A walk through time as well as space
The Pilgrim Route these days starts at Glasgow Cathedral. This is a modern innovation: in the Route’s heyday, pilgrims would have begun – or completed – their walk at Paisley Abbey. The Abbey is the starting point for the second section; this pre-amble begins thirteen and a half miles to the east, in Glasgow’s Cathedral Precinct.
Glasgow Cathedral’s construction began some thirty or more years after that of Paisley Abbey making it, in some respects, a junior partner. However, the Cathedral is the only one on mainland Scotland not to have suffered significant damage at the Reformation. Its roof has remained intact for eight centuries and there has, therefore, been continuous Christian worship in this building since the late twelfth century.
A few signs of pre-Reformation worship remain, perhaps most significant among them the intricately-carved rood screen separating the nave and the choir. In almost all other Scottish churches these were destroyed in the radical revisions to worship and church architecture at the Reformation. This is one of few remaining in post-Reformation Scotland, and may be almost unique in a space now used for reformed worship.
The Cathedral has witnessed traumatic times, and almost seems to hedge its denominational bets. The rood screen points back to a time of catholic worship, there is also a memorial to the Convenanters who, in the late 1600s in Glasgow, preferred death to recanting their faith in a particular form of ecclesiastical governance.
The Covenanters’ principal objection was to the imposition on the Reformed Church of Scotland of bishops by King James VI of Scotland and I of Great Britain. These Covenanters, particularly active in south-west Scotland, will feature again in the Whithorn Way. Here, at its start, their memorial recognises they paid with their lives for such principled and faithful devotion as they, in the memorial’s words, ‘adheared to their station.’
It may be hard for us to imagine what would propel anyone to give up their life for the sake of church governance. In our times is there anything which would so capture our passion that we would be willing to give up our life for it? Yet in many parts of the world today Christians live in fear for their security or wellbeing by retaining their faith profession. They, in the memorial’s words, ‘Adhear to their station’ in challenging times and remind me that the testimony to faithful living long in Scotland’s past is being lived out in many places today.
The Covenanters may have demonstrated a deep faith, but those embarking on this pilgrimage in centuries past were taking a deal of a risk. Whether they sailed the Irish Sea to arrive on the Scottish mainland, or walked from the Scottish hinterland, they would have braved the elements as they slept in open in fields or by the roadside. They may have faced hostile landowners or fellow travellers, or simply have lost their way for a time. The pilgrims for whom this walk was an issue of faith in practice were taking significant risks.
But such risky living for the sake of the Christian gospel was nothing new in the tenth century, and in those which preceded it. In the under-church of the Cathedral is located the brightly-coloured shrine to St. Kentigern, affectionately known in the city as St. Mungo. Kentigern brought Christianity to the west of Scotland as well as north-west England and Wales, having been brought up in Culross on the Firth of Forth.
Stories of his life, written centuries after his death and no doubt embellished by the need to emphasise his saintly credentials, nonetheless describe a life of challenge, conversion and conspiracy. For over a dozen years it is said Kentigern, the ‘apostle to Strathclyde’, lived and laboured in the area of the present Cathedral. Local hostility required him to move to Wales, founding there a cathedral at St Asaph’s. Returning eventually to Glasgow via Hoddom in Dumfriesshire, Kentigern’s ministry in the area was successful and a group gathered around him.
Legends grew up, too, about his restoring a robin to life; restarting a fire in St Serf’s monastery he had allowed to go out by by using a flaming hazel branch; bringing a bell from Rome to Glasgow which was used to lament the dead; and the saving of Queen Languoret by finding in a fish caught from the Clyde the ring her husband had thrown into the river. These four tales are represented in the Glasgow coat of arms and in the four memorable lines:
Here is the bird that never flew;
Here is the tree that never grew;
Here is the bell that never rang;
Here is the fish that never swam.
Since its consecration, the Cathedral has served as the seat of the Archbishop of Glasgow. It also housed the first classes of the newly-formed Glasgow University in the mid-1400s. Today, it is a place of vibrant worship with a strong musical tradition and is remains a focus for Christian faith in the city.
