Saturday, 28 June 2014

   Coming out into more open country, snow lay about more thickly when we stopped for lunch in the evocative ruins of an 18th century pile called Carmichael House. We had already begun to strike up a good rapport among ourselves, aided not least by the unfailingly witty banter of Amy and Geoff from California. For instance, Amy had this thing where, when I mentioned the film ‘Groundhog Day’, she asked “Do you know the movie?”, to which I answered “Yes”, and made some remark or other, after which she asked, “Do you know the movie?” again, in exactly the same tone of voice as the first time! In the afternoon, before reaching the town of Biggar, we were all invited into 007’s front kitchen for a cup of tea and a chat with him and his wife, about the independence referendum, and the possible re-introduction of wolves into Scotland, among other things. A notable (if somewhat unlikely) comparison was made between the Tinto hills, visible from their kitchen window, and Mount Kilimanjaro, which had me wondering whether I might somehow see that famous mound on this trip. I took my leave a little before the others, in order to attend the Saturday evening Mass at Biggar’s unusual Catholic church of St Isidore of Seville, formerly the front room of the local doctor’s house, where the congregation had been primed to give a very gracious welcome to any of us pilgrims who showed ourselves. I then found my way to the local CoS parish hall, where it was heartening to hear the Presbyterian minister expound on the warmth of his relationship with the local RC priest.

   The Scottish word for ‘take-away’ is ‘carry-out’. We had fish and chips that night, from a widely acclaimed local emporium, though I ordered only chips for myself, trying as I was to be a bit abstemious for Lent. Unwrapping the said fried fare however, thanks be to God, it was discovered that an extra portion of crispily coated cod had accidentally been included - and I could hardly allow it to go to waste!

   On the way from Biggar next morning I had a long chat with Ken, in which we compared notes about our experiences of working in schools, he having had a long career as a teacher in the state sector in London. Such an occupation is not all plain sailing, and nor, relatively speaking, was our walk that morning, in rather cold and windy conditions, along a disused railway line. We passed a place said to be, I quote, “where Merlin was baptised”[1], and came to a sort of enchanted copse, lined with silver birch trees, where I made out the unmistakable gliding form of an owl. In Broughton, one-time home of John Buchan, author of ‘The 39 Steps’, I did a ‘station’[2]  around the theme of Micah: 

‘This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this: that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God’, 

…words which at one time informed the activities of a small ecumenical charity I was involved with, called The Movement for Faith and Justice Today (MFJT)[3]. The walk then took in Stobo castle, before we reached a path beside the very pretty river Tweed, by means of which we came presently to no less photogenic Peebles, and our digs at St Andrews CoS Church hall.

Red Squirrel, near Selkirk
   On the morning of Monday 25th March, feast of the Annunciation, we got a bit lost on the way out of Peebles, but then rediscovered our bearings and made our way along mostly fairly narrow roads, towards Selkirk. Two outstanding highlights were the sight of a red squirrel, of which I managed to get a couple of photographs, and Geoff’s station, exploring the meaning of a quotation he’d come across;

To go to Rome
is much of trouble, little of profit:
The King whom you seek there,
Unless you bring Him with you,
   you will not find.” [Anonymous Irish author, ca.7th-8th century] 

He delivered this next to a woodland display board, containing the nugget of information that grey squirrels, bigger and hardier than their indigenous red cousins, were first introduced into the British Isles from North America in 1876. That day also, a humorous rewording of the famous Yule-tide carol, adapted for our circumstances, came to mind; ‘I’m dreaming of a White Easter’, though of course I learnt later that I was far from alone in thinking of it. We were warmly welcomed at the Scottish Episcopalian Manse in Selkirk, and sat down to a delicious supper – vegetarian curry with banana and cashew nuts being laid on specially in my case, what with Lent and everything. There was also absorbing conversation with David and two of the ladies who were our hosts, about our different thoughts on the meaning of the word ‘fundamentalism’ among other things, and for the first time in my life I heard Robert Burns’ famous ‘Selkirk grace’: 

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.’ 

   Two other key people associated with Selkirk meanwhile are Sir Walter Scott (local sheriff for 30 years) and African explorer Mungo Park[4], born here in 1771. After the meal it was little more than a hop, skip and jump to the United Reformed Church, for a service with beautiful singing and a nourishing homily, on the theme of ‘abiding with the Lord’. This was followed by a tour de force keynote address from David the fighter aircraft designer, in which he spoke with real emotion about the way pilgrimage has transformed his appreciation of, and deepened his respect for Christians outside his own (Anglican) tradition, taking as his departure point John 10:16; 

“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

[1] In a late 15th century manuscript known as 'Lailoken and Kentigern', “…St Kentigern [Mungo] appears in conflict with the mad prophet, Lailoken alias Merlin.” [Wikipedia].
[2] Each of us at some point contributed one or two of these – reflections arising from our thoughts as we went along, with reference to scriptural or other quotations.
[3] Based at a house where youngish Christians lived as a community in central Bristol, we invited speakers to come and give faith- and justice-related talks in our sitting room on Tuesday evenings, and tried to help out with local projects addressing issues like homelessness and substance abuse.
[4] Dr Mungo Park would certainly have been one of Livingstone’s most important role models, not only because he twice went to chart the course of the river Niger in West Africa, but also by virtue of his medical training. He perished in 1806 on the second of his African expeditions, somewhere in what is now Nigeria, at the hands of natives who seem to have mistaken him and his drastically depleted (by dysentery) party for slave traders.

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