Walking the majority of the northern section of the Whithorn Pilgrim Way is pleasant and easy. Whether strolling through parkland or by the sea, west central Scotland manages to combine countryside and convenience. You can walk all the way from Glasgow to Maybole and never be more than fifteen minutes walk from a Morrison’s supermarket, a Gregg’s bakers, or a railway station. South of Girvan, however, things change. Beyond Barrhill, isolation takes over. The train goes no further than this on the Whithorn Way, and there are no bus services, either. It is in such a remote place that the value of other people becomes more relevant; it is also a place which, in times past, has demonstrated all too clearly the cost of conflict.
Jesus lived much of his life on the threshold of isolation and loneliness. We think not only of the forty days in the wilderness prior to his baptism, but the trips he made to the east of the Sea of Galilee. This is a hilly, desert – and largely deserted area today and, while it would have been more populous in Jesus’ time, not all that much has changed. He was isolated, too, especially in the last week of his life as he experienced separation from his friends and wider followers, and was condemned to death at the hands of the Romans but at the instigation of his own people. Isolation and conflict accompany Jesus throughout his life.
The fourteen miles between Barrhill and New Luce are perhaps the most lonely and bleak of the entire Way. Here, more than anywhere, a sense of isolation and vulnerability becomes most powerful. The route takes you over the moor on a narrow country road. On a whole day of walking there and back I didn’t see more than a dozen vehicles, and my mobile phone had no signal for the greater part of the journey. There is nowhere to stop for a coffee, or a bottle of water.
One of the things about being a real pilgrim, they say, is this sense of being on your own. There needs to be a bit of vulnerability to help us realise that life is more fragile than we ordinarily think. Central Scotland is such an urban environment that, almost everywhere, we are within touching distance of help if we need it. I was never in danger on this part of the walk but being, even for a short time, in a place where I couldn’t readily get help if I had needed it caused me to think twice. Social support, which can all too easily be taken for granted, is essential for a good life. Isolation is detrimental to well-being.
If the sense of vulnerability had a spiritual dimension – not least the realisation that it’s almost impossible to make it through life on your own – there was a more explicit faith side to this area, too. It was one I hadn’t appreciated, and it took this memorial, in a rather unattractive area of cleared trees at the edge of Barrhill, to help me see better. This plain monument stands near the Cross Water. Its simplicity and rough-looking location perhaps serve better to underline its purpose.
The memorial, originally built in 1787 and rebuilt in its present form forty years later, encloses the graves of John Murchie and Daniel MacIlwrick. In 1685 they were Covenanters, those Scots who refused to accept the reimposition of bishops on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Covenanter devotion was particularly strong in south-west Scotland, inspired by preaching from the likes of the Reverend Alexander Peden, Minister at New Luce from 1659. He spent much of his life in hiding, preaching secretly where he was able. He would have been active in farms and gatherings of the Covenanter faithful all across this barren landscape.
It was fine for me to saunter, well-equipped with boots and water and a sausage roll – I came prepared – across the moor. What would it be like, not in sunshine but in rain, or in the dreich gloom of mid-winter? Alexander Peden would, most likely, have been out there then. And he did not only have to contend with the elements. Royalist forces were on the hunt for people like him, ministers who preached secretly at Covenanter conventicles on the moors and hillsides around Galloway. Of course, they were doing the same on our doorstep, too.
The area around what is now Whitelee wind farm, just a few miles south of Giffnock, has strong Covenanter associations, and there is a small museum there at Lochgoin Farm. The Covenanter gatherings for worship, called Conventicles, were not just the hobby of a fervent few: it is said that up to 8,000 people attended some of them.
To our ears, the issues over which they were prepared to die seem strangely irrelevant. Who would give their life for one form of church government over another? Yet the religious history not only of Scotland but particularly of this part of it is such that these were the things people fought for. There was, as they perceived things, a truth or a commitment to principle for which they were prepared to risk their lives.
The Covenanter Memorial in Barrhill memorialises Murchie and MacIlwrick who were, it seems, victims both of devotion and chance. While their Covenanting allegiances and activities may have been known to the authorities, it appears the government soldiers led by Lt Gen William Drummond came upon the boys by accident. They were found to be carrying Bibles and, as they ran off, they were summarily shot in the back, their bodies left by the roadside until later that evening. Two women, probably with Covenanter sympathies, recovered them and arranged for their burial.
That was it. They had in their possession copies of the Scriptures and, for that, paid with their lives. Nearly seventy-five years earlier, in 1611, the new translation of the Bible authorised by King James had been published. That Authorised Version has, over four centuries, shaped society, church and individuals across Scotland and the world.
Strolling in the bright sunshine, it was hard to imagine walking across this moorland in rain and driving wind with the fear of being spotted by government troops never far from one’s mind. Glasgow Cathedral’s memorial to the Covenanters records one kind of dedication to the Covenant expression of Christian faith.
This is as foreign to us as standing on the Moon. What might this faith have felt like to the people of the time? It’s difficult to know, but The Dumfries & Galloway Courier carried a report of a service held at the spot where another Covenanter preacher, Alexander Linn, had been shot for possessing a pocket Bible the same year the boys from Barrhill were killed. This service took place in the 1820s, well over a century later. However, as a contemporary account of a similar gathering it might help us to catch a flavour of this type of devotion. This is how the memorial service is described:
‘‘The place is so remote that nothing but the hottest spirit of persecution could have pursued its victims into such a wild. It was a matter of surprise that a congregation could be collected there to hear sermon. Yet, says an eye witness, we had a large and most attentive audience, people having gathered from a wide circle of the surrounding country’.
