By Rev. Marc Whitehead
Thursday May 3, 2012 & Friday May 4, 2012
Well, after all these months of planning and preparing, my sabbatical has begun, and I have embarked on my long-awaited “Celtic pilgrimage.”
On Thursday, I travelled by bus from Glasgow to Oban. If the journey of something over 3 hours was a long one after travelling all night, the landscape was truly breathtaking. For the most part we drove along Loch Lomond and through the Argyll Forest. The weather was fine, the sky and lochs an amazing blue, the trees the yellow green of spring. Everything I saw was new and exciting and full of promise, and even if I couldn’t quite help from drifting off to sleep for a few minutes, my eyes were glued to the passing scene outside my window.
We arrived at Oban mid-afternoon, and while it is certainly picturesque, the area around the ferry terminal seemed busy, noisy and chaotic in contrast to my calming ride along the loch. At Oban, I switched busses and began the additional hour and a half long journey to Kilmartin.
The rugged scenery along the way was far less picturesque than that which I had passed through earlier, but gave a greater sense of antiquity, and a sense of the sacred — the somewhat bare and craggy peaks suggesting something primeval, the mist shrouded islands off the coast something mysterious and almost mystical.
Kilmartin itself is a small village of a perhaps a few dozen houses, dominated by an early Victorian church, and an amazing linear cemetery in which row upon row of gravestones are arranged in terraces along the edge of a vast valley. At first I couldn’t imagine what on earth I would find to do in such a place for a whole day, but that difficulty was solved soon enough.
I began my first full day in the Kilmartin valley at local archaeological museum in the former rectory, and learned that the Kilmartin valley was the richest and most important archealogical area in all of Europe, capturing a record of human interaction with the landscape which went back more than 10,000 years. From the top of the hill at Dunadd, the site of the coronations of Ireland’s, and later Scotland’s kings. More than 800 monuments can be seen. Nowhere else is the collection of stone cairns, cisterns, standing stones, carved rocks, and sacred woods so broad or so well preserved.
I joined the footpath just down the road from the museum, and explored some of the oldest and best preserved of the cairns, the earliest ancient even before Christ was born. The cairns were the site of ancient worship, the burials of prominent people, the last depositry of curiously worked ornaments in gold and silver and copper, necklaces of jet, glass from the continent.
To get to the various sites I walked through fields past grazing sheep and wary bovines, and for the most part I had the path to myself, passing only the occasional isolated farmhouse or fast moving automobile.
Not having a definite plan in mind, I elected to walk the 12 km all the way to Dunadd at the other end of the valley. It seemed simple enough. The path was well-marked, the terrain though hilly, fairly gentle and the day was fine. I tried not to think about the 12 km back!
It was only a couple of miles back to the turning I missed the first time, and I took the road with a renewed confidence, until after walking 4 kms the markers disappeared, and I found myself standing at a fork in the road, and needed to decide which way to turn. Of course, I made the wrong decision. I didn’t realize it until I was a couple of miles from Kilmartin, where my journey had begun, and further than ever from my goal. I was tempted to go back to my hotel, and contend myself with what I had already seen, but then decided since I had nothing better to do, to turn back and head off to Dunadd.
Scottish roads are pretty narrow, even the major routes, and there’s not much in the way of road allowances. One is often obliged to take the ditch to get out of the way of on-coming cars, or else the cars need to veer quickly to the other side of the road. For the most part it’s a system that works remarkably well. And as we passed we would usually raise a hand in greeting, in thanks, in what began to feel for me like blessing. (although the raised signal one young man, driving far too fast, and leaning on his horn, could not be mistaken for a blessing.
Finally, I reached my destination–Dunadd. The ancient, giant pile rose ahead of me out of the freshly plowed fields and grazing lands. Fortress like, it dominates the landscape around it. I could easily see why it had been a site of ancient coronations, and was a integral part of the sacred landscape of Scotland. What I couldn’t see was any obvious way up to the top. Despite the arrows pointing onward, it seemed to me a climb that was beyond my abilities. Still, I hadn’t come this far only to quit now, so I soldiered on, following in the footsteps of saints and kings, and tourists and pilgrims, and wondering, perhaps too late what I would do if I stumbled, or turned an ankle, or broke a hip. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, I had no cell phone, and only about 1/2 a bottle of water. Scottish breakfasts are substantial, but all I’d had to eat since 8:00 were 2 shortbread cookies, and it was now nearly 5:00. Still, it was a bit late for regrets, and I told myself that if anything untoward should happen, at least it would make for a cautionary human interest story on the BBC morning news.
I reached the summit, and placed my foot in the footprint carved in stone on the hills pinnacle, where the anointed kings of old looked out over their lands and pledged their loyalty and their commitment to their people. I felt literally and metaphorically as if I was standing in their footsteps. And as I prayed there on the hill for my people, I felt newly invigorated, and newly committed–and the wind wasn’t just a wind but the breath of God. Like Moses, I stayed until it was time to go back–huffing and puffing and aching all the way.
My walk back to Kilmartin through flocks of sheep, took me along still waters, and green pastures, and my soul felt newly restored–even if the soles of my feet felt like they might betray me any moment. I’d like to say that the 12 kms back were as nothing–but the truth is they felt like something. And as I spied from a distance the front facade of my hotel, I was grateful for a place to stay, a warm bath, a soft bed, and the promise of a perfectly chilled Guinness.
The pilgrim path isn’t always easy–but it does have its rewards!
Until next time–Marc