Pilgrimage In Scotland

Launch of the Green Pilgrim Network, Assisi, Italy, November 2011

1.       Pilgrimage is making a comeback and it may be that we do not fully realise what the Spirit has in mind by prompting people to consider this as a spiritual activity but there are some key elements:

·         The pilgrim travels light and, in a time of recession and climate change and the realisation that there are limits to growth, it may be that we are being invited to consider an alternative social economy. The present economic system suggests that the only indicator of success is growth. But there may be other “well being” indicators such as deepening community (especially across generations), connecting people to their cultural story, rediscovering hospitality, social enrichment through shared simple activities (such as eating and walking together), discovering that “when you have more on the inside, you need less on the outside”, and that, as in nature, change, evolution and adaptation can come about without using more and more finite resources but by creative transformation. We can learn from the Spirit.

·         Pilgrimage allows the sharing of stories, wisdom and insight across cultural and spiritual traditions as ARC has demonstrated and much can be learned by listening to the wisdom of other “alien” traditions (e.g. Sustainable forest management amongst followers of Shintoism who have been managing “sacred” forests responsibly for centuries). We can learn from each other.

·         Pilgrimage contributes towards a healthier and more active population. We can learn from ourselves by attending to our body’s well being.

·         Pilgrimage enables us to learn our cultural and spiritual story and our place within it. We can learn from our past and rediscover a sense of belonging to an ongoing story.

2.       In Scotland there are many agencies and individuals involved in pilgrimage related activity. Local authorities are obliged to invest in the core path initiative, others seek to preserve some of the ancient paths of Scotland (Roman Roads, Drove Roads etc), others wish to improve access and encourage more rambling and the churches want to ensure that there is scope for the spiritual dimension of pilgrimage and that access to and knowledge of sacred places is maintained and stories told and shared. The importance of working together was emphasised. This requires all to talk, share knowledge and not work against each other or in isolation.


3.       There are a number of layers to the network and these need to be “gently” laid together in order to achieve a kind of synergy and “win win” for all interested groups and ensure that none feel that their noses have been put out of joint. Here are some that I feel would be essential:

·         The path network must become just that, a network (it is 80% there already but linking up is essential so that walkers have options). This means encouraging those links such as one along Glen Dochart to link up the path network in the west linking the West Highland Way with the Rob Roy Way that begins on Loch Tay only 15 miles away.

·         Support for rural access by disadvantaged and excluded groups.

·         “Twists” in the routes that enable less well known areas to be included (such as the shrine of St Margaret at Dunfermline or the ancient capital of the Scots at Dunadd), it is not just about Iona and St Andrews.

·         Educational resources with links to the Curriculum for Excellence and the chance of a “buy in” by schools. The reality is that the vast majority of the young population of Scotland have not even begun to think that going on a pilgrimage might be fun, meaningful or worthwhile. The fundamental issue is an educational one. There are plenty of people talking about pilgrimage but in reality precious few actually doing it in Scotland (even some of those that talk about it!). The whole concept and vision needs some serious marketing, nurturing and promotion.

·         Worship resources need to be developed to enable any chance of a “buy in” by the churches and religious groups both at home and from overseas. Presbyterian Heritage Pilgrimage is one example that we are beginning to explore at Greyfriars enabling overseas groups, many of which already contact us asking for help with organising such a tour. The idea is to create a social enterprise tour company that would create a tailored pilgrimage experience that would include the journey to key destinations/accommodation/ education and history/ worship and hospitality for groups wishing to explore their religious heritage. All of this would be structured to meet with the Green Pilgrim Network guidelines, promoting Green Pilgrimage. Some discussion is already taking place about the creation of a pilgrimage guide to Scotland that would include maps/stories/worship resources etc.

·         It will be important to explore the theology of pilgrimage and find resources that make sense of it in the modern context for all people of faith, especially as pilgrimage is an “open door” within the ecumenical movement in a way that shared Holy Communion for example is not. Andrew Patterson has already done much on this and is planning to write more in the course of 2012.

·         A “one stop”, web based resource should be created for people to access maps and trail guides, transport and accommodation information, ferry times, educational resources, worship and meditation, information about the ARC Green Pilgrimage Network and encouragement about what to do to green our pilgrimage and our pilgrimage places,  material and a forum for discussion and feedback. www.scottishpilgrimage.com is already owned by those involved in the ARC initiative. This needs to be a one stop shop, the first place that you are directed to by Google and should give people the opportunity to gain all the information required to undertake a successful and green pilgrimage on any of the Scottish routes as well as enabling people to feedback to others about things they have discovered and useful hints and tips etc. The web resource therefore becomes a dynamic, changing thing. It should become a social media site (such as tripadviser/ facebook etc)

·          A “buy in” from the Scottish Government and its agencies (such as the National Parks and enterprise and tourist authorities) in order to maximise the potential economic and regeneration benefits of supporting the development of the network and its infrastructure. Much learning about this has already been done by Luss Pilgrimage Centre and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

·         Overlaying all of this should be an effort to make Scotland the World’s first Green Pilgrim Nation as we persuade all participants to buy into the GPN charter.

·         Every element of this initiative I see as a layer that gently overlays all the rest. No single element need have more prominence as all can learn from the others. Perhaps it is like a tartan, weaving many different strands and colours together that ends up being a lovely thing to behold because of the diversity that each strong colour brings and contributes to the whole.


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