The Pilgrims’ Trail (shortly to be released as DVD)

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A Celtic cross on Iona

WHAT exactly is a pilgrimage? It’s been described as a journey or search for moral or spiritual significance and in many cases it’s a journey to a location of some importance to the person making the pilgrimage. Such a location might be a shrine, as in the case of the well known pilgrims’ trail to Santiago de Compostella and the church of St James, or the Muslim ‘haj’ to Mecca.

When BBC Scotland asked me to walk a Pilgrims’ Trail in Scotland for our annual Christmas television programme I wasn’t sure where to begin but my producers at Triple Echo Productions came up with a cracker of a route, a journey that partly fulfilled the ‘spiritual significance’ aspect of pilgrimage and partly fulfilled my own definition of a pilgrimage as a ‘journey of discovery’.

The route began, not surprisingly, on the Isle of Iona, a centre of Irish monasticism for four hundred years and the island from where St Columba, or Columcille, set forth to bring Christianity to the Picts of Alba. This starting point really appealed to me as I’ve long been fascinated by our Celtic heritage and I was very keen to try and learn more of the ancient Scotland that Columba was determined to evangelise.

But I had another purpose in mind for this ‘pilgrimage’ across Scotland. I wanted to take the opportunity to challenge my own perceptions about ‘wild land’, at a time when so many people are suggesting that Scotland is being ‘industrialised’ beyond repair, and that the finest of our wild land areas are being despoiled by renewable energy projects. Is industry in the highlands a modern phenomenon and how genuinely ‘wild’ is our wild land? I hoped a 250-mile walk across Scotland, from the Argyll coast to the North Sea might offer me a deeper understanding of the issues.

A pilgrimage should end at a location of some importance and relevance to the entire route. When my producers suggested Portmahomack as a destination I looked at them curiously. Portmahomack? I wasn’t even very sure where that was. A quick check on the map showed it to be on the Tarbat Peninsula, a sharp finger of land that juts into the Moray Firth between the Dornoch Firth and the Cromarty Firth. The village stands about three miles south of the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness and finds of elaborate early Christian carved stones dating to the 8th-9th centuries (including one with an inscription), in and around the churchyard, had long suggested that Portmahomack could be the site of an important early centre of religion.

Since the mid-nineties archeologists have made some exciting finds in and around the grounds of the old Portmahomack Parish Church and are now convinced that the present church stands on the site of the only Pictish monastic settlement ever found in Scotland. The leader of the archeological team, Professor Martin Carver of York University, told me that the site is “Scotland’s best kept secret” and is possibly as important as Iona, but more of that later.

Our pilgrimage route was designed as much to offer an exceptional walk as anything else, and we followed what turned out to be a highly original coast-to-coast route. From Iona I visited another coastal island, Inch Kenneth, by curragh, the type of skin-covered rowing boat that Columcille and his contemporaries used. In those distant days of the sixth century the Celtic monks would have made full use of the sea as a highway – it was probably easier than negotiating the heavily wooded landward areas of mainland Alba, where wolves and wild boar freely roamed.

Our route then took me across the Island of Mull to Fishnish Bay on the Sound of Mull where I caught the ferry across to Lochaline. But before that I was keen to deviate from the Pilgrim’s Trail just a little, to take in the only Munro in Scotland that necessitates the use of a ferry to reach it.

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On Ben More of Mull

In 1991 Ben More of Mull was my final Munro the first time round and I was keen to re-visit it, largely because in four ascents of the hill I’d never had a view from the summit. This time I was lucky and after a wild and windswept ascent the weather gods relented and the sun burst through the cloud as I climbed the final snowy steps to the summit cairn. It was a good omen for the rest of the pilgrimage!

From Lochaline we travelled north, past the silica sand mine that has been exporting to the rest of the world since 1940. The extremely fine sand is used in the manufacture of optical quality glass and later in the day I passed some more mines, this time long abandoned.

The old Lurga lead mines are found in Gleann Dubh, a few miles north of Lochaline. Mining took place here as early as 1730 and the open cast works and drystone buildings are still evident. The site consists of the remains of the lead mines, opened around 1730, derelict by 1749, re-opened around 1803 and finally abandoned by 1850. Later, beyond Strontian, I came across more mine workings. Lead was mined here in the 18th century and it was in these mines that the mineral ‘strontianite’ was discovered, from which the element ‘strontium’ was first isolated, named after the Gaelic village name, Sron an t-Sithein, the nose of the faery hill. Who says industry in the highlands is a new phenomenon?

From Strontian I crossed the hills to Loch Shiel and followed the track along its eastern shore to Glenfinnan, a place forever associated with Charles Edward Stuart. It was here he began his campaign to regain the crown for his father, a campaign that ended in bitter defeat on Culloden Moor. It was the aftermath of the defeat that interested me though, as Charles took to the heather for months on end, avoiding the Government forces that were hunting him, until he could board a ship that would take him back to France. His journey, to the Western Isles and back, was a long and convoluted expedition that made my walk look tame in comparison. Our steps were to cross several times in the coming days.

From Glenfinnan a rough track over the high bealach of Gleann Cuirnean between Sgurr Thuilm and Streap took me to the head of Loch Arkaig on the very edge of Knoydart, and from here another high pass took me into Glen Kingie. The route turned east now towards the Glengarry Forest before heading north again over the Mam na Seilg into Glen Loyne and Kintail.

I followed, in part, an old drovers’ road up into the pass but the original route dropped down to the shore of Loch Loyne where it abruptly vanished. This is pretty much all that remains of the old ‘Road to the Isles’, and this section once ran between the Cluanie Inn and Tomdoun. This drovers’ road originally forded two rivers, which were dammed and flooded in 1957 to form Lochs Cluanie and Loyne. The present A87 road was constructed around the edge. This old track to Loch Loyne is still in pretty good condition but where it crossed what is now Loch Loyne, there were once two bridges and a small wooded island. These were submerged below the waterline and only become visible when the loch is at an unusually low level.

Over the next week or so we were to be faced with more and more evidence of Scotland’s widespread hydro-electric industry as we crossed from Glen Affric, via the Munro of Toll Creagach, to the big dam at the head of Loch Mullardoch. Here I met up with fiddler Duncan Chisholm who has released a trio of albums named after three of the glens we had visited, Affric, Cannich and Strathfarrar – the Strathglass Trilogy. What we didn’t know until we met up with Duncan was that his father had worked on the Mullardoch dam, part of the Affric/Beauly power scheme.

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Duncan Chisholm, playing for us on the shores of Loch Mullardoch

“My father was born in Glen Cannich at Cosac Lodge which ended up submerged in water when Mullardoch was dammed in 1951,” he told me. “Loch Lungard and Loch Mullardoch became one loch then when their height was raised by about 100 feet, leaving a very dark and very dangerous stretch of water. In fact my great grandmother who had spent all of her life in either Glen Affric or Glen Cannich was so appalled by what had happened to her home she just couldn’t bare to visit Mullardoch again after 1951, until her death in 1967.”

Beyond Glen Cannich I walked through a very remote landscape between the head of Glen Strathfarrar (the only Strath in Scotland that’s also a glen…) and Loch Monar. A wild camp, and a campfire on the stony shoreline of Monar, was highly atmospheric and memorable.

Next day I crossed more high ground into the head of lovely Strathconan from where the River Conon and a series of forestry paths and tracks took me to the Blackwater River and the heavily forested Rogie Falls and more hydro-electric schemes. The Blackwater River rises high on the slopes of Beinn Dearg, some 30 miles away and runs down into Loch Vaich from where it contributes to the huge Glascarnoch hydro scheme. A series of tunnels carries the waters from Loch Vaich to Loch Glascarnoch and then down to Mossford Power Station on Loch Luichart. The Blackwater River itself flows out of Loch Garve and eventually meets up with the River Conon just south-east of Contin.

Soon Ben Wyvis became the third Munro of the pilgrimage, and our first real view of any windfarm activity. The Loch Luichart scheme is pretty massive, and badly sited in my opinion, and I sincerely hope that the nearby Glen Morie proposal is never given planning approval. I dropped down to the shores of lovely Loch Glass from Wyvis and then crossed a high ridge to the shores of Loch Morie, an area that was new to me and one which surprised me by its feeling of remoteness and its natural beauty. It would be a disaster to spoil it with a large windfarm.

From Glen Morie various byways took me to lovely Strath Ruisdale and Strath Rory, all new to me, before some quiet roads led me east towards the Tarbat Peninsula and Portmahomack where I met up with Martin Carver.

Martin believes the remains by the church of St Colman are one of the earliest Christian sites uncovered in Britain. It is the first Pictish monastery to be excavated, resulting in a window, opened on an unprecedented scale, on early monasticism, inspired by the Columban mission to Scotland in the late 6th century AD. The settlement has been dated from the 6th century and it’s believed the monastery was eventually destroyed during a Viking attack, possibly in the 9th century.

Amongst other finds have been more than 200 fragments of Pictish stone sculptures, including the ‘Calf Stone’, which shows a bull and cow licking their calf.

Between 1994 and 2007 the Church of St Colman was fully excavated, as well as a one hectare sample of the area within the enclosure that surrounds the church. What the archeologists discovered was astounding. Their findings led them to believe that in the 8th and 9th century Portmahomack could have been the largest manufacturing centre in Europe, making illuminated books and church vessels like tin bowls and candle holders for the rapidly expanding number of monasteries that were being built. When I asked Martin Carver if it’s possible Columba visited here he thought it quite likely, possibly after visiting Inverness to try and convert the pagan King Bridei in 565, although the founder of the actual Portmahomack monastery was more likely to be St Colman, who had succeeded Aiden and Finan as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

The Tarbat Discovery Centre now displays many of the artefacts uncovered during the excavations and it’s well worth a visit. As I wandered along the final three miles to the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness I pondered on all the trails and tracks I had followed from Iona, and the types of people who had trod them before me – saints, monks, soldiers, Jacobites, princes and cattle drovers, and in more recent times the miners, the hydro and forestry workers, crofters and farmers and the hikers and backpackers of today.

Although few of these tracks and trails wound through truly wild land I had little doubt in my mind that the mountain tops we had crossed certainly did fall into that landscape category, although all of them had evident footpaths running to the summits. But wild land or not, and despite the industrial heritage to be found all across my route, the Scottish highlands still have the ability to make you feel small and insignificant, that you are the only person in a vast and uncompromising landscape, reminding me again of its precious qualities for renewal and hope and of its immense natural beauty, qualities that I’m sure even Columcille would have been more than proud of.

St Colman’s Church, Portmahomack

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The double-DVD, The Pilgrims’ Trail, will be released in a couple of weeks time and will be available from www/mountain-media.co.uk cost £19.99

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