Saturday, 28 June 2014

   After a picnic lunch, the first instalment of a two-part bus journey took me from Edinburgh to Glasgow. St Mungo’s[1] stronghold on the banks of the Clyde, Edinburgh’s arch rival claimant to Caledonia’s cultural crown, and yet… Though I was there only very briefly, I couldn’t help detecting a more than usually subdued atmosphere in Glasgow at that time. Could this have had anything to do with the amazing scenes witnessed less than two weeks before? In terms of sheer, mortifying ignominy, there was little to choose between the ‘twin freak’ league upsets sustained by Glasgow’s Old Firm[2] on March 9th 2013: Rangers going down 2:1 at home to Annan Athletic (Annan’s population - just over 8,000), or Celtic brought low by Ross County, losing 3:2 at their ground in Dingwall (population – barely 5,000). Either way, since it had apparently been decreed from on high that both Glasgow giants should crash and burn at exactly the same time, it was as if the story of ‘David and Goliath’ had been adapted for an episode of ‘The X Files’.

   The second leg was enhanced by the sight of a deer in a field on Glasgow’s southern outskirts, soon after which I was dropped on the street outside the RC church in Blantyre, whose doors were open, so I paid a visit. This church is named in honour of St Joseph, on account of Blantyre’s most famous son, Dr Livingstone, I presume, since his birthday, 19th March 1813, is St Joseph’s principal feast day. Next door is the Livingstone Memorial Church of Scotland, at which the president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, and Alex Salmond were among dignitaries who attended a special service to commemorate the great Scot’s 200th Anniversary, on the previous Sunday. It was closed when I got there however, so I came back to St Joseph’s and was told that exposition of the Blessed Sacrament would begin at 6pm, followed by Mass.

   Almost incredibly, only a few weeks previously I’d heard on the radio that David Livingstone’s bicentenary would be marked in the very week when I was due to set out on this pilgrimage, from Lanark, just down the road from Blantyre – hence I could easily give my plans a tweak, and drop by. Just as unfathomable however; when I typed ‘Blantyre’ into an internet search engine, I discovered that it was also the name of my intended final destination. I’d been conscious only of hoping to reach St James’s church in Malawi, the wellspring and spiritual home of Mary’s Meals – but now I learned that St James’s is located in a city called Blantyre, named after the town in Lanarkshire where David Livingstone was born!

   The Gospel reading for Mass that day included the verse, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (John 8:58). At the end, I gladly accepted an invitation from a parishioner to join her prayer group, inspired by the messages attributed to Our Lady in Medjugorje, then about to start its weekly meeting. Since all the participants knew of Mary’s Meals, and Craig Lodge (the House of Prayer in Argyll where Mary’s Meals is based), it wasn’t enough that they gave me a warm welcome – no sooner had I outlined my hope of reaching Blantyre (Malawi) as a fundraising effort, than I was passed a bundle of notes in sponsorship. There were songs of praise and scripture readings including Isaiah 35:8-9; 

“A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it

…and from chapter 18 of the first Book of Kings, including verses 18-19; 

“[Elijah] answered, “I am not the troublemaker; but you are, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.  Now therefore, have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 

Then we had prayers for the least well-off, and I added a prayer that God might use Pope Francis to bring about a measure of unity among Christians. To cap it all I was spontaneously offered a place to stay, it so happened by a Protestant gentleman who prayed with them. Taken home in his car afterwards, Paul (not his real name) explained among other things that he had suffered dreadful burns in an accident some years before – skin for a transplant had had to be brought from London, and grafted on while he lay in a coma. He explained the importance of his Jack Russell terrier and put a round of toast on; a tub filled with broken home-made chocolate biscuit was my offering in exchange for all this kindness. Settling down to sleep on his sofa, among the figurines next to the TV I noticed a snowy owl and a pair of otters, recalling the barn owl and pair of stoats that I saw on the way to Walsingham, on the first morning of my Mexico pilgrimage.

