Pilgrimage: the Road to the Scottish Isles: a review

by frankbeswick

Seven amicable celebrities of differing faiths banded together on a walk from Ireland to Scotland. An interesting program.

The Pilgrimage series has been running for four years, each time with the same format: a number of well-known figures from the fields of sports and entertainment, but of different religious convictions are assembled and sent on a pilgrimage. This time it was a walk from Donegal via Northern Ireland to the Scottish Isles, finishing in Iona, St Columba's famous sacred isle. The program is spiritually stimulating, but pleasant, as the celebs are well chosen to make an effort to get on with each other. BBC2 has in this program done a really good job.

Image of the Donegal coast courtesy of mickattri, of Pixabay

Episode 1

I select my celebrity programs carefully. Some such shows are mind-numbing pits of triviality, but others are serious attempts at good programs. This show is high on the quality list. Seven celebrities are walking [with some necessary boat  and bus journeys] from St Columba's native Donegal to Scotland's sacred isle of Iona, journeying on a voyage of growth and self-discovery through both wild and urban spaces.  The pilgrimage follows a mediaeval pilgrim trail based on sites sacred to St Columba,also known as Columcille. 

The celebrities are: Laurence Llewelyn Bowen,  interior designer and atheist pagan; Nick Hewer, a very intelligent agnostic rethinking his position as he  enters his twilight years; Scarlett Moffatt,a sensitive Christian, who became tearful when a sacred stone was not given sufficient respect; Monty Panesar, an open minded SIkh cricketer, Louisa Clein,a Jewish actor; and Shiraz Miraz, a Muslim comedienne. A seventh, Will Bayley, a paralympian table tennis star, who struggles with bodily illness, will arrive in episode two. Participants need a basic knowledge of religion, but none are scholars of any expertise in the field, and all seem to be basically tolerant of others' positions.

After first meeting in Donegal town the participants began their walk on the wave-beaten cliffs that tower on Donegal's coastline, and we were treated to sights of its wild landscape. Truly awesome. In a land containing sacred stones dating from the Neolithic age now re-christened into the Celtic Christian cultus, the ever-smart Laurence, who insisted on maintaining his sartorial elegance whatever the landscape and weather, was in his element. It was clear that he had done his homework on the route and its features. 

What struck me as a religious writer was the friendly spirit in which conversations were conducted. All participants seemed determined to respect the sensitivities of the others and no-one was pushing their position or attempting to proselytise. The participants are all on a journey of discovery, some attempting to rethink their position and others to deepen it. Monty, the Sikh, is interested in finding out more about Christianity, but is ready to share his faith with others.  

Monty was the first to take the pilgrims to a place of worship, a Sikh gurudwara, which proved a pleasant experience where the pilgrims enjoyed the generous hospitality of the Sikh post-worship meal, which is open to all-comers. The pilgrims were later to visit a Catholic church in Derry [Londonderry to people of Unionist persuasion] on the site of a monastery  destroyed founded by St Columba and destroyed at the Reformation. Mass proved a significant experience. Scarlett asked the priest for a blessing and felt enriched by it; Monty asked for a blessing, had a brief talk about the divine energy permeating nature, and felt that the blessing had done him good. Strangely, the Jewish Louisa, who did not seek a blessing, felt that attending mass had inspired in her a yearning to attend synagogue. Something spiritual was happening, and it was not confined to any one religion.

I was left with the following thought. Starting in the mountain country of Donegal the metaphor of ascending the mountain of God is apt. There is one summit, but several routes to it. All ways must be true ways, and there are false paths, but within the true ways every path is unique to the individual who takes it.




