In 2017, the cost of feeding a child at school for a whole year is still a snip at just £13.90. Mary's Meals is now providing school meals to well over a million children, in communities held in subjection to poverty and hunger. As well as fundraising efforts however, I've also written about failures of diplomacy in the developed world, inhibiting efforts to deal collaboratively with crises such as the famine now menacing East Africa and Yemen.
Before getting away again, I took the opportunity to pray for the first time a very long-drawn-out Russian language novena to Our Lady of Fatima, from a book I’d picked up in St Petersburg several years before. Then, for the customary Friday fast on 26th April, I tried to deny myself just a little bit more than usual, because it was inevitable that the subject of Syria would come up on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions programme – credible allegations of a chemical weapons attack had surfaced. With God’s help, I wanted to try to get my own view across, via the public’s response programme, Any Answers, which goes out on Saturday afternoons. This would mean phoning up on the dot of 12.30pm, when the lines open, and persuading first a researcher, and then the producer, that I had a point worth making. So on Saturday 27th April I took to the airwaves for the second time in a week, being the first caller to speak, and saying that decision-makers needed to recognise that public confidence had been damaged by the manipulation of evidence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and that it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions as to which side might be responsible for this apparent chemical attack.
On the morning of Sunday 28th April, feast of St Louis Grignon de Montfort, I went to the train station in Berwick, which has a curious notice to passengers descending stairs onto the platforms, describing events on this site (once the Great Hall of Berwick Castle) in 1292, when:
“THE CLAIM OF ROBERT BRUCE TO THE CROWN OF SCOTLAND WAS DECLINED AND THE DECISION IN FAVOUR OF JOHN BALLIOL WAS GIVEN BY KING EDWARD I…”
…and ratified by the full Parliament of England and various Scottish nobles, whose names are recorded in a list known as the ‘Ragman Roles’, from which we get the term ‘rigmarole’.
By buying separate tickets for each leg of my journey, from Berwick to Edinburgh, then from there to Glasgow and up to Dalmally, I’d made a useful saving on the advance train fare. At Glasgow Central station, the Sunday Times front page headline caught my eye, because it seemed so out of step with coverage in the mainstream British media up to that time. It referred to statements made by General Sir David Richards, chief of the defence staff:
“UK military chief warns intervention in Syria risks all-out war”
The idyllic walk of a mile or two along the river Orchy to Craig Lodge (Mary’s Meals HQ) from the station at Dalmally was a good chance to gauge the state of my knee – it didn’t play up, thanks be to God. In 1983 the house was being run as a hunting lodge by the MacFarlane-Barrow family when, inspired by an article in the Catholic press, the teenage children went out to visit Medjugorje, in what was then Yugoslavia. After their parents made a first pilgrimage shortly afterwards, it was decided to convert Craig Lodge into a Family House of Prayer. ‘Craig’ incidentally means ‘Rock’, and this also being the meaning of the name ‘Peter’, Craig Lodge could legitimately be called Peter Lodge, if anyone so wished.
I was allocated a room under the protection of St Patrick, claimed for Scotland again in the little bedside welcome pack. On the morning of Monday 29th April, dedicated to St Catherine of Siena, I took some books to Dalmally’s post office, for despatch to my folks in Bristol, including a biography of St Martin of Tours which I was hoping to read at a later date. In early evening I had a chance to outline my plans to Magnus. He took me into the legendary shed from which SIR and Mary’s Meals was run for many years, in order to show me a map of Africa covered in marker pins, on which he pointed out Liberia, strongly suggesting that I should try to go there.
Inside the beehive cell above Craig Lodge, Argyll. Pictured: SS Columba and Charbel Makhlouf
I’d picked up that since my previous visit some years before, a beehive cell, like a sort of stone igloo, had been built on the mountainside above Craig Lodge, modelled on the type built by Irish monks and missionaries in the second half of the first millennium. Magnus’s close relative 'Columba' lent me a biography of his namesake St Columba, and also a shorter volume about the life of St Kessog, written by Rev Dane Sherrard, on whom I was hoping to descend on my way down to Glasgow. The idea was that after a delicious curry for supper as a guest of Magnus’ sister and family (including her husband who is of the same inner Hebridean stock as Livingstone), I could take these manuscripts up to the cell and spend the night there. However, try as I might, I couldn’t find the Celtic prayer hut at all. When darkness fell I came down again, and spent another night in St Patrick’s room, but decided that my timetable was flexible enough to allow me to re-try on the next night, so I would leave a day later. On the morning of Tuesday 30th April I had a hopeful conversation with the Marys Meals’ press officer; she would try to get some media interest in my pilgrimage. Then, when I went up the mountain again in mid-afternoon, I realised that I’d been looking in completely the wrong place – I needed to climb much higher up, following Stations of the Cross as I did so. Inside at last, I was afforded a good view of a pipit, perched on a craig just outside. At dusk I got a fire started to make it cosy.