Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey: Port to Port

previously… day 1: Le Grand Départ
… day 2 and 3: Holy Island to Holy Island
… day 4: A rest day on Arran.

Ardrossan to Oban
(via a Golden Wedding Anniversary)

Friday 20th March, St Cuthbert’s Day: An early start in Brodick and the rain is falling while the sun is shining, I wonder how the day will pan out as I catch the first ferry back to Ardrossan.

Landing in Ardrossan just in time for the near total eclipse of the sun. The temperature drops rapidly and I’m stood looking at the screen of my camera while pointing it vaguely in the direction I think the sun is – hoping to catch a glimpse of the eclipse.

As it gets colder I’m thinking about the cold heartlessness of the universe. We’re on a rock floating in the vast emptiness of space with only a small sun to warm our planet. Like baby bear’s porridge in the Goldilocks story; not too hot, and not too cold. This planet is just right. If, though, we were to take away that little nuclear furnace exploding continuously just above our heads, we would freeze. Not only would it be dark, it would be the icy cold of deep space and we’d desiccate rapidly. We’d be a planet of mummified remains: Oh the joy of awareness. I’ve never been persuaded that science and religion don’t mix; quite the opposite in fact. My joy of understanding the world through the lens of ’cause and effect’ is only paralleled by my joy of looking at the world through the lens of a God who loves us.

The sun comes back out and I’m restored from this daydreaming. Time to get back to cycling: I’d avoided the cycle paths of Ardrossan and Saltcoats on the way in and thought perhaps I should at least take a look on the way back out. Oh dismay. My worst fears of cycle paths had come true. It was like cycling through a drain. The disused railway line was in a cutting through the town and each bridge was covered in graffiti, the tarmac was covered almost universally with broken glass, and the overall effect was like taking cyclists and pushing them away where they can’t be seen and can’t bother motorists. I escaped back onto the busy roads as soon as possible.

I used the A738 to get away from the coast and over the A78 towards Kilwinning where I succumbed to the inevitable lure back to a cycle path: National Cycle Route 7. This is advertised as going directly to Glasgow and interestingly, once I’d left Kilwinning, the cycle path was actually in great condition. I haven’t seen routes as well looked after since I was last in Finland.

Firstly, where the route follows a road, it is identified as a “Core” route and all motorised traffic is limited to 30mph. Then when it follows the old railway line, the surface is perfect and with a gentle gradient. There were loads of other cyclists using this cycling superhighway.

The only downside was that, again, because it was following an old railway line I was cycling for miles in a cutting. Occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of something interesting, such as when we ran alongside Castle Semple Loch with the jolly little boats sailing around in the breeze.

I was whisked along and into the heart of Paisley and Glasgow in no time. 50km and it wasn’t even lunchtime. Although I didn’t see much, I learnt something useful: that cycle path to Ardrossan is rapid so I’d wager a quick cyclist could get from Glasgow, down to Arran, around and back to Glasgow in a single day. And a touring cyclist could probably make an easy weekend of a visit to Arran; so it is certainly worth considering using it as a retreat location for a church cycling community.

In terms of learning more about Celtic Christianity along the way, I read up on the history of Paisley and Glasgow. I understand that Mirrin, the Irish monk settled in Paisley in about 560 and may well have gone to Iona later to follow St Columba. Glasgow airport is now intertwined with the ancient sites for the church in Paisley.

I was just passing through Glasgow though, and actually had quite an important appointment: I wanted to see my family again and spend the weekend with them. On top of this it was my parent’s Golden Wedding Anniversary. So after five days cycling and 560km covered, from Durham Cathedral to Glasgow Central Station, I took an East Coast train directly back to Durham.

Monday 23rd March: 7:30am from Durham station and I’m back in the heart of Glasgow ready for the next stage of this pilgrimage.