Episode 2

The journey takes the pilgrims along the north coast of Ireland, on footpaths along the dark, basalt sea cliffs  of Ulster. This beautiful scenery is part of the spiritual experience of the pilgrimage. On this Ulster stretch the voyagers stayed the night in an ocean-side bothy, a house with basic facilities [no electricity, illumination by candles and cooking with a gas stove.] All slept in the same room, some on beds, the others on the floor, all in sleeping bags. Dispensing with the  luxuries of modern living, for at least some of the time, seems an important ingredient of the pilgrim experience, as it frees your mind for spiritual thoughts. Sharing with others, some of whom were snorers, breeds tolerance,

Eventually there came a journey in a chartered launch to ferry the pilgrims to Scotland, where they were put ashore on the beautiful, historic and often lonely peninsula of Kintyre. It was here that St Columba arrived when he left Ireland to spread the faith to Scotland. He chose his spot carefully, as Kintyre was in the Irish kingdom of Dalriada, whose king was sympathetic to Christianity and who gave Columba land on the isle of Iona to found his monastery. The pilgrims visited the remains of the king's hill top palace before setting off on their journey to Loch Ness, another site associated with Columba's mission to the Picts. I believe that constraints of time meant that this phase of the journey was done by bus, which also provided relief for some not so strong or young legs. Septuagenarian Nick Hewer seemed to be struggling, as to a lesser extent did the small Scarlett.

Mediaeval Christians believed that God was revealed in not only the book of Scripture, but also the book of nature, the way in which the natural world teaches us about God; and the consensus among the pilgrims was that the lovely woodland and hilly landscape of Kintyre was a spiritually inspiring place, though none distilled their experience into a doctrinal form. 

The high point of the Kintyre stage was a Eucharistic celebration in a cave where St Columba is said to have stayed. It was celebrated by an Episcopalian priest, who extended the offer of communion wine to pilgrims of all  religions. Some took up his offer, but others demurred. Being a Roman Catholic and therefore one raised in a church that has strict requirements on qualifying to take Eucharist this event gave me food for thought.   Later they were to resurrect the ancient pilgrim tradition of sleeping overnight in a church whose members have revived the tradition of providing hospitality to pilgrims on the pilgrim way to Iona. This was an inspiring act of generosity that relives what is best in ancient traditions.

This leg of the journey finished at the south-western end of Loch Ness, whose north-east to south-west direction means that its southernmost point is not far from Kintyre, though traversing the route, especially on foot, is winding and arduous. Columba is said to have preached here and scared off a giant fish which was a menace to human life. This story is believed to have contributed to the lore of the Loch Ness Monster.

Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey
Daislem, of Pixabay

Episode 3

This final episode showed the pilgrims visiting the Scottish Isles, culminating in their arrival on Columba's sacred isle of Iona, a journey that emphasised boat travel.

The episode began with a trip to Eastern Scotland to Plusgarden Abbey, with which readers familiar with my article, The Monk Who Went Missing, will be familiar. For some it was a chance to  challenge preconceptions about monks, who to many are strange and distant figures who perform weird chants. Strangely, Nick Ewer, who bills himself as an agnostic, introduced himself to the abbot as a Catholic, and I was reminded of the old saying, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic" but by the end of the episode he was still seeking faith. I think that the nervous ones among the pilgrims were relaxed by the friendly attitude of the monks and their ease of communication with others. Pilgrims shared in the work of the monastery and seeing them apple picking in the monastic orchard was a moment of nostalgia for me, as it brought back memories of my time in a religious institution. 

What caused some mealtime discussion was the services in Latin. Some pragmatic pilgrims thought that Latin was an obstacle to participation, but others, i.e. Laurence, thought that Latin added to the mystique of the service. Nick, educated a Catholic, took a moderate view, but I sensed that he felt nostalgia for the worship that he had lost.

The next step was a ferry to Stornaway on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. This was a step on the way to Iona, which is an island near the larger isle of Mull and not accessible by large ferry boats. Three of the pilgrims  took the opportunity to visit a mosque and discuss with the leaders what it is like to be a minority in a small and remote community. I am happy to say that they felt safe and secure in a very tolerant community. 

Then it came time to make the final leg of the journey, which consisted of the Caledonian-Mcbrayne ferry to Mull, then a launch to Iona.

