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 continue to follow along the Roman road of Dere Street into the Scottish lowlands, travelling from the village of Oxton to the magnificent Melrose Abbey, final resting place of Robert the Bruce’s heart. This is The Journey of Project Pilgrimage, Episode Four.
Terry and I awoke at 6 that morning with a start. The dawn air was cold enough that we had been jogged back to our senses, in quite a bit of pain. As we attempted to gather up our things, the gravity of our mistake from the night before became all too real. Not only did we have colds and our joints were now stiff from the night spentd on park benches, but we had also drunk slightly more than we should have done. Our leg and feet injuries from the previous days were still excruciating, but the cold night and tight bandaging had improved the situation from day one, meaning we could walk with only slight limps if we ignored it. With hair sticking up at both ends and sleep still in our eyes, we groggily set out for the main road again, hoping to get some walking in before the heat of the day set in and worried we might be accused of public indecency again if we were spotted.
As we yawningly blundered our way away from Oxton back on the main road, the low hills of heathland which had led us here gave way to flatter grassland on both sides of the road. As the sun rose that morning so did the wind speed, as the open fields and agonisingly distant trees permitted the winds to whip at our exposed faces. After about an hour of walking, my sunburn was screaming at me, exacerbated by the strong winds that buffeted us from the right, thankfully pushing us if anything away from the main road. The road continued without any semblance of an actual path, but the verge was well kept so that the dewy grass didn’t bother us too much, and day was young enough that there was not too much traffic.
That having been said, the wind was so strong that communication proved extremely difficult between the two of us. While that meant that Terry couldn’t tell me about D&D again, I did have to keep turning around to check he was still there, as the verge only allowed us to walk single file. Plodding on with my head bowed against the buffeting wind with no conversation, my mind turned to simply making sure I put one foot in front of the other. Looking up occasionally to check our progress proved fruitless, as the entire expanse looked exactly the same as it had half an hour beforehand. With no road signs and very few houses to mark any change, it began to feel like we were moving… but not really travelling anywhere at all. The wind was too loud even for us to make any sort of recording. Constantly fighting the urge to count the number of steps I was taking, I began to zone out, with nothing but the wind against my head, my footsteps and breathing. It got to the point that I could instinctively know when an hour had passed. The lack of anything except these three things in my world made me wonder how long it would be before I started to go a little bit mad.
However, at around 10am we came across what had quickly become my favourite sight on this journey: a real path. Broken from the trance, Oxton felt like it had been a million years ago, and yet at the same time I could have sworn we had only just left. It turned out that this path was leading us to the village of Lauder, which we passed through very quickly, except to stop and buy some more sandwiches and fill up our water.
The road out of Lauder took us up a steep hill, which we handled surprisingly well, aided by the fuel of our lunch as we were. Walking entirely on the side of the road which seemed mercifully empty, we descended into a valley surrounded by dense forests and what looked like fir trees. This scenery continued unchanged for a few miles which we didn’t actually mind too much – it was nice to be able to converse again as we walked, a refreshing break from the solitude of the morning. Though the sun was now hot once again, the cover provided by the roadside trees meant that we were able to keep a leisurely pace which didn’t exacerbate our injuries too much, while not feeling that we had to hurry to the next patch of shade. This continued for 4 miles, the only change being the density of the woodland, until we came to our first signpost of the day – 6 miles to Galashiels, a distance which passed much as the last 4 had, with relatively little change in the topography. The one exception was that the verge-less road became much busier after we had passed the intersection, and our walk soon because a game of cat and mouse as we kept having to pull over to allow cars to pass by safely, once again to the gratitude of the general public. The constant moving up and down off of the road aggravated our sprains in our legs and feet somewhat, but generally the road was quiet enough that we made good progress.
As we continued, we suddenly broke through the trees to reveal a stunning sight below us: ruddy hills and mountain ranges around us, stretching out as far as the eye could see, our road winding down into the deep valley between them. There, I could make out the blurry brown haze of a small town, faintly but definitely crowned with twin sandstone peaks: Melrose. It was a truly glorious sight.
What immediately caught me off guard most about Melrose Abbey was how intimidating it felt. Perhaps it was my preconceived expectations, or perhaps it was simply the fact that it had taken us so long to get here. Standing before this mighty behemoth of a building, I was struck by how alien the sight before me was. I’d learned before that the large Norman-style piers shooting up into the sky to support the ceiling were meant to direct one’s thoughts to heaven, but nowhere before had I truly felt the power a building could have in representing the authority of God. The towering pinkish brown stone walls, exquisitely curving arches and firm flying buttresses felt daunting, imperiously commanding my gaze up to the bright blue sky exposed above them. In this way I felt for the first time the power of such a building. Dragging my eyes back down to earth, the magnificence of God and this building stood proud above the grass-covered foundations of the early abbey, low stumps and lines of foundations: all that remained. I was filled with despondency. Here, it seemed to me, was proof that man’s efforts to mimic or worship the authority of God were doomed to only crumble into the natural world with time. Once again, however, Terry was able to cheer me up.
Our first impressions aside, the building was a wonderful myriad of passages and interconnected chapels filled with tombs and crypts, all leading back to the single grand presbytery, crowned with an intricate ceiling detail of the Trinity and various saints. It was truly a sight to behold, a special marker on our journey.
All too soon, however, the setting sun scorching through the vacant window frames told us that it was time to leave. Picking our way back through the rubble and the graves scattered beneath our feet, we headed into the town of Melrose in search of our overnight stop. We trooped up the hill outside of the main town, until we came across a far more modern church, where we were greeted by the local reverend, who had kindly offered to house us for the night. Completely gushing with thanks, we first allowed ourselves the luxury of a first shower in almost four days, before settling down for one of the simplest but most gratifying dinners I have ever had, in the comfort of a lovely home with strangers who soon became close friends. Despite our exhaustion, we enthusiastically talked late into the night, until finally we each collapsed into our own double bed. By far the best day so far came to a close as I fell asleep before my head had even hit the pillow.