Leaving the Cathedral by Cathedral Precinct, it may be appropriate that those on a bit of an adventure notice they are passing the statue of David Livingstone, the missionary and explorer who grew up in Blantyre to Glasgow’s south. Whilst famous for his exploits in Africa, Livingstone’s study to become a medical doctor saw him walk from Blantyre to Glasgow to attend medical classes.
Turning left onto High Street, there is a striking mural on the end of a tenement building. Designed and painted by Australian Sam Bates (also known as Smug), it depicts St. Mungo in modern-day clothes and illustrates one of the ancient stories told about him, the ‘bird that never flew’ of the little rhyme. Apparently, boys in Mungo’s village were throwing stones at robins, and one bird was hit. It fell to the ground whereupon Mungo ran to it, picked it up, smoothed its feathers and then prayed for it; after that, the bird flew off. Whether this was a miracle or simply a demonstration of care for creation and a recognition of the value of all creation, the bird’s recovery was seen as a sign by the villagers that Mungo was, indeed, special.
I wondered where Mungo might find himself most at ease today: in a beautiful and ornate ancient building, or out on the High Street in the middle of robins and ordinary folk.
The struggles of such ordinary folk might also be seen nearer the river. High Street leads down to the north bank of the Clyde along which the route is easy on a well-constructed footpath. The route passes St Andrew’s Cathedral, the principal Catholic place of worship in the city, and – near Custom House Quay – the modernist statue of Dolores Ibarruri by Arthur Dooley. It is a memorial to the sixty-five Glaswegians killed in the Spanish Civil War and the struggle against European fascism; inscribed on it is a quotation of Ibarruri: ‘Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.’
The route continues under the rail bridge serving Central Station where it’s helpful to watch out both for the limited headroom and low-flying pigeons. It’s interesting, too, to have a look at the pillars of the former Caledonian Railway Bridge, engraved by artist Ian Hamilton Finlay with words from Plato’s Republic: ‘All greatness stands firm in the storm.’
The redeveloped Clydeside which is seen from the west side of the railway bridge is full of the modern glass offices of the International Financial District, though signs of the city’s engineering heritage are still prominent.
The aptly-named Squiggly and Squinty Bridges flank the Kingston Bridge which carries the M8 motorway across the Clyde. Under its central arch the huge bolts which now hold the structure together after years of reconstruction work in the late 1990s can readily be seen, though there is no evidence of them at road level.
The Clyde has been vital to Glasgow’s life and growth over the centuries. Today its south bank around Princes Dock, reached from the north across Bell’s Bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, is home to the nation’s two broadcasters and media businesses, as well as the Glasgow Science Centre.
On the north bank sit the Exhibition Centre and the performance venues the Armadillo and the SSE Hydro, while a little further east is the futurist-looking Riverside Museum highlighting Glasgow’s transport for over a thousand years in a building designed by architect Zaha Hadid and which was named 2013 European Museum of the Year.
Less than an hour of walking takes one past more than a millennium of Glasgow’s built environment from the Cathedral (the oldest surviving building in the city) to the Riverside Museum. That is just the start.
There is yet more history in the next mile, perhaps appropriately connected with sailing as the Clyde broadens, and has been artificially enlarged through a series of docks. One of the most prominent is the Govan Graving Dock where smooth granite steps form a space which, for over a century, allowed engineers to inspect ships’ hulls, usually hidden below the water line.
Govan Old Church sits just to the left of the path, and houses the Govan Stones. These gravestones found and preserved here were carved between the ninth and eleventh centuries, between one and three hundred years before the Cathedral’s construction started, and suggest the early importance of Strathclyde in Scotland’s history.
Among more than thirty intricately-carved items are five hogback gravestones, crafted by the Vikings to look like Norse buildings. The most significant item, though, is the Govan sarcophagus, carved from a single block of stone and the largest such piece found in northern Britain.
Just beyond the shopping area of Govan is Fairfield Shipbuilders where a large number of warships and ocean liners were built in the century ending in the mid twentieth century. This is a central part of Glasgow’s, and Scotland’s, naval heritage; it is the place where my grandfather started the last journey of his life, though his was not at sea.