The Prophecy of Columcille

Arriving at their destination was at once a fulfilment of the journey and an anti-climax, as part of the experience was the journey and the relationships that developed on it. There was no grand architecture to be admired, only the remains of Iona Abbey, a Mediaeval foundation on the site of Columba's original abbey and the site where Columba is buried. The island has a pastoral beauty, but it is part of the dramatic land and seascape of the Hebrides. It is also a place of quiet, silence even, and this makes it conducive to the spiritual, as the whispered divine voice is in places such as this not swamped by urban and industrial noise.

But grandeur is not the important consideration, for the greatest things are the spiritual ones. Pilgrims reach through time to sense the impact of Columba, whose message calls to them through the ages.  Columba had a message of hope that extends beyond life, a hope that is fostered by prayer. 

The end of the journey was joyful. The atmosphere among the pilgrims was light-hearted. You sensed that friendship had blossomed among the disparate group. None had changed their religion, but I felt that each had developed their understanding of  their own belief system and the beliefs of others. All had still a long way to go, and you would be right to see that this small pilgrimage is part of the great pilgrimage  of life. They had all learned something and had given innocent enjoyment to the viewing public.

I will leave the final word to Columba, who loved Iona, but who was realistically aware that his monastery would face turbulence and suffering, but retained faith and hope in the ultimate triumph of the good through the agency of God. The following prophetic words are attributed to him.

"Iona of my heart, Iona of my  love, 

Instead of monks' voices 

There will be cattle lowing.

But ere the world will come to an end

Iona will be as it was.



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Updated: 04/25/2022, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 07/19/2022

No, there has not been.

frankbeswick on 07/19/2022

The answer to your question is not known to scholars!but it is likely that Spanish diplomats extolled the taste of Spanish chestnutsvto their Scottish hosts.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/18/2022

Re-reading this wizzley caused me to think of your recent wizzley about pilgrimage to Iona.

Has there been a pilgrimage program about Lindisfarne and St. Cuthbert?

DerdriuMarriner on 07/18/2022

The webinar that I reference below in my comments and questions associates appeal and spread of Spanish chestnuts particularly to Mary, Queen of Scots.

The search term Mary Queen of Scots and Spanish chestnuts in Scotland brought up the article Woodland Trust appeal over sweet chestnut tree from Oct. 21, 2010, for BBC.

The last seven sentences list surviving sweet chestnut trees planted by her in North Lanarkshire near the no longer extant Cumbernauld Castle and on Balermino Abbey and Melville Castle grounds. They mention secretary David Rizzio as planting the Chestnut House sweet chestnut along North Esk river banks.

Would there be some family-history, genealogical or spiritual association that linked Mary, Queen of Scots to a tree species not native to her father's country but native to her mother's?

frankbeswick on 05/29/2022

Spanish chestnuts are not native to the British Isles. They are a relatively modern introduction.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/28/2022

Thank you, Frank!

It's a bit suspicious when online sources repeat one another without elaboration. So it seemed like the yew association was begging me to get clarified.

There was a very fine webinar that was held on your side of the pond December 2021. The topic was the Spanish chestnuts (Castanea sativa) that are so abundant in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. There was a quick main-species tree inventory that the participants shared with us virtual attendees. There was no mention of Taxus spp as dominant in the Hebrides!

frankbeswick on 05/27/2022

There is no consensus on the meaning of Iona. Some say that the original name was I, but while Ay is a Norse word for an island this name was pre-Norse. Others say that Iona is a Hebrew word for dove, given by the monks. As for the association with yew trees, I am doubtful, as Hebridean isles are not renowned for their trees, which thrive not in the scouring winds. Furthermore, one place in the British Isles has a name derived from yew, which is Maigh Eo, Gaelic for the yew plain, which we know as Mayo, a large western Irish county, but this has only a tentative similarity to the name Iona.

frankbeswick on 05/27/2022

Pangaea split into two, so there were not eastern and western halves.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/26/2022

Also, is there a consensus as to the meaning of Iona? Online information seems to be gravitating around people and things related to yew (Taxus spp).

DerdriuMarriner on 05/26/2022

Thank you!

Do the eastern, northern and southern halves have names that I should know ;-D but don't ;-{ !

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