Saturday, 28 June 2014

   After saying a few prayers in the church, and checking the time of Sunday Mass, I went a short distance to the ruins of Whithorn Priory, which held a very important place in the spiritual life of Scotland in the Middle Ages. After a picnic lunch I visited the adjacent ‘Whithorn Story Museum’, kicking off with an excellent short film about its far-off 4th century origins, and its boom years as a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, whose ambience is further conjured up by various displays and historical objects in succeeding rooms. A particularly ancient stone cross, inscribed with the name ‘Petrus’ and the chi-ro insignia (an X with a P descending through it – the first two letters of the name ‘Christ’ in Greek), is believed to have stood as a road marker near Whithorn until the Reformation, serving for centuries to stake Rome’s claim over that district, ie for ‘Petrus’ – Peter. Not least memorable though is a separate room containing a collection of Dark and Middle Age crosses, many of which stood in St Ninian’s cave until as late as the 1950s. This cave, another 3 or 4 mile walk away, along the coast from the Isle of Whithorn, is where the saint is reputed to have spent time in retreat. Among the things that came up in conversation with the youngish academic responsible for this part of the museum was the basic resemblance of Whithorn stone carving to the designs used in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the reliability of St Bede the Venerable as a source; a fact to which I was only just acclimatising myself, though at that stage I still hadn’t got around to reading his Ecclesiastical History. I studied Mediaeval History for a couple of years at university, but was afflicted with a foolish bias against anything written in the west before about the 11th century, deeming it to be scarcely worthy of the name ‘history’, but rather being virtually all mere legend and myth – a very serious error. In the midst of the same conversation I also mooted a thought that had just come to me, that I might try to spend the night in St Ninian’s cave, asking half-ironically ‘What could possibly go wrong?’, but he seemed to think it was a good idea. 

   The Whithorn Story Museum was faced at that time with an uncertain future, so before leaving I was asked to sign a petition asking for financial help. Where it said to leave a message I put: 

“Whithorn is a cornerstone of Scotland’s historical and cultural heritage whose story must be told!” 
St Ninian's Cave

   After stocking up on haggis pies and a few other comestibles, the pleasant walk to St Ninian’s cave that afternoon included a stretch of about a mile through woodland, which certainly couldn’t have changed very much since the Middle Ages, nor even perhaps since Ninian’s day. I had the beach and the little cave virtually to myself; though pilgrims had left numerous improvised crosses about the place, made from sticks or other bits of wood, often with messages, asking for prayers of one kind or another. Before turning in, I said 5 extra decades of the Rosary for peace – in Syria, on the Korean peninsula, in India/ Pakistan/ Afghanistan, in Liberia and the whole of Africa, and for the peace of Jerusalem and throughout the whole world.

   I had a very good sleep, and in the morning reached Whithorn with plenty of time before Mass for a coffee at the Whithorn Story Museum’s Pilgrim Tearoom, where I was recognised by a couple from Lancashire, who had seen me at church on Ascension Day in Newton Stewart. We talked about Mary’s Meals, international development generally, football including Tom Finney in his Preston North-End days, and Bolton Wanderers. They were very taken with an outstanding image of Our Lord, surrounded by children from different countries, by [Spanish name-ask Craig Lodge], illustrating some Mary’s Meals prayer cards I had, and even wished to look into the possibility of using the same picture for invitations to his ordination to the diaconate that summer. Sunday Mass, celebrated by the same priest who was responsible for the church in Newton Stewart, was notable for a particularly good homily about St Stephen’s martyrdom and its parallels with Our Lord’s death, but also the Gospel call, exemplified by St Stephen, to follow Jesus all through life, and not only therefore at the hour of death. This priest also discussed Saul/Paul’s fanaticism, which led him to approve Stephen’s stoning, and compared this to any type of fundamentalism which mistakenly considers the taking of human life to be a service to God.

   The Lancastrians and I resumed our conversation in the Pilgrim Tearoom afterwards, in the company also of several other parishioners; Mary’s Meals and St Ninian’s cave came up, as you would expect, but also Fatima and Portugal, as the person sitting next to me lived there for much of the year. Later I realised I’d missed a bit of an opportunity to brandish my sponsorship forms, but the English couple kindly gave me a fiver anyway, and someone had paid for my coffee when I went to the counter.

   By this time I was already planning to return to the youth hostel in Minnigaff/Newton Stewart, with the aim of seeing Casablanca at the cinema that evening, and then catching a bus to Stranraer next day. The bus journey from Whithorn to Newton Stewart was extraordinary, because we happened to have a 5 minute wait in Kirkinner; the place where I’d had my late-night run-in with Scotland Yard detectives. Being seated near the driver, I outlined that episode to him, and mentioned my pilgrimage, to which he responded by giving me my fare back, and in fact a few pounds on top, because he wouldn’t accept the change he’d originally given me from a fiver! In exchange I gave him a Mary’s Meals leaflet and expressed my sincere appreciation. Back in Newton Stewart I was keen to catch the final stages of Tottenham against Stoke, which inspired a bit of hope, and then Manchester Utd vs Swansea City. This game was significant because it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final bow to Old Trafford as Utd supremo. From a Scottish point of view, a notable banner in the crowd read ‘Sir Fergie Fi Govan, Tartan Born and Red’. I then checked back into the hostel, where the manager was a bit startled to see me again, but a quick recap of my experiences and plans was enough to clear up any misunderstanding. 

“Play it again Sam."[1]
   Casablanca was magnificent to see in Newton Stewart’s 80 year-old cinema that night – and it was a donation-only screening, so it cost me £1. John from Glasgow was sitting quite near where I was, and gave me a lift back to the hostel afterwards. The nub of our reflections could be summed up in the old cliché, ‘They don’t make ‘em like that anymore’, though actually, many of the better efforts of nowadays, often do at least draw fundamental lessons from such timeless classics.

[1] Spot the deliberate mistake. Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca never says this, but “Play it Sam. Play it one more time.”

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