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Issue 86 - Roddy Martine's View: Christian Heritage

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


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Roddy Martine's View: Christian Heritage

Roddy Martine follows in the footsteps of pilgrims past and present

It was a carving of cockleshells on a weathered roadside stone that caught my attention. Since Scotland Magazine's regional feature for this edition is the Kingdom of Fife, with its major town of St Andrews being at the heart of Scotland's Christian faith for over 700 years, it occurred to me that I might revisit the medieval pilgrim routes that were once such a feature of the landscape.

Tradition has it that after the martyrdom of Saint James – one of the Twelve Apostles – in 44AD, his body was taken from Jerusalem on a boat for burial in Spain. As chance would have it, a violent storm blew up. The Saint's body was lost overboard but later washed up on the shoreline of what is now known as Santiago de Compostela, covered in seashells.

From that day on, the cockleshell was adopted by the faithful as the symbol of safe passage for pilgrims travelling to holy destinations. Shells were also employed as directional markers, especially in Scotland where all of the Pilgrim Ways interconnected with St Andrews, signposting pathways to and from Whithorn in Galloway via Glasgow; from St Abbs or North Berwick to Nunraw and Haddington; from Dunfermline to St Andrews, and from St Andrews to Iona, to name but a handful.

By the 12th Century, the east coast settlement of St Andrews, which from 732AD had housed the relics of Scotland's own patron saint, was struggling to accommodate the numbers turning up to pray at his shrine. Thus, the recently elected Augustinian bishop Robert of Scone built a great new cathedral complex. It can be no coincidence that the design he chose replicated the ridges of a scallop’s shell.

It is hard to imagine, in this age of indifference, the almost fanatical pull of religion in medieval times. Up until the mid-17th Century, over 10,000 pilgrims would arrive annually at North Berwick, the southernmost east coast ferry terminal with Europe and England, and set off via Haddington and Earlsferry en route to Dunfermline and St Andrews. Early on, Scotland's saintly Queen Margaret personally funded their passage across the Firth of Forth.

All of this inevitably came to a shuddering halt with the Reformation, when seemingly every vestige of Rome in Scotland (including the relics of St Andrew) was expunged into oblivion by the Protestant Kirk. Cathedrals were dismantled, stained glass windows were shattered and alters toppled for eternity. What has recently intrigued me, however, is the resurgence of now fashionable latter-day pilgrimages to holy places.

In our 21st Century, multi-faith, secular and increasingly uncertain society, a series of pilgrim journeys has been launched and is fast gaining popularity with visitors from both the UK and abroad. An organisation called the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum ( has been set up, and towards the end of April, for example, walkers will set off from the Grassmarket in Edinburgh and progress largely off-road to a series of almost forgotten holy sites in the North.

A cautionary note, however. Wear stout shoes. Largely forgotten is the visit to Scotland in 1435AD of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II. Having survived a fearful storm in the Firth of Forth, his ship was forced to put him ashore at Dunbar in the depths of winter. To show gratitude for his survival, he declared that he would walk barefoot to the nearest shrine dedicated to Our Lady.

Had he consulted a map beforehand, he might possibly have changed his mind. It involved a ten mile hike across frozen fields to Whitekirk, and for the remainder of his life he suffered from gout and sore feet. No doubt he thought it was very much worth it. He never complained.