22 June 2022
Author Donald Smith offers his perspective on modern-day pilgrimage in Scotland. ...
Pilgrim Guide to Scotland
Be thou a bright flame before me
Be thou a guiding star above me
Be thou a smooth path below me
Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me
Today, tonight and for ever.
Ascribed to St Columba
Traditional pilgrimages remain vital to expressing religious faith in many cultures worldwide, including Europe. But more recently in the developed world there has been a renaissance of pilgrimage. In this sense a modern pilgrim travels open to new reflections and insights without necessarily subscribing to a specific faith, tradition or belief.
Scotland is exceptionally well placed to offer traditional and contemporary pilgrim journeys. The terrain is varied and expansive, austere and beautiful by turns. Our landscapes and townscapes are imbued with millennia of spiritual awareness from megalithic stone circles to beehive Celtic cells, monasteries, cathedrals, and today’s churches, mosques and temples.
There is an abundance of journeys and destinations available in Scotland, from busy centres to isolated places of peaceful contemplation. The fourteen Pilgrim Journeys offered in my guide are a rich and wide-ranging geographical selection. Furthermore, many different forms of travel are available by sea and land, though all should involve, even if in imagination from an armchair or sickbed, a sense of walking. Rhythmic footfall renews a connection between our modern consciousness and that ancient sense of mother earth.
THE MODERN PILGRIMAGE
Today’s pilgrims may simply be travellers open to an extra dimension, but for some there may be a specific reason arising from bereavement or another life crisis, including mental or physical illness. Contemporary pilgrimage recognises that God is hidden, while being open to some unexpected spiritual experience.
In Scotland the landscape is often veiled in cloud or mist, when an unpredictable shift in the atmosphere can light up the whole outlook. The steady rhythm or pattern of pilgrimage accepts that God is not obvious or predictable. Pilgrimage nurtures an openness to God in everything. Light is everywhere unseen yet also the means by which all things are perceived in their true shape and colour.
Pilgrimage in Scotland is reconnecting with older cultural layers and traditions that were lost through historical change, including migration and clearance. Moreover pilgrimage was often actively discouraged or suppressed after the Scottish Reformation. Many special sites were neglected and forgotten.
But Scotland has five millennia of continuous cultural evolution already behind it, and that carrying stream continues even if its flow is sometimes underground, biding its time to break out afresh. Of course things are reinterpreted and changed by new generations, yet going on pilgrimage in Scotland today we discover that angels and ancestors still keep their ancient places.
I myself have found great satisfaction, and joy, in exploring these older traditions with contemporary eyes. If this guide provides some companionship on the road then it will have fulfilled its modest purpose. Travel well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donald Smith is the author of Pilgrim Guide to Scotland published by Saint Andrews Press. The Pilgrim Journeys set out in the Guide can be completed as a whole, or experienced in parts over weeks, months or even years. Every region of Scotland has a journey from Orkney and Shetland in the north to Galloway or Berwickshire in the south. The time taken on any complete or part of a journey will vary depending on your mode of travel. Each stage of the journey has its own theme, but you may choose to branch off to a nearby place of interest or combine parts of different journeys, according to choice and convenience.
Always be prepared to follow your instincts or curiosity, and depart from the plan! You will have your own memories of people and places, and of family connections, that you can explore through Scotland’s pilgrim journeys.
READ OUR SPECIAL GUIDE TO SCOTLAND'S SACRED ISLES
Image credit: track © Chris Upson.
Originally published June 2015, reviewed June 2022.