The History


Finally they decided to enter the land of Gaul. They wanted zealously and shrewdly to inquire into the disposition of the inhabitants in order to remain longer if they found they could sow the seeds of salvation.

That was an extract from Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of Saint Columbanus, the Vita Columbani, which demonstrates the important practical values of pilgrimage in the mediaeval era. Pilgrimage in the Christian tradition took a long time to become an established practice. The origins of taking self-reflective and isolating journeys can be traced all the way back to the days of the Roman empire, when people worshiping the then-new faith of Christ were constantly persecuted and hunted, forced to worship underground and remain anonymous. Christianity slowly grew in popularity and accessibility thanks to certain writers such as Jerome and Origen, who advocated the rights of Christians to equal status as citizens. Eventually Christianity became the majority religion with the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine I, who founded the city of Constantinople as a New Jerusalem. As such, the practice of pilgrimage became less about trying to hide oneself from persecution, and more about travelling a great distance of hardship as a form of worship. Early fathers of Christianity such as St Jerome could therefore now cut themselves off from civilisation and live in the Syrian Desert, wandering between Rome, Constantinople, and Bethlehem. As these wandering men’s advice, knowledge of healing borne from solitude in the desert, and wisdom from generally being learned in the Classics became well known, others would venture into the desert in search of counsel. In some ways, these wise men effectively became objectives of pilgrimage in and of themselves.

The constant to-ing and fro-ing between civilisation and the wilderness by a select few gave rise to small communities of people in the desert who sought collective solitude, freedom in which to contemplate their own spirituality together and learn from each other, away from the demands of daily life. Jerome himself quoted Vergil in writing: “On all sides round horror spread wide; the very silence breathed a terror on my soul” when putting into words his contemplation of Hell, as well as learning Hebrew during this time, presumably from a Jewish person who chose to follow him. During this time of collective togetherness, custom-built shrines and half-way shelter houses were erected. By the 5th century, pilgrimage had definitely reached through the Roman Empire beyond the confines of the Holy Land: in 431 the Gaulish nobleman Paulinus settled in an area where an early confessor, Felix, was venerated, building a new church in the saint’s honour and thus providing a place of worship and shelter for those who wished to follow in his footsteps.

Paulinus’ dedication to Felix long after his death demonstrates the power that holy men were believed to hold, both during their lives and long after their deaths. Just as they had in life, the remains of these people were thought to provide a means of intercession, carrying to God the prayers and wishes of the faithful, who needed stability and reassurance. The popularity of saint-cults was essentially a product of ordinary people attempting to control the unpredictable world of the present and the future around them. Methods of communication with holy people after they were dead were relics, things associated with one thought to have been close to God. Primary relics were the bones, nails or hair of the person in question. Secondary relics, known as brandea, also existed: these were sometimes clothes of the saint, chippings of crosses used for crucifixion (the most famous being the True Cross of Christ Himself), or dust from the tomb of the person. Bede’s Ecclesiastica Historia Book IV.III tells of the tomb of St Chad of Lichfield, which was designed so that visiting pilgrims could scrape off some of the grave dust, which they would then mix into water and drink in the hope of curing a disease. It has been suggested that posthumous aid such as this were popular because they were less likely to be tainted by suspicions of magic or nefarious schemes.

Relics and pilgrimage played such an important role in the lives of mediaeval people that entire settlement and towns grew from these factors of Christian worship. One such town was St Andrews, the starting point of my own pilgrimage, which became one of the top destinations in northern Europe for pilgrims, thanks to being one of only two locations throughout all of Europe to house the relics of one of Christ’s martyred apostles, along with Santiago de Compostela basting the relics of St James the Greater. Saint Andrew’s relics were taken by the monk Regulus or Rule from their resting place in Greece to the Pictish royal administrative centre of Kinrymont, Fife, sometime during the 8th century, supposedly because of a vision from God. With the founding of the church dedicated to the worship of St Andrew’s bones in Kinrymont, the seed was sown for the eventual birth of the town of St Andrews that we know today. In 877, shortly after having built a new Christian church at Kinrymont, King Causantín mac Cináeda was captured and executed after defending against Viking raiders, possibly near Crail. Frequent Viking raids and the inaccessibility of the area meant that Kinrymont only became the chief focus of national religious activity in Scotland in 906 AD when, according to Walter Bower, Cellach I was made first Bishop of the Scots at St Andrews. The first recorded pilgrimage to St Andrews, undertaken by an Irish prince, took place in 967.

