Exploring the Renaissance of Pilgrimage in Scotland

I perch to rest, and from this misty cnoc the whole world goes drifting by” – Alastair McIntosh,  Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey  

Could Scotland recover the glory days of its ancient and medieval pilgrim routes? This idea will be explored at a special event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Saturday 4th March. A proposed ‘Camino’ route from Iona to St Andrews will be presented by consultant John Henderson, who was commissioned to develop the concept.  Other speakers will examine the worldwide renaissance of pilgrimage, and open up discussion about its present day significance in Scotland.

Over one third of tourists to Scotland visit religious sites, yet Scotland’s religious heritage and contemporary spirituality does not feature strongly in Scotland’s image of itself today. Could pilgrim routes help to bridge that gap? This becomes a live issue as Scotland marks its Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology in 2017.

Author and ecological campaigner Alastair McIntosh will also contribute to the day. Returning to Lewis where he was brought up, McIntosh encounters a deeply spiritual landscape and culture, which he describes evocatively in his recent book Poacher’s Pilgrimage. Is pilgrimage in Scotland also about re-connecting people with local traditions and landscape?

 ‘Every part of Scotland is rich in pilgrim sites and spiritual tradition. It’s one of Scotland’s best kept secrets but maybe we should keep it that way?’ – Donald Smith, author of Pilgrim Guide to Scotland.

The programme of the day is as follows:

10.00am  Coffee, Registration and Welcome

10.30am   ‘The Renaissance of Pilgrimage’ – Richard Frazer

With questions and discussion

11.15 am  ‘Iona to St Andrews: Feet on the Ground’ – John Henderson

With questions and discussion

12 noon    ‘Pilgrimage – Open to All?’ – Isabel Smyth 

With questions and discussion

1.00pm      Lunch

1.50pm       ‘Atom of Delight’ – Alastair McIntosh

Moments of epiphany, of revelation from within, that can arise on pilgrimages, and on the wider pilgrimage of each of our lives. Known variously as peak, transcendent, cosmic and mystical experiences, they arguably offer deeper levels of insight into what it means to be a human being. With questions and discussion.                  

3.00pm       Tea/Coffee

3.15pm       ‘Our Shared Experience – Open Forum’

4.15pm       ‘Journeys Departing’

4.30pm       Close 


Richard Frazer is the parish minister of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh where he has pioneered community and social enterprises. He articulates a strong sense of creative ecological faith, and has been undertaking pilgrimage walks for nearly 20 years, the first of which was a walk from Iona to Old Aberdeen in the footsteps of St Machar. More recently he walked a 1000km of the Camino de Santiago over a period of 7 weeks.

John Henderson has had a direct interest in the promotion and running of the St Cuthbert’s Way since 2002 and by 2005 had become a member of the route management team, also supporting faith groups to walk this long distance and faith related trail. Year on year his walking business has gained more faith walking groups setting up packages that mainly featured St Cuthbert’s Way but also trips to Iona and more recently walkers on the Borders Abbeys Way and St Oswald’s Way. He was commissioned by SNH to conduct scoping work on suitable paths that could be used to create sections of the Iona to St Andrews long distance walking and pilgrimage route.

Alastair McIntosh is one of Scotland’s best known environmental and spiritual writers. His books have been described as “world changing” by George Monbiot and as “an inspiration” by both Starhawk and Rowan Williams. A Quaker, he is a fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, an honorary fellow in divinity at Edinburgh University, and an honorary professor in social sciences at Glasgow University. Alastair’s published work includes Soil and Soul (Aurum 2001), Spiritual Activism (Green Books 2015) and Poacher’s Pilgrimage (Birlinn 2016).

Isabel Smyth is a Sister of Notre Dame with a long experience in interfaith relations. She is the Catholic Bishops’ Secretary for Interreligious Dialogue. The most significant journey for her is the one into other religions and coming back to understand her own in a new way. She has contributed widely to religious education, inter-faith dialogue, and the ecumenical movement in Scotland and beyond.

Donald Smith who hosts the day is the author of A Pilgrim’s Guide to Scotland (2015), and many other books, plays and novels about Scotland.             

St Andrews to Iona: A Scottish Camino?  Saturday 4 March, 10.30am (5hrs 30)

Book tickets

Picture credit: Philip Obermarck