Last summer I followed the Whithorn Pilgrim Route from Glasgow. Part of that walk took me from Lochwinnoch, via Dalry and Kilwinning, to Troon. As I travelled, it struck me that destinations and diversions are both important and influential; and I recognised more fully the importance of the sea and the courage of those who had crossed it, centuries before, in nothing more substantial than dinghies.
Don’t you just hate a diversion? They seem to close the M8 across the Kingston Bridge quite frequently, and the detour south by another route often adds a good ten minutes to my drive home. A diversion on foot, though, can be rather longer.
On the website of the Whithorn Pilgrim Way I’d seen news that the construction of the Dalry bypass affected the route. Of course, you can never be sure that websites are up to date. In any event, just how disruptive can roadbuilding be? So I set off from Lochwinnoch and ignored the few signs suggesting an alternative walking path.
That was until I got to Highfield, and saw that the road was clearly closed! I could also hear the noise of earth-moving equipment and it sounded as though work was continuing, even on a Saturday. It seemed safer not to try to cross the building site – though it was still out of sight – and so I headed along the road and into Dalry.
It was a bit of a diversion and perhaps added an hour on to that day’s walk. It did, though, give me a bird’s eye view of the construction of the new road, from a recently built flyover, which I’d not have seen if I’d tried to nip through the construction area. Sometimes a slightly longer way lets you see more than you would otherwise.
Here’s the same view a year later, and the road is completed and open. In a world which focuses on efficiency (and the bypass is a good example of that), the road less travelled may appear unattractive simply because it is a little longer. Yet the quickest path might not give you the most advantageous view.
It wasn’t long after that I turned a corner and saw, in the far distance, the tower of Kilwinning Abbey. In these days of high-rise buildings and power lines, it’s not that impressive. Nine hundred years ago, though, it would have stood out as the only man-made object on the horizon, and it may well have been awe-inspiring.
The Abbey is situated exactly halfway between Paisley and Crossraguel Abbeys; Crossraguel itself is precisely halfway between Paisley and Whithorn. There was, then, in south-west Scotland 900 years ago a planned series of abbeys supporting pilgrims walking between Paisley and Whithorn. This was by no means a haphazard arrangement. These religious houses provided shelter and spiritual support for local pilgrims even as they were variously governed from Cluny, Thiron and Cîteaux in France. There would have been (for that time) close and frequent connections among the abbeys within each order, and with the mother abbeys in France. Close ties with Europe have hallmarked religious and other life in south-west Scotland for more than a thousand years.
These days Kilwinning Abbey is largely ruined, though even the remains are impressive. For all its large size, it never supported a huge religious community. At its height – which lasted some four centuries until the 1500s – around forty monks would have lived in the Abbey complex. By the time of the Reformation, this had reduced to sixteen or so.
I’m intrigued by the idea that a small group of faithful people, staying in one area, could nonetheless have contact with others hundreds of miles away in mainland Europe.
They could also welcome travellers who literally knocked at their door. Being located in one place doesn’t need to restrict your reach, or your view.
Now, it would be pushing things too far to suggest we were a monastic community. What principles from this, though, might inform our faithful living? Are we as closely connected as we might be with a broader expression of church across our nation? Does our engagement, for example, with the national Church of Scotland mean all that it might to us? Are we in a positive mutually enriching relationship with another congregations elsewhere in the world? Are we helping travellers on the way of faith to keep on going as we offer, in our congregation, a place at times to rest but also a helpful direction and encouragement to move forward in discipleship?
There may be more we might learn from these ancient places,and the people who exercised faith in them, than we think.
Speaking of travelling, another feature which struck me on this leg of the walk was the importance of the sea.
The Whithorn Way travels inland from Paisley, though along part of the River Garnock, which emerges by the sea at Irvine, here at the Maritime Museum; the pilgrim route continues largely down the coast beyond Girvan.
Going ‘doon the watter’ was formerly the typical family holiday during the Glasgow Fair. Who knows: if the Gulf Stream settles north of the UK in the future, and flying becomes less popular as climate change issues increase in significance, might we see a return to Clyde-side breaks?
This, though, is what it looks like. The sun shone on almost deserted beaches and the water was sparkling blue. The route along the pebbles and sand from Irvine, past the Gailes golf course, to Troon, is outstanding.
The ports of Irvine and Troon were once busy with fishing and other vessels. Getting about by sea was easier than going over land. In fact, until the Highland railway was completed in 1898 (about the time they were building this church), the easiest route from Glasgow to Inverness was via the Crinan and Caledonian canals by boat.
And it was across the sea, from Ireland, that intrepid monks travelled in coracles little larger than children’s paddling pools. The Word ‘dinghy’ comes from Hindi ‘dingi’ possibly meaning ‘wooden trough’. It was a similarly rough-hewn vessel which brought monks here.
They may have had little idea where they were headed or what – or who – they might find when they got there. Yet they were determined, as generations before them had been, to take the Good News of Jesus well beyond the comfort of their homes and communities to a much larger world.
They did it by sea, for that was the easy way to travel. What they did (the likes of Mirrin, and Columba, and Ninan) in and around the sixth century, changed these islands for good.
The woman Jesus met at the well was on her own turf. She wasn’t afraid, though, to engage with this strange, male, traveller (though Jesus seems to have started the conversation). In a discussion about water, what it’s really about and how you might get hold of it, Jesus offers the woman such exciting possibilities that she is compelled to return to her village and encourage others to go and find out more for themselves.
She’s a good example of someone travelling in her thinking, and travelling more literally. Even at her home, she recognises there’s a route to walk – and she walks that she might share and tell. She is, perhaps, not a bad example to follow.
Like her, and the saints from over the sea, and even the monks who worshipped, worked and lived in Kilwinning, we are all invited on a journey. Sometimes that involves us in apparent diversions which, while costing a bit more effort, enable richer experiences. Almost always there is some destination in sight. And all such journeys start by putting one foot in front of the other, and repeating the action.
What do these stories of diversions, destinations -and even dinghies – suggest to you now?