Ian Bradley, author of a new book on the subject, introduces the Fife Pilgrim Way.
Anyone walking or cycling along the Lade Braes over lockdown will have been aware of the distinctive blue badges mounted on wooden posts showing the distinctive image of St Andrew on his diagonal cross. They mark the last part of the route of the Fife Pilgrim Way, which officially opened 1st July 2019 and will bring pilgrims back to our historic town.
Fife was long known as the pilgrim kingdom. This is because within its bounds were found the two most important places of pilgrimage in medieval Scotland: Dunfermline (which was also the residence of successive Scottish monarchs – hence the kingdom designation) and St Andrews. At the height of the pilgrimage boom in the Middle Ages thousands of people from many parts of the British Isles and beyond traversed Fife to venerate the shrines of St Margaret and St Andrew.
The Fife Pilgrim Way allows modern pilgrims to follow in the wake of their medieval predecessors and walk, cycle or otherwise make their way across Fife towards St Andrews on a route that has two starting points on the northern shores of the Firth of Forth: Culross, with its associations with two early Scottish saints, Serf and Kentigern, and North Queensferry, where Queen Margaret established the ferry crossing for pilgrims coming to St Andrews. The routes converge at Dunfermline. The new pilgrim way is much more than an exercise in historical reconstruction. For a start, it does not follow the route taken by most medieval pilgrims who went directly north from Dunfermline to Loch Leven and travelled on via Scotlandwell, taking a more northerly course. It has rather been deliberately routed through old mining and industrial areas of West Fife, taking in Kelty, Lochore, Kinglassie and Glenrothes. This is partly in the hope of bringing economic and other benefits to places which have experienced decline and do not see many visitors or tourists. It then goes on to St Andrews via Markinch, Kennoway and Ceres.
There is a conscious desire that those journeying along the Fife Pilgrim Way will not only see pretty vistas and affluent villages but also come into contact with places and people that have not been so favoured. King James VI famously described Fife as ‘a beggar’s mantle fringed with gold’. The golden fringe, with its quaint fishing villages and breath-taking views across the Forth, has long been the route of a hugely popular Fife Coastal Path. The Fife Pilgrim Way allows people to explore and encounter the beggar’s mantle, not so immediately and obviously appealing as the coast, but packed with historical, social and spiritual interest. It has been developed through a partnership between churches of all denominations, local history and heritage groups and others interested in the practice of pilgrimage brought together by the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum, and Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, who have been responsible for route planning, way-marking, interpretation and marketing.
The logo chosen for the Fife Pilgrim Way is based on a fifteenth century lead alloy pilgrim badge discovered during excavations at St Andrews Castle in 1998. It depicts the apostle Andrew being crucified on the diagonal cross on which he is said to have been bound rather than nailed in order to prolong his suffering. A crown has been added at the top to represent Fife’s royal connections and specifically Dunfermline which was the seat of the Scottish monarchy and where many prominent kings and queens were born and laid to rest. Beneath the figure of the saint another image has been added in the form of a distinctive cross found carved into the inner wall of the tower in Markinch Parish Church, which stands roughly at the halfway point of the 64 mile long route. The two round holes on the left hand side of the badge are where it would have been sewed onto the hat or cloak of a pilgrim. On the other side, the frame or border is missing, as it is in the original badge which is now on display in the Kinburn House Museum in St Andrews. This gap conveniently allows the words ‘Fife Pilgrim Way’ to be inserted and form part of the design.
It also points to the brokenness of pilgrims, many of whom set out on their travels to seek forgiveness for sins and come to terms with failings. All pilgrims are in some sense ‘the walking wounded’ carrying our hurts, guilt, unresolved tensions, unease and fears. The missing border of the pilgrim badge also points to the incompleteness of every earthly journey. We set out only to come back again, and every departure involves a return until we make the pilgrimage that awaits each and every one of us as we depart from this world.
It is well nigh impossible to enter St Andrews on foot nowadays other than alongside a golf course. Pilgrims arriving on the final leg of the Fife Pilgrim Way from Denhead walk along a wooded path beside the Duke’s Course before cutting through Craigtoun Park, down Lumbo Den and along the Lade Braes, through the West Port and along South Street to the Cathedral. It is a reminder that it is the religion of golf that lures many of the visitors from around the world who flock to the town today. The little arched bridge over the Swilken Burn between the seventeenth and eighteenth fairways on the Old Course almost certainly attracts more veneration, and certainly more selfies, than the ruined cathedral, once the biggest and most imposing building in Scotland, and for many modern visitors the most sacred relics are to be found among the ancient putters, balls and trophies in the glass cabinets of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse and the adjoining Museum of Golf.
But long before there were golf pilgrims, people were making their way to this isolated corner of the northeast Fife coast to venerate what they believed to be the relics of the apostle Andrew, the fisherman from Galilee who was one of the first disciples to be chosen by Jesus. For four hundred years, from the late eleventh to the late fifteenth centuries, St Andrews was one of the main pilgrim destinations in Europe, being eclipsed possibly only by Rome, Santiago and Canterbury in terms of the numbers it attracted at the peak of its popularity.
Those of us behind the Fife Pilgrim Way, in which I have been involved since it was first mooted at a meeting at Fife House in Glenrothes seven years ago, hope that it will bring a new, kind of pilgrim to St Andrews, or perhaps bring back an old kind. As in the Middle Ages, people will make the pilgrimage here for many reasons – to express repentance and make amends, to give thanks, to deepen their faith and spirituality, or simply to wonder at the variety of places they pass through and enjoy the companionship of others on the way. Pilgrimage is healing – as St Jerome said, Solvitur Ambulando (It can be solved by walking).
Ian Bradley’s book The Fife Pilgrim Way: In The Footsteps of Monks, Miners and Martyrs is published by Birlinn