In ‘A Dictionary of Celtic Saints’, Elizabeth Rees mentions that St Llôlan’s bell may be the Celtic hand bell in the Glasgow Museums collection, but most famously it is Kentigern (affectionately known as Mungo) who is associated with Glasgow, as he was the bishop there in the 6th century and his tomb is in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral.
Perhaps the weekend has dulled my memory but for some reason I choose to follow the cycle paths out along the Clyde. For this mistake I am treated to a reward; no broken glass. No detritus strewn across the path; just a lovely simple route on a raised cycle path through the dockland area and out to the Forth and Clyde canal. So first a railway line, then a canal towpath; then back to a railway line.
The sun is shining on me and small rain clouds only drop a brief shower as I leave Glasgow for Dumbarton. In Dumbarton I leave the railway line again and join the path along the very fast flowing River Leven. This river runs from Loch Lomond into the River Clyde and carries a huge amount of water, it looks quite dangerous.

Dumbarton is another significant Celtic Christian site, believed to be the birthplace of Patrick, who wrote Confession and later lived and worked in Ireland. Not voluntarily at first though, he writes that he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and forced to work as a slave. It is peculiar of Christians, that they are drawn to places of suffering. Patrick escaped, trained as a priest and eventually returned to Ireland as a missionary. He was a political character, facing up to conflict with kings. He writes in Confession that he travelled the world in order to bring Christianity to an alien people. So in this Celtic saint we have another example of a passionate travelling evangelist.

I was stunned by the beauty of Loch Lomond when I arrived there. It was difficult to believe how close this is to the crowded Glasgow region; suddenly I was a very small person surrounded by very big mountains. In the middle of Loch Lomond I could see Inchmurrin, and island also known as “Mirrin’s Isle”, where the Irish monk, Mirrin (of Paisley fame), may have inhabited a hermitage while travelling up to Iona.

Along the edge of Loch Lomond the cycle path continues; saving the cautious from experiencing the A82. As I’m not cautious I tried the A82 for a bit, but with the logging trucks thundering past, and with the cycle path begging me back I gave up being stupid.
The good news about the “West Loch Lomond Cycle Path” is that is uses the old roads wherever possible, and this includes passing through the little towns the A82 misses. At Luss I was able to stop for a slap up lunch. This was fortunate because the weather changed significantly after that.

Luss is another medieval Christian site, where a shrine to St Kessóg was the basis for the siting of the church building. Kessóg is believed to have built a monastery on the small island in Loch Lomond called Inchtavannach.

The rain started to be more persistent. And the wind picked up. Reaching Tarbet on the cycle path, I now had to transfer to the A83 for the relatively easy passage to Arrochar at the top of Loch Long. I was getting slightly more cautious though because I could see sheets of spray being thrown in the air from cars and trucks splashing through large puddles on the far side of the Loch. The A83 heads up into the Argyll Forest Park and over the pass known as the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’.

Just short of the top of the climb there were traffic light controlled roadworks. The drainage ditch had sunk and was being repaired before it caused problems for the road. As I was stood in the rain, waiting at the lights one of the road repair workers struck up a conversation with me. We talked about the road, the weather and why a cyclist would dream of being here. He was interested to learn about my pilgrimage and was intrigued by the idea of a vicar in training. He seemed to think that vicars just existed. I’m grateful for the training I receive. Isn’t it funny the places you find yourself having conversations about faith.

As the lights changed the rain changed to hailstones. Very hard, sharp, painful hailstones. I was grateful now for the cycle hat Carol had bought me years ago; once again it was saving me from suffering. I reached the crest of the hill and stopped to photograph the climb. The wind was strong and coming in gusts, making it difficult to balance on two wheels. Ahead was a lovely long smooth descent, but I knew that the trucks and logging lorries passing would combine with the gusting wind to throw me from the road. Caution was needed.

Once again I had something to be thankful for; the traffic lights. They took about 5 minutes to change in each direction, so I knew that I would have 5 minute windows of empty road to cycle down. To get to the bottom of the pass took three attempts, cycling from layby to layby and stopping to wait for the stream of heavy lorries to thunder past. Reaching the bottom of this road was a huge relief.

I was saddened to hear about the accident three days later when a Lochs and Glens touring coach, filled with retired people out on holiday, came off the road in high winds and rolled down the side of the valley.

Reaching the bottom of the pass I was now alongside Loch Fyne and just ahead was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, I’ve been here with my family on typically wet Scottish holidays and really enjoyed the food. Today I wanted to make it to my Youth Hostel for the evening and cycled past.

