terry and I had yet another unhappy decision to make. We learned in passing from a stranger on the boat that the main road between South Queensferry was partially closed due to roadworks, and had been all that week. The motorway was still open, but there was no footpath, meaning we had no way to directly reach Edinburgh by foot, unless we walked roughly 10 miles out of our way to circumvent the works. Our choices were therefore to walk, which we quickly ruled out, mostly due to our health but also the fact that we would have to rearrange and inconvenience several overnight stops further in our route. Or alternatively we could cheat, and take public transport. We agreed that unfortunately, seeing as this was a modern obstacle to our route, a modern solution seemed to be the fairest course of action, as this would allow us to stay on schedule. Feeling relieved that we could have an easier day of it today, we jumped on the next train to Edinburgh.
Edinburgh was, as ever, beautiful. Having lived in St Andrews for three years I have visited frequently, and every time it takes my breath away. Today, however, more than any other day, Edinburgh was a sanctuary of civilisation. The familiar sights of the towering castle and the impressive Scott monument made me feel safe – even though we were further away from home that we had been yet, we were no longer in uncharted territory. I was further reassured that if everything went wrong, we could just jump on a train back to St Andrews. While part of me felt guilty that we had all of these amenities available to us, mostly I was determined to avoid them except in necessary cases. Our first stop was to find a pharmacist, where we bought some very welcome bandages, Compeed, and cold medicine. We found the cheapest food we could – some half-stale croissants and small bottles of water – and sat in Princes Street Gardens for some lunch. Today was proving to be a day of modern luxuries, indeed.
Our plan for the rest of the day was simply to find shelter for the night, something which I believed would be a piece of cake. Setting off through Princes Street Gardens, we headed towards the church of St Cuthbert, which was said to have been founded by the legendary saint. We hoped that, just as we had with the church at South Queensferry, we would be able to convince the verger to provide us shelter for the night. Unfortunately, we came across a rather large problem.
Determined to not be defeated, we managed to locate the telephone number for the verger of the church. After finally managing to get through to her, she explained rather bluntly that we would not be allowed to stay in the church for health and safety insurance reasons. Disappointed, we had to come up with a plan ‘B.’
We decided that our only option was to attempt to try the various hostels and bed and breakfasts in the city, though we realised this would be more expensive than we would prefer. Having said that, the prospect of a hot shower and actual real-life beds was enough to encourage us. Our spirits rejuvenated by the prospect, we moved off briskly, sure that somewhere we would find something.
Finally we managed to find somewhere which had a single room free for that night. Too exhausted to contemplate searching elsewhere for anything better or cheaper, we agreed to fold to the extortionate price being charged to us for that one night – which meant not having enough money to buy any proper food for the night. More disgusting sandwiches later (this time bought from a petrol station), we were flat out asleep. Deciding that the floor was probably the cleaner option, I curled up on the floor, awake at every noise and bump outside our door.