David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, Lanarkshire
Next morning, amid further snow flurries, after first picking up and taking one of his grandchildren to school, Paul insisted on driving me to the David Livingstone Centre, where he knew a couple of members of staff. We learned however that it wouldn’t open until over an hour later, and my host had other plans for my itinerary, so I made do with photos of the house where Livingstone was born, and a large globe showing the African continent, as well as getting my photo taken in front of a magnificent statue, in which Livingstone is seen being attacked by a lion. Repairing once more to his nimble hatchback, we rode next to the Church of St John the Baptist in Uddingston, where tremendous sums have been generated for Mary’s Meals over the years; there could have been no better person than the parish priest there, to give me a blessing and another couple of banknotes. Paul meanwhile was intent on getting me as far as Carluke, entailing another drive, this time past the giant roller-coasters of ‘Strathclyde Park’, Scotland’s answer to Disneyland. Before going our separate ways, I presented him with a chocolate Easter bunny that I managed to procure, and promised to write.

   Northern Cross is an annual pilgrimage, inspired largely by the Christian witness of a glorious procession of great northern evangelists, including SS Columba, Mungo, Aidan and Cuthbert, who endowed places like the isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, and Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne), off Northumberland, with a formidable aura of sanctity from around the 6th to the 8th centuries AD. Each year, different sized groups of pilgrims set out with large wooden crosses from various points in northern England and southern Scotland, aiming to reach Holy Island on Good Friday.

   From Carluke I sauntered unhurriedly to Lanark; a tranquil enough place nowadays, but notable in history as the scene in 1297 of the assassination of William de Heselrig, High Sheriff of the town (and an Englishman), by one William Wallace, avenging the death of his wife, which triggered an uprising that escalated into the Scottish Wars of Independence. After spending some time on a public library computer, at the appointed time in the evening I came to the parish hall of St Mary’s RC Church, and met up with my fellow pilgrims for the first time. Jessica from the West Midlands was our group leader, which meant she did little of the actual walking, but ensured that we were always well supplied with tea, coffee, chocolate, biscuits, chocolate biscuits, fruit and encouragement, as well as organising our accommodation (invariably on the floor in parish halls), and driving our gear/clothes/sleeping bags etc from one staging post to the next. She also brought the large wooden cross for us to carry (two at a time), and gave us little red terracotta crosses to hang around our necks. She was a bit like Charlie in ‘Charlie’s Angels’, but in reverse, since the other 6 or 7 of us (there were slight fluctuations over the course of the week) were all blokes, except for Amy from California, who was accompanied by her brother Geoff (names have been changed, apart from Charlie). Over supper, Ken, an old hand on these expeditions, joked that before bed we might like to use the cross as firewood, to which I intuitively offered the observation that I could think of more auspicious ways of beginning a Northern Cross pilgrimage. Though feeling weary, I was glad to join in with evening prayer, where a strictly ecumenical spirit was observed, since our group comprised an array of different Christian denominations. It then made a terrific difference to the quality of my sleep that David, a designer of fighter aircraft from Edinburgh originally, but resident in Greater London, mercifully allowed me to use his spare inflatable mattress.

   Next morning, having been woken up by Bernard, a youthful septuagenarian retired postman from Carlisle, after porridge for breakfast and packing away our things, we said a collective prayer, then gathered up our cross and made a start. Reaching the Clyde, before long we were surrounded by the well-preserved 18th and 19th century mills and tenement buildings of New Lanark – famous testing ground for the ideas of Welsh philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858), whose great innovation was to “…demonstrate that it was not necessary for an industrial enterprise to treat its workers badly to be profitable” [Wikipedia]. Unable to stop however, from there we followed a winding footpath along the river, taking in some stunning vistas, the sort of scenery which greatly impressed the young David Livingstone, judging by the exalted comparisons he sometimes makes in his writings between the Clyde and various African waterways.

[1] Glasgow is understood to derive from ‘Clas-gu’, meaning ‘dear family’, the name given to the community which grew up around St Kentigern, aka Mungo, a native-born Scottish bishop who brought the Gospel to the Clyde and other areas of SW Scotland in the 6th century.
[2] The ‘Old Firm’ is shorthand for Glasgow’s two pre-eminent football teams, Rangers and Celtic, who between them have won virtually every domestic Scottish football competition since before the Napoleonic Wars.

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