Scottish Cross

Article: "It Ain't Heavy"

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This article on Scottish Cross appeared in The Tablet in June 2003. It gives a flavour of the pilgrimage, how it got started, what is involved in going on such a pilgrimage and some insight into the spirituality of cross-carrying pilgrimages.

It Ainít Heavy

Alan Riley

THE NEW director of the British Catholic aid agency Cafod, who started work last week, has a secret weakness for freezing temperatures and torrential rainfall. But this year Chris Bain was disappointed: the pilgrims of Scottish Cross endured instead blistering, unrelenting, heat; blue skies, day after day; and water shortages.

But some elements in Holy Week 2003 stayed the same: the staggering beauty of the remote wilderness, the tranquillity and beauty of the landscape, the powerful physical and spiritual challenge and the potential for transformation and resurrection. This is the real reason Bain helps to carry a cross to Iona.

Scottish Cross, the ecumenical cross-carrying pilgrimage that goes to Iona during Holy Week each year, is made up of two groups of around 25 people each, which set off separately, later to unite: one leg leaves from the foot of Loch Lomond, the other from Fort William. Each skirts lochs and mountains until they reach Oban, carrying a large wooden cross as they go, then takes a boat across to Mull, to continue the pilgrimage.

On Maundy Thursday the two legs meet up to become a single pilgrim community. Their first act together is a foot-washing service, followed by a commemoration of the Last Supper. On Good Friday, the pilgrims walk together with one cross along the clifftops of the southern coast of Mull. With eagles flying overhead, waterfalls pouring from the cliffs and adders underfoot, Scottish Crossers commemorate the Crucifixion with a veneration service on the top of the cliffs. On Holy Saturday, the pilgrims finally make it to the island of Iona in time to take part in the Vigil at Iona Abbey. The idea for Scottish Cross dates back to 1996, when I discussed with Anthony OíMahony, the interfaith specialist at Heythrop College in the University of London, the idea of starting a Scottish pilgrimage to mark the fourteen-hundredth anniversary of St Columbaís death the following year. We realised that it was much easier to organise a pilgrimage in Scotland than in England. In Scotland there is a legal right to roam, long national trails such as the West Highland Way, and good trailside facilities such as bunkhouses. With some planning, and help from one of the other Scottish Cross founders, Fr Tom Kearns OP, then at Edinburgh University, the first pilgrimage set off from Edinburgh on Palm Sunday 1997, with a small group of pilgrims. This year more than 50 took part.

There are now at least four regular cross-carrying pilgrimages in Britain - Worth Cross, Northern Cross, Student Cross as well as Scottish Cross - each of which has its own distinctive character, largely dictated by the route of the pilgrimage. Scottish Cross is a journey through wilderness. The tranquillity and rugged beauty of the landscape provide a robust setting for contemplation, prayer and reflection: nature is awesome, irascible, powerful; and the animals - eagles, adders and shaggy highland cattle - wild and noble. The grandeur outside creates space inside to think, wonder and give glory for creation. The pilgrimsí steps suggest where their new life-steps may lead.

It is physically very challenging. The pilgrims walk for nine days and must endure major obstacles: the 1,800-feet-high Glen Noe (not easy with a large wooden cross), waterfalls, steep escarpments, and the clifftops of the Mull coast. They are exposed to the elements, and in Scotland the elements deserve considerable respect. One minute, there is sun; the next, a gale blows up from nowhere and the heavens open, bringing an indigenous form of precipitation known as "Scottish horizontal rain". But all these challenges help to weld us together. The pilgrims support each other to cope with the terrain and the weather. Community quickly forms: hospitality figures strongly, in simple but fundamental ways, from being woken up by a smile and a cup of tea, to seeing how far a bar of chocolate will go, to tending a fellow pilgrimís blisters. At the core of this transient community is the Cross. The Cross is always present: heavy, physical, constant. The Cross brings the pilgrims together; it helps them to keep walking; it builds them into a single body.

The Cross itself is about three-quarters of the actual size of the true Cross (though how big that was is not known for certain). One year, an athletic student pilgrim, at the start of the pilgrimage, complained that the cross was not the size of the true Cross. But by the time he had helped to carry it up the east bank of Loch Lomond he objected rather less. The three-quarter size is about as much as he or anyone else could cope with.

Then there is the impact on the pilgrimís consciousness of the awakening landscape. In the Western Highlands in late March and April the land is slowly coming back to life after its long hibernation. As the pilgrims walk along they can still see the mordant hand of winter: in the great trees felled by the gales, the wreckage of foot bridges swept away and the last traces of winter ice and snow. At the same time, there are signs of new life: buds on trees, spring lambs leaping, flashes of sudden colour. As they carry their Cross through glen and along loch shore, the pilgrims witness the death of life, and new life in death. This transformation brings Scottish Crossers to the realisation of their own re-creation. They have been invited into new life with Christ; from Iona they will leave transformed, refreshed and invigorated.

Because it is a journey through wilderness, the Scottish Cross does not have the same opportunity for witness as some other pilgrimages. But because occasions for human contact are so few, they are all the more intense. It is fascinating to see the reactions of people as they stumble on a bunch of out-of-breath walkers struggling up a hillside bearing a large wooden cross. People are incredulous; they smile, bewildered, and begin to ask questions: "How did you manage to bring that cross here?" "Why are you carrying it?" "Where are you going?"

Then, in the communities it passes through year after year, particularly in places where there is a worshipping community, Scottish Crossers can share with people their distinctive liturgy. We use a simple prayer book for morning and evening prayer which draws from the Catholic Office, with Anglican collects and prayers from the Celtic prayer book, the Carmenica Gadelcia. The rhythm of morning and evening prayer provides the foundation for the stations and the triduum services later in the week. On Palm Sunday, there will usually be a "forest Mass" for each leg.

Who comes? Scottish Cross has had 18-year-olds and 70-year-olds, and the mix usually includes students from various university chaplaincies, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s and a group of older people in their 50s to 70s. The groups have included both working and non-working people: pensioners, teachers, nuns, engineers, diplomats, academics, not a few Tablet contributors and the new director of Cafod. Most are British, but a substantial minority come from Hungary, Poland, the United States, Canada, Italy, Malaysia, Belgium and Egypt. Although it was started by a group of Catholics, the pilgrimage has included Quakers, Anglicans, Orthodox, Free Church, and Jews - as well as people of no faith at all.

But securing priests can be a problem. The specification is simple enough: pilgrim priests needed between Palm Sunday and Easter; must be willing to walk 120 miles in a week. So far we have managed to get a 60-year-old chain-smoking Jesuit, a 30-year-old Anglican chaplain and a largish (both in frame and character) Sacred Heart Father. Many of the priests have come from the Dominican priory in Edinburgh, which houses the crosses and provides a starting point for the pilgrimage.

The culture of pilgrimage, once so strong in Britain, seems to be slowly reviving. The more I discover about the old pilgrimage routes to Iona - there is in fact still some evidence of medieval pilgrimage in Iona Abbey: a stone pilgrim footbath - as well as to St Andrews, St Davids, York and Lincoln Ministers, the more I realise that there could be many more cross-carrying pilgrimages. Scottish Cross would be delighted to help get them going.

Scottish Cross