Pilgrimage and the cults of saints were as popular with the Pictish, Irish, Norse and Scots peoples of Scotland as with any others in Christendom, with major shrines at the heart of important reliquary churches at Tain, Iona, Kirkwall, Whithorn, Glasgow, Dunkeld, Dunfermline and St Andrews. Most of these shrines are now monuments in the care of Historic Scotland. Scotland had more than its fair share of patron saints, ranging from an apostle of Christ, through national, indigenous saints such as Ninian, Columba and Kentigern, to a multiplicity of lesser holy men and martyrs. From the earliest times Scots were recognised on the pilgrimage roads of Europe by their characteristic clothing, which included the tying of their shoes around their neck to make the journey even harder! The archaeology of pilgrimage can illustrate an aspect of medieval life which can still be readily understood and even replicated, providing a rare ‘shiver of contact’. Much can still be seen of the paths, churches and shrines, as experienced by our medieval forebears. By revisiting these, armed with an understanding of the remains, it is possible to reconnect with their lives, reaching a better understanding of the personal faith and devotion of these people who, during the first 1000 years of Christianity, shaped the land and national identity which has been inherited by people today. The Reformation in 1559-60 attempted to remove all traces of the shrines, although a surprisingly large body of evidence has survived. A review of the hagiographic accounts of early Christian pilgrimage suggest, in addition to a strong emphasis on place (the shrine), and the saint’s relics, a prominent role for natural objects and substances such as holy water (but not oil as in other areas of Christendom), bread, salt, natural pebbles and specifically white stones. The extent to which this is solely a product of a few documentary sources, or whether it reflects more general Scottish phenomena, and how different it is to other parts of early Christendom would all repay closer scrutiny.
Pilgrimage in Scotland is as old as Christianity itself, when the Church positively encouraged the development of the cults of saints to help bolster the faith of newly converted peoples. Many of the early missionaries were elected saints, with some, like Columba of Iona (died 597) regarded as saints even during their own lifetime. Their places of burial became renowned as the source of miracles, quickly attracting the attention of far-flung communities. Possibly the oldest shrine of all was the tomb of St Ninian at Whithorn in Galloway. He is believed to have been the leader of Romanised Christians here in the 5th century, and recent excavations around his hilltop shrine have revealed intensive phases of church-building from then up to the Reformation. Devotion to Ninian remained constant throughout a period of more than 1000 years, transcending numerous shifts in power within the region. The other important early cult was that of Kentigern, also known as Mungo, who is believed to have died around 612, and whose burial place inspired the creation of Glasgow Cathedral. This is the most complete, large medieval reliquary church to survive in Scotland, enabling the modern visitor to easily replicate the experience of the medieval pilgrims.
What was the motivation for pilgrimage? Pilgrims’ motivation was to attain the greatest prize of all – salvation of their immortal souls. The Church taught them that they were destined for the fiery pit, unless they took positive action to remove their sin. Pilgrimage can therefore be seen as a metaphor for medieval life – a journey to achieve salvation, with pilgrimage acting as a bridge between this world and the next. The shrines containing the bones of saints played a crucial role in the forgiveness of sin, in the expiation of a crime (even manslaughter), and in the witnessing of vows and contracts. The effectiveness of the pilgrimage was multiplied if the penitent was present during an auspicious festival such as Easter, or the feast day of an individual saint. Not all would have lived up to the pious ideal; for some pilgrimage represented an excuse for travel and fun, which would otherwise have been impossible within a society where most were bound by rigid ties to land, family and service.
