A Scottish pilgrimage

By Ann Fontaine

Last spring, our daughter called to say we should take a trip to Scotland together. Scotland is the birthplace of my maternal grandmother. We had gone to Norway a few years ago to see the birthplace of my father so it only seemed right to balance our family tree. She bought the airline tickets and left the itinerary to me. I planned our pilgrimage by thinking of people and places I wanted to see. Now that we are home and our ions are beginning to coalesce in one place, I am surprised by the depth of the experience and the sense of the Spirit that I encountered and which lingers.

We began in Torquay on the south coast of England, the “English Riviera.” Staying with friends whose guest room overlooks the sea, we spent a few nights getting into the time zone and seeing the sights of the area. Little did I know how Victorian churches were decorated on the inside: a wild cacophony of striped pillars, painted ceilings, and bright colors. Every inch covered with images or designs. After a fire, the ceiling in the local church was repainted and Sputnik was included. Around the font a scene of ponies and farm animals had been added. Traveling further out to the moors we crossed the river Dart – hence Dartmouth, Dartmoor, Dartmeet. (duh). At Exeter (on the river Ex) Richard Hooker’s statue dominates the churchyard and town square as his writings dominate Anglicanism.


Noting the current economic news, the trip to Alyth, Scotland was reassuring in an odd way. Alyth was the town where my grandmother was born. People told us that it was not much changed. Millworkers cottages dominated the street where she lived until she was about 14 years of age. The closing of the mills to centralize weaving into the larger cities seems to have been the impetus for her emigration. Her mother was a power loom weaver and her father was a slater (roofing with slate). The roof over their heads was dependent on working for the mill owner. No mill, no job, no home. It puts modern life in perspective. At church on Sunday one of the hymns was one that was sung at my ordination – serendipity or Spirit?

From nostalgia touring we went to the Island of Iona, home of Columba and Celtic Christianity. More smashing of icons of the mind as we learned that Columba banished all the women to the Isle of Women – nearby but off “his” island. So much for inclusion in that branch of Christianity! Throughout the trip we noticed the merging of old and new in religion, however. For instance, in the wall of the convent built in 1200 is a Sheila na gig. When the walls were covered perhaps it was not as noticeable but now as the weather takes its toll it is clearly there. I wonder if it was a gift or a joke for the nuns from those who built the building?


Fingal’s Cave was as wondrous as Mendelssohn’s overture portrays it as we discovered on a boat trip to the Isle of Staffa. Towering columns of hexagonally formed basalt from ancient lava flows form the walls and roof.

From ancient Christianity off the coast of Scotland we traveled to Chester Cathedral to see a modern sculpture of the Woman at the Well and Jesus. I had caught a glimpse of it on the internet and it was in my heart to see it in real time and not just virtually. It is more than amazing. The artist captures the longing of God and humankind for intimacy with one another.


As we entered the cathedral once again the same hymn from my ordination was heard as the choir practiced for Sunday. It is not an old chestnut so I have to wonder at hearing it twice in one week, once in a united Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational church and once in an Anglican cathedral. Is it a message from the Spirit or just chance encounter?

It was a trip like that – things just turned up as we journeyed together – mother and daughter. We connected with sites and sights, our history, old friends, a cousin, and new friends until now only known on a blog or listserve. We made reservations for a bed each night – usually staying at least 2 nights or more but did not overplan our days. We left time for the Spirit to appear, whether in the opportunity to see a concert by a well know folk duo or cream tea with a cousin in the Kensington Gardens Orangery. And we learned if you have to sleep in the same bed with someone who is not your usual sleep partner – order two duvets!!!

Slide show of a few more photos http://gallery.me.com/annfontaine#100029

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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