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Kintyre Way

In The Footsteps Of Saints

Ancient pathways that once brought religion to every corner of Scotland
now guide travelers through a rich and engaging landscape.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

Under cloudy July skies, we are tramping a path between two of the Eildon Hills, the landmark triple peaks that rear above Melrose in the Scottish Borders. These hills have supernatural associations; it was from near here that Thomas of Ercildoune -- "Thomas the Rhymer," the 14th-century laird and reputed seer of these parts -- was supposedly spirited off by the Queen of Elfland for the statutory seven years. According to the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, his abductor points out the three roads they may take on their uncanny journey -- the broad, beguiling road to wickedness -- the bonny road that winds about the ferny brae to Elfland -- but also "yon narrow road, so thick beset wi thorns and briars. / That is the path of righteousness / tho after it but few enquire...."

As we walk, we're conscious that for thousands of people, routes such as this were, indeed, their road to righteousness, although it's not as spartan as the song suggests, as we descend through russet clumps of heather into the rain-spangled woods of Eildon.

We're following an early stretch of St. Cuthbert's Way, one of Scotland's many long-distance walking paths. This one, however, is associated with the 7th-century Cuthbert, soldier, monk, bishop and peace-seeking hermit who started his monastic life at Melrose Abbey. Today, the abbey's magnificent rosy-stoned ruins are the suitably inspiring starting point for the 62.5-mile walk, which crosses the border into northeast England and ends on the Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne.

St. Cuthbert's Way is just one of numerous routes that follow, to a greater or lesser extent, the paths once taken by generations of medieval pilgrims to shrines and other sacred places across Scotland, a practice largely discouraged following the Reformation in 1560.

Today, Scotland seems to be witnessing a revival of interest in its ancient pilgrimage routes, reflecting a similar renaissance across Europe, particularly the immense resurgence of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the medieval way of St. James from central France to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Recent years have seen hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, spiritual or secular, follow its ancient route (not least Martin Sheen in the 2010 film The Way).

Quite apart from its spiritual aspects, this burgeoning of what has become known as "faith tourism" along the Camino has had considerable spin-off for local economies along the way, an aspect not entirely lost on those interested, for whatever reason, in reviving the pilgrimage routes of Scotland. The country's more notable pilgrim destinations include: Iona, with associations with St. Columba; St. Andrews, where the relics of Scotland's patron saint were once displayed; Luss on Loch Lomondside, associated with St. Kessog; and, in the far southwestern corner of Galloway, Whithorn, where St. Ninian is said to have first brought Christianity to Scotland.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2016 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Phil Seale / Scottish Viewpoint; VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint; Allan Wright / Scottish Viewpoint