Preparation for pilgrimage: This might have been the only occasion when poor peasants were permitted to travel far distant from their parish. Written permission had to be granted by the parish priest, and warm clothing obtained, forming the universally recognised pilgrim’s garb. This consisted of a rough tunic and a heavy cloak, along with a broad-brimmed hat, a wooden staff, a water bottle, and a small satchel for food, known as a scrip. Safe-conducts were obtained from the English Crown for foreign pilgrimages, especially during the long centuries of conflict between the two countries from the later 13th century on. These safe-conducts could be for periods of years, especially for pilgrimages to Rome or the Holy Land, and there was a good likelihood that the individual might never return, haven fallen prey to misadventure along the way. The property and estates of pilgrims, especially lordly ones, was placed under the protection of the King, and no legal claims against the pilgrims could be settled until his or her safe return. The night before departure, the pilgrim’s staff and scrip were placed on the high altar to absorb the protection of the Holy Spirit. In 1427 James I issued a general safe conduct for the benefit of pilgrims from England and the Isle of Man coming to St Ninian’s shrine at Whithorn, specifying the conditions of their visa:-
‘they are to come by sea or land and to return by the same route, to bear themselves as pilgrims, and to remain in Scotland for no more than 15 days; they are to wear openly one (pilgrim’s) badge as they came, and another (to be received from the prior of Whithorn) on their return journey.’
A complex network of ferries, roads, bridges, fords, chapels, hospitals, and inns, were created and maintained to ease the way for pilgrims, the support of this infrastructure being a recognised act of piety. Travel was slow, arduous and often dangerous, and it was generally believed that the harder the journey, the greater the benefit to the soul. This was an integral part of the pilgrimage, as illustrated by the encounter on the way to Whithorn in July 1504 between James IV and some ‘puir folk from Tain passand to Whithern’. James himself was a devout pilgrim, well acquainted with Tain in Easter Ross from his annual visits to the great shrine of St Duthac. This shows that it was not sufficient for the folk of Tain to attend their own shrine, but instead they chose to journey hundreds of miles across the spine of Scotland to another famous shrine in Galloway. Pilgrims’ ferries were provided on the two crossings of the Forth for bona fide pilgrims to the shrine of the Apostle at St Andrews, who qualified for free passage by displaying the appropriate demeanour, garb, and pilgrim’s badge. The most famous was the western crossing known to this day as the Queen’s Ferry, endowed by St Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, in the later 11th century. Her biographer, writing shortly after her death in 1093, recorded that she not only provided ships for the crossing, but also established hostels on either side of the Forth provided with staff who were instructed to ‘wait upon the pilgrims with great care’.
Scots pilgrims badges provide reliable evidence of the movement of people, of real and arduous journeys, while also underlining the tangible devotion to individual saints. There is also a significant body of pilgrimage artefacts which illustrate Scots’ pilgrimage abroad, to shrines in England, Europe and the Holy Land.
Pilgrimage helps the dicispline to understand the design and function of many of the great churches and cathedrals of medieval Scotland, not only their use in the sometimes exclusive worship of monks or clergy, but also their role in popular religion. Great reliquary churches were built as a housing for the relics of the saint, thus making them accessible to the faithful, while at the same time providing security for the relics themselves, along with the enormous wealth represented by the precious metals and jewels gifted as offerings to adorn the shrines by successive generations. A pilgrim to St Andrews in the 15th century would have been drawn towards the Cathedral by the distant view of tall spires and towers. Having passed through the burgh gates they would have mingled with the crowds who came not just for the religious services, but also for the secular festivities and markets. Their sense of anticipation would be further heightened as they entered the sacred space of the Cathedral through the north door, and joined the shuffling throng following the well-worn one-way route towards the great shrine. As they moved east around the side of the high altar, their senses were assaulted by the concentration of rich decoration glinting with golden candlelight, of statues, wall-hangings, tomb effigies, and incense, proclaiming their long-awaited arrival at the shrine chapel – in great contrast to the stark ruins which confront the visitor to St Andrews today. The pilgrims then found themselves in the presence of the relics of the first chosen Apostle of Christ, housed in a great jewelled box called a chasse, raised up for security and visibility. The psychological effect of this experience – the huge scale of the building, coupled with the spiritual impact and the crush of unwashed humanity – would have been overwhelming for many of the ordinary country folk. And thus the stage was set for miracles of healing.