It was calm and beautiful evening when I arrived in Inveraray and settled down for the evening. After the cold and wet of the ride I treated myself to fish and chips and a pint of real ale at the The George Hotel, resting in front of the open fire. Luxury! (I resisted the whisky.)

Tuesday 24th March: The last of three days riding from the port of Ardrossan to the port of Oban. The day dawned bright and my spirits were high as I took my bicycle out of the shed. Puncture. Oh dear: time to reflect on the joys of bicycle maintenance.

Once the puncture fairy had been appeased, I set off into the rain which had chosen to start. The forecast said snow on higher ground and it was accurate, as I climbed steadily along the A819 I saw the snow lying on the verge and the rain had turned to flakes of white. It wasn’t cold though and the views around were making up for the weather, and the wind was light too.

On the other side of the climb was Loch Awe and I joined the A85 which was fairly quiet. Riding along the side of the loch with plenty of time to look up to the hills.
Cycling was now fairly easy and I soaked up the views and followed the narrowing loch towards the Bridge of Awe, passing the hydroelectric facility at Cruachan “Hollow Mountain“. Alongside me was a railway line and I wondered if I would be coming back that way later in the week.
It was late morning and there were only 12 miles left to Oban, the choice was to continue along the A85 or to use the single track road up into the hills by turning left at Connel. I was delighted to have chosen the quieter more isolated route into the hills. Although there was one climb at the beginning, I then had 12 miles of undulating tarmac with only highland cattle to keep me company.

Arriving in Oban into the heart of a bustling port town was difficult after so much isolation. The town is a tourist magnet and that combination of dawdling tourists and impatient locals made for some interesting motorised confrontations. I just observed and didn’t get involved. The Youth Hostel may as well have been 5 star luxury. I was privileged to have a room to myself with a bay view of the Isle of Mull in the distance.

Once washed and changed I had an appointment with Dugald, the Church of Scotland parish priest for Oban and the surrounding area. We met over the best dark chocolate mocha I have ever experienced at the Chocolate Shop.
Dugald spent a couple of hours with me as we discussed Celtic Christianity in its historical and contemporary contexts.
From my notes, I remember we talked about how the Celts spread to these areas and there was a lot of political interaction with the Picts of the north. There was also an interaction between people and the land they lived in harmony with. In these boundary places between the mountains and the sea, yet in fertile farmland and with the bounty of the sea available; people would have been aware of the fragility of life. Following the eclipse earlier in the week, we thought about how the seasons of darkness and light, of winter and summer, would work alongside consolation and desolation and a connection with the natural world, but not a worship of it. Celtic Christians were quite orthodox in their views. Life on the edge tends to lead people to hard drink or hard religion, there is little room for romantic individualism. People live together in community and everyone had a role; including the saints who would devote themselves to prayer.
The land clearances were devastating to these communities, not longer could people freely roam, no longer could they live with the land. When crofts were first formed they were designed to be too small to sustain a family; if you worked a croft you also had to work for the landowner to make a living.
Today there are land law reforms being fought for in Scottish parliament, ensuring right to roam and even rights to buy back the land. There is a link with nature and place that endures in the people and emerges in conversation. The return of the Gaelic language has brought out cultural quirks; the question how are you, “Ciamar a tha thu?” calls to mind a question, not ‘how or who are you’, but ‘where are you’; what is your relationship to this place?
In a contemporary sense it is difficult to suggest that Celtic Christianity will act as an evangelistic tool, but it does tend to draw in people who are already spiritual, and seeking God. Sometimes people come looking for individual space and end up finding community. Those who move here with a romantic notion of being alone are often the first to leave. It is those who come here and embrace the depth of knowledge and wisdom inherent in the people and the land that survive the longest. One of the problems of making generalisations like that though, is that there are often exceptions to prove you wrong.  Like the post-mistress on Mull who rearranged the cafe 7 years ago and hasn’t seen her neighbour since.
I admitted that my two week Celtic Christian pilgrimage was a bit self indulgent, and Dugald countered that we must remember that we all need our Holy days; our holidays. I was ready for the next step on my pilgrimage: On to the Isle of Mull and thence to Iona.
To continue the story… day 8: On my knees to Iona

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