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Saturday, 28 June 2014

I Scotland: Northern Cross

ON DIFFERENT DAYS, different weather means different things to different people. In Russia for instance, some people think a wet and grey day is an auspicious time to set off on a journey. Elsewhere, when it snows on Armistice Day, 11th November, since this is also the feast of St Martin of Tours, they say that ‘St Martin has arrived on a white horse’. And in lowland areas of Britain, when it snows on 20th March, St Cuthbert’s day, a lot of people say ‘It’s because of global warming’. Howbeit, thanks to a deluge of big flakes that started on the previous evening, the morning of Thursday 21st March 2013 found Berwick-upon-Tweed swathed in a crunchy duvet of snow, conditions which no doubt play havoc with the town’s ongoing efforts to prosecute the Crimean War[1]. I beat my retreat just after 8.30am, rendezvousing with a fellow parishioner of Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s church, and motoring north, to Edinburgh. Our conversation touched on the recent election of Pope Francis, and on the respective routes by which we had each been drawn to the ineffable light of Christianity, from the claustrophobic murk of atheism. At about 10am I reached Princes Street, but found St Cuthbert’s CoS (Church of Scotland) Church packed to the rafters with schoolchildren, so I climbed up from there to Edinburgh Castle and shelled out for a ticket. Commencing my tour with St Margaret’s Chapel gave me the chance to say some prayers in the hallowed surroundings, illumined by a medley of 20th century stained glass windows, depicting St Margaret (11th century Queen of Scotland, daughter of St Stephen of Hungary), St Andrew, St Ninian, St Columba and William Wallace. The chapel’s 12th century provenance makes it Edinburgh’s oldest surviving building, because when a hand-picked company of commandos under Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray, captured the castle in March 1314 (stealthily scaling the precipitous north face of Castle Rock), Robert Bruce ordered the destruction of all the surrounding fortifications. Coming back outside, given the decided chill, it was amusing to overhear a Russian lady as she commented about one of the other visitors, who she considered overdressed for such warm weather! Next, the ‘Honours of Scotland’[2] were outstanding, and the National War Memorial, dating from the 1920s, sobering – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). In the National War Museum of Scotland, a memorable exhibit was a small Russian icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, retrieved from the battlefield at Inkerman in 1854; a grisly bloodbath by all accounts, but notable also because it took place on the day of Florence Nightingale’s arrival in the Crimea. Meanwhile, on the very day of this visit to Edinburgh Castle, at the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood, a mere snowball’s throw away, First Minister Alex Salmond announced to the world that Scotland’s independence referendum would be held on September 18th 2014. Many people in the west and Highlands of Scotland are expected to vote ‘Yes’ to independence, but a good deal of ‘No’ is expected in the Borders, and in eastern areas.
Edinburgh Castle, March 2013.


[1] According to a much-refuted legend, when the various constituent parts of Great Britain declared war on Imperial Russia in 1853, Berwick-upon-Tweed was cited as a separate entity, because of residual uncertainty over its belonging to England or Scotland. At the end of hostilities, Berwick was supposed to have been missed off the Treaty of Paris, thus the town is said to be still fighting the Crimean War to this day.
[2]‘Is this a dagger that I see before me?’ No, it’s a sceptre, with a similarly bejewelled sword and crown, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries (therefore long after the days of Macbeth, who reigned in the 11th century). Also seen here is the Stone of Scone (pronounced ‘scoon’), aka the Stone of Destiny, revered from days of yore for its role in the coronation of Scottish monarchs. The tradition that it is also Jacob’s pillow, on which the Old Testament patriarch rested at Bethel and beheld a vision of angels (Genesis 28:10-19) however, surely owes more to myth than legend, scientific analyses showing the rock to have been quarried in the area of Scone itself, in Perthshire. But that is not to say that it doesn’t have exactly the sort of real historical significance, combined with romantic je ne sais quoi, of which a thoroughly entertaining Indiana Jones yarn might be made.
   After a picnic lunch, the first instalment of a two-part bus journey took me from Edinburgh to Glasgow. St Mungo’s[1] stronghold on the banks of the Clyde, Edinburgh’s arch rival claimant to Caledonia’s cultural crown, and yet… Though I was there only very briefly, I couldn’t help detecting a more than usually subdued atmosphere in Glasgow at that time. Could this have had anything to do with the amazing scenes witnessed less than two weeks before? In terms of sheer, mortifying ignominy, there was little to choose between the ‘twin freak’ league upsets sustained by Glasgow’s Old Firm[2] on March 9th 2013: Rangers going down 2:1 at home to Annan Athletic (Annan’s population - just over 8,000), or Celtic brought low by Ross County, losing 3:2 at their ground in Dingwall (population – barely 5,000). Either way, since it had apparently been decreed from on high that both Glasgow giants should crash and burn at exactly the same time, it was as if the story of ‘David and Goliath’ had been adapted for an episode of ‘The X Files’.

   The second leg was enhanced by the sight of a deer in a field on Glasgow’s southern outskirts, soon after which I was dropped on the street outside the RC church in Blantyre, whose doors were open, so I paid a visit. This church is named in honour of St Joseph, on account of Blantyre’s most famous son, Dr Livingstone, I presume, since his birthday, 19th March 1813, is St Joseph’s principal feast day. Next door is the Livingstone Memorial Church of Scotland, at which the president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, and Alex Salmond were among dignitaries who attended a special service to commemorate the great Scot’s 200th Anniversary, on the previous Sunday. It was closed when I got there however, so I came back to St Joseph’s and was told that exposition of the Blessed Sacrament would begin at 6pm, followed by Mass.

   Almost incredibly, only a few weeks previously I’d heard on the radio that David Livingstone’s bicentenary would be marked in the very week when I was due to set out on this pilgrimage, from Lanark, just down the road from Blantyre – hence I could easily give my plans a tweak, and drop by. Just as unfathomable however; when I typed ‘Blantyre’ into an internet search engine, I discovered that it was also the name of my intended final destination. I’d been conscious only of hoping to reach St James’s church in Malawi, the wellspring and spiritual home of Mary’s Meals – but now I learned that St James’s is located in a city called Blantyre, named after the town in Lanarkshire where David Livingstone was born!

   The Gospel reading for Mass that day included the verse, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (John 8:58). At the end, I gladly accepted an invitation from a parishioner to join her prayer group, inspired by the messages attributed to Our Lady in Medjugorje, then about to start its weekly meeting. Since all the participants knew of Mary’s Meals, and Craig Lodge (the House of Prayer in Argyll where Mary’s Meals is based), it wasn’t enough that they gave me a warm welcome – no sooner had I outlined my hope of reaching Blantyre (Malawi) as a fundraising effort, than I was passed a bundle of notes in sponsorship. There were songs of praise and scripture readings including Isaiah 35:8-9; 

“A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it
 

…and from chapter 18 of the first Book of Kings, including verses 18-19; 

“[Elijah] answered, “I am not the troublemaker; but you are, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.  Now therefore, have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 

Then we had prayers for the least well-off, and I added a prayer that God might use Pope Francis to bring about a measure of unity among Christians. To cap it all I was spontaneously offered a place to stay, it so happened by a Protestant gentleman who prayed with them. Taken home in his car afterwards, Paul (not his real name) explained among other things that he had suffered dreadful burns in an accident some years before – skin for a transplant had had to be brought from London, and grafted on while he lay in a coma. He explained the importance of his Jack Russell terrier and put a round of toast on; a tub filled with broken home-made chocolate biscuit was my offering in exchange for all this kindness. Settling down to sleep on his sofa, among the figurines next to the TV I noticed a snowy owl and a pair of otters, recalling the barn owl and pair of stoats that I saw on the way to Walsingham, on the first morning of my Mexico pilgrimage.






David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, Lanarkshire
 
Next morning, amid further snow flurries, after first picking up and taking one of his grandchildren to school, Paul insisted on driving me to the David Livingstone Centre, where he knew a couple of members of staff. We learned however that it wouldn’t open until over an hour later, and my host had other plans for my itinerary, so I made do with photos of the house where Livingstone was born, and a large globe showing the African continent, as well as getting my photo taken in front of a magnificent statue, in which Livingstone is seen being attacked by a lion. Repairing once more to his nimble hatchback, we rode next to the Church of St John the Baptist in Uddingston, where tremendous sums have been generated for Mary’s Meals over the years; there could have been no better person than the parish priest there, to give me a blessing and another couple of banknotes. Paul meanwhile was intent on getting me as far as Carluke, entailing another drive, this time past the giant roller-coasters of ‘Strathclyde Park’, Scotland’s answer to Disneyland. Before going our separate ways, I presented him with a chocolate Easter bunny that I managed to procure, and promised to write.

   Northern Cross is an annual pilgrimage, inspired largely by the Christian witness of a glorious procession of great northern evangelists, including SS Columba, Mungo, Aidan and Cuthbert, who endowed places like the isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, and Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne), off Northumberland, with a formidable aura of sanctity from around the 6th to the 8th centuries AD. Each year, different sized groups of pilgrims set out with large wooden crosses from various points in northern England and southern Scotland, aiming to reach Holy Island on Good Friday.

   From Carluke I sauntered unhurriedly to Lanark; a tranquil enough place nowadays, but notable in history as the scene in 1297 of the assassination of William de Heselrig, High Sheriff of the town (and an Englishman), by one William Wallace, avenging the death of his wife, which triggered an uprising that escalated into the Scottish Wars of Independence. After spending some time on a public library computer, at the appointed time in the evening I came to the parish hall of St Mary’s RC Church, and met up with my fellow pilgrims for the first time. Jessica from the West Midlands was our group leader, which meant she did little of the actual walking, but ensured that we were always well supplied with tea, coffee, chocolate, biscuits, chocolate biscuits, fruit and encouragement, as well as organising our accommodation (invariably on the floor in parish halls), and driving our gear/clothes/sleeping bags etc from one staging post to the next. She also brought the large wooden cross for us to carry (two at a time), and gave us little red terracotta crosses to hang around our necks. She was a bit like Charlie in ‘Charlie’s Angels’, but in reverse, since the other 6 or 7 of us (there were slight fluctuations over the course of the week) were all blokes, except for Amy from California, who was accompanied by her brother Geoff (names have been changed, apart from Charlie). Over supper, Ken, an old hand on these expeditions, joked that before bed we might like to use the cross as firewood, to which I intuitively offered the observation that I could think of more auspicious ways of beginning a Northern Cross pilgrimage. Though feeling weary, I was glad to join in with evening prayer, where a strictly ecumenical spirit was observed, since our group comprised an array of different Christian denominations. It then made a terrific difference to the quality of my sleep that David, a designer of fighter aircraft from Edinburgh originally, but resident in Greater London, mercifully allowed me to use his spare inflatable mattress.

   Next morning, having been woken up by Bernard, a youthful septuagenarian retired postman from Carlisle, after porridge for breakfast and packing away our things, we said a collective prayer, then gathered up our cross and made a start. Reaching the Clyde, before long we were surrounded by the well-preserved 18th and 19th century mills and tenement buildings of New Lanark – famous testing ground for the ideas of Welsh philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858), whose great innovation was to “…demonstrate that it was not necessary for an industrial enterprise to treat its workers badly to be profitable” [Wikipedia]. Unable to stop however, from there we followed a winding footpath along the river, taking in some stunning vistas, the sort of scenery which greatly impressed the young David Livingstone, judging by the exalted comparisons he sometimes makes in his writings between the Clyde and various African waterways.


[1] Glasgow is understood to derive from ‘Clas-gu’, meaning ‘dear family’, the name given to the community which grew up around St Kentigern, aka Mungo, a native-born Scottish bishop who brought the Gospel to the Clyde and other areas of SW Scotland in the 6th century.
[2] The ‘Old Firm’ is shorthand for Glasgow’s two pre-eminent football teams, Rangers and Celtic, who between them have won virtually every domestic Scottish football competition since before the Napoleonic Wars.
   Coming out into more open country, snow lay about more thickly when we stopped for lunch in the evocative ruins of an 18th century pile called Carmichael House. We had already begun to strike up a good rapport among ourselves, aided not least by the unfailingly witty banter of Amy and Geoff from California. For instance, Amy had this thing where, when I mentioned the film ‘Groundhog Day’, she asked “Do you know the movie?”, to which I answered “Yes”, and made some remark or other, after which she asked, “Do you know the movie?” again, in exactly the same tone of voice as the first time! In the afternoon, before reaching the town of Biggar, we were all invited into 007’s front kitchen for a cup of tea and a chat with him and his wife, about the independence referendum, and the possible re-introduction of wolves into Scotland, among other things. A notable (if somewhat unlikely) comparison was made between the Tinto hills, visible from their kitchen window, and Mount Kilimanjaro, which had me wondering whether I might somehow see that famous mound on this trip. I took my leave a little before the others, in order to attend the Saturday evening Mass at Biggar’s unusual Catholic church of St Isidore of Seville, formerly the front room of the local doctor’s house, where the congregation had been primed to give a very gracious welcome to any of us pilgrims who showed ourselves. I then found my way to the local CoS parish hall, where it was heartening to hear the Presbyterian minister expound on the warmth of his relationship with the local RC priest.

   The Scottish word for ‘take-away’ is ‘carry-out’. We had fish and chips that night, from a widely acclaimed local emporium, though I ordered only chips for myself, trying as I was to be a bit abstemious for Lent. Unwrapping the said fried fare however, thanks be to God, it was discovered that an extra portion of crispily coated cod had accidentally been included - and I could hardly allow it to go to waste!

   On the way from Biggar next morning I had a long chat with Ken, in which we compared notes about our experiences of working in schools, he having had a long career as a teacher in the state sector in London. Such an occupation is not all plain sailing, and nor, relatively speaking, was our walk that morning, in rather cold and windy conditions, along a disused railway line. We passed a place said to be, I quote, “where Merlin was baptised”[1], and came to a sort of enchanted copse, lined with silver birch trees, where I made out the unmistakable gliding form of an owl. In Broughton, one-time home of John Buchan, author of ‘The 39 Steps’, I did a ‘station’[2]  around the theme of Micah: 

‘This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this: that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God’, 

…words which at one time informed the activities of a small ecumenical charity I was involved with, called The Movement for Faith and Justice Today (MFJT)[3]. The walk then took in Stobo castle, before we reached a path beside the very pretty river Tweed, by means of which we came presently to no less photogenic Peebles, and our digs at St Andrews CoS Church hall.


Red Squirrel, near Selkirk
   On the morning of Monday 25th March, feast of the Annunciation, we got a bit lost on the way out of Peebles, but then rediscovered our bearings and made our way along mostly fairly narrow roads, towards Selkirk. Two outstanding highlights were the sight of a red squirrel, of which I managed to get a couple of photographs, and Geoff’s station, exploring the meaning of a quotation he’d come across;

To go to Rome
is much of trouble, little of profit:
The King whom you seek there,
Unless you bring Him with you,
   you will not find.” [Anonymous Irish author, ca.7th-8th century] 

He delivered this next to a woodland display board, containing the nugget of information that grey squirrels, bigger and hardier than their indigenous red cousins, were first introduced into the British Isles from North America in 1876. That day also, a humorous rewording of the famous Yule-tide carol, adapted for our circumstances, came to mind; ‘I’m dreaming of a White Easter’, though of course I learnt later that I was far from alone in thinking of it. We were warmly welcomed at the Scottish Episcopalian Manse in Selkirk, and sat down to a delicious supper – vegetarian curry with banana and cashew nuts being laid on specially in my case, what with Lent and everything. There was also absorbing conversation with David and two of the ladies who were our hosts, about our different thoughts on the meaning of the word ‘fundamentalism’ among other things, and for the first time in my life I heard Robert Burns’ famous ‘Selkirk grace’: 

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.’ 

   Two other key people associated with Selkirk meanwhile are Sir Walter Scott (local sheriff for 30 years) and African explorer Mungo Park[4], born here in 1771. After the meal it was little more than a hop, skip and jump to the United Reformed Church, for a service with beautiful singing and a nourishing homily, on the theme of ‘abiding with the Lord’. This was followed by a tour de force keynote address from David the fighter aircraft designer, in which he spoke with real emotion about the way pilgrimage has transformed his appreciation of, and deepened his respect for Christians outside his own (Anglican) tradition, taking as his departure point John 10:16; 

“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”




[1] In a late 15th century manuscript known as 'Lailoken and Kentigern', “…St Kentigern [Mungo] appears in conflict with the mad prophet, Lailoken alias Merlin.” [Wikipedia].
[2] Each of us at some point contributed one or two of these – reflections arising from our thoughts as we went along, with reference to scriptural or other quotations.
[3] Based at a house where youngish Christians lived as a community in central Bristol, we invited speakers to come and give faith- and justice-related talks in our sitting room on Tuesday evenings, and tried to help out with local projects addressing issues like homelessness and substance abuse.
[4] Dr Mungo Park would certainly have been one of Livingstone’s most important role models, not only because he twice went to chart the course of the river Niger in West Africa, but also by virtue of his medical training. He perished in 1806 on the second of his African expeditions, somewhere in what is now Nigeria, at the hands of natives who seem to have mistaken him and his drastically depleted (by dysentery) party for slave traders.


Melrose Abbey
   Tuesday 26th March saw our party leave Selkirk and take the Borders Abbey Way, up and over quite a big, snowy hill; one of them there ‘southern uplands’. Thus we came to the beautiful ruins of Melrose Abbey, where a young shepherd by the name of Cuthbert first entered monastic life in about the year 650AD. Later, as prior of the monastery on Lindisfarne, he accepted the adjudication of the 664 Synod of Whitby[1] in favour of the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter, but bemoaned the obduracy of some of his monks on this issue, comparing their listening skills unfavourably with those of Holy Island’s grey seal population. In old age he was ordained Bishop against his will; after his death, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels were transcribed in his memory. Melrose is also where King Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried, and it was while we were there that I first cottoned on to the extraordinary serendipity in the fact that our gang contained both a ‘Wallace’ and a ‘Bruce’. Bernard did his station, about one of the teachers from his schooldays, which qualified as a religious service, so we got in free instead of having to pay the normal tourist tariff. After scanning all round the ruins for what seemed an age, among the gargoyles I finally tracked down the celebrated ‘pig with bagpipes’ (a hot favourite with visitors), and took a photo. Over lunch of some chips in a nearby pub, we conversed about the things that one is permitted to say are ‘Scotch’, rather than ‘Scottish’, eg Scotch egg, Scotch whisky, Scotch broth, Scotch tape, Scotch pie, Scotch Corner etc. A young fellow at the bar, picking up on the fact that we were pilgrims and therefore Christians, asked if I knew that people (presumably he meant ‘in Scotland’) no longer subscribe to Christianity, to which I replied that yes, I know the numbers don’t look especially healthy, but that nevertheless I’m a ‘glass half full’ sort of person.

   We then had a meander along the Tweed to St Boswells (named after St Boisil, St Cuthbert’s recruiter and teacher at Melrose Abbey), where in the evening I was taken to the home of a kind couple from the CoS parish, who fed me and let me make use of their washing facilities. The husband then having changed into a kilt (complete with sgian-dubh[2], tucked into one of his socks), for a function of some kind that evening, I was dropped off back at the parish hall. From there we went to another splendid ecumenical service, under the auspices of the Church of Scotland, followed by a very generous and delicious buffet supper in the remarkably modern Manse.

   From St Boswells, on Spy Wednesday morning (so-called because it recalls the day when Judas Iscariot first conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Our Lord for thirty silver coins), we resumed our path along the Tweed, and crossed over a bridge in order to visit an extraordinary, 10 metre high 19th century Wallace monument, where I milked for all it was worth a joke about the fact that there was no statue of Gromit. Visible from here are the Eildon Hills, where King Arthur is said to sleep, until being roused in order to save Britain in its hour of greatest need. Then we came to much more windswept, snowy, open country, and Smailholm Tower, built in the 16th century or earlier, from the top of which on a clear day one is supposed to be able to see Edinburgh. Kindly invited in (though it wasn’t officially open) and ascending the spiral stair, we were greeted by figures, in glass cases, of fairy queens and princesses, knights in shining armour, and a special class of local delinquent, the border reiver (cattle rustlers - still occasionally active in the 21st century I might add); the sort of characters who crop up in the classic 19th century series of adventures, very popular in its day, ‘Wilson’s Tales of the Borders’. In the afternoon Amy did a great station about St Paul’s letter to the Romans;

“Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.” [Romans 12:5-5] 

Then we passed by next to the exceptionally grand Floors castle, before reaching Kelso, where I was amused to see a local teenager, of black African descent, running past in short sleeves, snow swirling all round him. Scots grow up relatively more accustomed to the cold, no matter where their forefathers came from.

   Henry Francis Lyte was a nineteenth century Anglican divine who wrote the words to the famous hymn ‘Abide with Me’, traditionally sung at every English FA Cup final. His birth near Kelso was one of the things that came up that evening, over a delicious supper enjoyed by Jessica and myself, in the company of Reverend ‘Bob’ and two parishioners. We also compared notes about various musicals of the stage and screen, and our host memorably explained that, in making the Scotch trifle we had for dessert, he had been ‘stingy’ with the sherry – to which my suggestion, that perhaps this is what made it a ‘Scotch’ trifle, was almost as instinctive and automatic as, say, withdrawing one’s hand from a flame. It was Jessica however who expertly dug me out of my hole, pointing out quite correctly that all available evidence was stacked against the idea that Scottish people are stingy. I gave a small box of shortbread to Rev Bob in token of our gratitude, when we’d been brought back to the parish hall, from which one can gain access to a very fine church, designed by Frederick Thomas Pilkington.

Snow-clad cricket pitch, Kelso
   Getting away reasonably promptly on Maundy Thursday morning, snow-clad Kelso was remarkable not least for its cricket pitch, which I snapped. After crossing the Tweed via a modern bridge, on a disused railway line that made up much of our pre-lunch walking I spotted a fawn and a hare. David did a station about St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, during which I noticed that our cross had been placed next to a large coil of barbed wire, recalling Our Lord’s crown of thorns. Sometime later, I had the bright idea that maybe we should all, as it were, ‘psych ourselves up’, and possibly even get together in an American-style ‘huddle’, to prepare for the exhilarating prospect of making a bid for the English frontier. No sooner had I started suggesting this to someone however, than I was told casually that we’d been in England for about the last three quarters of an hour! Everyone else knew this, except me.



[1] The opening words of St Wilfrid at this Synod, as transmitted to us by St Bede the Venerable, deserve to be reproduced here. St Wilfrid is the archetype of the great Briton who is thoroughly au fait with life on the continent, and brings this wisdom to bear on his relations with his fellow countrymen. William Shakespeare was similar in this respect. 
"The Easter which we observe we saw, celebrated by all at Rome, where the blessed apostles, Peter, and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried - we saw the same done in Italy and in France, when we I traveled through those countries for pilgrimage and prayer. found that Easter was celebrated at one and the same time in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and all the world, wherever the Church of Christ is spread abroad, through the various nations and tongues ; except only among these and their accomplices in obstinacy, I mean the Picts and the Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the world, and only in part even of them, oppose all the rest of the universe."
[2] ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me?’ Basically, yes.

