Corrie Young took part in the first Brecbannoch walking pilgrimage across Mull to Iona and amid the rain, bogs, and blisters found spiritual renewal.
We got off the boat and the rain began. Then came the wind. Within the hour all our waterproofs were soaked through, and the hail stones hammered out the last of our high spirits.
When my editor asked me to go on the Brecbannoch pilgrimage, I had only two questions: What is a Brecbannoch, and what is a pilgrimage? One hour in I wasn’t liking the answers.
As we damply trudged along the single-track Mull road Michael Ward, one of the organisers, was the only cheery face to be seen.
“Why on earth are you smiling right now?” I asked him with a grimace.
“Because I’m the only one who knew what I was in for,” he replied.
Earlier that day 60 sleepy pilgrims had gathered at St Columba’s Cathedral in Oban at the bracing time of 5:45am for the opening Mass, celebrated by Bishop Brian McGee.
The pilgrimage was about to begin, where we would take the Brecbannoch reliquary containing the relics of Ss Andrew, Columba and Margaret from Oban, across Mull, to Iona Abbey.
The bishop suggested we would discover the true pilgrimage was the inner journey we would go through.
As rain pelted my face and soaked my feet, the outer journey seemed more than enough. When we stopped for our two-hourly water break, I felt too miserable to walk or stand still. Even rummaging through my bag for a soggy protein bar seemed impossible.
Mostly I stewed and thought about being at home or having a different editor.
I had to agree with Erin Timmoney, a 26-year-old doctor living in Edinburgh, who pointed out that ‘if you were doing it on your own, there would be that temptation to turn back. The group motivation gets you through.’
Together, we continued onward, barely noticing Mull’s gorgeous hills as we plodded through the rain.
Then some pilgrims started to sing. They sang the rosary, one person taking the lead and the others repeating with a delay and then a harmony.
Combined with the flapping flags I felt I was marching through a dream.
Reality intruded when we were told our camping field was near a bridge. From then on every hint of a river crossing sparked hope then disappointment.
When we finally arrived, our hosts for the night were Timothy and Charlotte Laing, who offered their field and barn and then, impromptu upon seeing us, their shower and drying room as well.
An act of charity that near moved me to tears after one of the longest days of my life.
I woke at 5am from the wind and rain crashing against my tent, and started to dread another day of the same. An hour later, the rain had stopped, and I dared to hope our luck might turn.
The route was hillier, but in the dry weather I began to realise there’s more to pilgrimages than suffering.
Kilvickeon Chapel is a ruin. Built in the 12th century, it is the resting place of Ernan, son of Eoghan, nephew of St Columba.
The second day’s route ended as we followed the reliquary into the chapel where it was laid down. Everyone knelt in front of it in silence for half an hour in what felt like the first moment of rest since the journey began.
“I had spent the first day thinking about my own pain and my own prayers,” said Jamie McGowan, the pilgrimage’s organiser.
“In the chapel, I look around at everyone kneeling around the reliquary and I realised, actually, that this isn’t about me at all.
“My penance isn’t enough. There’s 50 people here going through blisters and joint pain, but we’re all here to pray for the renewal of the Faith. That’s moving.”
Later, Mass was celebrated in the chapel. They remembered everything: the vestments, candle holders, even a fieur-de-lis tapestry to hang behind the makeshift altar.
The only thing they forgot was the wine. After a short panic, we were saved by Conor, a fellow pilgrim, who sacrificed his Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pinot Grigio.
Despite how shabby we were, the Mass itself was reverent.
Fr Mark O’Donnell celebrated Mass for the Laings for their charity the night before.
By this point, we were well acquainted. Each was here for a different reason, united by our common prayer for the renewal of Scotland to the Faith.
Anne-Marie Boyle, a 55-year-old pupil support assistant, told me she’d done more than 35 Lourdes pilgrimages for HCPT, but this was different.
“There’s a lot of time to stop and think, to pray for my intentions in the silence of the walk, to take in the view of God’s beautiful world.”
Everyone awoke feeling much more encouraged than the morning before. The rain mostly stayed away.
As we approached Fionnphort, our re-entry into civilisation, we chanted our hymns to Columba and Our Lady of Scotland, by this point engraved into our mind.
After the ferry took us from Fionnphort to Iona we marched our kit to the ruined convent, once a towering companion to the abbey.
Our final Mass in this beautiful ruin prepared us for the procession; the reading was from Matthew, where Christ tells the wealthy man to sell his belongings to become a pilgrim in the world for Christ, lest he be a camel trying to make its way through the eye of a needle.
“It’s such a radical call to simplicity,” said Aoife Ong, a 25-year-old student studying sustainable aquaculture.
“The renewal of Scotland is probably going to be a detachment from materialism and the many things that distract us from God.
“And even though this pilgrimage isn’t going to last for the rest of our lives, we are called to live in a wholly radical way each day, and that’s what’s going to change Scotland.”
Onlookers assembled along the pavements. Our chants of ‘Ora pro nobis’ were met with videos, earnest questions and even some joining in our prayers. Enthusiasm had consistently been the most common reaction.
With our procession, Columba re-entered his Iona abbey for the first time since the Reformation 500 years ago.
Everyone took to the side pews.
Unlike the elements we had braved for the past three days, the stone walls sheltered us from any wind; unlike the sleepy rest in the chapel yesterday, there was a calm eagerness to venerate the relics in their proper place; unlike our long walk there, we knelt solemnly.
Jamie sang the Athchuinge, a Gaelic hymn. His lone voice echoed around the hall as each tired pilgrim took their turn to walk up to the reliquary, one by one, and kiss it, before returning to kneel in the pews.
Afterward, I asked Michael Ward, the cheery pilgrim from the first day, why he was doing the pilgrimage. He told me that a pilgrimage is a foretaste of Heaven: you journey in pain for what feels like an eternity, but then it ends.
At that moment, you find bliss in where you arrive.