Mark headed up the famous Bealach Na Ba, the pass of the cattle where his support team couldn't follow...

It had rained, pretty much non-stop, for two and half days. I was squelching across an elevated marshland on Càrn nan Iomairean south of Loch Carron. Every inch of me was soaked. It felt like I was drawing water through the soles of my feet, as well as from the enveloping cloud.

In theory I was following ‘a path’, downloaded straight from the OS map onto my GPS watch. But there was nothing recognisably path-like to follow.

For kilometres I had hacked through dense forest up a steep hillside, interlinking branches slapping me with contempt as I struggled upwards, while hundreds of vividly-coloured toadstools weathered my intrusion with other-worldly merriment. Once on the exposed top I trod carefully from mossy mound to occasional bare rock to avoid deeper pools and bogs, sticking as close to the blue line on my watch, my only means of navigation. As ghostly forms of misty vapour rose around me, I recalled the famous refrain from Ecclesiastes: ‘Hebel [vapour], hebel, all is hebel.’

Then, after two hours I was out of the mist, and standing in front of a gate. I struggled with the rusty, unyielding catch before noticing that the fence either side of it was collapsed and I just needed to step over! This rather random trace of another’s presence, long past, gave me the boost I needed. Three hours later the sun finally came out just in time for me to climb, with new vigour, the 600-metre Beallach na Ba road pass over to my final destination of Applecross, where St Maelrubha had his ‘Sanctuary’, and may be buried.

With many of the saints’ lives, it is hard to know what to do with the legacy they have bequeathed. Maelrubha’s life is shrouded in mystery. I started running on Berneray at a mound that may have been an ancient church dedicated to Maelrubha, but even the mound was barely discernible in the morning light. The wind-swept, rain-soaked church of St Maelrubha on Loch Eynort, that I visited early on the second morning of my three day 137 mile run, is long-since ruined, with birdsong the only worship rising from its sanctuary. The well at Ashaig bears witness to Maelrubha’s reputation for healing but no one gathers here for restoration any longer. We have little more than the occasional rusty gate in a renatured landscape of faith.

Nevertheless these traces encourage me, as did the gate, reminding me that though I forge my own unique journey, its choices as well as its unbidden circumstances, every unique story is shared with ancient pioneers, as well with living friends, such as the generous people who had accommodated me on Skye and in Berneray, and my lovely crew. The paths we share may sometimes be practically invisible and demand improvisation – and on this run that was certainly the case – that’s the nature of the Way we seek to follow. Honouring the traces of those who went before, visible in the landscape, or invisible in prayer and thought, are crucial to the journey of humbling oneself and keeping despair at bay.

Yes we are vapour, our journey is brief, our works transient. Running home 2019 is a vapour. And yet, somehow, this work of peace and justice is in harmony with that of the ancients, and with that of Iraqi Christians serving their neighbours against the odds today.

Together these vapours become, not just passing mist, but holy incense and a means of encountering Divine presence in the world. To hasty eyes, one lonely, functionless gate is ‘meaningless, meaningless’; to me in the midst of the swamp, it was a reason to hope against hope.

Special thanks to Tiffany Maberley, Hector and FloraAnn Macdonald, and Rev Dr Rory Macleod for accommodating Mark on Skye, and to the Skye Bridge Fish and Chip shop for the donation of supper for him and his crew.

Halfway up a small hillside on day two of the planned 95 miles of St Drostan’s pilgrimage route, dried gorse savaging my feet, thick bushes of it hemming me in, my hands bleeding and way off-piste, I came to a stop.

This was getting interesting.

On day one of the pilgrimage, between Insch and St Drostan’s Well in Aberdour Bay, paths which were clearly marked on the map, turned out to be impassable.

This was day two and approaching Dufftown, 97 miles into my 95 mile run (!) I had lost confidence in the course I’d plotted and decided, foolishly, to follow a very tempting signpost to Aberlour, ‘4 miles’ away.

Mark and Kat from Insch Running Club looking rather fresh!

Big mistake! It wasn’t far now but even 50 metres of thick gorse on tired legs and blistered feet can feel an impossibly long way.

I was fed up. Fed up with the gap between map and reality, fed up with landowners who don’t honour rights of way, fed up with being sore. I even looked accusingly at my shoes as if they were somehow to blame.

So what’s the story: cursing, or blessing?’

I imagined this faint, insistent voice as that of the mysterious Drostan, about whom there are few divergent accounts, but who nevertheless left a remarkable legacy in north-east Scotland.

What was the story of this run?

Well, on the night before I set off we had had a simple, beautiful, Evensong in Insch to celebrate the feast of St Drostan and to pray for Running home.

Then the next morning I set off running with members of Insch Trail Running Club, one of whom - Jeni - ran with me all day.

Day one had ended with a lovely meal at the house of some new friends in Old Deer and Saturday began with a wonderfully well-supported fundraising breakfast Karen had organized in Insch.

Two others joined my running and support crew for day two: my infinitely positive pal Sharon and my lovely wife Karen – quite a feat with our five- and three-year olds in tow.

Mark with the best support crew a pilgrim could ask for: his wife, Karen, and their daughters

And I knew I was running to another event in Aberlour where the parish church had organised a quiz and raffle to support Running Home, and where, again, new friends would be providing me with food and a hot shower.