II England: Passion Tide

‘No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.’[1]                                          

   Soon after our low-key arrival in Northumberland, we stopped for lunch underneath a viaduct, then ambled a few miles to the battlefield of Flodden.

    In the history of the British Isles, virtually all kings with the name ‘James’ have proved to be either seriously deficient, or else dismal, military leaders. At dawn on September 9th 1513, aided by local knowledge, misty conditions, and probably a lack of mobility on the part of Scotland’s forces, the Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Howard, succeeded in getting his slightly smaller English army into position behind the Scots, thus facing them from a completely unexpected northerly direction, and blocking their way home. James IV of Scotland seems not to have seen any need to change his basic plan however, adhering to the Swiss doctrine in vogue at the time: first, to use his more powerful cannon to wreak as much havoc on the English lines as possible, then to deploy four massive blocks of pike-men called schiltrons, each several thousand strong, which would descend on the enemy in a tightly choreographed sequence, from left to right. But James failed to take account of the wet ground that now lay between his forces and the English (a factor incidentally which helped Robert Bruce’s Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314). The first schiltron did its gruesome work relatively effectively, but the second, third and fourth got mired in thick mud, or what is known locally as gla. A massacre ensued, estimates for Scotland’s death toll ranging from about 8,000 to 12,000 (including King James IV himself and a significant part of the ruling class of the country), while around 1 to 2,000 of those killed were English or Welsh[2]. Thousands more were wounded and hundreds of prisoners were taken. Sometimes referred to as the last great mediaeval battle on British soil, for Scotland, the Battle of Flodden was a calamity of truly staggering and inconceivable proportions.

   After meeting up with a journalist and photographer from a Scottish Sunday newspaper in the car park, we made our way to the Flodden Monument, a large granite cross on the top of Piper’s Hill. Jessica did a pre-prepared station, reading a text about the futility of war and signal desirability of peace, after which we all, English, Scots and Californians, sang a few bars of Scotland’s unofficial national anthem, Flower of Scotland, paying tribute to the heroes of Bannockburn. Though I had no idea at the time, and Jessica can hardly be blamed for not knowing, this wasn’t in fact the best possible ‘Flower’ - or ‘Flowers’. Also known as A Piper’s Lament, and sometimes played at funerals and Remembrance Day services without words, The Flowers o’ the Forest recalls the tragic aftermath of Flodden. The following two lines are probably the best known: 

‘The Flooers [Flowers] o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The pride o’oor land lie cauld in the clay.’                                                                                                   

   From Piper’s Hill we made our way to nearby Branxton, where I visited the small 15th century parish church, dedicated to St Paul, in which King James IV’s body was laid after the battle, before being taken for burial in London. One of Branxton’s chief claims to fame is its old-fashioned red telephone box, containing a tourist information panel, making it a strong candidate for the distinction of ‘smallest visitor centre in the world’. We were well provided for tea and biscuits in the parish hall by a very engaging Northumbrian lady in her 70s, who insisted somewhat incongruously that the car park near the battlefield was a crime hotspot, persuading our new journalist companion to go off and rescue his motor. As we walked on he was back to interview each of us in turn, for the purpose of writing a feature article that would appear in Easter Sunday’s edition of the paper.
Bee-bop-era tractor, with trailer
   Taking up the trail again we came to a pathway where, after some searching, it was possible eventually to find a signpost we’d been told to look for, to the village of Etal. In true Indiana Jones style however (as the Scottish journalist was first to agree), a layer of moss first had to be removed, before we could see the letters ‘ETAL’, with an arrow. Cutting across an open field or two, upon reaching the river Till an otter, bobbing up and down in midstream, presented a superb photo opportunity, but sadly my camera-button-pressing skills let me down at the crucial moment. Following hard on the heels of that adventure though, anon we were all conveyed in a bright red trailer, towed by a classic bee-bop-era tractor, across a ford in the river. The tractor was driven by a gentleman farmer from central casting, clad in what might have been Harris Tweed – Harris ‘n’ Ford, perhaps.

   Etal is notable for the beautiful ruins of its castle, whose portcullis is flanked by a pair of cannons. Arriving there, it happened that I was helping to carry the large cross with the member of our party whose surname is Wallace, and whistling the tune to ‘Flower of Scotland’ as we went along. From the expression on the face of the Scots photographer who took pictures of us, I don’t think he quite believed that I was entitled to whistle that tune, but in any case he almost certainly didn’t realise that the pictures he was taking might have born the caption: ‘Wallace and Bruce carrying their Cross’.

   That Maundy Thursday evening we had a service of washing each others’ feet, following the example of Our Lord; I washed my neighbour’s foot, and my feet were washed by another member of our group. Then before supper, we had the best part of a ‘Seder’ Passover service; “…based on the Biblical verse commanding Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt: "You shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8)” [Wikipedia]. In this I was strongly reminded of the sort of informed DIY spirituality that was cultivated in its better moments by the Movement for Faith and Justice Today. Then we had a specially prepared Passover meal, with lamb for carnivores, and a delicious nut loaf for us vegetarians, courtesy of Derek from Lincolnshire. Afterwards, Amy asked us to share those things that we considered highlights of the pilgrimage. When it came to my turn, Geoff mischievously suggested that my high point was crossing over from Scotland into England; but I put that allegation firmly to rest, and instead recounted the story of how Jessica had rescued me from the hole I had dug myself into, with my ‘Scotch trifle’ faux pas in Kelso.

   On the morning of Good Friday, we had an exceptionally early start, getting away under cover of darkness ca.5.30am, but it soon dawned on everyone, and we reached the village of Lowick for breakfast. Before leaving there I did a final ‘station’, about some words which were part of an outstanding homily delivered by Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Cape Town, South Africa, at the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005; an injunction from Our Lord, told to the Cardinal when he was a student in Ireland: 

“Follow Me I’m right behind you.” 