After this time, it seems that the route from Edinburgh to St Andrews was considerably civilised, as royal interest in the sense of national identity afforded by saint-cults and relics grew. The patronage of St Andrew was a powerful shield to be used by the Scots’ crown and church to counter claims of secular and religious overlordship from England. Queen Margaret of Scotland’s biographer, writing shortly after the Queen’s death in 1093, recorded that not only did she provide ships for the famed Queen Margaret Crossing over the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh to Fife, but that Margaret also endowed hostels on either side of the Forth, which she provided with staff who were “to wait upon them (pilgrims) with great care.” The boats that ferried people across this great expanse of water also apparently did so free of charge. Pilgrimage was clearly important to Queen Margaret, both in the sense that she undertook it herself and so did her subjects, but also it was important to make a symbol of Scottish national identity accessible to the rest of the realm.

Indeed, by the 11th century there were many roads from the Scottish lowlands to the isolated coastline of St Andrews. Having reached the port of Queensferry and used the crossing there, pilgrims could head north to the east end of Loch Leven, where there was a hospital with a famous and ancient healing well. This was a long-established route, referred to in an eleventh-century charter of King Macbeth as “the public causeway which leads to Inverkeithing.” Alternatively, a ferry was put into operation at roughly the same time by the MacDuff earls of Fife, travelling the 7 miles over the Forth from the aptly named Earl’s Ferry (near St Monan’s) to North Berwick. This is the route that would have been taken by King Edward I in March 1304, before he headed north to St Andrews.

Situated directly between St Andrews and Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth naturally saw an enormous increase in traffic from the 11th century onwards, as more and more pilgrims made the journey from the state capitol to their religious seat and national religious icon. The island of Inchcolm was a very important stop for travellers heading to St Andrews from the south. The island’s abbey was founded by King Alexander I of Scotland in 1123: after he was shipwrecked there, he was cared for by a hermit, who shared what food he had with the king. In thanks for his life, Alexander vowed to build the abbey on the spot, but died before he could see it completed. The abbey later had a long history of association with St Columba – a 14th century book of liturgical chants contains a large number of chants dedicated to Columba, and Walter Bower, the famed author of the Scotichronicon, was abbot there during 1420s, doing much to promote Inchcolm as a cult centre of Columban devotion.

As well as being a vital shelter for regular pilgrims to St Andrews, Incholm abbey also housed monks travelling from the western isle of Iona to Lindisfarne, which itself was a hugely significant Christian location and place of worship. It was monks from Lindisfarne who colonised the monastery at Old Melrose on the river Tweed, in the middle of the seventh century. It was here that Cuthbert, the son of a local Anglican farmer, entered the monastery in 651, having had a vision of the death of St Aidan, the founder of both Lindisfarne and then Melrose. Destroyed by the Scots in 839, David I invited the Cistercians of Rievaulx to rebuild a place of worship at the old site of the monastery, but they preferred the site 2 and a half miles to the west, which became the grand abbey which Terry and I visited. In the 12th century the Cistercians implemented new farming techniques around their new monastery and sold wool to the rest of Europe. Their success was in no small way thanks to the strict lifestyle implemented by their Order – the daily life of a monk was rigorous, beginning at 2 o’clock in the morning with private prayer, before a day of farm labour and writing, finally ending with more prayers at 8 in the evening. The abbey’s financial success was built of the sale of wool, manuscripts and the economy of pilgrimage, slowly leading to the development of the town which formed around the abbey. A chapel at Old Melrose where St Cuthbert had been prior before leaving for Lindisfarne continued to function as a place of pilgrimage, marking the sacred ground where he had walked.