“The preacher and his audience, which could not be under 1,000 souls, had to travel through bogs for many a weary mile, and when the voice of the Psalms rose in the wilderness, and matrons, maids, and reverential men were seen streaming from every neighbouring height, the spectators had a living example before them of a conventicle held in the days of persecution.
“We need not eulogise the talents of the preacher. As a divine he has very few equals, whether among Dissenters or in the Established Church; and although he spoke for four hours, a more attentive and enthusiastic congregation never assembled on a hill-side. The inscription on the humble tomb of Linn furnished the Rev. Gentleman with a text, “contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” and never was a text more interestingly illustrated.
“The remoteness of the spot — the tent planted in the open wild — the monotonous aspect of external nature as contrasted with the pious worshippers around — the burn stealing through the heathery waste, and the curlew complaining that her wilderness had been invaded — all contributed to subdue the mind to a holy calm, to banish for a time every worldly feeling, and produce impressions which only the poet could have adequately described.”
Jesus said, to those who professed to follow him, that it may cost them the comfort and convenience of pleasant places to stay. Even foxes have holes to live in, yet the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus was living in a time when the Essenes had established a community at Qumran, in the middle of the harsh heat of the Judean desert, in order to become purer through their isolation. Our talk of God’s love and grace is not wrong, but in these days of increased communication we forget that isolation and at times seclusion, though costly, have been a part of the commitment of faith demonstrated for generations.
Yet not all the Reformation and its aftermath was about conflict and violence. Glenluce Abbey was founded in the late twelfth century as a Cistercian Monastery and, for over three hundred years, gave hospitality to pilgrims until the upheaval of the Reformation. We think of the sixteenth century as a time of destruction of ecclesiastical properties but, in fact, it had a less visible, compassionate, side.
The few monks who then remained at Glenluce were permitted to stay on at the Abbey until the final monk died in 1602 – they weren’t summarily ejected, but allowed to live on as they had done for the preceding decades. Nearly twenty years later it was acquired again by the church and turned into a (rather draughty) Manse. Most of its damage was not caused by the violence of the Reformation, but by neglect over the years, and people pinching its stone to use in their own building projects.
The twin themes of hospitality and hard-nosed commitment come into sharper focus at a smaller church building a bit to the south. Chapel Finian is about the size of a modern single garage and sits about fifty feet off the foreshore several miles to the west of Port William. It’s also a pretty remote place, and would have been all the more so in medieval times. Yet in this isolated spot there would have been a monk, or priest, living in not much more than a garden shed by the side of the church.
His primary purpose was to hold worship services of thanksgiving for the pilgrims who, having braved the sea from Ireland, pulled their boats up onto the rocky beach and gathered in the church to give thanks to God for their safe passage across the water. Their boats would have been small by our standards, and flimsy. Yet they made the voyage, inspired to do so by a conviction that God sought this kind of significant service from them. After worship and resting, they would have made their way the following day or so to Whithorn to complete their pilgrimage.
Religious expression – given its deep connection with those things which people have in the past held most dear – has prompted people to take all sorts of courageous and uncomfortable steps. Whether that was walking out into the moors for worship, or (in the preceding centuries) sailing across the sea to visit the White House at Whithorn for worship and devotion, people have committed themselves to significant acts of service in the name of Christ.
This did not start with the Covenanters, nor ancient pilgrims, nor even Jesus. Psalm 136 recounts the faithfulness of God in the experience of those escaping captivity in Egypt. It was as those people fled for their lives from an apparently unstoppable armed force that they discovered God was good. It was as they wandered, with few possessions and little protection from the burning heat of the desert sun, that they came to know in a new way God’s faithfulness. It was in their desire for the very basics of life that they found God met their needs. It was in their developing understanding of who they were that they became the people of God in a much deeper sense. These experiences, which we might term hardship, brought them to understand they were a people called by God and, therefore, required to live as bright examples of a particular kind of God-following as they worshipped this particular, unique God.
None of this was easy. Not for them, nor for Christ, nor for those who professed faith in him in seventeenth-century Galloway. History is full of examples of those who have given much as a direct result of their dedication to Christ. Millions today are doing the same.
Our response is neither to wear hair shirts nor feel bad that our experience of life is different. We face challenges to our faith in many ways, and we ought not to minimise them. Some of the siren voices around us are much more subtle, but no less threatening. Yet the example of these people of faith in past generations reminds us that faith is not merely a pleasant adjunct to the good life. It is a wholehearted commitment to the God who calls for dedicated allegiance and devoted service.
In recent days we have remembered the remarkable achievement which placed mankind on the Moon. It was in September 1962, a little under seven years previously, that a young and vibrant President Kennedy had issued the challenge of the vision, and he did so in these words:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
He said more than this, though. He pointed out the moral duty inherent in the gaining, and use, of knowledge. He implied that this fulfilling this obligation would itself demand a great deal:
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”
It may be a tentative connection between the Covenanters of old and those involved in the space race, yet one may be made. Both groups were committed to the larger vision, and both were dedicated, courageous, and prepared to expend all they had in order to achieve what they understood to be a matter of profound importance in their time. They exemplified the opposite of cynicism or disinterested observation. They were not prepared to sit on the fence, see how things went and only throw in their chips when the odds of success had shortened sufficiently. They risked much, gave a great deal, and retained a vision. In their own ways, each group changed the world in some respects.
Perhaps we are called, now, to do no less. To give a great deal of our effort and our selves and our hopes to those things which are deeply important in our time, and to which faith points us. The journey may be long and hard and lonely. Yet it will always have a clear vision which includes protecting, including, nurturing, forgiving, renewing and gathering together. For these have been the purposes of God through the generations. They remain God’s purposes today; and God calls us to such an engagement of life, for life, in the name of the living Christ.
For we trust in the God whose love endures for ever.