   Holy Island and the North Sea came into view soon afterwards. Having already begun to meet pilgrims from other groups, near the village of Beal all the merry bands coalesced in a big palming throng, and were joined by a miniature ‘press pack’, in readiness for the final part of the journey.

   When the tide is in, Holy Island is truly an island, but when it’s out, vehicles can gain access via a causeway, and pilgrims can walk in bare feet, across 3-4 kms of sandy gla. To the accompaniment of various upbeat hymns, sung to keep everyone’s spirits aloft (including numerous children, for whom it was all quite hard work), several times I nearly got stuck, but generally we made sure to stay on the safe side of a row of posts, beyond which there exists a potentially mortal danger of quick sand. Geoff cracked the best joke of the day, asking one of the organisers, “So, how many photographers have you lost over the years?” The other thing about the mud was that it was cold, and the soles of my feet being so unpractised, little bits of broken shell caused a certain amount of pain, but one was compelled, above all on Good Friday, to put this firmly in perspective by thinking of the cruel nails that were driven through Our Lord’s feet, as He suffered His Passion. I was also conscious of the parallel here with the tradition of walking the last Holy Mile in bare feet to Walsingham, and of being bare-footed as a pilgrim on Station Island in Lough Derg, Ireland. Finally reaching Lindisfarne, the opportunity to wash feet and don shoes and socks conferred a wonderful feeling of being truly home and dry.
Holy Island - Lindisfarne
   From Ireland originally, St Aidan was chosen from within the monastic community on Iona to go to impart the Gospel to the pagan tribes of Northumbria in about the year 635AD, at the invitation of St Oswald, the local king. Making Lindisfarne the Episcopal seat of a diocese of which he became the first bishop, he had a great deal of success, and is recognised as a Saint by the Anglican Communion and Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as by Catholics. Much of our knowledge of his life and work, as well as that of St Cuthbert and others, has come down to us from the Venerable Bede’s outstanding Ecclesiastical History of the English-speaking Peoples, written in the early 8th century.

   On my first visit to Holy Island, a day-trip on August 27th 2012, I visited St Aidan’s Catholic Church, and was able to attend a Mass in his honour which was about to take place. This was especially memorable because St Aidan’s feast is actually on 31st August, but the tide times that year made travel for some Geordie pilgrims who were there, from Newcastle, impractical on the 31st, so the celebration was brought forward. It gave particular resonance to a sign on the exterior of the church, next to a crucifix, which reads “Quo fas vocat”, with an English translation underneath: “Go wherever Divine Providence calls”.


   Our board and lodging was arranged at a hostel named after Blessed Frederic Ozanam, next door to St Aidan’s Church. After garlic bread for lunch, overcome by weariness I slept for much of the afternoon, though I have a recollection of waking up briefly at 3pm, when the faithful are encouraged, on a Good Friday at least, to give a thought to Our Lord’s agony on the Cross. My going more or less straight back to sleep however made it a less than perfect way to spend the Hour of Mercy on such a holy day, and later in the pilgrimage I adopted a policy, whereby in normal circumstances I would try to avoid sleeping between 3 and 4pm on Fridays. In the early evening I went out for a stroll, glad to have my camera in order to take some better-than-usual snaps from the grounds of the ruined Abbey, especially in the direction of Lindisfarne castle. Later we had a very good, rather ‘MFJT’-like service, except… It was obvious that the pre-prepared bidding prayers, including one for Pope Francis, but conspicuously not one for the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, would cause a bit of a stink. A fellow who had been involved with Northern Cross from its beginnings in the 1970s, and a Protestant obviously, interposed a prayer for the new Archbishop after the ‘official’ ones, but he was understandably not best pleased when I spoke to him afterwards. You see, the great thing about Northern Cross is that it is ecumenical, and really, whoever drew up those bidding prayers needed only to remember the Christian precept which is arguably above all others: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. And when one thinks of the hospitality from all those people of different denominations…

   Later in the evening there was an opportunity to spend time in the company of Our Lord’s Cross, with some Taizé[3] chants, helping no doubt to salve any lingering crossness in the camp. After a sound sleep, on Holy Saturday morning I did the Stations of the Cross in St Aidan’s Church, then met up with other members of our group, swapping email addresses, and getting more generous sponsorship. I was also handed an envelope, sent by my mother, containing a beautiful Easter card, illustrated with a goldfinch, which I mention especially because goldfinches would prove to be a sort of recurring motif in the weeks and months that followed.

   Most Northern Crossers were staying until the morrow (Easter Sunday), but my plan was to get back to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in order to make a few arrangements before resuming my journey on Easter Monday. I was kindly driven across to the mainland by the same fellow whose ecumenical sensibilities had been offended on the previous evening, accompanied by Bernard from our group, and by a Swabian chap from Stuttgart and his English partner, from whom I learnt the phrase ‘Gute Oster Fest’ – Happy Easter in German.

   The 13 or so kilometres along the A1 to Berwick were covered in bright sunshine, though I was carrying all my gear for the first time in over a week, and by the time I reached Tweedmouth (on the historical as well as modern English side of the Tweed), I could feel the odd twinge from my right knee. I elected to follow a sign to Shielfield Park, home of Berwick Rangers FC, the only English team that, on account of its proximity to Scotland, plays its football in the Scottish system. A third round King Cup match had just started between Berwick Rangers Reserves and an Edinburgh side called the Civil Service Strollers. Entering the ground, and crossing a ticket seller’s palm with silver as I did so, an abiding memory from the first half was that the Strollers had a single black player, incessantly referred to by his team-mates as ‘Yaya’, in reference no doubt to Yaya Toure, the Cote d’Ivoire and Manchester City midfield player. My leaving at half-time was perhaps unfortunate though, as it meant I missed all the goals of a game in which Berwick ran out 4:0 winners.