Prickly gorse notwithstanding the landscape felt like an open home to me and my journey through it was wreathed with kindness, encouragement and love, as well as bouts of nausea and metatarsal pain

How unlike my journey was to that of so many displaced refugees: bookended by profound loss and violence to begin and with dreadful uncertainty ahead.

Mark being waved off after a fundraising breakfast in Insch

All I had had to put up with was gorse, a few waist high in nettles, some limbo dancing through thick bushes and into a water-filled ditch which had me muttering, ‘No, no, no, more please’ while Jeni’s chirpy voice behind me piped up, ‘This is ace!’

Of course it was ace, if I chose to see it that way. That was the lesson of this pilgrimage.

I took one final, leg-shredding leap through gorse onto the forest track which meandered playfully downhill for two miles to our journey’s end. I smiled and doffed my cap to St Drostan as Aberlour came into view.

The evening before an ultramarathon is usually taken up with last minute checks and eating large quantities of carbohydrates. Instead, ahead of my most recent run, I was leading a vigil as part of the Scottish Refugee Festival in Dundee.

It was a different kind of fuelling, but genuinely nourishing, enabling me to reflect not only on the experience of forced displacement, but also upon the kinds of response to that trauma available to us as those who enjoy safe homes.

The exertion and vulnerability of taking to the road as a pilgrim seems a particularly appropriate response to others’ displacement.

There are parallels with the idea of fasting in solidarity with those who don’t have enough to eat. But can doing so make any concrete difference? That’s the question I was to run with.

My ninth pilgrimage, along St Serf’s route of 60 miles from Culross to Kinross via Stirling,

Mark is ready to begin ultramarathon 9 from Culross Abbey.
Mark at Culross Abbey where he started ultramarathon 9

Dunblane and Dunning, was to be my first one-day run since April. I was still a little sore and really quite tired after the previous ultramarathon, I had a sense that it could be a tough day.

But I dared to hope that I’d finally learned some of the lessons of from the runs already completed and I set off intending to walk 500 metres of every two-kilometre stretch.

And what a difference that made - I even arrived too early for my church engagement in Stirling!

Mark was welcomed by the congregation at Holy Trinity Stirling who held a coffee morning in aid of Running home

I had been nervous about giving a talk at Dunblane Cathedral, a whole marathon distance into my day’s run - but I still felt fresh on arrival. I even felt ok when I resumed running – usually the hardest moment, especially when I’m taking a longer break, giving me time to stiffen up.

After running the extraordinary Sheriffmuir road out of Dunblane, with its incredible panorama of the southern highlands, it wasn’t until 75km – Dunning, where St Serf slew a dragon, according to legend – that I began to engage my own adversaries in the form of more intense pain, weariness and, for the first time on a run this year, terrible hayfever.

Knowing that I was already more than three quarters through the miles was psychologically a huge help - especially when my route cut across boggy farmland late in the evening, which challenged my tired legs. Simply walking a quarter of every 2km, plus any steep hills or rough terrain, not only gave me more staying power but also worked out slightly faster than when I keep running as much as I can on 50-mile runs or longer.

There are many aspects to the idea of ‘running with patience’, as Hebrews 12:1 (KJV) would have it, and I noted that as I stopped at Dunblane and Holy Trinity Stirling, I was much more relaxed about pausing and being present to people’s encouragement and support, rather than feeling the need to plough on. Indeed, Rev Joan at Holy Trinity finished the Running home coffee morning their congregation had organised by reading Kathy Galloway’s wonderful poem ‘Our brother Jesus’ which includes the line, ‘bless us with decisiveness where we must move with speed; bless us with lazy moments, to stretch and rest and savour.’ It felt very appropriate.

But it was after I finished that I had the clearest insight into why all of this pilgrimage is an appropriate response to others’ displacement.

Mark arrived at Kinross, overlooking Loch Leven having run 61 miles in one day.
Mark finished his 60 mile ultramarathon at Kinross overlooking Loch Leven

I heard from an Embrace supporter who’d been trying to raise awareness of Running home that they’d been told by someone they’d spoken to about the challenge: ‘I hate Iraq and everything to do with it. Those people just want to kill you.’

St Serf was not, as far as we know, a refugee, but the stories of his life point to him being well-travelled. In some legends he travelled Middle Eastern routes before leaving Rome for Gaul and Britain, finally founding Culross town in Fife.

Perhaps his knowledge of the road drove him to minister to Kentigern’s pregnant mother when she was washed up on Culross beach, and to offer shelter to her and the baby boy, who would grow up to be St Mungo.

I believe it is much harder to think of others in generalising, dehumanising ways, as simply ‘a problem’, when lonely roads, indignity, pain and dependence upon others become part of one’s own experience.

I suspect that, if hostile or overwhelmed responses may arise out of a sense of the enormity of the horror of conflict and upheaval, it is also a function of the unintelligibility of others' experience. The mundane struggle of pilgrimage begins to make it intelligible, and so to make it clear that any positive engagement is better than nothing at all.

We begin to feel that our responsibility is not for a huge problem, but simply for those others we can help, as it were in meeting them on the road.

It becomes clear that it is better to help one of the millions in need of ‘home’ than to hide behind the excuses afforded when we imagine all of ‘those people’ as our enemies, rather than fellow pilgrims in urgent need.

They are people who, like Kentigern, have the potential to do enormous good, and like St Serf, we might have a role in welcoming them home, from where their new stories begin.