What is the purpose of the pilgrimage? The traditional answer would have centred on an idea of religious devotion or allegiance to a religion’s Supreme Being. It is usually a journey by believers to do prayer, witness relics or engage in some transcending experience. Pilgrimage in Christianity was initiated by apostate Christendom in Bethlehem, while Muslims take a pilgrimage to Makkah every year for reverence. But pilgrimage for me is the journey that feeds the soul and informs the mind generally. It may not be exclusively a religious experience but a trip one can take that transforms the way the world around you is seen and your place therein.
My prayers often these days consist of poetry written by masters of the Scottish Enlightenment, Gaelic scribes of the early golden age and revival, traditional music from the North East and letters of Maxwell and Devine. I am in Scotland every two weeks and often make it my business to go as far and wide from Edinburgh as I can before I resume my teaching and writing duties there and in London.
I recently taught a series of lessons on the Canterbury Tales and how oral history, life journeys and personal revelations can be shared through text. They had always been among my favourite stories, the weary but merry travellers imparting wisdom to their fellow pilgrims on the way to their destination, where they with grace would receive spiritual comfort. But I wondered what if the pilgrims had kept going? What if they had not stopped at Canterbury and instead had voyaged further to Yorkshire, Northumberland – to Scotland. Would the tales they heard, the art and architecture they encountered have led to new truths? Would they have paused to think upon the state of the nation they had left behind? That is certainly what is in my mind when the gleaming waves off the coast at Berwick come into view. And the bustling of the kittiwake colonies around Dunbar Castle let you know that you are indeed traversing a nation’s whose soul is aflame with thought and sense. James I, the poet king and author of The King’s Quair had taken solace in a combination of Scots poetry and Chaucer’s works leading him to draft a selection of his own poetry on his way back home out of captivity from the English court.
There was much hysteria from the London press when they awoke from their Covent Garden dinner induced stupors to claim that the SNP had manipulated the date for the referendum so it would fall ‘tantalisingly close’ to that of the commemorations for the Battle of Bannockburn. Never mind that it had been a date agreed upon by both the Scottish and UK governments and the Scottish Government had actually stated it preferred the date to be towards the end of the Westminster Parliament (ie 2015, 2016). The fact that it is even the same year has had Conservative backbenches in Westminster howling with glee and pious protestations of alarm. Apparently the SNP and as a result the entire Yes campaign (seeing as many on that side of the debate seem incapable of distinguishing) would do all it could to milk the occasion in order to distract from the debate. I mean who else would use a moment of national significance in order to silence dissenting voices in a desperate bid to maintain cultural dominion? Who I ask you?!
It seems it is left to the people to find alternative ways of honouring the struggles of the past and finding solace in internal cultural reasoning. That is why I decided to follow in the footsteps of St Cuthbert and set off to Melrose from Edinburgh. Cuthbert a Saxon soldier from the Kingdom of Northumbria in the mid 600s had travelled back home from military service down south in search of true devotion and a way of service that ‘did not involved bloodshed and wickedness’.
His epic story includes a journey he undertook from a site south of Edinburgh to Melrose where he arrived to take on the leadership of the Abbey. He would later become one of the great saints in the Celtic church after rejecting all worldly concepts of excessive wealth and power in search of humbler truths. Surely the modern cause in Scotland to scholars and artists cries out for that ‘devotion and service’. The call will grow more intense the further Scotland travels towards its date with destiny. For in an independent Scotland the role of groups such as TradYES, National Collective, and Cultures of Independence will be that of solidifying this devotion to serving the people – culturally, politically and economically.
But it was not only Cuthbert’s story which drives me on to my journey. After all Melrose is the resting place of the heart of Robert the Bruce, Alexander II and has been the target of many a callous attack by English Kings for centuries. And yet through all that it has stood tall as if feeding from the strength and resilience of the nation it resides in. Now the task must be to bolster and rebuild those structures anew. Building on the history and using the experience of our journeys, our pilgrimages to make a better future in a better nation.
Coming back to the beginning of our story, I had always wondered what would have been written if the pilgrims had not stopped at Canterbury. And as a result I have begun to write a small collection of tales that relate to Scotland’s awakening and its effects on others. Each month from the end of February a different tale based on my pilgrimages to Scotland and around its historical and literary hotspots. Scotland’s historic places for me have in these recent years been an ongoing epic of pilgrimage, each stone and word lifting a misconception. Take a trip to a place of literary significance or historical moment. For the inspirations for the future of the common good lies in the past. The past was never a thing to be discarded but interpreted in a deeper, truer way. It was not that the past was wrong but it had been spoken, written, drawn and owned by someone else. It surely is through stories, paintings, media and our own pilgrimage – time to claim it back.
The Fiddler’s Tale:
The Fiddler was lass of gaiety
Who held a skip and a laugh – in her bow
But besides her tidings she warned others
Not to fall to tunes of prey
For other fiddlers tend to play – together
Tunes most false, base – and low
The Fiddler’s Tale will be availed from the 20th of February.
Photograph by _-RK-_