Berwick Rangers Reserves 4:0 Civil Service Strollers
   From Shielfield Park I made my way to the Tweed estuary, getting a fine photographic portrait of the 17th century ‘Old Bridge’, from which can be seen an assortment of waterfowl including Eiders (aka ‘Cuddy’s Ducks’, after St Cuthbert) and swans. The town itself is policed by an irascible and vociferous community of seagulls.




[1] "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength." Moltke the Elder. Abbreviated version quoted in ‘The Battle of Flodden 1513’, by John Saddler and Rosie Serdiville.
[2] It should be noted that the English had been mustered almost entirely from northern and central areas – the young Henry VIII was occupied at the time with another army in France.
[3] Founded by a Protestant, Brother Roger Schutz in 1940, Taizé in SE France is a major pilgrimage destination, as well as being a place of refuge for all and sundry, and noted for its distinctive and easy-on-the-ear chants.

   Berwick’s golden age is usually said to be the 13th century, when its port was far and away the biggest source of revenue for the Scottish Crown, serving as a hub for the export of wool and grain (much of it deriving from lands belonging to the great Borders Abbeys such as Melrose, Kelso and Jedburgh), destined for major commercial centres in the Netherlands and elsewhere in northern continental Europe. Since that time however, the town’s economic fortunes have tended to be closely tied to the fishing industry, chiefly salmon from the river, and herring from the North Sea. For conservation and transport of the former, dotted about among the pretty streets, but near the river and sea-front especially, one can find Georgian ice houses, which allowed salmon production to advance in leaps and bounds in the 18th and 19th centuries. The phrase ‘kettle of fish’ meanwhile, originates from a popular manner of tossing live salmon into a boiling ‘kettle’, at riverside picnics that were thrown specially for the purpose around the same period. As for herrings, they were either ‘green’, meaning freshly caught, ‘white’, when pickled, or ‘red’, after a process of salting and smoking. In the days before the latter procedure was refined to give us the kipper, ‘red herrings’ gave off a rather pungent odour, and were used to train fox hounds, in the art of not being distracted by a false scent - hence the popular usage. So conceivably, Berwick-upon-Tweed might be called ‘the Home of the Red Herring’ - if it wasn’t a completely different kettle of fish.

   That Easter was as happy as any I can remember, and quite useful, from the point of view of giving a couple of short orations to the congregations of both the main Masses at Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s Church, outlining my pilgrimage plans and highlighting the importance of Mary’s Meals. Then in a slight change of plan, by spending Easter Monday at home I was able to visit Berwick Barracks, housing the regimental HQ of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (technically therefore based in England), and the museum/gallery there, where one is presented with a curious 18th century portrait by Thomas Hudson, of a young woman by the name of ‘Miss Mary Moneypenny’[1]. In the shop I was tempted to buy a pair of toy spy sunglasses, complete with ‘rear-view mirrors’, supposing they could be useful for walking along roads, but in the end resisted. No less important than all this though, the extra day allowed me to finish reading Tolstoy’s work of incontestable genius War and Peace, which I’d started a couple of months previously. I also paid two separate visits to pray at a little grotto, modelled on the one at Lourdes, behind Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s Church – first on Holy Saturday afternoon (seeing a pair of goldfinches), and again on the morning when I resumed the walk.

   On that Easter Tuesday, 2nd April 2013, dedicated to St Francis of Paula, and the 8th anniversary of the death of Blessed John Paul II, there remained only the odd patch of rather dirty, un-Kitzbuhel-like snow here and there. Virtually all motorists would miss it, but next to the road, a couple of miles along the A6105 leading north-west out of Berwick, is a large stone memorial, or cairn, to the Battle of Halidon Hill.

   No discussion of Berwick-upon-Tweed is complete without mention of the fact that it has changed hands between the English and the Scots over a dozen times; it is said that only Jerusalem has been besieged more often. And like Jerusalem, throughout the bloodiest centuries of Anglo-Scottish conflict (c. 1300 to 1550), even when it wasn’t actively being fought over, Berwick was a major hotbed of espionage and intrigue. Agents from England, Scotland and further afield engaged in all kinds of nefarious chicanery, which called for constant monitoring, subversion or stamping out by royal appointees of one kingdom or the other.

   By 1333, the year of Halidon Hill, the Scots had lost several of the key commanders who led them to victory at Bannockburn, including King Robert himself (his son David II was still a child), and his brother Edward, killed in Ireland. Perhaps no less importantly, Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, of Edinburgh Castle fame, had fallen victim to a suspected poisoning in the previous year. Significant also was the fact that Edward III of England was made of sterner stuff than his father Edward II, and that his army had a new weapon of no little menace, the longbow. Furthermore, as they set about besieging Berwick that summer, they had in their employ a very capable Flemish pirate/privateer called John Crabbe, who had served Scotland with distinction, when English attempts to retake Berwick had been foiled in 1319. But the final reason for the English victory at Halidon Hill lay in the fact that the Scots found themselves constrained, by the chivalric niceties of the day, to fight a pitched battle against a full-strength English army. It isn’t certain whether success at Bannockburn had bred a measure of over-confidence in the Scottish camp, but there does appear to have been a failure to grasp the implications of the fact that the tables were turned. King Edward was extremely fastidious in choosing the most advantageous terrain on which to fight, just as King Robert had been in 1314. Mind you, perhaps if the Scots had only thought of trying to sneak round the back of the English position…
Berwick-upon-Tweed


[1] In this connexion, it’s perhaps interesting to note that the name ‘Fleming’ occurs with more than usual frequency in the history of Berwick-upon-Tweed, dating back at least to the 13th century, when a community of Flemish merchants was given special privileges by King Alexander III of Scotland. The town hall bears a prominent inscription ‘Restored A.D. 1857-8, Joseph Fleming, Esquire, Mayor’. This was not however the mayor who, in December 1966, is believed to have made a mutual declaration of peace with the London correspondent of Pravda, to bring an end to the Crimean War. Councillor Robert Knox is reported to have said afterwards "Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds" (Wikipedia).

III Great Britain: The Bridge over the Till

   ‘SCOTLAND welcomes you’, announces a brown and white sign, with a blue thistle symbol, just before the pretty village of Foulden. Following the road from there as it skirted round Chirnside, I was detained by an information hoarding about famous Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, native to these parts. Veering north into more elevated and untamed country, I got quite a good view at close quarters of a large raptor, engaged in an aerial manoeuvre that was at least similar to the ‘sky dance’ courtship display of a Hen Harrier (Busard Saint-Martin in French), in which the male plunges into a tail-spin, falling as if unconscious before, so to speak, wresting back control of the flight console, and swooping up once more into the heavens. As darkness fell, with more snow lying about, I passed a very remote-feeling place called Ellemford, where James IV mustered most of his army in the preamble to Flodden. The idea was to reach a village marked on my map called St Agnes, but just before Cranshaws I saw that a bridge over the Whiteadder river had an extra arch, underneath which I could put down my sleeping bag and pass the night in tolerable comfort, the sky above garlanded by a gorgeous gallery of gas-lit galaxies.

   Next morning I got away early in bright sunshine, but my right knee was stiff and starting to impair my ability to make progress. Reaching the still snowier and wilder terrain of the Lammermuir Hills, alongside the Whiteadder Reservoir I was amused by the calling of Lapwings all around; like the sound of a 1980s Space Invaders arcade game. Having stopped for a rest on an upward slope some way past there, when a car reversed and the guy in his thirties asked if I’d like a lift to Gifford, where I knew I could probably get a cup of coffee, I was so desirous. It turned out he was from the nearby town of Duns, whose most famous son is probably Blessed John Duns Scotus, the great theologian beatified by St John Paul II in 1993. I told him about sleeping under the bridge, but he was not perhaps as impressed as some people might be, as he had slept outside in temperatures of -35C when serving with the British Army in Bosnia. Even so, he was interested in the idea of my pilgrimage, and his mention of Bosnia was my cue to outline the origins of Mary’s Meals[1].

   He happened to be on his way to the only café in Gifford, and when we arrived he insisted not only on paying for my coffee (which tasted magnificent), but on giving me a flask filled with hot chicken soup. In return I proffered a home-made chocolate slice, and a sort of improvised flyer about an outstanding short documentary which tells the story of Mary’s Meals, called Child 31[2]. Savouring a longer than usual stop there, afterwards I took advantage of clement conditions to reach the main road leading to Humbie, before taking a nap. From there, up to the last mile or so before the village of Fala, where my Godmother lives, I was sceptical of my ability to arrive by 7pm as arranged, but thankfully I made it with a few minutes to spare. After a wash, the glass of sherry she offered was a terrific tonic, followed by a delicious chicken stew with white wine for supper. I was admonished for my scepticism about Merlin and his baptism – apparently there is viable evidence of the existence in the Strathclyde area of a rather cantankerous druid, sometimes called Merlin, who seems eventually to have accepted the sacrament, of which hitherto he had been highly scornful. She also articulated an idea with a strong following in Scotland, that the great Apostle of the Irish, St Patrick, was born either in what is now Scotland or else the Carlisle area of England, which amounted to more or less the same thing in the 5th century AD.


Naïve clouds over Dalkeith - Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh in the distance.
   After a very good sleep and super breakfast, on Thursday April 4th, feast of St Isidore of Seville, I made my way to Pathhead, got a bit lost, spotted a Greater Spotted Woodpecker (its Lesser Spotted cousin is so-called because it is spotted less – only joking), then reached the crest of a hill from which I was greeted with a fine vista of Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh. On the descent from there however, as naïve clouds with ruled-line undersides sailed serenely across the firmament, my right knee finally went. Limping on to Dalkeith, at St Andrews Road Health Centre the lady at reception kindly let me register temporarily; I was promptly attended to by a doctor from India, who warned that microscopic tears in the tendons of my knee could get worse if I didn’t ‘give it a rest’. In the vicinity of a nearby Catholic church (which was closed), there was a water tower similar to one I knew of in Svetlogorsk, on the Baltic coast of Russia (formerly called Rauschen, East Prussia). Then at Dalkeith’s public library I decided to reserve three nights’ accommodation at the backpackers’ place in Dundee for the coming weekend. A quirk of the online booking procedure was that you had to put your nationality, but there was neither ‘UK’ nor ‘Britain’: I assumed initially therefore that this couldn’t be a compulsory field, but it turned out that you had to choose from one of ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ etc! Reaching Edinburgh on a bus, just off Princes Street I snapped a piper, in full highland dress, as he played what I prefer to believe was the theme to Indiana Jones, though it may have been Star Wars. Finding the home of family friends in Edinburgh’s Blackhall area was more difficult than I’d anticipated, but a solicitous couple in a posh restaurant, who had seen me traipsing back and forth two or three times, kindly invited me to sit down at their table, and then use a mobile phone to make contact. 'CM' and his wife 'MM' expected me to have spent the whole day walking of course, but it was no problem to explain about my knee, and their welcome was none the less marvellous.
 


[1] When Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow and his brother Fergus saw television news coverage of the plight of Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s, they decided to launch an appeal locally for food and blankets, and took a single jeep-load to Medjugorje in Bosnia. On their return however, their parents’ shed was filled with additional supplies that had accumulated while they were away. A charity, Scottish International Relief, was born, expanding its horizons and activities over the course of the 1990s and into the first years of the new century. Mary’s Meals began in Malawi as an individual project under the SIR umbrella, providing school meals, but soon became the charity’s paramount consideration, until finally the name SIR was superseded by Mary’s Meals in 2012.
[2] I was first inspired to try to undertake this pilgrimage as a direct result of seeing ‘Child 31’ in Glasgow in November 2012. It can now be viewed online: see www.marysmeals.org.