He forged brass in one of the many workshops there and, at the end of a shift on a foggy autumn night in the early 1960s, caught the tram home to Springburn in the north of the city. The driver, for whatever reason, refused to stop when requested and my grandfather had to walk home an extra stop, back up the hill, in the Glasgow smog.
A mixture of poverty, ill-health (he had suffered from bronchitis for years) and a habit of pipe-smoking proved too much. He never recovered from the walk, the fog and the infection, and died a few weeks later. I sometimes wonder about him, one of thousands of nameless, unremembered ordinary workers whose labour in difficult circumstances in part made Scotland – and the world – what it is today. He, and many like him, saw little of that.
He lived in a time when medical help was a private matter, often beyond the economic reach of ordinary workers. These days, health is taken much more seriously and is available to everyone. The new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, a futuristic-looking office block of a building, has replaced the old Southern General Hospital and provides west Scotland with access to the latest medical therapies as well as specialising in imaging research with one of the most powerful MRI scanners in Europe.
If Fairfield’s, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and even Mungo’s life are examples of a continual striving to develop and move forward, the Braehead Shopping Centre perhaps represents a similar principle in a consumer culture. It is a vast area of warehouses, parking areas and shopping malls and has given a new lease of life to what was post-industrial riverside decay. Streets of new housing with the landscaped Clyde View Park show just how land can be repurposed.
About half a mile further on there is a recycling plant: mounds of rusting iron lie waiting to be reprocessed at the National Dismantlers Car Breakers centre and Christie and Son metal merchants. What used to form cars, bikes and prams wait to be sorted, crushed and sent on to be re-used in a world which is only just awakening to the need not only to consume less but to make the most of what has already been mined and forged. What might appear a bit of an eyesore could also be seen as a sign of the future.
Even the land speaks of change. A rusting iron doorway leads, now, to an empty yard since the warehouse it served has long since gone. According to my map I should soon have come to the site of Renfrew Castle, but on the ground there was nothing to see. The changing route of the Clyde over the years has washed away the castle’s site. It may, once, have been a stronghold for Walter FitzAlan against attack; it hasn’t been able to withstand nature’s changes.
Since 1923, the Scherzer rolling lift bascule bridge, now the last working example in Britain, has taken the roadway across the White Cart Water. When needed, the rolling action lifts the bridge upwards to allow ships to pass underneath.
It is possible to cross the White Cart Water and continue along its left bank, skirting the perimeter of Glasgow Airport. Alternatively, remaining on the right bank, there is a well-formed path around Renfrew Golf Course which runs through another industrial and housing area and emerges on Paisley Road which, crossing the busy M8 motorway, becomes Renfrew Road.
In a little over five hours of travelling by foot, as people have done for thousands of years, it’s possible to encounter a world transformed on land, at sea and in the air. Getting about has been at the heart of the Clyde since the earliest Christians arrived perhaps in the seventh century; it is still central to the river today.
The first sight of the square tower of Paisley Abbey can then be seen in the distance. Relief at seeing today’s destination was partnered by hope for something to eat when I caught sight of the brightly painted La Rambla restaurant. Sadly, on Easter Monday this rambler hadn’t counted on that La Rambla being closed! The nearby McDonald’s, however, provided a welcome alternative.
The Abbey in Paisley is worth several hours’ visit itself, if possible. Details of the Abbey, its history and current ministry can be found at the Abbey website, Wikipedia and Undiscovered Scotland. The town, which has seen better days, is making a determined effort to re-develop, not least through creative industries and the arts.
The way home, taking the same route, was slightly harder in places given the blustery east wind and threatening sleet. It was a welcome relief to cross the road bridge at the Clyde Tunnel – which I passed through regularly as a five-year-old going to school – before returning to my car.
This first stage of the Whithorn Way, twenty seven miles, was easier than I’d imagined. This part of the route is straightforward: there are no hills to speak of, and the footpaths are well made for the whole way. Walking there and back, as Bilbo Baggins discovered, was what really made the journey. I was encouraged to take on the next section of the route without too much delay!