Saturday, 28 June 2014

   The weather started quite well, but when it came in mid-morning, the rain was of the steady and drenching variety. My best intentions to fast on bread and water on that Wednesday had already been destabilised by the bowl of porridge; reaching a summit of the Galloway Hills, in driving wind, and already well on the way to being soaked through, I gleaned some energy and a sugar-boost from the macaroon I’d bought in Highcross. At one point there was a turn-off for a village, and because otherwise the district was totally deserted for miles in every direction, I set off along this detour for a hundred metres or so, but then decided to face up to adversity, partly because after my encounter that morning, I knew in theory that I could try to improvise some kind of shelter if need be. Nevertheless it was an exceptionally demanding trek of 20 miles or so, with a lot of climbing for the first half, in some of the wettest conditions imaginable.

   In early evening the rain finally relented, as I came to Glentrool. Some forest there was extraordinary for the ubiquity of luxuriant, bright green moss, and there was a signpost to ‘Bruce’s Stone’, marking the scene of an important early victory for Robert Bruce’s forces. A king-size coffee in a posh pub-hotel in Bargrennan enabled me to get as far as an ideal derelict garage about a mile further on, though I was trespassing on the home of a family of swallows. In the morning it was amusing to wake to the sight of both parents, perched next to each other at the entrance, impatiently watching and waiting for me to leave so that they could attend to their young.

   There was plenty more rain on the morning of Ascension Day, Thursday 9th May, but I only had to walk as far as Newton Stewart, about 7 or 8 kms away. Nonetheless, at the tiny hamlet of Clachane~~[need to find old map – on A714], the kindness of a lady who invited me into her covered porch area, and then went inside to find me some biscuits and make a cup of coffee, was very touching. I left her a little medal of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, and a Mary’s Meals leaflet.

   Newton Stewart is a place remembered in a tight spot by Richard Hannay, hero of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps – he chooses Galloway as a suitably remote place to lie low for a while. The town’s excellent youth hostel is in the quarter on the east bank of the beautiful river Cree which calls itself Minnigaff. My mini gaffe in fact was to disturb the manager, a Geordie, in his small adjacent residence, outside the hours indicated on the sign at the reception, but this was soon smoothed over, and I was able to check in for the night. After freshening up and taking a nap, while I attended Mass at Our Lady and St Ninian’s Church in the evening, the same manager was kind enough to accept my laundry and dry it for me, by way of a contribution to the pilgrimage which I’d told him about. Taking a stroll later on, I saw that as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations that year there would be a special one-off showing of the 1942 classic Casablanca on the coming Sunday evening. It didn’t seem to fit my plans, but the idea was intriguing nonetheless.

   Next day (it is now Friday 10th May) I was given a lift back to the same church by a Dutch woman I’d met in the hostel, touring Scotland in her car, who also gave me a few pounds for Mary’s Meals, as did John from Glasgow, who was staying in the same dorm as me. After Mass I went to the town library, and finally managed to write an entry for the blog that I’d been cogitating for several days, Ayr on a Shoestring. I also bought a ferry ticket for the crossing from Stranraer to Belfast, for Monday 13th May, and came across a story in the Scotsman, about one of the swans of the royal burgh of Linlithgow (near Glasgow), causing congestion and consternation on the previous Wednesday morning by parking itself in the middle of the fast lane on the M9 motorway. Some of that afternoon was then spent catching up with a few postcards and the like in a café, but I got away eventually, and had a delightful evening walk in sunny climes into the interior of ‘The Machars’, a peninsular characterised by pleasant sheep-farming scenery and picturesque villages. On the far side of Wigtown, ‘Scotland’s book town’, where I’d stopped for a non-alcoholic drink in a pub, I tried to follow a path along the coast which my map indicated, but got a bit lost. I came back to the main road, but when I got to Kirkinner at about 10.30pm, the ‘closed’ condition of the only hotel reduced my options. One sheltered place I could see was next to a pavilion inside the grounds of the village bowling green, but a piece of string on the gate led me to think (rightly, as it turned out) that I could get into trouble if I tried to sneak in. By and by however, as I continued snooping around, a young resident asked me what or who I was looking for. I gave him a synopsis of my predicament, at which he suggested the bowling green, saying I had his permission. So that would have been fine, if it wasn’t for the trouble I had, squeezing through the little gate with all my stuff. Presumably I was spotted by someone, who most likely called the boys in blue just to be on the safe side. Dempsey and Makepeace showed up with powerful flashlights to shine in my direction. I had my passport handy to show them, and the fellow who had given me the green light helpfully came by to support my story, but although I was in the clear, I was told all the same that there was no question of spending the night there. Instead I would need to be on the next bus, to be dropped in the Isle of Whithorn[1], which had a range of accommodation options. Amazingly, seeing as it was after 11pm, the appropriate motor-coach arrived almost immediately, picking up Friday night revellers on the way down to the southern-most tip of the peninsular.

   When we reached the Isle of Whithorn at around midnight, the driver pointed me towards an area round the headland where I’d probably find some kind of nook to spend the night; this turned out to be an empty little porta-cabin, with a slamming window that just needed shutting, to facilitate a very sound sleep.

   Saturday 11th May started well, in spite of wet weather, because the considerate folks at The Steam Packet pub on the picturesque quayside in the Isle of Whithorn, although it wasn’t really open, let me come in and sit down, and brought me a super cup of coffee, followed by a cup of tea. A portrait of an elderly gentleman on the wall, with a glass of golden liquor in his hand (probably whisky, but in appearance it might equally have been Armenian brandy) had about it a Churchillian air. Furthermore, explaining my pilgrimage and proffering a Mary’s Meals leaflet, I wasn’t allowed to pay a penny. Next, I went to explore the headland a little, finding the roofless shell of St Ninian’s chapel, dating from ca.1300, the first port of call for pilgrims arriving by sea in the old days. This also being my intention, they would then have continued to Whithorn village.

Church of SS Martin and Ninian, Whithorn
   After a 5 kilometre walk through characteristic Machars scenery, the first place I made for in Whithorn was the RC church of SS Martin and Ninian. This church was completed in 1960, but is intended to replicate as closely as possible the Candida Casa, ‘White’ or ‘Shining’ House (‘Whithorn’ is the Old English for ‘White House’), acclaimed as the mother church of Scottish Christianity, built by St Ninian in the 4th or early 5th century. One strand of tradition holds that Ninian was in some way a disciple of St Martin of Tours, and dedicated the church to him on hearing of his death in 397AD.

[1]…which isn’t really an ‘Isle’ at all, but a coastal fishing village.

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