Strength to persevere; light to see by
The days were shortening at the end of October when I completed, in another two successive days, the final sections of the Whithorn Way. These walks, in a sense, are a condensed version of the longer route, as they take in both countryside and shoreline. They also touch on more ancient history than that even of the first Whithorn pilgrims.
The route from Glenluce Abbey to Glenluce village is, perhaps unhelpfully, signposted with one of the few Pilgrim Way signs on the route; it is one not particularly worth following unless care is taken! The path turns sharp right only a few yards from the junction at Glenluce Abbey and leads down into Glenluce; failing to spot that, I took a much longer (though also scenic) detour along the country road, eventually joining another minor road to Glenluce.
A better way is to continue on the road past Glenluce Abbey and along the valley.
This road approaching Glenluce from the north-west also affords near the town, a good view of the Glenluce Viaduct. Built in the mid 1800s this impressive structure, part of the Dumfries to Stranraer Railway and known as the Port Road, connected London with Northern Ireland via the ferry at Stranraer. It remains a feature of the town’s logo, seen in the sign welcoming visitors.
The town of Glenluce is soon entered and is a pleasant if quiet place. There are a few shops for provisions, but nowhere to eat a meal. However, the lovely ladies in the Crown Hotel kindly put the kettle on and made me a coffee!
Walking the length of Main Street brings the route out onto the busy A75. Crossing this and turning right then left takes the route onto the A747 towards Auchenmalg. There is no footpath and, while the road is not busy, it is fast and care needs to be taken. On the right after a short distance sits Barlockhart Quarry which produces aggregates for road construction. Further again, the recommended Whithorn pilgrim route turns left towards Whitefield Loch. The route described here does not follow this path, though a detour to the loch is interesting. A crannog, known as Dorman’s Island, is visible but inaccessible and there is little further information on-site.
The route continues on the A747 to Auchenmalg and the coast, with a view to stopping overnight at Port William. Auchenmalg is a village with no shops and one restaurant, sadly open only during the holiday season.
There is a holiday park whose caravans have a good view across Auchenmalg Bay, which is also home to some activity from time to time by the Ministry of Defence.
There are also some picturesque cottages almost on the shore, protected from the north by the steep hills. This section of road is undulating and an alternative, though challenging walk, is via the rocky foreshore.
The end point of this section is Chapel Finian, the site of an ancient (and very small) chapel dedicated to St Finian (which, some think, is a corruption of the name Ninian) which sits just off the beach. Pilgrims arriving by sea from Ireland may well have worshipped here, grateful for safe passage, in a small chapel not much larger than a single garage, and would then have continued their pilgrimage to Whithorn. It is likely one priest would have lived in this remote, though beautiful, location.
I had parked some three miles northwest of Chapel Finian and walked initially from there to Glenluce and back. That meant, in late October, approaching six in the evening the sun was setting. There is no footpath on the road which, particularly at that time of evening, was fast. I decided to walk along the foreshore for a mile or so rather than risk walking on the road verge.
The rock formations on the beach were steeply ridged and perpendicular to the water’s edge and made for quite challenging progress. I had to jump from one little summit to the next, in fading light, aware that a slip could easily mean a twisted ankle in a remote spot. The cliff was perhaps forty feet high which hid the road from the beach. There was no-one else around and, knowing I had about fifteen minutes to cover perhaps half a mile of rocky terrain before the sun sank below the horizon, the pressure was on.
In the dusk light, some of the shapes carved into the rock by millennia of tides and southerly winds appeared other-worldly. There was a break in the clouds which allowed the sun’s light to shine a little brighter than it had for most of the afternoon, and the final few minutes of hopping from stone to stone, and at times through stone spines fifteen feet high, was carried out in a golden glow which was almost magical. I felt as though I was ten years old again and on an adventure! Just as the sun sank, I rounded the final little headland and saw that I was no more than a few hundred yards from my car with an easy walk from the beach back to the road.
There was a feeling of slight vulnerability as I scrambled across these rocks. The remoteness of the place, the isolation from other human beings and the evidence of the power of the wind and waves shown on the rocks gave me sufficient reason to feel just a little uneasy. How different it would have been for pilgrims crossing the Irish Sea in tiny coracles, perhaps with some idea where they were headed but with no modern assistance to navigate or keep themselves safe.
The sea, and rivers, play a significant part in this route and it would be easy, from a vantage point on dry land, not to give the power and potential of water a second thought. Over the centuries the coast and firths of southwest Scotland have proved an enormous benefit and significant challenge. My wander along the beach in the gloaming gave me a little insight into a different kind of vulnerability whilst at sea. It makes the Varyag Memorial, which I did not pass at Lendalfoot, more poignant. That marks the location where the Russian cruiser sank, having earlier seen heroism in the Russian-Japanese war at the start of the twentieth century.
A thousand years before, faithful pilgrims with few possessions or resources beyond their faith and courage, made the risky voyage to Scotland. They would have trusted their lives to the God whom they believed, in Christ, had calmed the storms on Galilee. Even so, it must have taken a deal of faith-inspired courage to get into a small, possibly leaky boat, and put out into the sea. It made me think, too, of those in modern times fuelled by desperation who get into similarly flimsy craft to sail across more dangerous, or wider, waters such as the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel.