Living in the heart of the richest pilgrim country

Once again the time of carol singers and nativity plays is almost upon us.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 17 December, 2017, 12:19
Pilgrims cross the causeway to Holy Island on Good Friday. Picture by Jane Coltman

Doubtless at some point – either when we are sitting quietly at home or perhaps during an evening at the pub – we shall be greeted by rousing choruses of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or We Three Kings Of Orient Are.

Carols are, almost by definition, a community affair.

Statue of Saint Aidan on Holy Island Picture by Jane Coltman

But then, in a different way, so are nativity plays. Any of us who have had children will remember requests for finding a shepherd’s staff, lamb-like cuddly toys, or straw for the stable.

Many schools – all the way from the villages of the Aln and Tweed valleys to those in Alnwick or Wooler, or Berwick – will be doing it their own way. Churches, too, will seek out crowns and purple robes for the three kings, or more properly for the wise men.

In the Gospels, these characters are described as Magi, wise men or even astrologers, coming from the East.

But who exactly were these seers who have been characterised in various exotic ways down the centuries? Where exactly did they come from?

Statue of Saint Aidan on Holy Island Picture by Jane Coltman

Of course, we’ve no idea about either of these things. If we were starting from scratch now, however, we’d almost certainly describe them as pilgrims. They appear to have travelled far and their destination is the holy child. So pilgrimage goes back even beyond the Middle Ages, and before the Christian era.

Earlier on this year, back in the summer, we holidayed in northern Spain, beginning in Santiago de Compostela in the far North West.

Since the ninth century, thousands, or by now probably millions, of pilgrims have come to the shrine of St James, brother of John. Legend has it that St James’ body was brought to Santiago in the eighth century; it was believed he had been a missionary there 700 years earlier.

The camino, or ‘way’, to Compostela can be traced from different starting points across Europe. It is marked by the scallop shell, the sign of the pilgrim. Pilgrims travelled another 20 miles to the coast, collecting a shell there to prove they had completed the pilgrimage.

The Border country here is a classical place to explore and reflect upon pilgrimage.

In recent decades, two long-distance footpaths have been marked out, rather like the camino of St James.

From Melrose to Holy Island, you can walk St Cuthbert’s Way. If you are stoic and stalwart, you can then set out again from Holy Island and make your way South-Westwards to Hexham, this time following the footpath to Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald’s Way.

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These footpaths, with their saintly names, have not arisen by accident. Instead, they trace their origins effectively back to the seventh century, even earlier than the way to Compostela.

But what are their roots – why give them such names? Perhaps the key is St Aidan.

King Oswald, also later canonised as a saint, had been brought up in exile on the Inner Hebridean island of Iona. As King of Northumbria he was keen that Christianity should be brought again to these parts. Aidan was sent, probably knowing little or nothing of North East England, as we now know it.

He effectively came as a pilgrim. Indeed, the Irish tradition of pilgrimage – Iona was an Irish monastic outpost – meant leaving your home and striking out, not knowing where you might end up.

Aidan was the pioneer who established the earliest monastery on Lindisfarne, Holy Island, and he remained a counsellor to the King.

Then, just a little later, another intrepid missionary would come to Holy Island.

The holy Cuthbert had been a novice with St Boisil (English version, St Boswell) and the stories of his remarkable stamina and holiness are legend – in all senses.

When he died in his hermitage on Inner Farne, his body was brought back to Bamburgh and then buried in the abbey at Lindisfarne.

During the Danish invasions and raids, the monks of Holy Island took his body on another pilgrimage, stopping at the border abbeys. Katherine Tiernan, the Berwick writer, tells the story beautifully in novel form.

Finally, Cuthbert would be buried in the cathedral in Durham, where he still lies, at the other end of the great church where Bede, who tells us of him, also lies.

In the Middle Ages, Durham became one of the greatest of all pilgrim focuses in these islands. Now, much of this story is told most vividly in the recently completed Open Treasure exhibition in the cathedral.

Both Holy Island and Durham remain pilgrimage centres in our modern day.

Pilgrimage culminates in crossing a new threshold at the final destination. Pilgrims find their lives ‘changed’ by crossing this threshold. It would appear that something similar happened to those three magi who came to Bethlehem.

So Christmas, whatever our own beliefs may be, is a unique moment to think of pilgrimage in our chosen way. Both in our lives and in our travels, all of us are unavoidably pilgrims.

Not only that, for those of us who live here, we live in the richest pilgrim country imaginable.