From Melrose abbey, St Cuthbert travelled to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, via the legendary St Cuthbert’s way. This route traverses often bleak landscapes, but there are some notable spots of historical interest. One of the focal points of Christian hospitality in which Cuthbert would have stayed when making the journey was the town now known as Yeavering. Here there was an enormous wooden hall built by the Northumbrian King Edwin, and it was supposedly here that Bishop Paulinus of York performed the first Christian baptism in Northumbria on King Edwin and all of his people in 628. This first missionary exercise was doomed, however, when Edwin was killed in battle in 633 and his people reverted to paganism. Also along the route lies St Cuthbert’s cave, which is said to be where the monks who were taking the remains of St Cuthbert’s body to Durham took shelter from the Vikings, who had mercilessly sacked the monks’ home of Lindisfarne in 793.

Lindisfarne itself had been gifted to the monks of Iona abbey in 634 by king Oswald of Northumbria, who had exiled himself to Iona until the previously mentioned death of his predecessor, Edwin of Northumbria. Upon his return to Northumbria Oswald gratefully granted Lindisfarne to the monks who had sheltered him, allowing them to set up a monastic outpost on the island. In many ways the success of Lindisfarne as a monastic institution was thanks to Oswald’s time spent on Iona, and his continued patronage. Indeed, the first bishop of Lindisfarne, Aidan, was an Irishman sent from Iona abbey to oversee the settlement. Oswald and Aiden worked closely together, with Oswald patronising the new outpost on Lindisfarne and Aiden in return preaching the Christian faith to Oswald’s people. Oswald even translated Aiden’s words into English while he preached to the listening crowds, as Aiden could only speak Irish.

Aiden and Oswald’s partnership built Lindisfarne to be the eastern beacon of the Cistercian Order, with Iona in the west and Melrose in between, forming the famed ‘Columban Corridor.’ Northumbria’s most famous religious icon was arguably not Aiden, however, but Cuthbert. A shepherd boy from the borders around Melrose, Cuthbert joined Melrose abbey in 651 and ministered to the local people for 20 years. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, where it was agreed that the Northumbrian church would closer align itself to stricter Roman practices, Cuthbert took the decision to heart so well that he was made prior, before being transferred to Lindisfarne in order to spread the new Roman infrastructure from the mainland. Cuthbert’s lessons were not taken to well by the Lindisfarne monks, forcing him into an early retirement. Much against his will, Cuthbert was forced out of retirement by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria in 685, assuming the title of bishop of Lindisfarne and continuing to insist upon doing things the Roman way.

After Cuthbert’s death in 687 his body was buried for 11 years, until it was decided that he should be exhumed, and reburied on the surface so that his remains might be better honoured. When the monks dug up the bones, however, they found that Cuthbert’s body was perfectly preserved, more like one who was simply asleep than dead and rotting, according to Bede in book 4.30 of his Ecclesiastica Historia. Over the following years, Bede tells us that Cuthbert’s new tomb was the site of several posthumous miracles, curing diseases which inflicted later generations of monks. In one such case, Bede tells us that the monk who had been cured was actually from Melrose, and that he had been sent to Lindisfarne for a lock of Cuthbert’s hair as a relic, which had cured his distemper in his eyelid immediately. This sort of story demonstrates how relics and the miraculous capabilities of the holy dead came to be famous – with the relics sent out to perform cures or with the one person who travelled a great distance to seek their own cure also travelled information and knowledge. Once one person had received a cure, the rumour and with it the belief that there was a cure for an affliction gave rise to hope. In turn, this gave rise to the larger organisation of mass pilgrimages.

The power of saints and relics not only in representing a possibly lifesaving cure but also in representing a symbol of hope explains why pilgrimage became so popular throughout the middle ages. It also helps explain why so much importance was placed on relics and pilgrimage, which came to be seen as symbols of national identity. With this in mind, I think it is much more understandable why so many risked life and limb to make any number of difficult journeys across the globe, and I think it is much more relatable to imagine why a small group of monks, terrified for their lives as their brothers were slaughtered behind them, chose to save – of all things – the remains of one of their former bishops. As they embarked on their own sort of pilgrimage to safety, they carried with them the single most important icon of the lives which they had lost, hoping to preserve and rekindle a national pride in the coming years of the Viking menace.